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Gov. Evers Has the Power to Win State Budget Victories, Starting With BadgerCare Expansion

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by Robert Kraig, Wisconsin Examiner
June 29, 2023

For ten years the GOP-dominated Legislature has turned down federal funds for a BadgerCare expansion, blocking access to the program for at least 90,000 people.

The fate of BadgerCare expansion could still be different this time, but only if Gov. Evers rapidly evolves his leadership style to build more bargaining leverage, and average people continue to mobilize. To force the scandalously gerrymandered Legislature’s hand, Evers needs to make better strategic use of his sweeping veto powers and his bully pulpit to galvanize public pressure and take control of the budget debate. 

Before I flesh out this strategic escalation, a bit more on why enacting BadgerCare expansion should be a top priority.

After more than a decade of legislative obstinacy Wisconsin has become a national outlier, stubbornly holding to a damaging policy long after the partisan imperative behind it — the drive to repeal  ObamaCare — was abandoned by the national GOP. Over the last decade red state after red state has found Medicaid expansion too good a deal to pass up. The most recent expansion state, North Carolina has a balance of power nearly identical to Wisconsin.

This refusal to expand BadgerCare is damaging the health and financial security of many Wisconsinites.

Peggy McDowell, a Citizen Action member from Tomahawk, testified to the Joint Finance Committee that she was forced to divorce her beloved husband to drive her income low enough to qualify for BadgerCare and secure treatment for her chronic conditions. Peggy would like to work part time for a small business, but dares not to avoid breaching Wisconsin’s artificially low BadgerCare eligibility limit.

Julia Bennker, a child care worker and Citizen Action member from Eau Claire with chronic health conditions, testified to the Joint Finance Committee that she can only get the care she needs by deliberately limiting her hours, impoverishing herself to qualify for BadgerCare.

There are countless other stories from across the state like Peggy’s and Julia’s, many in professions with intense workforce shortage such as homecare and child care. Tragically, many people with chronic and life threatening conditions who are unable to work or lack jobs with affordable health care benefits are forced to impoverish themselves to secure access to treatment.

Adding insult to injury, we are the only state paying more to cover fewer people. In the new two year budget, Wisconsin is poised to turn down $2.2 billion to fund more BadgerCare coverage, while paying an additional penalty of $1.6 billion in General Purpose Revenue (GPR), which could be used for vital public priorities. That is because the federal government pays 90% of the cost of health coverage for Medicaid expansion states, as opposed to 60% of the cost of BadgerCare.

Polls and public testimony at every budget hearing since 2013 show overwhelming support for BadgerCare expansion, but the GOP majority ignores the people they represent because they have been able to use rigged legislative maps to dodge electoral accountability.

To his credit, Gov. Evers has made BadgerCare expansion a priority, but has not forced the issue, or other first-tier issues in the budget process. Evers sees himself as the “adult in the room,” making sparing use of his sweeping veto powers out of concern the GOP will inflict more damage. As the thinking goes, if he were to veto the whole budget or large sections, under Wisconsin rules the GOP can walk away, triggering a budget freeze which means sweeping cuts to vital programs. The limitation of Evers’ approach is that it encourages his opponents to make more and more outlandish threats to force concessions.

Despite his reputation for bipartisan dealmaking President Biden has adapted more adroitly to the political reality of a power-maximizing GOP unbound by civic norms of fair play.

The controversy over raising the national debt limit, a purely procedural vote for nearly 100 years, is an example. House Speaker McCarthy tried to use the willingness of his caucus’ most extreme elements to spark a global economic crisis, essentially taking the U.S. and world economies hostage. This was bargaining leverage to force concessions unachievable through a normal process: massive cuts to social safety programs and defunding Biden’s historic investments in preventing catastrophic climate change. If Biden had allowed his opponents to set the terms of the negotiation, McCarthy might have won massive breakthroughs for the long-term conservative agenda, crippling the nation’s social safety net and worsening the dire threat of catastrophic climate change. Rather than give in to the trap laid by the Speaker, Biden turned the tables, building the negotiating leverage to force McCarthy to accede to a much better deal than most expected.

