Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Other GOP Presidential Pickle

I haven't paid much attention to the health care plans proposed by John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or any of the other Dem presidential contenders. While I think health care is a national issue, it's my feeling that fundamental health care reform has the best chance of passing at the state level.

But that doesn't change the fact that health care is one of the top domestic priorities in this country. And I'm not alone on that one. Just about every poll to broach the subject shows that Americans agree on this point, and the agreement often spans the political spectrum.

For instance, a Pew poll last summer found that 89 percent of Dems believe health care is a "very important" issue, while 79 percent of independents and 69 percent of Republicans feel that same way.

So it's certainly not surprising that the Dem candidates have all spoken out on the issue. But what's a bit surprising is the silence on the issue from the right.

Health care blogger Bob Laszewski recently took a peek at the web pages for the three top GOP contenders -- Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney -- to find out their thoughts on the issue of health care.

Giuliani and McCain both offer up comments on about ten issues, but none of them even touch on health care. Romney does list health care as the tenth out of eleven issues he discusses, but his thoughts are limited to a couple of statements that center on the idea of personal responsibility for health care. (Side-Note: This is interesting because, as Laszewski notes, "the Massachusetts health reform bill [Romney] signed...does create a new and very large government program.")

So why, if 69 percent of Republicans say health care is a "very important" issue, do the presidential candidates on the right largely avoid talking about it?

One answer, which Laszewski hints at, is that the GOP base is made up mostly of the 1/3 of Republicans who don't see health care as a "very important" issue, and therefore hitting on the topic isn't necessary for winning the GOP nomination.

While I think there's some truth to that, I don't think that tells the entire story. After all, winning the nomination is just one piece of winning the presidency. It would greatly benefit a GOP candidate to start discussing health care, even if only as a side issue during the primary, so that a foundation on the issue is there when the general election rolls around.

But I'd say that the silence exists because it's extremely difficult to blend right-wing free market ideology with a proposal for universal health care. That's why you see Romney actually rejecting the very foundation of his own signature issue as governor of Massachusetts now that he's trying to court the GOP base.

The fact is the government is going to be an integral part of any universal health care plan, let alone one that fundamentally changes the system and, as a result, reduces costs. Simply relying on "market forces" to do the trick is little more than a pipe dream; to be sure, already 1 in 4 Americans relies on either Medicare or Medicaid for their health care, and another 15 percent don't have coverage of any kind.

As Froedtert Hospital CEO William Petasnick put it recently: "We've had 14 years of basically market-driven solutions. And market-driven solutions work up to a point, but I think the outgrowth of the failure of market-based solutions is . . . the 45 million Americans who are outside of the market."

The bottom line is that the government is going to be a necessary part of any viable fundamental health care reform plan. But proposing to use the government as a means for reform isn't anything the Republican base wants to hear.

It's been noted that the GOP candidates are going to have a tough time crafting a message on Iraq that pleases the base for the primary, and then reinventing that message to play to a wider audience in the general.

It seems the same may be true for the top domestic policy issue, as well.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

What a Joke: GOP Reaction to Dem Sick Leave Bill

I know disingenuousness is just part of the normal political game. But for legislative Republicans to claim that Dems are "late to the party" for recently announcing a bill to eliminate the sick leave conversion policy for legislators is truly eye-rolling.

Let's hop on the truth trolley for a moment: Democratic state legislator Sheldon Wasserman drafted a bill to eliminate the sick leave policy in 2003. The response he got from both sides of the aisle was a combination of blank stares and crickets chirping.

Now digest that nugget of reality with this statement that Republican Senator Ted Kanavas released yesterday:
It's about time. This issue has been a no-brainer from day one. While I am pleased that some Democrats in the Senate have finally seen the light, I wish they would have reached this obvious conclusion six months ago rather than blocking our common sense reform.
Ah, and who was running the legislature in 2003 when Wasserman floated his bill around? Oh, that's right, the GOP controlled both the Assembly and the Senate. Didn't "common sense" exist back then?

What a joke.


Side-Note: See this post for my take on the policy side of the proposal (here's a teaser: I'm skeptical of its value and the resulting impact). Be sure to check out the good discussion that ensues in the comments; and if you have further comments on that post, feel free to leave them here.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Assembly Republicans Did Learn Their Lesson

See LATE UPDATE Below (5/24)

Owen from "Boots and Sabers" has created a bit of a stir in the Republican Assembly caucus by asking members to sign a pledge not to pass a budget bill with any tax or "unnecessary" fee increases.

In a post yesterday, Owen relays a rumor that Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch was telling Republicans not to sign the pledge. Rep. Robin Vos denies this claim, but a number of Assembly Republicans are still refusing to sign it.

Owen's view is that by refusing to sign a budget with any increases, the Assembly Republicans will be sending a strong message to "the base" for 2008. The fact that this would result in no budget being passed and, subsequently, freeze state funding to agencies and local units at FY 2006 levels would demonstrate Republican resolve, Owen argues.

A few Assembly Republicans have signed the pledge, including Rep. Lasee, Rep. Zipperer, Rep. Nass, Rep. Kramer, Rep. Vukmir, Rep. LeMahieu, Rep. Lothian, and Rep. Pridemore. But it appears the bulk, including most of the leadership, is trying to walk a tightrope of agreeing in principle with the pledge while refusing to actually sign it.

Does any of this sound familiar? For those who followed the demise of the failed "Taxpayer Protection Amendment" last spring, it probably does. It was quite a spectacle.

At least six versions of the amendment were proposed in a two month span (five coming in a flurry at the end); the sponsors organized invite-only public hearings that sometimes were hidden from the media and the public; Assembly Republicans stayed up to all hours of the night to finally pass a version that those in favor of the initial proposal wouldn't even support; all the while, Republican leaders in the state Senate along with gubernatorial hopeful Mark Green spoke the language of the amendment without ever formally pledging their full support for it.

