By Ruth Conniff on Jun 6, 2013
In dramatic hearings that went on all day and into the night, Wisconsin legislators on the state's joint finance committee took up the most controversial aspects of Governor Scott Walker's new budget.
Rejecting Federal funds to expand Medicaid, creating a statewide school voucher program, and instituting a flat tax were among the proposals on the table.
Retired teachers and other citizen advocates showed up in droves, filling two overflow hearing rooms to listen to piped-in audio of the debate between Republicans and Democrats on the committee. Many wore stickers and T-shirts with the words "No Vouchers." Several were dismayed to learn from Capitol staff that no public testimony would be allowed.
Police forcibly removed several people who stood up to boo, shout "shame!" and speak their minds as the committee passed Republican proposals and rejected Democratic amendments on a straight party-line vote.
As one Republican committee member made the case that it would "put everybody on an even playing field" to move the working poor off Medicaid and into the private insurance market, a woman in the audience jumped up and shouted, "Hey, let's put everybody on an even playing field! Why don't you work for poverty wages?"
The woman was wrestled out the door by police, as a man walked forward from the back of the room, demanding of the legislators, "Who pays for your health care?"
"I'm going," he told the police officers who quickly surrounded him.
The woman's screams drifted in from down the hall, "Help me! Help me!"
"That woman's outburst wasn't appropriate, but when she was leaving and saying, 'Help me,' I don't think that's what we're doing here today," said Representative Cory Mason, Democrat of Racine. "We're making it a lot harder for people like her--for working-class people who have jobs, who have families, to make it. And every indication we seem to get from this committee is that we're going to make it harder for working-class folks to make it in this state--easier for the rich folks, but harder for the working class folks."
Democrats offered an alternative proposal, practically pleading with Republicans on the committee to set politics aside and accept Federal funds to expand Medicaid.
"How we can turn back $120 million [in Federal funding for Medicaid recipients] is just mind-blowing," said Democratic Representative Jon Richards of Milwaukee. "I think it's a real mistake."
Democrats repeatedly pointed out that 84,700 Wisconsinites will lose Medicaid coverage under the Republican plan--yet the taxpayers will pay more.
Mason called it "the worst piece of public policy I've seen in this budget--and there have been some dingers."
"Republicans are willing to spend $119 million to deny 85,000 people their health care," Mason said. "That's pretty extreme. That's not the Wisconsin I know."
"When I tell people that the reason we wouldn't take this money--and instead we're going to spend $120 million of their tax dollars to not cover them--is because members of the majority are committed to the idea that they could achieve their destiny without health insurance, people look at me sideways," Mason said. "They don't understand it. Because, at the end of the day, if you've got a sick kid, you don't care about political ideology."
Urging the committee to do the right thing and reject Scott Walker's grandstanding, Mason provoked the crowd to cheers.
Committee co-chair John Nygren rapped the gavel. "Any further outbursts and you'll be asked to leave!"
Nygren then turned to the fiscal bureau staff, "Time for some fact checks!" he announced.
"Would anybody have no options for health care?" he asked.
The 85,000 people who can't get Medicaid under the Republicans' plan "would have access to health care through the Affordable Care Act."
"No one will be kicked off coverage," Republican Senator Mary Lazich added. "If you make 100% of poverty or less, you get Medicaid, if you make 100% or more, you can get health care through the exchange."
The problem with this view, Democrats on the Committee repeatedly explained, is that the working poor cannot afford it.
"Telling someone with kids who makes $18,000 a year you can go get private health insurance for the low cost of $4,000--guess what? It's not going to happen," said Mason.
The Republicans tacitly acknowledge this problem in a provision of their plan that reimburses hospitals for extra costs as more people use emergency rooms.
And, ironically, the provision to protect hospitals means taking $21 million a year from the Federal government.
As Nygren explained: "There is uncertainty about how many people will enroll in health insurance. . . So we make sure when people go into the emergency room, uncompensated, we protect our hospitals."
To which Senator Robert Wirch replied: "You may be taking care of the hospitals, but you're not taking care of poor people."
Referring to fundraisers he has attended at local pubs to raise money for breast-cancer treatments, Wirch declared "People are going to die."
Nygren was offended by that.
"This is where things fall apart--when we start saying things like, 'people are going to die.' People are not going to die."
But Cory Mason pulled out a recent Rand study projecting 19,000 deaths annually in the states, including Wisconsin, that turn down the Medicaid expansion.
"There is nothing smart about what we are doing here today," Mason said. "We are spending more money to cover fewer people with worse outcomes. We should reject this and start over."
But the Medicaid rejection passed.
On to vouchers.
UPDATE: Nearly everyone was gone by 1 a.m., when the Joint Finance Committee finally came back into the room (they had repeatedly announced they would be back at 5 pm, 7 pm, 8:30 and 9:00.)
The Republican majority quickly rammed through a revision of the state tax code, with tax breaks primarily benefittting people who make more than $100,000. The statewide voucher plan, which had drawn the largest group of citizens to the hearing, went through in the wee hours, with few members of the public left to witness it.
The committee adjourned at 6 am, and Wisconsinites woke up to read about what had happened overnight.
I went home at the same time as my retired sixth-grade teacher.
The intrepid Rebecca Kemble stayed on.
Here are the photos she captured of the measures the Republicans introduced and passed early Wednesday morning:
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Scott Walker’s Sneaky School Voucher Plan."
Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter