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Scott Walker Quietly Consolidating Power In Wisconsin

Republican Gov. Scott Walker is steadily remaking the Wisconsin government, implementing conservative ideals and quietly consolidating power under the office of the governor. His actions range from the much-publicized move to strip collective bargaining rights from powerful public unions to the less-noticed efforts to add more political appointees at state agencies and take away responsibilities from Wisconsin’s democratically elected secretary of state.

Supporters have praised what Walker and his allies are doing as a long-overdue steps to cut spending and unnecessary bureaucracy. But critics fear a loss of public input and transparency in the way the state government operates.

“It’s a power grab,” said Doug La Follette, Wisconsin’s Democratic Secretary of State. “[Walker] wants to control everything.”

“It’s turning Wisconsin’s state government from a body that is charged with serving the needs of the people of Wisconsin, into making its first priority serving corporations — both inside and outside of Wisconsin,” added Scot Ross, executive director of the progressive group One Wisconsin Now. “This is the most massive turn toward privatization of public services in not only the history of the state of Wisconsin, but possibly across the country.”

Walker’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

TURNING THE DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES INTO A ‘CHARTER AGENCY’

The Walker administration is developing a proposal that would turn the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into the state’s first “charter agency,” a designation that would make it a self-contained entity able to operate outside many of the bureaucratic guidelines other agencies must follow.

Most significantly, DNR would have wider latitude over the hiring, firing and merit pay of employees — issues that also played out in the collective bargaining controversy a few months ago.

“We would be freed up from a lot of the red tape that slows things down,” DNR spokesman Bob Manwell told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We would still be a state agency; we would just be operating under a different set of guidelines.”

But what worries some environmentalists is how the agency will now view its central goals. According to a draft Walker administration document with “talking points” about the plan, DNR will be committed to “increasing customer outreach and assistance” and reducing “permit times for major air and water permits.”

“It’s implying that the customer is those who are seeking permits, so DNR employees will be encouraged to pump out permits with more leniency,” explained Anne Sayers, program director of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. “And none of that is about protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink or the places where we hunt, fish and hike.”

“What really bothers me about it is, it sets up a pay-to-play mentality where they can reward DNR employees who are getting polluters sweetheart deals for their big contributors,” added Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison), a member of the Natural Resources Committee.

Amber Gunn, the director of economic policy at Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Wash., has been one of the leading voices advocating charter agencies around the country. In 2007, she wrote that it’s a “revolutionary concept” intended to “unravel the bureaucratic red tape that plagues many state agencies and replace it with results-driven motivation that promotes flexibility and innovation.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Gunn said one of the reasons the charter agency model is being discussed more widely is that it’s a way to cut spending without directly slashing services.

Washington’s Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire has expressed support for exploring charter agencies. But according to Gunn, one of the reasons she wasn’t able to move forward with the change was the state’s strong collective bargaining laws, which have strict restrictions on contracting out for services.

“We would have to modify the collective bargaining agreements — at least in Washington — in order to oppose charter agencies. And no one wanted to touch that,” said Gunn.

The changes Walker and his GOP allies in the state legislature made to Wisconsin’s collective bargaining laws are currently on hold, while a court considers their legality.

Iowa has also experimented with charter agencies, but a 2011 report by the state auditor found that those agencies failed to deliver what they promised.

But what is most troubling to some Democratic legislators in Wisconsin is that this remaking of a government agency was originally going to be pushed through in an executive order — without any say by the legislature or any public hearings.

“If we’re playing our role as a separate branch of government correctly, we should — Democrats and Republicans alike — be questioning. How is it you can completely reform a state agency … without an act of the legislature?” asked Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), one of the lawmakers investigating the legality of such a move.

STRIPPING POWER FROM THE SECRETARY OF STATE

The Joint Finance Committee is expected to vote Thursday on a proposal to scale back the responsibilities of the Wisconsin Secretary of State, moving its notary public and trademark duties to the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI). The Department of Administration, which is part of the governor’s office, would take on other duties.

La Follette is adamantly opposed to the proposal, telling The Huffington Post that he was not consulted at all by the governor’s office about the changes and is lobbying committee members to vote against it.

“It’s a very dumb idea,” he said. “First of all, it won’t save money, which some people claim it would. Second of all, it will make Wisconsin difficult for people to do business. The governor’s slogan is, ‘Wisconsin is open for business,’ and I’m all in favor of that. … But in 46-47 states around the country, the Secretary of State has the responsibility for trademarks and notaries, and those are two of the functions he wants to move to this obscure agency called DFI. No other state has DFI.”

GIVING THE GOVERNOR POWER TO CHOOSE THE VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY

Currently, one of the main duties of the seven veterans appointed by the governor to the Board of Veterans Affairs is to choose the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. But under a proposal being considered by the Assembly, that power would be transferred directly to the governor. The bill would also change the number and tenure of board members.

Walker has not directly taken a position on the legislation, however, he was critical of the board’s membership during his campaign.

