Attacks on Gov. Rick Scott’s Medicaid move mask Adam Putnam’s big-spending record

03/02/2013 1:59 PM

03/02/2013 9:09 PM

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam criticized Gov. Rick Scott over expanding Medicaid, but Putnam may have a taste for big government himself.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s headline-grabbing criticism of fellow Republican Rick Scott over expanding Medicaid highlighted just how much the governor flip-flopped on government spending and entitlement programs.

But Putnam has a more extensive record of supporting expensive entitlements and big-government spending.

As a member of Congress from 2001-2011, Putnam voted for budget-busting legislation — including the massive Medicare prescription-drug entitlement program estimated to cost nearly $1 trillion over a decade. Putnam also stuffed the federal budget with hometown-spending and helped override vetoes by President Bush on what the White House called a “fiscally irresponsible” Medicare bill and a $300 billion farm bill.

Years later, Putnam called Scott’s call to expand Medicaid as irresponsible, costly and “naive.”

“Throughout my career as a public servant, I have fought for issues important to Floridians based on my belief in conservative values and smaller government,” Putnam said in a written statement.

“I have a strong record of supporting economic growth and ensuring taxpayer dollars are used to support valuable public programs and services,” he said, implicitly drawing a distinction between the Medicare program he voted to expand in 2003 and Scott’s request to expand Medicaid under President Obama’s health plan, which Putnam opposed in Congress in 2009.

The fallout between Scott and Putnam stoked speculation that Putnam might challenge Scott in a GOP primary next year. Putnam’s office downplayed the talk.

The GOP discord —as well as the tensions between each man’s rhetoric and record — is also emblematic of Obama-era Republican struggles. Many Republicans spent big under Bush then became deficit hawks under Obama. They railed against Obama policies, only to tacitly support some of them in the end.

Putnam said his opposition to Obamacare has been consistent.

Scott’s hasn’t.

Scott’s Feb. 20 call to expand Medicaid was an abrupt about-face for a man who campaigned against Obamacare — first as a private citizen, then as a candidate for governor. With low and stagnant polls numbers, Scott’s move was widely seen in Tallahassee political circles as a political move to the center.

Putnam, voicing widespread GOP concerns over Scott, struck quickly in a speech, press interviews, web postings and even a Republican Party of Florida email.

“I think we all have an obligation to look beyond the window of our own time in public life and think about the long-term impact of these policies in Florida,” Putnam told The Tampa Bay Times days after Scott’s Medicaid announcement.

The criticisms — about thinking long-term and leaving politics behind — were said years ago, in 2003, by conservative leaders who practically begged Capitol Hill Republicans like Putnam not to expand Medicare under Bush for political gain.

The measure barely passed in the GOP-controlled House. Years later, when Republicans lost the House, the measure was held up as a defining moment when the party lost its way.

Many conservatives haven’t forgotten, though they’ve forgiven.

“A lot of politicians and the political class think there was a reset with Obama,” said Mark Cross, an early tea party leader in Central Florida. “But voters remember your record.”

Cross added that he thought both Putnam and Scott were, “for the most part, doing a good job.”

Scott disappointed political elites and tea party members with his Medicaid reversal. But Putnam’s criticisms of the Republican governor were a turn-off to some as well.

Putnam “had every opportunity to oppose the very big government spending that he now eschews,” said one top Florida Republican who knows and likes both men. “It would have been hard to vote against Medicare Part D, of course. And that vote would have mattered. He chose bigger government when most of his conservative friends were against it. It was the right vote, but he did the same calculus that Rick Scott had to do.”

Though a disappointment for the right, the Medicare vote was crucial to Bush’s 2004 reelection, especially in senior-heavy Florida where he often talked up all the freebies seniors would get.

On the campaign trail in Florida, sometimes with Putnam by his side, Bush also bashed his opponent, then-Sen. John Kerry, for his mixed opposition to it.

Putnam on his campaign website in 2008 described the measure as a way to save money — not for taxpayers but for seniors.

“A number of my constituents have told me that thanks to the new program, for the first time in their lives,” Putnam said then, “they are able to take all their prescription medications.”

