March 5, 2015

Lawmakers renew push for Wisconsin-based health exchange

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma)

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma)

The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act, which argues those who purchase their health insurance through the federal exchanges should not qualify for subsidies that lower the cost of care. If the court sides with those arguments, supporters of Obamacare warn it could have a dramatic impact on millions of Americans who have purchased coverage through the federal exchange system.

Wisconsin is one of 34 states that opted to use the federal exchange. If the subsidies were to go away, Robert Kraig with Citizen Action of Wisconsin warns that 85 percent of the roughly 183,000 state residents would likely be unable to continue to afford their coverage. He said an adverse decision would mean “literally you would have people, women with breast cancer and men with heart conditions, every pre-existing condition imaginable, the most vulnerable people, suddenly stripped of their health insurance.”

Democratic lawmakers are proposing a bill that would create a Wisconsin-based exchange, which they argue is needed as a contingency plan. State Senator Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) says a state-based exchange would make sure residents would have their subsidies protected. The Alma Democrat says that protection is needed to make sure health care costs don’t sky-rocket, which she believes would happen if the federal subsidies went away.

The proposal is unlikely to see much support from majority Republicans in the Legislature, who turned down federal funding to create a state-based exchange.

DNR secretary defends changes to Natural Resources Board

DNR Sec. Cathy Stepp

DNR Sec. Cathy Stepp (PHOTO: Jackie Johnson)

The secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is sticking up for a proposal to strip the Natural Resources Board of its decision-making authority.

The provision, included in Governor Scott Walker’s proposed state budget, would make the board an advisory panel. The seven members of the board are currently charged with approving the rules prompted by laws passed by the Legislature.

Secretary Cathy Stepp went before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee Tuesday morning, which is holding agency briefings this week on the biennial budget plan the governor introduced last month. Stepp told lawmakers that removing the board’s rule-making authority would help improve legislative oversight of the DNR, while shrinking the time that it takes in order to get rule changes passed. Stepp said “since rules have the same impact as law does…those kinds of decisions should be made by people who are directly accountable to the public.”

State Senator Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) questioned the accountability claim though, noting that the governor currently appoints the members of the board. The Middleton Democrat said “the governor is directly accountable for what the board does and what the board doesn’t do…so the accountability aspect, I’m not buying.”

Erpenbach also questioned why Stepp appeared to have not been part of discussions about making the change. “For the life of me, I cannot understand why a cabinet secretary appointed by a governor, would not be part of a discussion in perhaps one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in the DNR in the last, as you put it, 60 years.”

Stepp said the idea reflects many comments she’s heard from business and conservation groups over the years, who she said currently don’t have an effective way to respond to decisions made by the Natural Resources Board. Stepp said Walker is “responding to things he’s been hearing for a long time” with the proposal.

Even some Republicans have expressed skepticism. State Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) noted that all of the powers of the board would be given to the secretary, questions Stepp “when’s your election?”

The provision will be one of many lawmakers review in the coming months, as they begin the process of making changes to the budget plan before handing it off to the full Legislature for a vote.

Wisconsin Assembly committee advances 70 mph speed limit bill

Legislation that could allow drivers on Wisconsin roads to cruise at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour is on its way to the full Assembly, after a legislative committee signed off on the bill Tuesday at the Capitol.

The legislation from state Representative Paul Tittl (R-Manitowoc) would allow the Department of Transportation to set a maximum speed limit of 70, up from the current cap of 65. Tittl has argued the change is needed to keep Wisconsin in line with neighboring states, which have already increased their speed limits in recent years.

The committee did reject an amendment that would have allowed the DOT to set a 65 mph speed limit for commercial vehicles. In a statement, Tittl argued that highways are safer when traffic is moving at the same speed, and “split speeds for commercial vehicles disrupt that flow.”

The Assembly Transportation Committee approved the bill on a 14-1 vote. The proposal could head before the full chamber for a vote later this month.

Assembly committee ends marathon hearing on right-to-work bill

Lawmakers listen to testimony on right-to-work legislation. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Lawmakers listen to testimony on right-to-work legislation. (Photo: Andrew Beckett)

Controversial right-to-work legislation now heads to the Assembly floor, following a nearly 12-hour long public hearing on the proposal at the Capitol.

The Assembly Labor Committee heard from a long line of speakers Monday, with the vast majority of those registering in opposition to the bill. In often emotional testimony, many who testified spoke about their fears that the legislation would weaken the role of private sector unions in representing the interests of workers, potentially leading to lower wages and unsafe working conditions.

Terry McGowan with the International Union of Operating Engineers argued that unions offer job training to thousands of workers, which many businesses rely on to make sure their employees know how to do their jobs safely. He worried right-to-work could reduce access to that training by cutting off funding, and urged lawmakers to vote down the proposal. McGowan said “let’s not do this to Wisconsin. Don’t do this to our training and safety.”

Critics also questioned the motivations behind the bill and studies supporters have used to claim right-to-work could attract new businesses to the state. Marquette Economics Professor Abder Chowdhury said surveys of businesses have shown that right-to-work “isn’t even in the top ten” of reasons why companies decide to expand in a state. He said “they look at the tax policies of the state, they look at the quality of workers in the state, they look at the infrastructure.”

Only a handful of people registered to speak in support of the bill. Greg Mourad with the National Right to Work Committee sought to counter many of the claims being made by opponents that the bill would lead to lower-paying jobs, pointing to studies that have shown wages increased in Indiana after they became a right-to-work state. Mourad argued workers should have a say in whether or not they want to join a union because “independent minded workers are being forced to accept a union as their bargaining agent and are being forced to work under contracts that actually harm their interests. It is an outrage to force people to pay for this so-called representation that they did not ask for, do now want, and would be better off without.”

Despite scattered applause throughout the hearing, Monday’s proceedings moved at a steady and relatively peaceful pace. While the chair of a Senate committee cut off testimony suddenly during a hearing last week, state Representative André Jacque (R-De Pere) allowed all who registered to testify a chance to speak on the bill. The hearing ended just before 10 p.m., with several Democratic lawmakers offering brief testimony on the legislation to close out the hearing.

The full Assembly is expected to open debate on the bill Thursday.

Wisconsin budget panel begins agency briefings

File Photo

File Photo

Members of the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee will begin the process this week of going over Governor Scott Walker’s state budget proposal.

The panel in charge of reviewing the budget starts a series of agency briefings today, where lawmakers will hear directly from state agency staff about the proposals included in the budget plan the governor presented to them last month. The hearings are an opportunity for the committee to ask questions about individual provisions, as they look at possible changes before it goes before the full Legislature.

Following briefings this week, the Finance Committee will hold public hearings on the budget bill throughout the state, and will then start the process of making revisions later this spring.

Work on the state budget must be finished by the end of June.