Senate Passes State Budget

After five months of hard work, after public hearings around the state and weeks of wrangling in a bipartisan budget committee, after late night caucuses and bleary-eyed, cranky senators, the Senate passed its version of the state budget.

The budget affects everything from parks to payments for nursing homes. It provides money for roads and schools. The projects in the budget move us forward in renewable energy, and reduced property taxes by increasing the state’s share of funding for local government and by expanding the Homestead Tax Credit.

Tipping the scales at nearly 2,000 pages with the Senate changes, the budget is a massive document that is the work of many people. In the budget are 58 pages that have my fingerprints all over them. These are the 58 pages that describe the new health care reform plan “Healthy Wisconsin: Your Choice, Your Plan.”

This plan will bring the same health benefits to Wisconsin residents that I have as a state senator. The plan is an innovative solution to our health care problems that covers everyone in Wisconsin and lowers health care costs. The plan empowers people paying for health care by putting them in charge of the money. Business representatives, workers, self employed, farmers and consumers will all have a seat at the table.

The health plan was amended as part of the budget and passed the full Senate when the budget bill passed. Action now turns to the Assembly. They are expected to act sometime the week of July 10.

There will be criticism of the Senate action to place health care reform in the budget. But there are good reasons for the Senate’s action.

Remember a few months ago, when I reported on the seven-hour budget hearing in Chippewa Falls? The budget hearing was one of many around the state to gather input from citizens. In addition to the ‘official’ hearings, there were over 100 health care forums held in every corner of the state. Over and over again citizens told legislators “Get health care reform done!”

I have a keen memory of a farmer from Chippewa County who came to the budget hearing right after chores. It was the end of a seven-hour hearing. We were tired, but he was not going to let us off the hook. He pointed to each one of the rookie legislators and said “You were elected to do something on health care. Now get it done.” I was listening!

Health care has an enormous effect on the state budget. An independent study of the “Healthy Wisconsin” plan shows us that savings to state and local government under the plan is over a billion dollars in one year. This is the taxpayers’ money and the senators chose to return the dollars to local government and the people. This means over a half a billion dollars in property tax relief. We all know how sorely property tax relief is needed.

Finally, the senators chose to put health care reform in the budget because we felt an urgent need to address the problem now. Months ago the Health Committee, of which I serve as vice chairman, considered putting health care reform into a ‘stand alone’ bill – legislation not part of the budget. Unfortunately we knew that the bill, once passed by the Senate, would have little chance of ever being heard in the Assembly. It was Sen. Russ Decker, our Senate Chair of Joint Finance, who challenged the Committee to have the bill finished in time for the budget. That we did.

This is the move that forces the debate over health care. The final budget will be decided in a Conference Committee that includes the leaders of both the Senate and the Assembly. Probably a few Finance Committee members will also serve. The committee will be evenly divided and the only way they will make progress is through negotiation.

Negotiation is a delicate process. It’s a part of the way our society works. Think about the last time you bought a house. It was the back and forth between the buyer and seller that slowly brought people closer to arriving at a price. It is this same back and forth delicate work that will take place this summer and will result in a budget that goes to the governor’s desk.

By placing health care reform in the budget, senators are sending a clear message “We want health care reform to happen now.”

The senators echo the message the people have spoken. In a democracy, that is the way it is supposed to work.

Want to know more about Healthy Wisconsin: Your Choice, Your Plan? Visit my NEW WEBSITE! At http://www.legis.state.wi.us/senate/sen31/news/ Thanks to Ken Luchterhand for all his hard work getting the site ready! Or contact us by phone in Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; in Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.