It seemed most in the state GOP, particularly those outside of the grasp of the southeastern part of the state, just wanted the amendment to go away. (And it's no coincidence that all of the representatives who have signed Owen's pledge, thus far, are from around the southeastern part of the state.)

But what's really a bit astounding to see now is how the "the fire-breathing tax-limiting fiscal conservatives of southeastern Wisconsin," as Charlie Sykes once described them (he included himself in that group), are apparently reacting to this utter failure to pass any of the TABORs.

As Sykes put it on his blog yesterday in response to the rumors that Assembly Republicans were conspiring against Owen's pledge: "Do you think the GOP learned it's lesson last year? Apparently not."

The logic there is truly eye-opening. An upset electorate supposedly tossed Republicans for not passing TABOR, and in their place elected Dems who didn't campaign on the premise of pushing anything close to TABOR and who undoubtedly would vote against it if given the chance.

It seems to me that the Assembly Republicans who are refusing to sign Owen's pledge did learn their lesson from last year, and it's those "fire-breathing tax-limiting fiscal conservatives of southeastern Wisconsin" who just won't let the party move on.


Side-Note: Before any commenters mistake what I'm writing here, I want to clarify that I don't think taking a position against the governor's budget is a problem. Rather, the problem is signing on to stringent and uncompromising pledges for virtually no revenue increases. This is essentially the same critique I put forward regarding WMC's reaction to the budget.

Similarly, the most fundamental problem with TABOR was how it wrote fiscal policy into the state constitution. That's why each version that was written came out a loser. Yeah, the details were bad, too, but it's the basic premise of inflexibility and loss of local control that truly made any incarnation of TABOR a non-starter.

I understand conservative voices like Owen, Sykes, and Belling believe that taking an uncompromising attitude toward the state budget is the most ideologically pure tactic, and they're probably right about that.

But, for much of the state, ideological purity is just another way of saying extreme.

LATE UPDATE (5/24): Check out Cory Liebmann's post on how at least one Republican legislator characterizes his colleagues across the aisle. Hint: It isn't complimentary.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Restoring Wisconsin Shares as a State Priority

The Joint Finance Committee is scheduled to take up funding for the Wisconsin Shares child care subsidy program today.

It's not difficult to see how Wisconsin Shares is a deal breaker for welfare reform. If there isn't anyone to watch the kids, there isn't any way to go to work, especially for single parent households. And out of the 34,000 families that benefit from the Wisconsin Shares program today, over 90 percent are single parent.

The fiscal problem facing Wisconsin Shares is a result of two related factors: 1) stagnate federal TANF funds, and 2) decreasing state GPR funding for the program.

I cover all of the details in this post, but, to make a long story short, the state had a surplus of TANF funding at the end of the 1990s. Rather than maintain state GPR funding levels for the Wisconsin Shares program, the state decided to increase reliance on federal TANF dollars and divert the GPR funding to help cover the cost of tax cuts in the '99-'01 budget.

This wasn't so much of a problem in '99-'01, '01-'03, or '03-'05. But in this latest budget, '05-'07, the Wisconsin Share costs caught up and actually surpassed funding levels for the program, resulting in a $46 million shortfall in the current fiscal year. And if this funding level is continued into the '07-'09 budget, the program will face another shortfall.

Putting greater reliance on TANF funding back in 1999 was a big mistake. Yes, there was a surplus, but TANF funding has been stagnate since its inception in 1997. The total federal funding for TANF was $16.5 billion in FY 1997, and it's $16.5 billion in FY 2007. It doesn't take too much foresight to realize that putting greater reliance on TANF funding would eventually result in a fiscal shortfall.

But dwelling on past missteps will only get us so far. The fact is the JFC has the opportunity today to step up and restore Wisconsin Shares as a state priority. There's nothing the state legislature can do about TANF funding, but there is something it can do about GPR funding.

Governor Doyle has increased state funding for Wisconsin Shares by $3.3 million over the biennium in his budget proposal, but to cover the shortfall that increase comes along with freezing provider payments at 2006 levels, increasing copays by 10 percent, reducing income eligibility to 175 percent of the federal poverty level to enroll (from 185 percent of the FPL) and 190 percent of the FPL to continue (from 200 percent of the FPL), and authorizing waiting lists.

Even replacing a few of these administrative changes with additional funding can go a long way toward keeping the Wisconsin Shares program not only viable, but also successful.

The changes to copays, FPL eligibility, and waiting lists pertain mostly to access, while freezing payment levels is more of a quality issue (although it could impact access, too, if some providers decide to drop Wisconsin Shares participants as a result of non-competitive payment rates). The JFC needs to give Wisconsin Shares as a whole a higher priority in the state budget and determine what internal facets of the program -- related to both access and quality -- deserve a higher funding priority.

According to September 2006 numbers, the bulk of participants (roughly 90 percent) appear to be under 175 percent of the poverty level, which means most would stay eligible with the FPL change. However, that certainly doesn't mean the roughly 2,000 families that would lose access under the change are unimportant.

But if you raise the FPL back to 185 percent, what will that cost or do to the ability to reduce copays, increase payment levels, or eliminate waiting lists? How much will the copay increase impact access for the lowest income participants? Is some sort of copay scaling possible so that those who are 175 percent of the FPL or above can stay in the program by paying more?

These are the type of questions our JFC should be considering today. I've criticized the JFC in a couple of posts (here and here) for too often privileging style over substance in this year's budget process; today is one opportunity for it to put the horse and pony show aside to hammer out a better deal for 34,000 Wisconsin families.

