State Legislature in the ‘Koch Belt’ Denies Wisconsin Healthcare and Return of Taxpayer Dollars from DC

“Please Sir, I want some more,” Oliver Twist meekly asks the ogre overseer of the orphanage set in Charles Dickens’ famous novel of greed gone wild in Victorian England. Oliver’s request was rejoined by an indignant, “Whaaaat!” And, so this tale of austerity continues to be reprised under GOP rule as healthcare is withheld from Wisconsinites. Meanwhile, when it comes to the billionaire special interest campaign contributors, the GOP switches roles to that of a butler asking, “what more can we give you sir?”

Wisconsin is held hostage by its gerrymandered State Legislature that refuses to grant healthcare to tens of thousands of our people. Political power has been captured by a group of radical Republicans funded by billionaire cash that constitutes a veritable ‘Koch Belt’ of underperforming states stretching from Oklahoma, to Kansas, to Missouri, and our own fine Dairy State of Wisconsin. Far from flushing a $billion dollars down the toilet as the GOP seems to think, accepting this return of Wisconsin taxpayer dollars from DC to fund Medicaid would stimulate our economy and spur spending at local businesses throughout the state. Far from contributing to the Federal deficit, Wisconsin has always been (2 years excepted) a net contributor of dollars to Washington. In short, Wisconsin nearly always pay more in than we get back. And, where does much of that surplus go? To Southern GOP states that whine non-stop about Big Government as they take our Wisconsin dollars from Washington!

By accepting the return of our Wisconsin tax dollars from DC, we can deliver healthcare to Wisconsinites and more spending in our economy, instead of supporting Southern GOP tax cutting states living on Wisconsin’s dime.

Increasingly, Wisconsinites are fed up with these games. Many have requested explanations from representatives from our gerrymandered legislative districts, such as those of GOP Wisconsin political stalwarts Robin Vos and Roberta Darling. They want to know why can’t we get this annual infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars and healthcare for tens of thousands of people? The response? Essentially a deflection: a version of ‘because you’ve never had it so good in Wisconsin.’ Darling and Vos assert in that Wisconsin’s failed record on new business startups is in fact a grand success with Wisconsin having one of the highest health insurance coverage rates in the US. Thus, the argument goes, you don’t need your tax dollars returned from DC for healthcare. The non-sequitur nature of their response aside, let’s examine their argument.

First, it is true that Wisconsin is in the top ten states for health insurance coverage. Why? In part, because after 8 years in power, Scott Walker and the GOP, Wisconsin was usually dead last of 50 states in new business startups. New businesses nearly never provide health coverage for workers. Thus, Wisconsin, as a state relying disproportionately on old legacy industrial employers with few new business startups, still provides more health coverage to employees than would a more dynamic state would with higher rates of new business startups. Thus, in by way of alchemy, the GOP has spun ‘success’ from failure. But, this situation can’t last. These legacy industries were once heavily unionized, and thus provided health benefits. With unions busted (under the Orwellian banner of “Right to Work”) more of these enterprises will reduce and/or cut health benefits. While we hope many of these legacy industries survive and thrive, many are in old sectors where their future is one of layoffs and ultimately extinction. In short, we need a bridge to the future, where those without healthcare, including those who have lost work, can get coverage, and thus take risks by starting new businesses. At present, all incentives instead are to find one of the remaining jobs that provide employer healthcare. And, remember, that even in these jobs co-payments and other out of pocket health expenses keep rising. In short, while relatively high numbers of Wisconsinites have healthcare (of varying quality), it will only get more expensive and with much of it disappearing altogether. Wisconsinites both deserve the return of our tax dollars from DC through expanding Medicaid, while also building a bridge to better access to healthcare as private coverage costs grow, or the coverage disappears altogether. For the Koch Belt states, government policy is being made at Koch Industry headquarters in Wichita (or at least funded from there) to serve billionaires fearing their next round of tax cuts will be nixed by people getting healthcare.

It’s time to inform their butlers domiciled in the state legislatures of the Koch Belt that we will be governed in the public interest, not theirs.

Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public Policy in the Department of African &African Diaspora Studies and a Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model.