Evers pushes Medicaid expansion, calls on GOP leaders to avoid making health care ‘partisan issue’

Gov. Tony Evers took his push to expand Medicaid to a statewide audience in his first State of the State Tuesday, making a public appeal to the Legislature’s two top Republicans to avoid making health care a “partisan issue.”

Evers referred to the Senate’s Scott Fitzgerald and the Assembly’s Robin Vos as “Mr. Majority Leader and Mr. Speaker” in his speech, urging them to follow the lead of GOP states such as Kentucky and Nebraska in accepting the money.

“The people of Wisconsin voted for a change this November and asked us to stop playing politics with their health care,” Evers said during his address at the Capitol.

Evers’ Medicaid focus comes shortly after vowing to get the public to pressure GOP lawmakers to go along with his plan to accept federal money to expand the number of people covered by the program.

As he did last week, Evers vowed to include a provision in his budget to expand Medicaid to cover an additional 76,000 state residents. He said accepting the federal money would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, allowing investments in crucial programs. By one count, the move would free up $280 million in general purpose revenue over the next two years.

But Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Evers should give up pushing the proposal because Republicans won’t accept it. He also questioned where Evers would find the money to cover some of his spending proposals. The state is expecting $2.1 billion in new GPR through mid-2021. Still, agency requests for 2019-21 exceeded revenue projections by nearly $1.1 billion.

“He can’t balance his budget on the Medicaid number,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s not going to work.”

Evers also said he’s fulfilled a campaign pledge by ordering new Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to withdraw Wisconsin from a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Affordable Care Act. The ACA provides money to states that accept it to expand Medicaid.

GOP lawmakers last month changed state law to strip the governor’s power to direct the AG to pull out of a lawsuit, instead giving it to the Legislature. Evers hasn’t made clear how he intended to get around that provision.

In a letter marked hand delivered, Evers told Kaul he’s “immediately” withdrawing the authority provided previously under state law for Wisconsin to participate in the lawsuit, which was initiated by former GOP AG Brad Schimel at the direction of former Gov. Scott Walker.

“I’ve said all along that I believe the best way to maintain protections for healthcare here in Wisconsin is to stop trying to dismantle those protections at the federal level,” Evers said.

Asked by reporters after the speech, Kaul didn’t specify what the Department of Justice’s response would be to Evers’ request, only saying the agency “will act consistently with the law.”

“When we address this issue, we’re going to act in accordance with the law,” he said, adding it would be done “promptly.”

Fitzgerald questioned what Kaul would do, saying Evers’ request “put him in a strange place” following the change in state law.

Evers also addressed other campaign promises by:

*Saying he will announce in the coming days a task force of stakeholders to work on a bipartisan transportation proposal that he’ll include in what Evers called “the people’s budget.” He also gave Transportation Secretary-designee Craig Thompson a vote of confidence after some Republicans raised concerns about his nomination because of his past work for a group that’s advocated for a gas tax hike.

*Declaring 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin.” Evers said he will sign an executive order in the coming weeks to designate a person at the Department of Health Services to address Wisconsin’s lead issues and secure federal funding. He noted removing the estimated 176,000 lead service lines across the state could cost more than $2 billion, but said Pew Charitable Trusts estimates there is a 133 percent return on every dollar invested in replacing lead lines through improved health.

*Again pledging support for a middle-class tax cut while knocking an Assembly GOP version of the plan released last week. Republicans said they want to use money from the state’s expected $558.5 million surplus at the end of the 2018-19 fiscal year to cover the anticipated $490.2 million cost of their plan for 2019-21. But Evers criticized using what he called one-time funds for an ongoing tax cut. Instead, he’s proposed capping a tax credit that benefits manufacturers and farmers at the first $300,000 of income, prompting protests from Republicans. Evers said 80 percent of the credit goes to filers making more than $1 million a year.

“I don’t make promises I can’t keep, and I’m not going to propose things that we can’t pay for,” Evers said.

*Backing the Department of Public Instruction budget he proposed while still state superintendent. It includes: restoring the state’s commitment to fund two-thirds of public education costs; providing an additional $600 million for special education; increasing mental health programs; and bringing back proposals he’s pushed in the past to help close the racial achievement gap. He said some of those ideas in the past didn’t make it through the legislative process.

“The longer we wait to invest in closing our achievement gap, the wider the gap will get, and the more it will cost us in the long-run,” Evers said.

Vos, R-Rochester, said he was disappointed Evers opened talking about bipartisanship, but then delivered “an awful lot of partisan rhetoric as he went through the address.”

He vowed Republicans won’t raise income or sales taxes “under any circumstances.”

“We know there’s no reason for us to raise taxes on farmers, manufacturing, anyone in Wisconsin with the massive surplus that we have right now,” Vos said.

But Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said the guv is willing to address issues such as transportation and clean drinking water that Republicans had put off.

“This isn’t somebody who’s running to be president or running for the next election,” Hintz said, a reference to former Gov. Scott Walker’s failed bid for president that he launched and abandoned in 2015.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, called the speech part of a “new era in our state” that includes a guv focused more on the people of Wisconsin than “playing political games.”

“For too long, we’ve seen misguided priorities under Republican control that favor the wealthy and well connected,” she said.

Evers also laid out what he saw as the challenges facing Wisconsin: being among the worst states in the country to raise a black family; spending more on Corrections than the UW System; lagging the nation on broadband expansion; and trailing others on start-ups and small-business creation.

He also said it’s cheaper to “get healthcare by driving across the Mississippi River.” That claim became an issue during the 2018 campaign as Evers ran an ad claiming Minnesotans pay 50 percent less for the same health care services Wisconsinites receive. Then-Gov. Scott Walker countered that was misleading, because it referred to premiums on the Obamacare individual market that dropped after Minnesota approved a health care stability plan. Wisconsin then approved something similar, but Evers’ campaign said it was done too late to impact 2018 premiums.

Evers also issued a call to lawmakers to help him in “fixing the economy.” During the campaign, Republicans touted a record run of unemployment at or below 3 percent, nearly 90,000 open jobs in the state and a series of tax breaks under Walker that they said amounted to $8 billion saved.

But Evers said the economy is about more than “counting job creation” and the unemployment rate.

He argued success is also defined by how many workers put in 40 hours a week, but still don’t make enough to keep their family out of poverty, as well as the natural resources left behind for coming generations rather than what’s socked away in the state’s rainy day fund.

“The strength of our success is not found solely in fiscal surplus; it’s defined, too, by the number of our kids who will go to school hungry tomorrow,” Evers said.

Evers also laid down some markers for the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans.

He expects lawmakers to focus on important priorities such as an economy that “works for all of us,” more money for schools, and better roads and infrastructure, rather than being “distracted by division and preventing us from working together to get things done.”

Evers also said he expects legislation that arrives on his desk will have broad bipartisan support and issued a warning to the Legislature after GOP leaders have discussed ignoring the guv’s budget and doing their own.

Instead, he wants “the Legislature to take up the budget I crafted by and with the people of our state.”

But Fitzgerald warned Republicans would work off the current budget, which was written by GOP lawmakers and Walker, if Evers continued “throw out figures like that in his budget address,” referencing the spending proposals the guv outlined Tuesday.

“When it comes to the areas of the state budget that are going to be critical, it’s going to be the Republicans that are crafting that and hopefully the governor will be part of that discussion,” Fitzgerald said.

Read Evers’ prepared remarks.

Watch the speech via WisconsinEye.

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