UPDATE: In a 14-2 vote, the JFC approved $70 million in extra funding for the Wisconsin Shares program over the course of the biennium, thereby eliminating the need for the drop in income eligibility and the authorization of waiting lists. Also, copays will only increase by 2.8 percent rather than the 10 percent proposed in the governor's budget. I didn't see anything on the proposal to freeze payment levels at 2006 rates, so I imagine that was kept.

On the whole, this is good news for the 34,000 families in the Wisconsin Shares program, but unfortunately the funds are coming out of other programming for lower income families. This press release from the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families has the details.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Health Care CEOs Pushing Fundamental Reform?

The Journal Sentinel ran an interesting "Crossroads" section yesterday on health care reform. The feature article was an excerpted transcript of the roundtable discussion of a panel that included top executives from the big health systems in the Milwaukee area and a couple of academics.

To be honest, I was a little taken aback by some of the points that I read. Not only were the academics pushing for fundamental health care reform that would result in restructuring the system and providing universal coverage, but a few of the execs did the same.

In the words of Froedtert Hospital CEO William Petasnick:
We've had 14 years of basically market-driven solutions. And market-driven solutions work up to a point, but I think the outgrowth of the failure of market-based solutions is . . . the 45 million Americans who are outside of the market.
Here's Columbia St. Mary's CEO Leo Brideau:
If you take a look at a dollar spent on health care premiums today, about 70 cents of that gets spent on health care. The other 30 cents of that goes to shareholders in those insurance companies or to administrative costs.

And it seems to me that when the government can manage the Medicare and Medicaid program for about 3% or 4% administrative costs, we ought to be asking insurance companies . . . why is it costing them 30%?
And Medical College of Wisconsin CEO T. Michael Bolger:
I think the health care system is broken in America. And . . . this country has not made a fundamental decision, and that is whether health care is a right of citizenship in a Jeffersonian democracy or whether it's a privilege for those who can afford to pay for it. . . .

Until we do answer that question, we will not be able to derive a health care system that is going to be fundamentally fair and equitable to the people of this country. I think that the current system of an employer-based reimbursement system in our country is unsustainable. . . .

The failure of market-based solutions, excess administrative costs, government efficiency, health care as a right, the need to end employer-based insurance -- I thought for a bit that I was reading some reincarnation of Pravda!

Part of this, of course, was just plain old finger pointing. Aside from a couple of swipes at drug companies and medical equipment manufacturers, the bulk of the target practice -- at least that of the execs -- was aimed at the insurance industry.

This is an interesting outcome considering most observers put the health system industry right alongside the insurance industry in the fight against fundamental reform. You can bet that just about any of the three proposals being considered by the legislature will have an opponent in both the Wisconsin Hospital Association and the Coalition for Sensible Health Care Solutions (an umbrella group for the insurance industry in the state).

I have little doubt that if the JS invited just insurance industry execs along with a couple of academics to the talk, the finger pointing would've been aimed at the big health systems that have been raking in near double-digit profit margins -- in spite of their non-profit status -- along with increasing their oligopoly status and, as a result, their negotiation position against payers through heightened consolidation in recent years.

As an article in the Denver Business Journal documented last August, all of the major players -- providers, insurers, Big Pharma, etc. -- are making lots of cash in our current system, and so all of them aren't going to jump at the chance to fundamentally change it.

Which brings us back to the question: So why did the provider industry execs not only point the finger elsewhere, but also sound like true reform proponents in their roundtable talk?

Part of me wants to believe that they do truly see the benefit in fundamental reform. Sure, they're making money now, but their industry is also under constant criticism, which inherently breeds instability. And getting the system as a whole on solid footing doesn't mean profits need to -- or even should -- evaporate.

But there also could be a subtle opposition within the verbal support for reform. After all, it's not a lack of public will that's preventing fundamental reform -- surveys show enormous support for doing away with our existing system. Rather, the same disease that's killing the system is killing reform: fragmentation.

The mere fact that there are a number of major players in the current system assures that any reform plan is not only going to be attacked from multiple sides, but also attacked from multiple sides by organized groups with plenty of special interest cash to do their convincing. It's easy enough for one segment to talk the talk of reform -- and save face in the process -- knowing that it would require far more than just talk to actually get anything done.

At one point in the roundtable talk, Aurora exec Sue Ela harked back to the early 1990s when special interests killed the Clinton health care reform plan, and she wondered if there would be enough political will to get something accomplished this time around.

She should really be asking the special interests that represent her organization and others at the table why so much political will is necessary when so much public will is already there.


Friday, May 18, 2007

Race For The 22nd Assembly District Is On

With Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee) leaving to challenge Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) next year, the race is on to replace his post in the 22nd Assembly District.

WisPolitics reports that at least two people are interested enough in the position to publicly toss their names into the ring. One is Sandy Pasch of Whitefish Bay -- who appears to be running for sure -- and the other is Russ Hinz of Glendale, who is just considering a bid at this point.

Pasch and Hinz both would be running as Dems. The RPW spokesperson says that some GOPers have expressed interest in the seat, but I'm not so sure. The 22nd includes the heavily Democratic east side of Milwaukee -- specifically around the UWM campus -- and up into the North Shore suburbs, which have been trending solidly blue lately (a fact that'll have Darling working harder than usual in an election year, especially when facing a strong challenger like Wasserman).

Without a doubt, health care reform is going to be a big campaign issue in the 22nd next year. Bearing out this fact, WisPolitics reports that Pasch and Hinz have already staked out early, if vague, positions on the issue, and the two -- like Wasserman -- also both work in the health care field.