Years later, Scott spoke about the human face of Medicaid: poor, working-class people like his mother, Esther, who had struggled to raise five children, including one who fell ill and had no insurance.

“No mother, or father, should despair over whether or not they can afford – or access – the healthcare their child needs,” Scott said.

“While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost of new people in Medicaid, I cannot, in good conscience, deny the uninsured access to care,” Scott said.

The GOP-led Legislature, which made a show in 2009 of wanting to reject Obama’s stimulus package only to take the money, will likely not expand Medicaid. Many say they’ll never back a big-government Obama program again.Unlike Putnam’s praise of the Medicare entitlement, Scott expressed a measure of discomfort with the Medicaid program. He asked the Legislature to sign off on it, provided the federal government picked up 100 percent of the new cost for three years, estimated right now at $6.7 billion.

After three years, the state would have to start picking up an increasing share of the program and Florida would evaluate whether or not to continue, Scott said. Over a decade, if the state kept the program, it would kick in $1.75 billion and the federal government about $28 billion.

“Our options are either having Floridians pay to fund this program in other states while denying healthcare to our citizens, or using federal funding to help some of the poorest in our state with the Medicaid program as we explore other healthcare reforms,” Scott said.

Putnam had used a variation of a fair-share argument in describing why he opposed another Obama program, the stimulus, only to later ask the Obama Administration to grant Florida a waiver to qualify for millions in education money.

Democrats said it was hypocrisy, but Putnam said he voted against the bill in part because it “shortchanged Florida” while driving the nation as a whole “deeper into debt.”

Putnam also called the stimulus a “miserable failure” at the time.

But, years later as agriculture commissioner, his Office of Energy issued a report that had positive things to say about the stimulus, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA. “Based on reports received by the [office], the State of Florida has benefited from the investment of ARRA funds,” the report said.

By that point, every Republican state leader in the country who had railed against the stimulus had taken most of its money anyway.

Scott also campaigned against the stimulus, but his first budget was lined with $370 million in stimulus money. Scott had vetoed other money he called “wasteful.”

When it came to the federal budget, Putnam joined his other congressional colleagues in “earmarking” — directing federal spending to a hometown or pet project.

From 2008-2010 — the only years which Congress released detailed lists of earmarks and their sponsors — Putnam accounted for more than $49 million earmarks, according to the Congressional Pig Book compiled by the group Citizens Against Government Waste.

“It’s difficult to run as a fiscal conservative in the present climate while embracing earmarks,” said Sean Kennedy director of research for the group. “In the past several years, earmarks have become the most visible example of the waste, fraud, and abuse that exists in federal government.”

During Putnam’s time in Congress, the national debt increased overall from almost $5.8 trillion to more than $14 trillion, with nearly 60 percent of the increase occurring in the Bush years. The debt is now $16.7 trillion, showing it increased more than $6 trillion in Obama’s first term compared to $4.9 trillion in both Bush terms.

While Putnam voted against Obama’s big-spending bills, such as the $800 billion stimulus and the expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, he supported Bush’s costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and tax cuts, which respectively cost about $1.2 trillion and $1.8 trillion over a decade.

Putnam also twice joined Democrats and a few Republicans in overriding President Bush’s vetoes.

In July 2008, Putnam and others in Congress overrode Bush’s veto of a Medicare bill that the president said in a message “would imperil the long-term fiscal soundness of Medicare by using short-term budget gimmicks that do not solve the problem.”

The month before, Bush again accused Congress of using “budget gimmicks” in a costly farm bill. “This bill lacks program reform and fiscal discipline,” Bush wrote in a veto message. “It would needlessly expand the size and scope of government. Americans sent us to Washington to achieve results and be good stewards of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars. This bill violates that fundamental commitment.”

Rural Republicans said the bill was needed to keep U.S. agriculture strong. Others fretted about losing their “brand” of fiscal conservatism. A leading Republican opponent of the bill — as well as earmarks in it — was Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, whose criticisms still echo today.

“We can say what we want at press conferences or in slogans,” Flake told The Washington Post in 2008, “but what we do on the floor screams far louder.”

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