Conservatively Speaking

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) represents parts of four counties: Milwaukee, Waukesha, Racine, and Walworth. Her Senate District 28 includes New Berlin, Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners, Muskego, Waterford, Big Bend, the town of Vernon and parts of Greenfield, East Troy, and Mukwonago. Senator Lazich has been in the Legislature for more than a decade. She considers herself a tireless crusader for lower taxes, reduced spending and smaller government.

The 2009-10 general legislative session review: Promi$e$, promi$e$

A disturbing trend permeated the 2009-10 general legislative session: Despite a nagging recession, state government foolishly kept making bold promises via expansion or creation of programs that are unaffordable.

The Washington Times reports dependence on government programs is at an all-time high. Using February 2010 data from the Commerce Department, the newspaper concludes, “For the first time since the Great Depression, Americans took more aid from the government than they paid in taxes.” The Times says there has been “an extraordinary flood of government spending.” Any blip in the economic recovery is being attributed to this avalanche of public expenditures. However, economists concur this type of remedy is unsustainable. Record borrowing was used to pay for the record spending that has resulted in record debt.

The Heritage Foundation reports, “Our current national debt stands at $12.5 trillion, or nearly $42,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country.” Moody’s is threatening that if the United States fails to make deep spending cuts, it will lose its AAA credit rating that could increase interest rates and borrowing costs.  The debt clock in Times Square is spinning like a slot machine.

During March 2007, then-US Comptroller General David Walker appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and said: “I will argue the most serious threat to the United States is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan, but our own fiscal irresponsibility. We suffer from a fiscal cancer. It’s growing within us and if we do not treat it, it could have catastrophic consequences for our country.” The cancer, according to Walker, is a host of unaffordable entitlements exacerbated by the large number aging, soon to retire baby boomers. By 2040, if nothing is done to address this crisis, Walker predicts federal money will only be targeted for entitlements. Other programs like national defense, homeland security and education will be tapped out.

Wisconsin suffers from the same fiscal woes as Washington. A rough, lumbering recession has failed to stop the creation of new state government programs with high price tags including BadgerCare Plus Basic, the Wisconsin Covenant, and an $810 million high speed rail project from Milwaukee to Madison. The latest example is BadgerCare Plus Basic, signed by Governor Doyle late last month, a new, health care plan for nearly 43,000 adults that supporters insist is self-funded.

History demonstrates repeatedly that government programs are always more expensive and less effective than advertised. Our state cannot afford current programs let alone brand new ventures. Repealing a costly government program or service is next to impossible.

Like Washington, Wisconsin is mired in debt. According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, our current deficit this biennium is $10 million. The next biennium, the structural deficit is an astounding $2 billion, 329 million. Forbes has classified Wisconsin as a debt disaster, having the tenth worst debt in the country.

Throughout history, American sustenance has been predicated upon innovation and entrepreneurship. American way of life has seen a total reversal with a complacent dependency on the public sector. High taxes lead to abandoning long term planning and more short term oriented philosophies. We spend and borrow to achieve gratification today, pushing the bills and hard decisions to our children and grandchildren.

Government should maintain its primary functions of defense, public safety, courts, and caring for the neediest. Government becomes destructive when it over-taxes and over-spends through unaffordable program expansion, i.e. promises we cannot keep. Shuffling the fiscal responsibility off to future generations is immoral. A better headline for the Washington Times report could be that reliance on the American taxpayer is at an all-time high. The well is on the verge of going dry. The proper solution is to shut off the tax and spend spigot.

Let’s look at how Wisconsin has made promises the state can’t afford to keep.

During October 2008, the state reached an agreement with the federal government allowing Wisconsin to become one of the few states in the country to provide health care coverage to low-income eligible adults without children. Wisconsin was, at the time, already making efforts to enroll eligible children in state health programs and allow insurance available to every child in the state. A slumping economy made coming up with the necessary funding problematic.

The 2009-11 state budget, crafted and approved by legislative Democrats and signed into law by Governor Doyle reduced funding for the state’s Medical Assistance (MA) program by $600 million.  Ironically, Department of Health Services (DHS) was instructed to find the necessary savings. I heard from medically fragile MA constituents dreadfully concerned about the MA funding reductions and the health care rationing they are expecting as a result of the nearly $600 million funding cut.  Instead, BadgerCare Plus was expanded, and a few months later, enrollment was suspended (more on that later in this blog).

Despite a massive cut to MA in the 2009-11 budget, the state, at the time, made the decision to maintain eligibility standards and benefits for Medicaid and BadgerCare Plus recipients at their current levels.

Follow the political gamesmanship. Governor Doyle promised to put a Rolls Royce under the Christmas tree on a Ford budget. He created a tremendous demand for residents seeking health care and residents rush forward to enlist. The problem: The state can’t pay for the Rolls-Royce.   Governor Doyle and the Democrats promised MA and BadgerCare Plus and cannot pay for either.  However, the governor seems to believe the federal government can pay for it.  Since he can't keep his promises, he expects others to keep them for him. 

When interest surges far beyond what the state can affordably provide, the governor then pulls the rug out from underneath innocent and unsuspecting citizens. After offering false hope to thousands of health care seekers, what is the governor’s solution? The state will establish another program to offer limited coverage to people who, for now, have had the door shut in their faces and must keep their fingers crossed while on a waiting list. The governor made another promise: the new program will be created without cost to taxpayers. Do you believe it?