Hinz describes himself as a "Blue Dog Democrat," which is a coalition of Democrats in Congress who pride themselves on fiscal conservativism. It's a bit difficult to judge where Hinz would land on the issue of health care reform. According to the WisPolitics story, he's at least generally aware of the reform proposals being floated around the Capital, but he didn't divulge -- as least to WisPolitics -- exactly where he stands on any of them.

Adding to the ambiguity around Hinz is his position as an executive at Aurora Health Care, the biggest health system in the state. That certainly doesn't necessarily disqualify him from backing fundamental health care reform, but there's little doubt that his support for it as a legislator would put him in a precarious position with Aurora -- which is making a bundle off our existing fragmented system -- should he remain in some capacity there (or even rely on colleagues for campaign funds).

Pasch, a registered nurse who teaches at the Columbia College of Nursing, appears to be more of a grassroots person. She also has a degree in ethics and has extensive experience advocating for mentally ill patients in the community.

Based on the minimal information provided in the WisPolitics story about the two candidates, it appears Hinz would be more focused on the cost aspect of health care reform (key quote: the health insurance system is "squeezing the middle class") while Pasch would put more of an emphasis on the uninsured (key quote: "Pasch said she spent most of her timeout in the community, working with the homeless and those with inadequate or no health insurance who suffer from chronic illnesses that often is left untreated").

This, of course, isn't to say that Hinz isn't interested in coverage and Pasch isn't interested in cost. In fact, the key is going to be in the ability of both to bring those two aspects together and articulate specifically what they would do to advance health care reform -- we're much to far along in the debate for vagueness on even the smallest detail.

For Pasch it'll be important to not try to tug at the heart strings too much on the issue. The health issues of the poor and homeless is undoubtedly important and connected to the lives of everyone in the Milwaukee area, but she's going to be running for a seat in a district that predominantly has good health care. In this sense, it's really rising costs, as opposed to not enough coverage, that's most personally important to the constituents of the 22nd district.

The big challenge for Hinz will be crafting his fiscal conservativism in a liberal-friendly way; that is, there needs to be an emphasis on public finance as a whole -- services in addition to cost -- rather than a "just cut 'em" attitude that prevails in the districts in Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha counties. Health care is one place he can do that by emphasizing the significant public sector savings that can come through fundamental reform, but that also means he'll need to be willing to potentially stand up to the wants of the many friends he's probably made as an Aurora exec.

The race for the 22nd should make 2008 all that much more interesting of an election year. As a constituent of the district, I look forward to following it closely; and, if everything works out, I'll be looking at entirely Democratic representation: in the White House, in the Senate, in the House, and in both houses of the state legislature.


Side-Note: Yes, I know, the House is a long shot. Damn you, Sensenbrenner, for jeopardizing my chance at a full sweep!

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Deep-Fried Testicle, Anyone?

The blogging on political stuff has been slow this week, so it seemed like a good time to bring up deep-fried livestock testicle eating at an annual festival in Elderon, WI.

The festival just ran for the ninth time this past weekend. Thankfully for the rest of the country (but perhaps not so much for the rest of Wisconsin), the AP was there to capture all of the nutty details.

More than 300 people consumed 100 pounds of $5 all-you-can-stomach deep-fried sheep, lamb, and bull testicles at this year's festival. But what I love most about the AP story is the quotes. You couldn't make up more fitting one-liners if you tried.

According to Buster Hoffman, "Once you get over the mental (aspect) of what you're eating, it's just like eating any other food, and it tastes good."

Ah, I'm not so sure. As Jules from Pulp Fiction put it: "Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker."

But another festival goer struck a similar note as Hoffman, adding: "They taste like chicken nuggets. You just have to get past the testicle part."

Again, I'm not sold. After all, if they taste like chicken nuggets, why not just eat chicken nuggets?

But not everyone agreed with the comparison to chicken nuggets. Butch Joubert, for one, thinks the deep-fried sheep, lamb, and bull testicles are more like meatballs. "After a few beers, you can't really tell the difference," he told the AP.

Festival founder Nancy Fenske said she got the idea for "a nut fry" after a trip to Montana introduced her and her family to the delicacy of lamb fries.

"What else can you do in a small town?" Fenske added.

As an undergrad at UW-Eau Claire, I remember some light-hearted discussions in classes between small towners and city folks about where is better to grow up. I just wish I knew about this Elderon festival and the justification for having it back then.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

JFC: What Are We Doing Here?

To provide a brief explanation of how the JFC is handling the budget, those items that were in the governor's budget when JFC talks started require a majority vote (at least nine) to be removed while those items that are not in the governor's budget when JFC talks started require a majority vote (again, at least nine) to be added.

Here's a list of items that were proposed to be added to the budget yesterday:
  • Reduce the per pupil adjustment for school districts to $100 (GOP)
  • Require 70 percent of school district operating expenditures to go to instructional activities (GOP)
  • Have the DPI reimburse state universities and colleges for Wisconsin high school graduates who need to take remedial coursework (GOP)
  • Eliminate the requirement that MPS teachers live within the City of Milwauke limits (GOP)
  • Gradually phase out the ability of sender school districts to count transferred students in membership for revenue limits or state aid purposes (GOP)
  • Increase funding for SAGE by $3 million over the governor's budget proposal (Dem)
  • Require the LAB to conduct an audit of the SAGE program (GOP)
  • Allow districts participating in SAGE to elect not to reduce class sizes in particular schools or grade levels and subsequently not receive aid for those areas (GOP)
  • Institute a pay-for-performance pilot program for teachers in select school districts (GOP)
  • Authorize $2.5 million to reimburse school districts for safety expenditures (GOP)
  • Cut the reimbursement rate for school breakfasts from 15 cents per breakfast to 10 cents per breakfast (GOP)
  • Eliminate the governor's proposal to increase funding for bilingual and bicultural education aid (GOP)
  • Cut $3 million from the governor's proposal for four year old kindergarten, along with proposals to cut funding for world language instruction, science, technology, engineering, and math education, and eliminating a new program for low income driver education at MPS (GOP)
  • Authorizing $50 million in bonding for school districts to install energy efficient and renewable energy systems (Dem)
  • Allocate $250,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Milwaukee and $950,000 for 21st century community learning centers in MPS (Dem)
  • Provide $21 million in funding for districts with at least 50 percent of the school population eligible for free or reduced lunches (Dem)
  • Drop the school voucher program cap back to 15,000 (Dem)
  • Continue the requirement that the City of Milwaukee pay more for voucher students than MPS students (GOP)
All of these items failed to make it into the budget. Most of them failed on an 8-8 vote, although there was some crossover to defeat a few of the motions.