Veterans groups are divided on the proposal. The American Legion has said allowing the governor to choose the secretary would politicize the agency, whereas the Veterans of Foreign Wars has said it would “elevate this important role to a cabinet level position equal to all other agency heads where it rightfully belongs.”

But what most upsets outgoing Veterans Affairs Board member David Boetcher, who was appointed by former Democratic governor Jim Doyle, is this provision in the proposal: “Under current law, all of the members must be veterans, and at least two of the members must be Vietnam War veterans. Under the bill, all of the board members must have served on active duty, but need not have served in any particular war or conflict.”

According to Boetcher, that would bar National Guard and Reserve members from serving.

“It’s like, I guess their military service just wasn’t good enough for the governor, so he’s blocking them out,” said Boetcher, who himself was enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard. “It’s strange, because with a lot of the benefit programs, some of the major users are National Guard and Reserve members — especially like the GI Bill. … Either way, a lot of the people served by the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs are currently in the Guard and Reserve, but they’re going to be locked out of being on the board. Which I think is very unfortunate.”

Boetcher said there’s a possibility that the Assembly, which has been adding amendments to the bill, may change the language and allow National Guard and Reserve members to continuing serving on the board. The sponsor of the legislation, Rep. Kevin Petersen (R-Waupaca), did not return a request for comment.

CONSOLIDATING MEDICAID DECISIONS

Tucked into the budget repair bill Republicans initially proposed earlier this year was a provision granting the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) sweeping authority to make changes to the state’s Medicaid program — which covers one in five residents — with virtually no public scrutiny. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the Walker administration can use “emergency” powers to allow DHS to restrict eligibility, raise premiums and change reimbursements — all moves traditionally controlled by the legislature.

Part of the reason that advocates were so alarmed at the legislation was that the man who heads DHS is Dennis Smith, someone who has advocated for states to leave the Medicaid program.

Jon Peacock, research director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, equated it to if President Obama gave Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius total power to rewrite Medicare policy, even though it wouldn’t save any money in the current fiscal year.

“That’s what you have here,” said Peacock. “If President Obama proposed that, there would be rallies all over the country, and we would be marching out there arm in arm with Tea Party members, protesting against it.”

The legislation that was eventually signed into law eliminated the “emergency” powers but still gave the DHS administrator broad power to write regulations through the regular rule-making process.

By: Amanda Terkel, Huffington Post Politics, May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Collective Bargaining, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Democracy, Democrats, GOP, Gov Scott Walker, Government, Governors, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Middle Class, Politics, Public Employees, Public Opinion, Regulations, Republicans, Right Wing, State Legislatures, States, Union Busting, Unions, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Republicans | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debunking The Right’s Health Waiver Conspiracy

Is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi helping companies in her district get around new health care rules? Conservatives seem to think so, but their evidence is spotty at best.

Last month, the Obama administration granted a reprieve to 204 businesses and policyholders from new health coverage rules under the Affordable Care Act, bringing the total number of waivers to more than 1370. Many of the waivers are for limited benefit or so called “mini-med” plans—controversial rock-bottom plans that provide a very limited amount of coverage (sometimes as little as $2,000 a year) to beneficiaries that are used heavily in low-wage industries like the restaurant business. New federal rules require such plans to offer a minimum of $750,000 of coverage annually, and the waivers exempt the mini-med plans from such rules on a case-by-case basis.

The Daily Caller reported on Tuesday that businesses in Pelosi’s district received nearly 20 percent of the waivers in April, pointing out that many of them went to high-end restaurants and hotels. Sarah Palin piled on in a subsequent interview with the Caller, calling the discovery “unflippingbelievable!” and “corrupt.”

Pelosi’s communications director, Nadeam Elshami, pushed back against the criticisms in an email to Mother Jones, denying that Pelosi’s district received any special treatment. Her office also denied that it was at all involved in the process of granting waivers for these businesses. “It is pathetic that there are those who would be cheering for Americans to lose their minimum health coverage or see their premiums increase for political purposes,” Elshami wrote Tuesday afternoon, emphasizing that health-care waivers “are reviewed and granted solely by the Administration in an open and transparent process.”

In fact, the recent waiver applications from businesses in Pelosi’s district were not even received by the minority leader’s office. Rather, they were submitted directly to the Obama administration through a third-party company, Flex Plan Services, which provides benefit administration to companies in the Bay Area, Washington state, and elsewhere in the country, according to a statement issued by Richard Solarian, an assistant HHS secretary. On March 23, Flex Plan Services submitted applications for annual limit waivers for their clients’ health plan, including 69 businesses in California, 20 in Washington state, two in Georgia, and one in Alaska, including restaurants, home health care providers, and other service-based companies. On April 4, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services approved the waiver request for all of Flex Plan Services’ clients—not just the ones in Pelosi’s district.

Flex Plan Services never contacted Pelosi’s office about their waiver request, and her office did neither provided any information to the company about the waivers nor helped facilitate the request, according to her spokesperson.