So……despite limited resources and continuing serious problems with delivery of social service program benefits, the state surged forward with plans to expand existing programs like BadgerCare. I formally asked the co-chairpersons of the Joint Committee on Audit that I serve on to request that the Legislative Audit Bureau conduct a full review of the BadgerCare program.

here there’s smoke, there’s fire. We are still trying to figure out all the things that went wrong with Wisconsin Shares, and we still haven’t learned our lessons from the food stamp debacle a few years ago.  Writer George Santayana is most famous for his quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana’s historic words are especially true applied to recent controversies in Wisconsin health programs.

Warning signals that could and should have prevented scandals of today were apparent years ago. During 2003, the Audit Bureau reported that “Wisconsin’s food stamp benefit payment error rate…has been at an historical high of 4.4 percentage points above the national average.  Since FFY 1993-94, the federal government has imposed a total of $10.6 million in sanctions as a result of Wisconsin’s high error rates. Wisconsin had the third-worst error rate in the nation during these two years (FFY 2000-01 and 2001-02).  Only California and Michigan had higher error rates than Wisconsin.” 

Serious errors occurred in the food stamp program, followed by fraud in Wisconsin Shares. A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation turned up astounding levels of fraud in Wisconsin Shares, identifying nearly $750,000 in suspicious child care disbursements. Since then, the Audit Bureau has estimated that fraud and errors cost Wisconsin taxpayers $16.7 million to $18.5 million during 2008 alone. 

During 2009, the state created BadgerCare Plus Core, an extension of the BadgerCare Plus program to include adults that don't have children. The state Senate Health Committee that I serve on was informed the waiting list for BadgerCare Plus Core had ballooned to about 7,000 people. The earliest the waiting list applicants would be eligible for insurance would be March 2010 and by then the waiting list could grow to over 20,000.

There was a flood of applicants to BadgerCare Plus Core, causing backlogs for the new food stamp program, FoodShare, resulting in thousands of people waiting months for benefits.  The US Department of Agriculture views Wisconsin’s backlog of cases among the worst in the country. Failure to process applications and distribute or deny benefits in a timely manner could have meant federal sanctions issued against the state.

Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Secretary Karen Timberlake supplied data reported by the Journal Sentinel that the state received more than 46,000 applications for FoodShare from June 15 to October 19, 2009. Over 29,000 applicants waited more than 30 days to either obtain a debit card to purchase food or have their enrollment rejected. Wait times over the telephone to receive information about FoodShare applications are lasting over an hour.

The fiscally irresponsible pattern starts with the mantra that people need coverage followed by the argument that people are under-covered. Programs keep getting bloated, never getting smaller. Government falls further and further behind in its attempts to keep promises and then makes the injudicious decision to make more promises, create more programs, and spend more money it does not have.

Keep in mind the governor and legislative Democrats cut about $600 million from Medical Assistance. DHS continues to struggle with making up for the cut. Their answer is to develop more programs the state can’t afford or administer appropriately. To consider such new programs given our current fiscal and human service delivery problems is mind-boggling.

In a letter I sent to Joint Audit Committee co-chairs and the state Auditor requesting an audit of the BadgerCare program, I wrote, “My intent is not to cast blame, or to scapegoat, it is to have the Audit Bureau identify inefficiencies or problems that the Department of Health Services can utilize to assist more individuals properly and effectively. A BadgerCare audit by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau is preventative medicine to ensure the state does not repeat previous scandals. The outstanding Audit Bureau can make sure the state does not.” W
e owe it to the taxpayers to ensure their money is being spent as wisely and efficiently as possible.

So again…. strong signs indicate that the recent proliferation of government health care in Wisconsin causes a crisis. The recent expansion of state BadgerCare government insurance caused an abrupt stoppage of enrollment during October 2009. During January 2010 enrollment was 63,644. The projected enrollment was 24,900. How is Governor Doyle's Department of Health Services paying for health care for 63,644? The answer the legislature got was to create another version of BadgerCare for those that were cut off from enrolling.

In the very same budget that expanded BadgerCare to more population, the Doyle administration's Department of Health Services was directed to reduce medical assistance spending by $600 million. On top of that, the state has been late making Medicaid payments to hundreds of providers of care to the frail elderly and those with serious disabilities. 

The BadgerCare debacle, cutting $600 million in government health care expenditures, and the $955 million Family Care Program are three known medical assistance problems.  Yet, a state audit of Medical Assistance requested by Republican state Senator Rob Cowles and I is being stopped at every turn by Democrats. 

In addition, an audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau found a $109 million shortfall in the
Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund, the state’s medical malpractice fund. To balance the 2007-09 state budget, $200 million was raided from the Injured Patients and Families Compensation Fund to balance the 2007-09 state budget.

I sincerely wish the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel or any other news outlet would duplicate the Journal Sentinel’s award-winning reporting on the Wisconsin Shares program that led to an audit of the state subsidized child care program. This time, the focus should be on the $6 billion state Medical Assistance program. Imagine the amount of fraud and waste that could be uncovered by investigative reporters.

The State Legislative Audit Bureau published a scope statement for an audit of Medical Assistance.  The co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee scheduled two meetings to approve a Medical Assistance audit.  At both meetings Democrats obstructed the audit.  The Joint Legislative Audit Committee that I serve on should, as I have requested, schedule an audit of Medical Assistance to determine the scope of inefficiency in one of the state’s largest programs. A full-blown audit by our outstanding Legislative Audit Bureau would provide clear answers. Ongoing problems with unaffordable programs that the state continues to expand must stop.


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