And aside from a few relatively minor additions of funding for school district consolidation studies and library aids, along with the removal of the Milwaukee residential charter school plan, the governor's budget ended the day in the same form that it started the day.

So, JFC members, what exactly are you doing? What's with all of these motions that you know are going to fail?

Are you just looking for some press? I'm pretty sure you're not getting it. Except for a handful of reporters and a few of us who faithfully follow the WisPolitics Budget Blog (which is excellent, by the way), no one's really paying much attention. The papers may touch on the big stuff, like school vouchers, but they're not going to cover all of the small (or petty) proposals that don't go anywhere.

I suppose you can get some good stuff to add to your campaign literature to demonstrate to contituents how you tried to get those stubborn [enter name of opposite party] to listen.

And don't get me wrong. I get a slight chuckle from seeing hopeless proposals like requiring 70 percent of school spending to go to instruction and dropping the school voucher cap back down to 15,000. I realize it's all just part of the dance.

But, seriously, can't we just save most of this for the conference committee?

I know the budget is the most important single piece of legislation coming up this session. It's not, however, the only important legislation. The more time that's spent spinning wheels on the budget, the less time that's left for the rest.

UPDATE: The Journal Sentinel has broke into the budget blogging business with a site called "Building the Budget." The entry of the JS will surely bring the merry-go-round described above to (roughly eight) more people than ever before. Wheee!

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Fair Trade Isn't Just an Economic Policy

As economist Dean Baker noted earlier this week on his blog, globalization creates winners and losers. The goal of our American policies should be to create as many winners as possible, but the task isn't only about policy.

Tomorrow is the official worldwide Fair Trade Day, which has been observed on the second Saturday in May for the past five years. This day is a call to consumers to be more mindful of the purchases they make on a daily basis, which is at least as important as the broader policy initiatives instituted by the government.

And buying fair trade products doesn't mean you need to go out of your way or even necessarily pay more. All it takes is being mindful.

Fair trade food is the easiest to spot because it comes with this label:

This label is overseen by a group called TransFair USA. The group's website even does some of the work for you by identifying retailers and distributors that offer fair trade certified products such as coffee, tea, chocolate, fruit, etc.

And while the cost of fair trade food can be higher in some instances, it's not always the case. Take coffee, for instance, which is perhaps the easiest of the fair trade products to find. The fair trade coffee I buy at Trader Joe's runs $4.99 per 14 oz. package, which is more than generic brand coffees like Folgers, but it's significantly less than other premium brands like Starbucks (which also offers a fair trade coffee, but for around $10 per pound).

Clothes tend to be a little more difficult to track because there isn't currently an independent third party agency like TransFair USA that certifies clothing products as fair trade. But that hasn't stopped some retailers from popping up that focus on quality fair trade clothing.

One that's worth highlighting is a Wisconsin start-up called Fair Indigo, which is based in Madison. The company was founded last year by former Lands End executives, and it currently has one store at Hilldale Mall in Madison, and it also sells its products online and through a mail order catalog.

Using the help of UW researchers, Fair Indigo has contracted with select family-owned and co-op factories that pay living wages as opposed to the minimum wages that often aren't enough to sustain a family. And, regarding price, the website notes:
If done carefully, fair trade does not have to cost more. While a bigger share of the clothing you buy from us goes directly to the worker, we can hold the other costs down in several ways. First, we use worker-owned cooperatives wherever we can. This eliminates layers of overhead since worker and owner are one and the same. Second, wherever possible we work directly with each of our non co-op factories, eliminating the need for middlemen. And finally, unlike most clothing brands, we do not spend huge sums on advertising, instead relying on you, our customers, to spread the word about Fair Indigo.
The prices for most Fair Inidgo products are about on par with what you'd find at a clothing store like Gap (which, to its credit, has started to combat sweatshop labor in its factories in recent years).

You can also find info about fair trade clothing and other products in the Milwaukee area from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee website, and at the website for the Milwaukee fair trade store called Four Corners of the World.

While economic globalization may be inevitable, the form it takes is not.

The growth and development of our consumer society over the course of the last century has created some cultural problems including overzealous materialism and transaction-oriented thinking. Aiming our dollars at fair trade products is at least one way to wield our country's enormous purchasing power in an attempt to create as many winners in the global marketplace as possible, while also strengthening our labor position at home.


Side-Note: If you're looking for American-made clothing, American Apparel -- which manufactures all of its own modestly-priced clothing in Los Angeles -- is probably the biggest retailer out there. There aren't any American Apparel stores in Wisconsin, but there are a number around Chicago and one in Minneapolis, and clothes can be purchased online.

The Wisconsin AFL-CIO website also offers detailed info on where to go to find union-made clothing and other products.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Getting Domestic Partner Benefits Back in the Budget

There's some talk that domestic partner benefits for UW employees may make a reappearance in the state budget.

