It’s 7:00AM Saturday morning. Not early for a dairy farmer; except yesterday’s work ended at nearly midnight. I am heading over to meet folks attending the Rural Electric Co-op breakfast.
Over pancakes, a farmer from Independence explains he is caught between falling milk prices, rising input costs and manure rules. “They want me to spend $50,000 to store manure.” He can’t afford that.
Another man asked, “Can you help me with disability? Talk to my wife when you call. I just can’t hear anymore.”
One side of the room was upset about cuts to programs. The other side was unhappy about tax increases. I thought to myself, “Maybe you could get together, decide what you want to do and then let me know.”
Decisions about the state budget dominate nearly every conversation these days. People are unhappy about taxes at the same time they ask me for assistance. Every new person who receives assistance is a new ‘ask’ to spend state money.
The down turn in the economy means less money for states. Forty-two states face serious budget deficits; Wisconsin at nearly $6 billion deficit. People losing their jobs don’t have income. People facing tough times don’t buy things. This adds up to a lot less money for the state - at a time when more people need help.
Woman: “Did you know over the past 14 years state taxes have been reduced by more than fourteen billion dollars.”
Man: “Oh, that’s ridiculous. The state just increased taxes on my smokes.”
Woman: “Yes, but when you take that and other new taxes into account, we still have a $12 billion decrease in state taxes over the past fourteen years.”
“I heard the White House had a summit on health care reform,” my constituent said. “When is President Obama going to ask you how to fix health care?”
Last week I had the answer. Because of my leadership in health care reform, I was invited to participate in a Regional White House Forum on Health Care Reform in Dearborn, Michigan.
This forum, the first of several regional health reform forums, was hosted by Governors Jim Doyle, Jennifer Granholm and Ms. Melody Barnes, the President’s Director of Domestic Policy.
“We must protect our land,” urged the Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture. “Land is our most precious natural resource.”
Secretary Rod Nilsestuen testified before a Joint Hearing of the Assembly Agriculture Committee and the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education. I had the distinct honor of chairing the Joint Hearing. The topic was protecting farmland – specifically the Working Lands Initiative.
We are permanently losing farmland at an alarming rate. State-wide we are losing about one township of productive farmland every year. UW research documented our state lost about 100,000 acres in the first five years of this decade. We simply cannot sustain such a loss of a vital part of our economy, our heritage and an irreplaceable natural resource.
As I walked through the Capitol, going from a committee hearing to my office, I was stopped by a man asking how to find his legislator. He and his wife, small business owners, traveled all the way to Madison to lobby their legislators on issues in the state budget.
Last week marked the opening of the ‘citizen lobbying’ season. Ordinary people from all over the state gathered in Capitol offices to lobby their legislators. My office was a buzz as groups from every part of our Senate District came to visit.
The focus of many groups is the state budget just introduced by the Governor. Citizen lobbyists are doing their homework and learning how the state budget affects their businesses, schools, municipalities and counties.
“What have you done to help our local businesses,” the farm woman asked me. “Have you closed those loopholes so the really big companies pay taxes too? It’s not fair to our local businesses that pay taxes like the rest of us.”
This time I could answer “yes”. We got the job done.
This past week Wisconsin joined 22 other states in closing a loop hole very large companies that do a lot of business in Wisconsin use to avoid paying taxes to the state.
“It’s time to get it done,” said the President of the Wisconsin Hospital Association calling for passage of a hospital assessment plan. Labeled by some a ‘hospital tax’, one might think it odd a state-wide representative for hospitals wants such action.
Two years ago hospitals fought the plan designed to gain federal dollars for Wisconsin. Governor Doyle proposed the idea in his 2007-09 budget. I and others hurried to understand the proposal.
The deal went something like this: the Governor asked hospitals for $2.00. In return, the state gave $4.00 back to hospitals. The additional money came from the federal government through our state Medicaid program – including BadgerCare. Twenty-two states have a similar plan.
Last week I introduced a five-point health plan to increase coverage and tighten insurance regulations. Efforts are underway to move the legislation quickly though the Legislature.
Sharing the plan with other legislators caused a flurry of activity. In the Assembly, the Chair of the Committee on Health Care Reform and three other Representatives agreed to introduce companion legislation. The Chair of the Senate Health Committee will co-sponsor the legislation. I soon expect committee hearings in both houses.
The five-point plan was designed to take immediately achievable steps to bring increased coverage, certainty and fairness to health insurance while waiting for comprehensive health insurance reform. We must make sure everyone has affordable health care and we must get there by whatever steps are possible.
People are losing their jobs and losing their health insurance. But as the economic crisis deepens, some legislators remain reluctant to move forward on comprehensive heath care reform.
As people wait while we work to bring agreement on big picture health reform, we must take the small and immediately achievable small steps to bring increased coverage, certainty and affordability to health insurance.
We can begin by allowing parents to keep their young adult children, up to age 27, on their health insurance policy. Young adults are the most likely to be without insurance and yet they are the least expensive age group to cover. As of August 2008, at least thirty other states have some form of coverage for adult children. Such a law would immediately bring insurance to many young adults – allowing them to focus on gaining job experience without worrying about health benefits.