Biden capitalized on the fact that many Republicans understood the economic necessity of raising the debt ceiling as well as the likely political fallout of a debt default for their party. He also used the fact that they lacked the votes to increase the debt limit without substantial Democratic votes and that the slashing cuts they pursued were deeply unpopular. Finally, Biden brandished his own threat of going around Congress by invoking the 14th Amendment.

In the recent shared revenue and education negotiations, the Wisconsin GOP used parallel tactics to McCarthy’s, taking Milwaukee’s fiscal stability hostage, loudly threatening to execute the hostage by forcing Milwaukee leaders to win an unpopular referendum vote, or to leave Milwaukee out of the deal altogether. 

This spurred Evers to make a closed door deal, trading away his top priority, public education funding, agreeing to a historic increase in funding for voucher schools, and in the process completely blindsiding core allies, and giving the right a huge victory in their long-term drive to undermine and privatize public education. This enormous concession was in return for a shared revenue increase which does not make up for the GOP’s deliberate defunding of local governments over the last decade, especially for Milwaukee, and heightens structural racism by scandalously undermining home rule for Wisconsin’s only large BIPOC majority city.

This outcome was a direct consequence of Evers’ tactics in the budget debate where he allowed the opposition to set the terms. In so doing, he left key leverage on the table: the fact that the Republicans needed substantial Democratic votes to pass their shared revenue plan in the state Senate, and the fact that a large majority of voters are strongly in favor of much better funding for public education, will vote on it in elections, and do not favor an expansion of unaccountable and often discriminatory voucher schools. 

A major public clash, and yes, a prolonged budget impasse, over public education funding would be a huge advantage for the governor both in terms of negotiating leverage and positive electoral impact, but instead he gave away his biggest bargaining chip for a one-sided, closed-door deal. 

The resulting blowback from Evers’ base over the damaging concessions ought to prompt him and his team to change course. It is not too late for Evers to take back control of the budget debate, and build the leverage to force BadgerCare expansion and other priorities back on the table.

This would require more aggressive use of the governor’s strongest in-the-nation veto authority to put the Legislature on the defensive, expose the unpopularity and destructiveness of their position, and create a clear choice on values rather than arcane policy details and budget motions which are largely opaque to the public.

BadgerCare is the best remaining issue left for turning the tables because access to affordable health care is one of a handful of first-tier public concerns which, when wielded effectively, drives electoral outcomes. By stripping it from the budget in an omnibus motion, the Legislature has so far been allowed to leave most voters unaware of their action.

If he is willing to take a bolder and more public tack, Evers can wield his vast veto powers in a strategic and surgical fashion by publicly threatening to veto provisions throughout the budget that are high priorities for the gerrymandered majority unless they will negotiate in good faith on BadgerCare expansion. 

Of course,  legislative leaders used to getting their way will explode in indignation and threats of retaliation, but because the governor will have used his constitutional power to take things away from his opponents, and define the debate and create a clear popular dividing line which cuts decisively his way, he will have the moral authority of his unique position as the only person elected to represent the whole state, and the only party to the budget process not elected with the aid of rigged maps.

After drawing this line in the sand, Evers and his team, who up until now have sought to avoid budget impasses, need to realize that delay provides an opportunity for average citizens and groups with bases of members and activists to mobilize large-scale public support for his stand and put focused pressure on individual legislators.

This pressure might be particularly impactful now. Because of the change in the balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, this is the first year in over a decade where the gerrymandered majority has to worry about facing competitive districts and the threat of losing reelection if the public is aware of their deeply unpopular stands.

There are many individual citizens and organized groups with active and engaged memberships who stand ready to back Evers up. Citizen Action members have been generating phone calls and postcards to the governor urging him to use his veto to force the issue on BadgerCare expansion. Unlike less salient issues, members of the general public, when asked, are willing to pick up the phone and call the governor on this issue. Last week, 16 advocacy groups and unions, many core Evers allies, signed a letter urging him to use his veto to force BadgerCare expansion back on the table.

Leaders are called to adapt to the demands of their times. The high-handed tactics of our gerrymandered Legislature in Wisconsin is a symptom of creeping authoritarianism. The governor clearly would prefer a bygone era when bipartisan cooperation was possible, a past comity that is greatly exaggerated. But academic experts who study the fall of democracies warn that leaders who refuse to adjust their tactics to forcefully confront norm-breaking anti-democratic movements, no matter how well intentioned, are part of the problem.

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