The JFC plans to take up the topic as an item separate from the budget with a majority vote needed to re-insert it. That means at least one Republican on the committee would need to flip since an 8-8 split won't cut it. (Side-Note: Could that lucky JFC member be Alberta Darling, who is going to face a tough race next year in an increasingly blue district?)

According to Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford), the GOP members on the Joint Finance Committee won't let that happen because allowing domestic partner benefits for UW employees is a policy issue that needs to be worked out separate from the budget. As he put it:
They can’t win this debate in the public arena, so they are trying everything they can by hiding it. The fact is that most taxpayers and voters don’t agree with the policy, and not giving the public an adequate chance to talk about it is just bad policy.
I wonder if Suder feels the same way about the Milwaukee school voucher program, which was also established through a budget bill?

Anyway, more to the point, polls suggest Suder's just wrong about the "most taxpayers and voters don't agree with this policy" line. In fact, according to a Badger Poll conducted last summer, nearly 60 percent of the state approved of civil unions for same-sex couples, which is undoubtedly a step (or, more accurately, a few steps) beyond domestic partner benefits for UW System employees.

Some conservatives will surely cling to the vote on the marriage ban as evidence that this isn't a popular provision -- as Rep. Nass did a few months ago -- but domestic partner benefits for UW employees simply isn't what the referendum was about last fall.

The issue of domestic partner benefits boils down to two points: fairness and competition.

If gay and lesbian employees are not able to marry or engage in a civil union in order to participate in spousal benefits, it is only fair to allow them another avenue to partake in this aspect of their compensation package.

And there are simple ways to regulate domestic partner benefits to ensure they aren't abused. Rick Esenberg has offered up a reasonable structure that would require the couple to share living expenses and not be allowed to legally marry.

The details could be hashed out later, but, again, the point is that there are ways to make sure the benefits aren't simply used "for the boyfriends and girlfriends of state employees," as Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) lamented back in February.

On the issue of competition, the UW System is behind the curve on domestic partner benefits. UW-Madison is the only university in the Big Ten that doesn't offer benefits to domestic partners, and that has an unquestionable impact on faculty recruitment and retention.

Just last year, for instance, an engineering researcher left UW-Madison and took his grant potential with him because the UW doesn't offer domestic partner benefits and the University of Pennsylvania, where he went, does. That professor alone amassed $3.4 million in grants over the past six years, which amounts to about $550,000 per year -- the same amount it would cost the state to offer domestic partner benefits to every UW employee.

And it's not just recruitment and retention of high profile faculty that's impacted by the lack of domestic partner benefits. The UW System is also in competition for qualified staff.

While most staff don't tend to leave geographic regions for employment in the same way as faculty, they can be lured away to one of the over 150 private employers in Wisconsin that offer domestic partner benefits, including Cardinal Stritch University, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Beloit College, Lawrence University, among a number of other non-college employers like US Bank, Aurora Health Care, General Electric, 3M, etc.

It's time to accept the fact that they're here, they're queer, and they deserve access to the same employment benefits as the rest of us.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Scott Walker Wants Four More Years

Or at least two more -- the next gubernatorial race is in 2010.

It's officially unofficial, but it seems pretty clear Scott Walker is getting set to run for Milwaukee County executive again next year.

I don't want to harp on the fact that Walker suggested on a number of occasions that he wouldn't run for another term as county executive beyond this current one. After all, minds can change. Heck, he probably thought he'd be governor by now.

But what did peak my interest in the Journal Sentinel article on his teaser announcement this morning was the response he gave to why he ended his doom-and-gloom tour last year on the county's fiscal situation. According to the article, the fiscal outlook got a lot brighter, in Walker's view, because of "a new labor agreement that included health care concessions."

What's interesting about this is that the structure of those health care concessions was actually the idea of Dave Riemer, who was Walker's opponent in the county executive race in 2004. Riemer was also the major consultant behind the changes in the state health plan that has saved the state tens of millions of dollars in recent years.

GOP state Senator Alberta Darling even called the new state health plan designed by Riemer "a shining example" and "the best in the country." It seems based on Walker's comments yesterday that Milwaukee county is now noticing similar benefits of the plan.

But what's even more interesting is that Riemer has acknowledged as recently as last September that he's considering another run at the county executive post in 2008.

I imagine Walker's campaign team will find a better way to explain the transition from doom-and-gloom to sunshine (or at least overcast) if that match-up materializes.


Side-Note: It's also worth noting that AFSCME District Council 48 has been pushing for Riemer's plan since September 2004, but the county always rejected it until the latest negotiations this past December. Perhaps the support the Greater Milwaukee Committee gave the plan in September 2006 finally changed some minds...including, quite likely, Walker's.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Scrap the JFC's Role in the Budget Process?

Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) has created some waves with a letter recommending Assembly Republicans pull out of the Joint Finance Committee talks on the budget.

The complaint stems from the fact that split decisions result in no action. So whenever Republicans object to a portion of the governor's budget proposal, all Dems need to do is raise their eight hands to shoot it down.

This, of course, isn't exactly how it's playing out in all instances. The Dems tried to negotiate on the real estate transfer fee increase last week -- the first big ticket item on the docket -- by proposing a sliding scale for the fee depending on the sale price of the house, but Republicans rejected that by simply raising their eight hands in opposition.

Nass also ignores that the JFC has come to some agreements on the budget. Before the committee even started its official sessions, a number of budget provisions were tossed for being policy (read: controversial) issues such as repealing the QEO, domestic partner benefits for UW employees, collective bargaining rights for UW employees, etc.

