The BIG Picture: Talk about escape artists

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John O'Connor, Editorial Director
John O'Connor, Editorial Director

Most experts agree that Harry Houdini had no peer when it came to elusiveness.

Houdini developed many of his own escapes. They included the famous Suspended Straitjacket Escape, the Milk Can Escape and the Chinese Water Torture Cell Escape. Now there was a guy who knew how to get out of tough situations.

But compared to a two-part fiscal escape pulled off by our nation's governors, Houdini's feats barely register as parlor tricks. After all, Houdini never figured out ways to slip out of obligations that could easily total hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet that's exactly what our governors have done.

Part II of the governors' Great Escape occurred last month. That's when President Obama signed off on a $26 billion “relief” measure they lobbied hard for.

Most of these funds are earmarked for teachers, police officers, firemen and Medicaid service providers.

Considering the last group on that list, it's hardly surprising that the nursing home industry is thrilled with the news.

And given the economic doldrums our nation has endured for the past two years, what sector wouldn't welcome free money?

Of course, there's that little matter of paying off the new debt that's being taken on. But perhaps that's a headache best left for our grandchildren (or theirs) to deal with. Clearly, our elected leaders would much rather spend money than risk the possible wrath of voters who act as if tax cuts and additional pork are what effective governance is all about.

It's also worth noting this new revenue stream comes on top of previous billions of dollars that the governors have coaxed and cajoled out of Washington.

Of course, this is hardly the first time that our top state executives have convinced federal lawmakers to let them off the fiscal hook. Which brings us to Part I of the Great Escape. Remember the Boren Amendment? When Congress approved the measure in 1980, it created one of the few safeguards that providers had against arbitrary cuts in state Medicaid funding. Essentially, the law said that such reductions couldn't be made simply to make state budgets work better. Governors hated it and finally got it repealed in 1997. Providers have been at terrific risk of draconian Medicaid cuts ever since.

You have to applaud the governors' ability to fob off state obligations. It's an amazing feat Houdini might have admired.

Then again, perhaps “admired” isn't the right word.