By Ruth Conniff on June 04, 2013

In dramatic hearings that went on all day and into the night, Wisconsin legislators on the state's joint finance committee took up the most controversial aspects of Governor Scott Walker's new budget.

Rejecting Federal funds to expand Medicaid, creating a statewide school voucher program, and instituting a flat tax were among the proposals on the table.

Retired teachers and other citizen advocates showed up in droves, filling two overflow hearing rooms to listen to piped-in audio of the debate between Republicans and Democrats on the committee. Many wore stickers and T-shirts with the words "No Vouchers." Several were dismayed to learn from Capitol staff that no public testimony would be allowed.

Police forcibly removed several people who stood up to boo, shout "shame!" and speak their minds as the committee passed Republican proposals and rejected Democratic amendments on a straight party-line vote.

As one Republican committee member made the case that it would "put everybody on an even playing field" to move the working poor off Medicaid and into the private insurance market, a woman in the audience jumped up and shouted, "Hey, let's put everybody on an even playing field! Why don't you work for poverty wages?"

The woman was wrestled out the door by police, as a man walked forward from the back of the room, demanding of the legislators, "Who pays for your health care?"

"I'm going," he told the police officers who quickly surrounded him.

The woman's screams drifted in from down the hall, "Help me! Help me!"

"That woman's outburst wasn't appropriate, but when she was leaving and saying, 'Help me,' I don't think that's what we're doing here today," said Representative Cory Mason, Democrat of Racine. "We're making it a lot harder for people like her -- for working-class people who have jobs, who have families, to make it. And every indication we seem to get from this committee is that we're going to make it harder for working-class folks to make it in this state -- easier for the rich folks, but harder for the working class folks."

Liz Donnelly, Erin Proctor and Lora Schmid-Dolan
Liz Donnelly, a 4-year-old kindergarten teacher in Madison, Erin Proctor, a special ed assistant and president of the Education Assistants' unit of MTI, and Lora Schmid-Dolan, a bilingual resource teacher in Madison, waited all day and night in the Joint Finance hearing room. Photo by Ruth Conniff.

Democrats offered an alternative proposal, practically pleading with Republicans on the committee to set politics aside and accept Federal funds to expand Medicaid.

"How we can turn back $120 million [in Federal funding for Medicaid recipients] is just mind-blowing," said Democratic Representative Jon Richards of Milwaukee. "I think it's a real mistake."

Democrats repeatedly pointed out that 84,700 Wisconsinites will lose Medicaid coverage under the Republican plan -- yet the taxpayers will pay more.

Mason called it "the worst piece of public policy I've seen in this budget -- and there have been some dingers."

"Republicans are willing to spend $119 million to deny 85,000 people their health care," Mason said. "That's pretty extreme. That's not the Wisconsin I know."

"When I tell people that the reason we wouldn't take this money -- and instead we're going to spend $120 million of their tax dollars to not cover them -- is because members of the majority are committed to the idea that they could achieve their destiny without health insurance, people look at me sideways," Mason said. "They don't understand it. Because, at the end of the day, if you've got a sick kid, you don't care about political ideology."

Urging the committee to do the right thing and reject Scott Walker's grandstanding, Mason provoked the crowd to cheers.

Committee co-chair John Nygren rapped the gavel. "Any further outbursts and you'll be asked to leave!"

Nygren then turned to the fiscal bureau staff, "Time for some fact checks!" he announced.

"Would anybody have no options for health care?" he asked.

The 85,000 people who can't get Medicaid under the Republicans' plan "would have access to health care through the Affordable Care Act."

"No one will be kicked off coverage," Republican Senator Mary Lazich added. "If you make 100% of poverty or less, you get Medicaid, if you make 100% or more, you can get health care through the exchange."

The problem with this view, Democrats on the Committee repeatedly explained, is that the working poor cannot afford it.

"Telling someone with kids who makes $18,000 a year you can go get private health insurance for the low cost of $4,000 -- guess what? It's not going to happen," said Mason.

The Republicans tacitly acknowledge this problem in a provision of their plan that reimburses hospitals for extra costs as more people use emergency rooms.

And, ironically, the provision to protect hospitals means taking $21 million a year from the Federal government.

As Nygren explained: "There is uncertainty about how many people will enroll in health insurance... So we make sure when people go into the emergency room, uncompensated, we protect our hospitals."

To which Senator Robert Wirch replied: "You may be taking care of the hospitals, but you're not taking care of poor people."

Referring to fundraisers he has attended at local pubs to raise money for breast-cancer treatments, Wirch declared "People are going to die."

Nygren was offended by that.

"This is where things fall apart -- when we start saying things like, 'people are going to die.' People are not going to die."

But Cory Mason pulled out a recent Rand study projecting 19,000 deaths annually in the states, including Wisconsin, that turn down the Medicaid expansion.

"There is nothing smart about what we are doing here today," Mason said. "We are spending more money to cover fewer people with worse outcomes. We should reject this and start over."

But the Medicaid rejection passed.

On to vouchers.

UPDATE: Nearly everyone was gone by 1 a.m., when the Joint Finance Committee finally came back into the room (they had repeatedly announced they would be back at 5 pm, 7 pm, 8:30 and 9:00.)

Mrs. Phelps and her husband
My 6th-grade teacher, Mrs. Phelps and her husband stuck it out until nearly midnight. Photo by Ruth Conniff.

The Republican majority quickly rammed through a revision of the state tax code, with tax breaks primarily benefittting people who make more than $100,000. The statewide voucher plan, which had drawn the largest group of citizens to the hearing, went through in the wee hours, with few members of the public left to witness it.

The committee adjourned at 6 am, and Wisconsinites woke up to read about what had happened overnight.

I went home at the same time as my retired sixth-grade teacher.

The intrepid Rebecca Kemble stayed on.

Here are the photos she captured of the measures the Republicans introduced and passed early Wednesday morning:

"Schools in Budget pdf document."

"Tax Reform Motion pdf document."

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Scott Walker's Sneaky School Voucher Plan."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter.


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Wisconsin workers face a lousy jobs picture this Labor Day.

Here, for Labor Day, are the top ten working class hero movies of all time.

At a swank club in Madison, Walker supporters get an earful.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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