RACINE — Local legislators debated the progress made in state budget deliberations and the merits of Medicaid expansion during a legislative forum Monday at the Racine Campus of Gateway Technical College.
State Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Caledonia, attended a session with three local Democrats: state Sen. Bob Wirch of Somers, state Rep. Greta Neubauer of Racine, and newly sworn-in state Rep. Tip McGuire of Somers.
The 2019-21 biennial budget is being debated in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee; local legislators believe they will have something to vote on by early July.
With Republicans in control of both the state Assembly and Senate and Democrat Gov. Tony Evers wielding a powerful veto pen, many are wondering what the final budget will actually look like.
Wirch said there have been some small agreements reached so far, such as increasing pay for public defenders, which affects most corners of the state but especially in rural districts.
“Both sides realize this has been a real problem and that has been passed in Joint Finance,” Wirch said. “So that’s a small agreement right there.”
Wirch said the Legislature is still early in the budget process, but is not optimistic about finding many other areas of agreement.
“We’re off to a bad start,” Wirch said.
Wittke took it a step further, saying he “wouldn’t even call it a bad start, I would say that we’re not off to much of a start at all.”
“Is there common ground? It depends on how you view common ground,” Wittke said. “More money doesn’t solve everything.”
Wittke mentioned that Republicans have butted heads with Evers on tax increases and Medicaid expansion.
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Medicaid expansion was cut from the budget in the Joint Finance Committee, but Neubauer said it’s possible it can be put back in to the proposed budget.
“We’re hoping this issue does come back around, because I think it’s a real common sense policy that will really benefit Racine,” Neubauer said, adding if the state does accept the Medicaid expansion it would not require any increases in taxes. “We are simply accepting federal money — money that has been sent to the federal government that we already paid in our federal income taxes. So we paid this money, but right now we’re not able to make use of it.”
Wittke said accepting the Medicaid expansion could have negative impacts on other state=funded programs in the future.
“If you took the expansion money, which is a onetime infusion, and you started to increase (funding in) other programs, does that mean then that you have to find funding in other biennial budgets?” Wittke said. “So those are other pieces that have to be considered.”
Democrats have been saying that if the state does take the Medicaid expansion money, that could mean about 82,000 Wisconsin residents could receive insurance. Wittke disputed that number.
“Wisconsin does not have an access issue,” Wittke said. “Of the 82,000, there are only 38,000 that would apply. You also have to take a closer look at what that population is. There are people in that population that choose not to be covered. All of those people have a chance to be covered off the ACA (Affordable Care Act) exchanges.”
Wittke said insurance offered through the ACA marketplace or BadgerCare are other options for people seeking care.
“Do I have a specific policy issue right now that I would promote and say this is the be-all, end-all? No, but I also know that from what I’ve heard in many of my floor sessions, it appears that accepting the Medicaid money will solve all of the health issues across Wisconsin,” Wittke said. “And I have some doubts about that.”
Wirch pounced on the suggestion that people could depend on insurance through the ACA.
“Republicans have done everything they possibly could to undermine ACA, and now we’re hearing that’s a viable alternative,” Wirch said.
Wittke left before the session was over due to a scheduling conflict, but he said he appreciated being part of the discussion.
“Even though we disagree, I know that my office is always open to anyone who has differing opinions. I just hope that we can all have what I would call a constructive conversation and that you would respect the opinion that I gather from the sources that I have,” Wittke said.