Picking up the Tab

Posted Feb. 23, 2011, at 8:17 p.m.

The 26 states — Maine among them — trying to overturn the 2010 federal comprehensive health care law may be acting on deeply held principle. Or they may see the constitutional challenge as a promising front in an ideological war against what they see as a creeping federal government. But it’s a low-risk challenge, because private businesses are picking up the tab for the legal costs.

According to the Palm Beach, Fla., Post the lead state in the health care challenge suit, has paid less than $6,000 for the action thus far. Collectively, the states have split a bill of about $46,000. The bulk of the costs so far have been picked up by the National Federation of Independent Business, which is also a plaintiff in the challenge. The total amount NFIB has contributed has not been disclosed by the states or the organization.

NFIB, based in Nashville, Tenn., represents 350,000 small businesses, it says. According to the Palm Beach Post, $1 million of NFIB’s annual budget of $80 million is devoted to legal activity. In Florida and other states, questions are being raised about the marriage of convenience between a private political lobbying group like NFIB and state attorneys general. Chief among them is whether private business interests will hijack action by a state.

State attorneys general have a long history of bringing controversial lawsuits against such targets as tobacco companies, the manufacturers of diet supplements and retail chains that use deceptive marketing practices. Each time such suits are filed, a percentage of residents of that state may object, disagreeing with the attorney general’s conclusion that the target is breaking the law.

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With a private business lobbying group bankrolling the attorneys general challenge to the health care law, that scenario is twisted into another shape. Do a majority of residents of Maine, for example, want to join forces with NFIB, given its other political stands and goals? What if the health care challenge is successful and it vaults NFIB into prominence as a political player, becoming a touchstone for those seeking elected office? And of course, any time private money and partisan officials (as are most attorneys general) intersect, voters should be wary of pay back. What would NFIB want in return from 25 states?

Groups that represent small and large businesses are on both sides of the health care law, which arguably was first and foremost an attempt to ease the burden on businesses. The parties seeking to repeal the law may welcome financial help for their suit, but it’s always wise to know why someone is picking up your tab — the cost later may be greater than the original bill.

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