MADISON — Republicans on the Legislature’s budget-writing committee voted Thursday to strip 131 items from Gov. Tony Evers’ state budget plan, despite Democrats’ pleas to spare one of Evers’ top priorities: a Medicaid expansion that would benefit 82,000 Wisconsinites.
On a party-line 11-4 vote, Republicans also removed from Evers’ budget his plans to hike taxes on large manufacturers and some high earners, overhaul state marijuana laws by legalizing medical marijuana and de-penalizing possession of small amounts of the drug, and increase the state’s minimum wage to $10.50 an hour by 2023.
Shortly before the vote, committee co-chairman Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said he sees no path to a compromise on expanding Medicaid.
“From there it simply becomes Medicaid Lite,” Nygren said.
Democrats on the committee said Republican lawmakers are ignoring the health-care funding infusion that Medicaid expansion would send from Washington, D.C., to their districts — as well as polls showing strong public support for the move.
In a press conference before the session, Democrats displayed a poster breaking down the millions in federal funds that Medicaid expansion would send to districts of GOP lawmakers on the committee. For example, in Sen. Howard Marklein’s district in southwest Wisconsin, the expansion would inject $101 million into hospitals, nursing homes, dentists, mental health care and combating lead poisoning, according to Evers administration figures cited by a liberal group, Protect Our Care.
Evers, in a statement issued after the vote, called rejection of Medicaid expansion “fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible.” Evers vowed that the Medicaid expansion fight is far from over, urging constituents to contact their lawmakers and demand they reverse course.
“All we hear from Republicans is ‘no,’” Evers said. “They refuse to listen to the will of the people or work together, and Wisconsinites will pay the price.”
No specifics on $1.4 billion hole
Republicans have not detailed how they will account for a $1.4 billion budget hole created by their rejection of Medicaid expansion and Evers’ proposals to increase taxes by limiting tax breaks on large manufacturers and on capital gains for high earners.
State government can’t run a deficit, so the gap will need to be filled by cuts from Evers’ proposed spending levels, tax increases or a mix of both.
Republicans have made clear that the budget they pass will spend significantly less than Evers’ $83.5 billion two-year plan. Among the implications of Thursday’s vote are that GOP lawmakers, by removing more than $1 billion in new revenue generated by Evers’ proposals, also are unlikely to back his plan to give a $1.4 billion infusion to K-12 school districts.
In a separate action Thursday, finance committee members voted 11-4, again along party lines, with Republicans in the majority to reject Evers’ plan to provide $15 million to boost state aid to counties and municipalities by 2% starting in 2020.
Nygren told reporters it’s “premature” to specify how the Legislature’s budget will differ from Evers’. Nygren said he hopes the budget will provide some level of increased funding for schools, address reimbursement rates for health-care providers and solve the state’s transportation funding struggles.
Assembly Republicans have been open to Evers’ plan to raise the gas tax by 8 cents and increase heavy truck and vehicle title fees for a $600 million funding boost for roads, bridges and transit. But as was the case in the state budget debate two years ago, Senate Republicans have said they may not be on board.
Nygren said Republican lawmakers expect to have their budget on Evers’ desk by the end of June. The new fiscal year starts July 1.
Evers isn’t backing down on his plan to expand Medicaid under former President Barack Obama’s health care law. It would extend eligibility to Wisconsinites making between 100 percent and 138 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $12,490 for an individual and $25,750 for a family of four.
The Evers administration says additional federal money obtained through Medicaid expansion would save the state $324 million over two years. That money could be invested in other programs to draw down more federal dollars, the administration says, for a total of $1.6 billion in new investment in hospitals, nursing homes, dental care, maternal care and other health services.
‘This is not welfare’
Citing public polls showing solid support for the move, Evers vowed last week to “fight like hell” to preserve the measure under intense opposition from some GOP legislators, especially Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.
But Republican lawmakers, decrying it as an “expansion of welfare,” have cited a study saying said it would increase private insurance consumer costs by more than it would save taxpayers.
Nygren also said the 82,000 who would become newly eligible for Medicaid already are eligible for partially subsidized health coverage on the state’s exchange created by the federal health care law.
Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, said he wants to change the health care system but believes that should involve fixing the federal health care law.
“There is a problem to fix,” Zimmerman said. “But throwing more money at it, money from your neighbors, is not the answer.”
Democrats supporting Medicaid expansion have countered with studies suggesting it would lower private health coverage premiums on the individual marketplace while reducing uncompensated care costs to hospitals.
“This is not welfare. It’s good common sense,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee.
Other Evers proposals scrapped by GOP lawmakers Thursday include:
- Capping enrollment in the state’s private-school voucher program.
- Increasing the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.50 by 2023, then linking future increases to inflation.
- Ending a freeze on property tax levies for counties and municipalities, allowing them to increase their levies by 2%.
- Permitting Wisconsin residents who are immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to get driver’s licenses or state ID cards, which would specify they could not be used as IDs to vote.
- Granting in-state tuition to Wisconsin high school graduates who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
- Repealing the state’s minimum markup requirement for fuel sales.
- Repealing the “right-to-work” law enacted in 2015 that bars requirements for workers to pay fees covering a share of the costs of union representation.