And since starting negotiations, the JFC has managed to agree on some other changes, such as cutting half the proposed budget for a tech college job training initiative and restoring the independent status of the Judicial Council (side note: evidently that's a different kind of policy move than those that were tossed before the official voting began).

But the agreements have been fairly minor in relation to the votes that have split 8-8 on bigger ticket items like the real estate transfer fee and those that lay ahead such as the hospital assessment, the oil company assessment, the cigarette tax, etc. And while these big ticket items may make it through the JFC on split votes, they're simply not going to make it through -- at least in one piece -- the GOP-controlled Assembly.

So eventually it'll come to the point that Nass recommends going to now, which is hashing out the budget differences in a conference committee. With the current JFC process, only the smaller items will be resolved in advance, anyway. And if the two sides aren't going to take the time to negotiate a middle ground, such as on the real estate transfer fee, why spend all of the time that it'll take to simply split the vote on the bigger items?

But the big advantage, in my view, of skipping the JFC and letting the two houses craft their own budgets that would then get worked out in a conference committee is that it would force Republicans to put the rubber on the road by explicitly documenting what they plan to cut to account for their revenue proposals.

As it stands now, Republicans get to make proposals like phasing out state revenue from the real estate transfer fee without doing the heavy lifting of explaining what's going to be cut to make up for the funding hole that would be created.

The transfer fee is dedicated for state aid to counties to help pay for the Circuit Courts and services for at-risk youth through the Community Youth and Family Aids Program. Are those the services that should be cut to account for the fee rollback, or are the funds going to be directed from somewhere else to cover the hole?

Governor Doyle is justifiably getting some heat for not putting a clear price tag on the Wisconsin Covenant program to give legislators and the public a chance to weigh the cost effectiveness of the otherwise agreeable proposal.

The Republican lead on the JFC, Rep. Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson), called the Wisconsin Covenant plan "bumper sticker politics" since it didn't include a fiscal estimate. How is the same not true for proposals to cut revenue without explicitly identifying the services that would be impacted as a result?

Whether proposing new services or cutting revenue, openness and accountability for budget proposals needs to work both ways.


Friday, May 04, 2007

Getting Nowhere on the Real Estate Transfer Fee

The JFC tackled one of its first big budget issues yesterday with the governor's proposal to increase the real estate transfer fee from $3 per $1000 of value to $6 per $1000 of value.

The fee, which is paid by the home seller, has been at $3 per $1000 since 1984, although that doesn't seem to be a good enough reason to raise it today. As Republicans have pointed out, since the fee is rated rather than flat, it has actually increased over time as the sale price of homes has increased.

And, of course, no one wants to see the cost of selling a home increase even more. Assuming you have enough equity built up in your house, the fee may not be such a big problem. But in our increasingly mobile society and with the onset of mortgage loans that require as little as nothing down to buy, it seems likely that fewer people today have significant equity stored away when they go to sell (although my guess is that the majority still do).

But, the question becomes, if the fee isn't increased in some way, are you going to raise revenues somewhere else or cut something from the budget? (UPDATE: In the governor's budget, the state's portion of the transfer fee revenue is slated for a new county aid segregated fund.)

Republicans on the JFC not only voted against the proposed increase, they made a proposal to reduce the fee from $3 per $1000 of value to $1 per $1000 over the biennium.

This proposal, to me, was a joke. If this was a serious proposal, then it should come with an explanation of what services are going to be cut from the state budget to account for the millions it would cost over the biennium. And that's millions off the base 2005-2007 level; it would be millions more when considered in light of the proposed 2007-2009 level.

Senator Russ Decker (D-Schofield) got a lot closer to a reasonable proposal when he offered up a plan to keep the rate at $3 per $1000 of value for home sales under the state median of $200,000 and increase it to $6 per $1000 for those above that level. The exact numbers could be shifted around, but the general idea of scaling the fee makes some sense.

Unfortunately, though, Decker's idea was shot down in a party line JFC vote, which essentially ensured Doyle's proposal of $6 per $1000 of value across the board was going to stay, at least for now.

On the question of where the revenue could be made up if the rate was simply kept at $3 across the board, perhaps legislators should consider finally closing the loophole that allows some businesses to avoid paying the transfer fee at all.

It works like this: When property changes hands in the business world, it often comes along with a change in company ownership. Since this is the case, business deals are simply logged with the state as changes in who owns the company and not who owns the property.

It seems to be a distinction without a difference, but that's the way state law is currently written. Even GOP Senator Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) exclaimed back in 2003 that "it doesn't seem to be fair" that homeowners get tagged with a fee when real estate changes hands while many businesses get away without paying a thing on their property transfers.

Rep. Terese Berceau (D-Madison) sponsored a bill the past two legislative sessions that would require the transfer fee to be paid by businesses when over 50 percent of the ownership changes hands, but the proposal failed to pass the GOP-controlled legislature both times (see here and here).

Indeed, rather than double the weight placed on homeowners by increasing the rate to $6 per $1000 of value, why not just bring businesses up to snuff by making them pay the same amount that the rest of us currently do when selling real estate property?

UPDATE (5/6): Rick makes a good point about the difference between share sales and asset sales in the comments below. I'm still not sold on the argument that no property transfer is taking place when merely the ownership of a company changes, but the fact that the new ownership is assuming the old's liabilities, tax situation, etc., is an important point to keep in mind.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Taking the Hysterical Out of Hysterical Anti-Tax Message


Steve Walters of the Journal Sentinel captures a back-and-forth that took place yesterday between state Revenue Secretary Roger Ervin and WMC president Jim Haney on the role of the state's corporate lobby.

