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Tough budget choices loom for lawmakers

By Matt Pommer

Republicans elected to the state Legislature for the first time this fall are getting an early view of the difficulty ahead in cutting government spending with the state facing a GOP-estimated $3.3 billion budget deficit for 2011-13.

Many of the so-called Gang of 25 have been meeting away from legislative leaders to develop a plan for slashing the state budget, according to Republicans close to the meetings.

State Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, told a county coordinating committee meeting that those new legislators need to understand that “government has a purpose.”

“You can’t just go into the Legislature and say, ‘I hate everything,'” said Olsen, who will be Senate vice chairman of the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee next year.

“You can say ‘cut, cut, cut,’ but when a specific program is targeted, people protest that ‘we didn’t mean you should cut that one,'” he added. Put another way, every program has its supporters, and they usually cross party lines.

Central to the budget is the fact that 56.5 percent of the state’s general fund budget is returned to the local governments that provide most services to citizens. Another 18.7 percent is in the form of aid to individuals, including Medicaid and assorted tax relief programs.

Medicaid provides assistance for poor people with some of the biggest amounts going to elderly impoverished citizens. But the money does not go directly to the poor folks. It goes to medical providers.

For every $2 that Wisconsin spends on Medicaid, the federal government provides another $3. Budget alternatives include tightening eligibility requirements or cutting services.

Republicans across America claim the federal deficit is Americaís biggest problem. It can be argued that cutting Medicaid spending in Wisconsin could reduce federal spending.

Some might suggest that such actions are tantamount to rationing medical care, a concept debated in last yearís wrangling over federal health-care reform. Former President George W. Bush contended the poor could always get care by going to hospital emergency rooms.
Clearly, Gov.-elect Scott Walker intends to force state workers to pay more out of their pockets for their health insurance and pensions. The GOP rhetoric in the campaign suggested “going after Madison.”

But state workers are spread across the state. Nearly 30 percent of the workers paid by general fund taxes are employed by the prison system, and the state’s institutions are scattered across the state. The University of Wisconsin System campuses, with faculty paid by tuition and taxes, also are scattered across the state.

But the issue facing the Gang of 25 is whether the public is willing to accept downgraded local services, larger class sizes, and cutbacks in services to the elderly and disabled.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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