Is Gov. Scott Walker playing Scrooge for the coming holiday season? That was the reaction of Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) to last week’s report that 65,000 people – nearly half of them children – were likely to be dropped from the Medicaid rolls. “We’re giving them a heck of a Christmas gift,” she complained. Democrats […]

Is Gov. Scott Walker playing Scrooge for the coming holiday season? That was the reaction of Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) to last week’s report that 65,000 people – nearly half of them children – were likely to be dropped from the Medicaid rolls. “We’re giving them a heck of a Christmas gift,” she complained.

Democrats argued the tax breaks for business and wealthy individuals that occurred under Walker had made these cuts worse. It was an echo of past complaints that cuts in school funding were due to the handouts to business and the wealthy.

In fact, as an analysis by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has found, the tax breaks amounted to a loss of $141 million, small potatoes against a $64 billion biennial budget.

Meanwhile, the rising cost of health care has been transforming the state budget. Medicaid was once a tiny part of the state budget, but in the last 20 years the Medicaid rolls have increased about 10 times faster than the state’s population. The money to fund this had to come from somewhere, and the state legislature has been slowly cutting back education funding. In the 2003-2005 budget, 52 percent of general funding went to K-12 schools, the UW System and technical colleges; by the 2011-2013 budget, just 40.8 percent of general funds went to these three sectors.

In Gov. Jim Doyle’s last two years he was able to limit the damage to education because of $1.7 billion in federal stimulus money Wisconsin received. Scott Walker, of course, was an outspoken critic of this funding, both as a county executive and gubernatorial candidate. National Republicans successfully opposed anymore stimulus funding and Walker then had no cushion to fall back on when it came to the ever-rising cost of Medicaid.

Under Walker, the portion of the budget going to Medicaid thus rose 8.4 percent to 13.6 percent, while the portion of the budget going to K-12, UW and technical schools dropped from 45.3 percent to 40.8 percent. While other factors were at work, for instance, Walker’s decision to cut back the state’s structural deficit, the rising cost of medical care was a huge factor driving funding decisions.

Walker’s latest decision to trim the increase in Medicaid spares the disabled and elderly and focuses on low-income recipients. A single parent with two children and an income of, say, $28,000 a year, would see the premiums rise from $120 to $1,390. If the parent fails to keep up with the premiums, the family will be dropped from the program. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau estimated some 65,000 people would end up leaving the program.

Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has suggested many of these people will go to private insurance instead. Given the high price of private insurance and the higher-risk nature of low-income families, that seems quite unlikely.

The broader issue here is the ever-exploding cost of health care. If not for this, there would be much less concern about the issue of how much state workers should contribute to their health insurance. The costs have been rising far faster than inflation for more than 20 years and are killing both private and public employers.

Business man and former reporter John Torinus believes in a free market-style solution, which he recommends to the Walker administration: “The state would simply say to people eligible for Medicaid: ‘Here’s a $2500 health savings account for you and your family; it’s your money. Spend it wisely, because you have a $1500 deductible per family member.’ Behaviors would change immediately,” Torinus predicts.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman offers a different solution, citing the government-run program by the federal Veterans Health Administration, which has achieved “a remarkable combination of rising quality and successful cost control.” The key, he notes, is that the V.H.A both provides the care and pays for it, giving it an incentive to keep costs down. “And yes,” he adds, “this is “socialized medicine” — although some private systems, like Kaiser Permanente, share many of the V.H.A.’s virtues.”

The only thing both would probably agree on is that the current system doesn’t work.

UPAF’s Funding Troubles

In October, the United Performing Arts Fund announced the hiring of a new president, Deanna Tillisch, who last served as a vice president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Foundation. The comments praising Tillisch as the perfect person for the job were much like those that greeted the hiring of her predecessor, Cristy Garcia-Thomas, and her predecessor, Christine Harris, and her predecessor, Julie Tolan.

Tillisch’s three predecessors may have had many fine qualities, but they weren’t able to surmount the wall they faced when it came to raising money for UPAF. The fact is that UPAF, in real dollars, has seen its fundraising steadily decline since 1999.

The salad days came under Sue Dragisic, whose leadership saw annual giving rise from $2.3 million in 1984 to $9.5 million in 1999.

The fund has been flat ever since. In June, with much fanfare, UPAF officials announced they had raised $9.65 million in 2011, about the same as was raised 12 years ago – but about 27 percent less in real dollars. Simply to equal what was raised back in 1999, UPAF would have needed to bring in $12.3 million in 2011. 

Why does it matter? Arts groups like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Florentine Opera and Milwaukee Repertory Theater can’t possibly support themselves with ticket revenue. Arts groups have always depended on donated income.

And Milwaukee, since UPAF was created in 1967, had one of the leading united arts fund drives in the country. A united approach tends to pay off for communities: A 2003 study by the Urban Institute for Americans for the Arts found that cities with united arts funds have stronger arts groups than those without.

If UPAF continues to fall further and further behind inflation, it will become harder and harder for arts groups to stay in business. Which leaves Tillisch with quite a challenge.

The Buzz

-The Business Journal’s recent story on Tillisch notes that she worked as a communications person for the Milwaukee Ballet in the 1980s and had to explain “the failed merger” of Milwaukee’s company with “the Pittsburgh Ballet.” Actually, the merger (from 1987-1989) was with the Pennsylvania Ballet (located in Philadelphia), which created the unfortunately named PM Ballet. Milwaukeeans didn’t like it, and the merger was disbanded after two seasons. Nor is there any such group as the Pittsburgh Ballet; it’s the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

-From 1985 through 2010, the seasonal tree in the Capitol Rotunda was called the “holiday tree.” For most of these years the governors were Republicans – Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum. If you were looking for a symbol of how different a Republican Scott Walker is, you could note his decision to change the title to the “Christmas Tree.” Meanwhile, this is another issue where Tommy looks frightfully un-conservative; as with his recent rejection of embryonic stem cells (which he had championed as governor), will the Tomster now have to disavow his 15  years of calling it a holiday tree?     

-And Pressroom Buzz reports on the big victory of the Shepherd Express over Roundy’s stores.