In other words, the reason the waivers were clumped together was because Flex Plan Services—which is in charge of administrating all of these businesses’ health care benefits—had issued a waiver request for the entire group of businesses. Altogether, the Obama administration has granted 1372 waivers and has denied about 100 requests. The mini-med waivers are essentially a stop-gap measure designed to keep employers from dropping health care benefits all together. The White House explains that waivers are granted if conforming to the rules “would disrupt access to existing insurance arrangements or adversely affect premiums, causing people to lose coverage,” acknowledging that the low-benefits plans are sometimes the only option that some employers can offer. The Democrats’ rationale is that the other changes under federal health reform will eventually allow employers to receive better, more affordable coverage under the health insurance exchange, when it begins operating in 2014.

To be sure, it’s worth closely examining which businesses and policyholders have received waivers, as well as which ones have denied them, along with the Obama administration’s rationale for making such decisions. But, as the April waivers reveal, the very fact that reprieves have been granted to businesses residing in democratic districts doesn’t mean the process is unjust. And to assume that the rationale must be political or “corrupt” is to turn a real policy issue into a partisan bludgeon.

By: Suzy Khimm, Mother Jones, May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Businesses, Conservatives, Consumers, Democrats, GOP, Health Care, Health Care Costs, Health Reform, Ideology, Politics, President Obama, Public, Republicans, Right Wing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Republican “Need for Greed” Meets the Fockers

The bet was audacious from the beginning, and given the miserable, low-down tenor of contemporary politics, not unfathomable: Could you divide the country between greedy geezers and everyone else as a way to radically alter the social contract?

But in order for the Republican plan to turn Medicare, one of most popular government programs in history, into a much-diminished voucher system, the greed card had to work.

The plan’s architect, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, drew a line in the actuarial sand: Anyone born before 1957 would not be affected. They could enjoy the single-payer, socialized medical care program that has allowed millions of people to live extended lives of dignity and decent health care.

And their kids and grandkids? Sorry, they would have to take their little voucher and pay some private insurer nearly twice as much as a senior pays for basic government coverage today. In essence, Republicans would break up the population between an I’ve Got Mine segment and The Left Behinds.

Again, not a bad political calculation. Altruism is a squishy notion, hard to sustain in an election. Ryan himself has made a naked play for greed in defending the plan. “Seniors, as soon as they realize this doesn’t affect them, they are not so opposed,” he has said.

Well, the early verdict is in, and it looks as though the better angels have prevailed: seniors are opposed. Republicans: Meet the Fockers. Already, there is considerable anxiety — and some guilt — among older folks about leaving their children worse off financially than they are. To burden them with a much costlier, privatized elderly health insurance program is a lead weight for the golden years.

This plan is toast. Newt Gingrich is in deep trouble with the Republican base for stating the obvious on Sunday, when he called the signature Medicare proposal of his party “right-wing social engineering.” But that’s exactly what it is: a blueprint for downward mobility.

Look at the special Congressional election of next Tuesday. What was supposed to be a shoo-in for Republicans in a very safe district of upstate New York is now a tossup. For that, you can blame the Medicare radicals now running the House.

And a raft of recent polls show that seniors, who voted overwhelmingly Republican in the 2010 elections, are retreating in droves. Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin says the Ryan plan is a “watershed event,” putting older voters in play for next year’s presidential election.

Beyond the political calculations, all of this is encouraging news because it shows that people are starting to think much harder about what kind of country they want to live in. Give the Republicans credit for honesty and showing their true colors. And their plan is at least a starting point compared with those Tea Party political illiterates who waved signs urging government to keep its hands off their government health care.

When the House of Representatives voted to end Medicare as we know it last month, it was sold as a way to save the program. Medicare now covers 47.5 million Americans, but it won’t have sufficient funds to pay full benefits by 2024, according to the most recent trustee report. Something has to be done.

Many Republicans want to kill it. They hate Medicare because it represents everything they are philosophically opposed to: a government-run program that works and is popular across the political board. It’s tough to shout about the dangers of universal health care when the two greatest protectors (if not creators) of the elderly middle class are those pillars of 20th-century progressive change, Social Security and Medicare.

For next year’s election, all but a handful of Republicans in the House are stuck with the Scarlet Letter of the Ryan Plan on their record. Soon, there will be a similar vote in the Senate. It will not pass, but it will show which side of the argument politicians are on.

There is a very simple way to make Medicare whole through the end of this century, far less complicated, and more of a bargain in the long run than the bizarre Ryan plan. Raise taxes. It hasn’t sunk in yet, but most American pay less taxes now than anytime in the last 50 years, according to a number of measurements. And a majority of the public now seems willing to pay a little extra (or force somebody else to pay a little extra) to keep a good thing going. Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush raised taxes, by the way.

Given a choice between self-interest and the greater good, voters will usually watch out for themselves — unless that greater good is their own family. For Republicans intent on killing Medicare, it was a monumental miscalculation to miss that logical leap.

By: Timothy Egan, Opinion Writer, The New York Times, May 17, 2011

May 17, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Elections, GOP, Government, Health Care, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicare, Middle Class, Politics, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Seniors, Taxes, Tea Party, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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