The harsher tone the Doyle administration is taking with the WMC this year is noticeable. Not only did the WMC run ads against Doyle, it also poured a ton of money into the attorney general race to keep Kathleen Falk -- Doyle's preferred candidate -- out of office. And lately the group has been speaking out against the revenue increases in Doyle's proposed budget.

Ervin said that WMC focuses too much on taxes at the expense of other factors that also impact economic development and business climate. Haney responded by saying that while the Doyle administration would like WMC to say taxes aren't bad, "That's not true."

Of course, not all WMC members would agree with Haney. According to Northwestern Mutual Life CEO Edward Zore at a forum in Milwaukee in February: "Taxes for us are not bad." And WMC board member Randy Smith, president of City Brewing Company, noted last month: "Sure, taxes are important but they don't make or break us."

And that comment by Smith really sums up what Ervin was saying. It's not that WMC needs to completely abandon its anti-tax message; but to fully address the varying needs of businesses in the state, it should balance it with other messages, even if that means backing issues that rely on public revenue such as job training and university research.

For instance, the results of WMC's annual survey on the Wisconsin economy are in for 2007, and while the group hasn't released the full results on its website, the press release on the survey emphasized the high demand for skilled workers in the state and the overall strong confidence Wisconsin manufacturers have in the future of the state's economy.

In fact, according to the survey, almost 60 percent of respondents said they couldn't find qualified candidates to fill job openings in the area of skilled production, and 43 percent said they plan to increase hiring in the future.

Doesn't this seem to be a great time to put the weight of the state's biggest lobby group behind the budget initiatives aimed at increasing research and retention funding for the UW, along with pushing for more state funding for the technical college system?

A Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance study just last month found that the technical college system is one of the biggest economic drivers in the state with an annual economic impact of nearly $7 billion, and its an entity that's tailor-made to churn out the skilled production workers our state's businesses need. According to the study, taxpayers get a return of $3.62 for every $1.00 put into the tech colleges.

Likewise, in Milwaukee, UWM chancellor Carlos Santiago is fighting to revitalize Milwaukee as the state's economic engine by expanding the university's engineering and biotechnology fields, the effects of which would undoubtedly benefit state manufacturers.

But all of this takes money. And this money comes through the state biennial budget.

As long as WMC's sole message on the state budget is opposition to revenue increases, it's, in effect, arguing against some of the very funding that could help its members get the skilled workers and research opportunities they need.

This doesn't mean, of course, that the WMC needs to back everything in the budget or even the majority of revenue increases. But press releases like this one that simply shoot down any and all revenue increases without any consideration for what those increases could help fund is overly-simplistic at best and harmful to the state's economy at worst.

Where's the press release arguing that the technical college system should be made a higher state budget priority? Where's the radio ad urging legislators to back UWM's research growth initiative or funding for bio-fuels research at UW-Stevens Point? Where's the television spot aimed at preserving the Wisconsin Shares child care program so parents can go to work and know their kids are safe?

It's time WMC takes the hysterical out of its hysterical anti-tax message and starts positively contributing to the varied solutions that are needed to further our state's economy.

UPDATE: The WisPolitics Budget Blog is reporting that the JFC decided today to cut half of the budget funding for a $6 million tech college grant initiative that was intended for, according to the governor's proposal, "targeted job training for the state's major growth industries in the manufacturing and business services sectors."

This is a perfect example of something WMC should be putting its weight behind. Does anyone think that the $3 million would've been cut if WMC stood up for this modest, yet economically important, initiative?

LATE UPDATE (5/3): Still nothing out of WMC on the JFC's move yesterday to cut funding for skilled worker training. But the group did take the time to release a memo to the JFC urging legislators to cut more revenue from the budget.

It just defies logic. WMC releases an internal survey that found 60 percent of responding members couldn't find enough skilled workers to fill jobs in the last year. Literally one day after the survey results were released, legislators cut funding in half for a skilled job training initiative and WMC doesn't say a word.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Summit Reaction Follow-Up: Influence Who?

After re-reading my post from yesterday on the influence of issue-oriented blogging, it struck me that I never got into who I think issue-oriented blogging should influence.

A logical reaction could assume I was referring to policymakers since issue-oriented blogging is essentially aimed at policy. But that's not what I meant.

The influence I was talking about for issue-oriented blogging, rather, is aimed at the public.

As I noted in yesterday's post, I feel -- in addition to the influence of money -- the biggest problem with politics today is its commercialization, which has been largely driven by an understandably (to an extent) business-minded media that's increasingly substituted short soundbites and emotionally-driven content for hard-hitting critical news pieces.

In other words, much of the news media today puts out pieces intended for reactive consumption, not reflective engagement.

The beauty of the blogosphere is that the engagement piece is already built into the medium in the form of comments, trackbacks, links, etc. I do feel more could be done to make the blogosphere more reflective than reactive, but, on the whole, there's at least the strong possibility for reflective engagement in blogging.

So when I call for the increased influence of issue-oriented blogging, I mean influence on the people, not the politicians. I think the blogosphere, ideally, can serve as a model for how to critically engage issues of the day in a way that most of the consumption-driven mainstream media can't or, at least, doesn't.

To be sure, when I write a post on health care reform, I'm not really speaking to politicians -- at least, that's not my intention. Instead, my goal is to influence my everyday readers to engage critically with the issue, regardless of whether that results in them agreeing with me (although that would be nice).

From that point, the goal could transition into having the critically engaged public exert a stronger influence on policymakers, especially in relation to the special interest money that seems to be having a stronger and stronger effect on politicians as the years go by. However, it's my belief that this type of transition would mostly happen naturally once the public is engaged. So not just information, but the critical engagement with information would be power.

Thus, in this sense, blogging is merely a catalyst for influencing policy, it's not the actual influencing force.

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