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“Are ‘Death Panels’ Coming To Scott Walker’s Wisconsin?”: A Scheme To Make Middle-Class Workers Pay Even More For Health Care

Scott Walker could be on the verge of giving Infowars some great conspiracy theory fodder. A move by Wisconsin’s Group Insurance Board to substantially increase how much state employees pay for their health insurance is drawing unqualified and sharp opposition from labor leaders but could once have drawn criticism from Sarah Palin, as well. That’s because the proposal includes “consultations about end-of-life care, which some called ‘death panels,’” as the Wisconsin State Journal put it.

Death panels?! In the great Badger State? Putting Badger Staters to death? How could this be? One may have asked, as some on the right did during the debate over the Affordable Care Act. But here we are, with the Wisconsin state government overseeing what’s set to be the controversy-free implementation of new policies designed to save the state money through its employees’ end-of-life decisions.

Quick background: The Wisconsin state government is having some tough fiscal times, and Walker’s budget proposal suggested substantial cuts in a number of areas, including to the University of Wisconsin system and to K-12 education. The governor’s budget proposal also called for savings of $81 million on the state employees’ group health insurance program. (Remember that in 2011 the governor oversaw the passage of Act 10, which virtually ended collective bargaining for most of the state’s public sector unions.) But the budget wasn’t too specific about how to save that $81 million. Instead, Walker’s proposal directed the state’s Group Insurance Board to work with Atlanta-based Segal Consulting to figure it out.

The most buzzed-about change, the Wisconsin State Journal reported, will require public sector employees to pay twice as much out of pocket for their health care than they do now. These changes are projected to save the state $85 million over the next two years (Wisconsin passes budgets biennially), and most of the savings “will come from increasing out-of-pocket limits and introducing deductibles for the vast majority of state workers who don’t have them,” according to the paper. Individual employees will have new $250 deductibles, and family deductibles will be $500.

The Group Insurance Board voted for the changes on May 19, and unless the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee moves to require legislative approval for the changes, they will go into effect Jan. 1, 2016, according to Mark Lamkins, communications director for the state’s Department of Employee Trust Funds. The board that approved the changes has 11 members, some of whom are Walker appointees. The majority of the Walker appointees on the board voted in favor.

And the change has labor leaders irate.

“What the group insurance board did today is unconscionable,” said Wisconsin AFSCME executive Marty Beil, according to THOnline. “I’d also call it evil that they’re treating state employees at that level. It’s incredible.”

But Walker’s critics on the left aren’t just going after him for increasing public sector employees’ expenditures for their health care. They’ve also targeted him for a tiny provision the board approved that seeks to save a bit of money through end-of-life care. The memo laying out the cost-cutting health-care proposal doesn’t detail how these changes would work, and the State Journal reported that “[e]nd-of-life care consultations, also called advanced care planning or palliative care, would save $292,500.” That’s hardly a hefty sum. Lamkins said the changes would involve “keeping people out of institutions near the end of life, giving them more opportunities to manage their care-treatment plan.”

He added that the change is designed “to ensure that members facing serious illness and survival of less than six months are informed of care options and are able to make treatment decisions based on their individual values and goals of care.”

Reached for comment, Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for the governor, pointed out that the phrase “death panels” is nowhere to be found in any of the health care change proposals. But that hasn’t defused liberal ire about the panel’s move.

That’s because Walker has been one of the most outspoken conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act.

“When Sarah Palin was trying to derail Obamacare over ‘death panels,’ Scott Walker didn’t say a word defending the need for people to have end-of-life counseling and instead on his first day as governor wasted taxpayer dollars suing the federal government over Obamacare,” said Scot Ross, executive director of One Wisconsin Now. “But wrapped in a scheme that would make cash-strapped middle-class workers in Wisconsin pay even more for health care, Team Walker quietly slides this into the mix. The inclusion of the palliative counseling is critical, but Scott Walker would have saved families a lot of grief if he would have stood up to the Tea Party in 2010 instead of this backdoor deal now.”

Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, voiced support for Walker’s so-called death panels but said he was frustrated the governor didn’t do more to defend the Affordable Care Act.

“The right, using Sarah Palin, shamelessly tried to call simple voluntary end-of-life consultation a ‘death panel’ early in the debate over Obamacare,” he said. “There’s obviously a great irony that the Walker administration would now come forward with an end-of-life consultation provision. I still have to say that it’s good policy, most likely, it’s just incredible hypocrisy for them to come out with that after Walker has been one of the most disingenuous critics of the ACA.”

It’s doubtful, of course, that any of this will be a problem for Walker’s 2016 ambitions. Nobody ever did poorly with Iowa Republican caucus-goers because critics on the left were too noisy. But the debate highlights one of the tricky aspects of running for president as a governor: that the tiniest provisions in uncontroversial policies can easily become flashpoints for controversy.

 

By: Betsy Woodruff, The Daily Beast, May 21, 2015

May 22, 2015 Posted by | Death Panels, Public Employees, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Most Opaque Investment Schemes Ever Devised”: Cities And States Paying Massive Secret Fees To Wall Street

California’s report said $440 million. New Jersey’s said $600 million. In Pennsylvania, the tally is $700 million. Those Wall Street fees paid by public workers’ pension systems have kicked off an intensifying debate over whether such expenses are necessary. Now, a report from an industry-friendly source says those huge levies represent only a fraction of the true amounts being raked in by Wall Street firms from state and local governments.

“Less than one-half of the very substantial [private equity] costs incurred by U.S. pension funds are currently being disclosed,” says the report from CEM, whose website says the financial analysis firm “serve(s) over 350 blue-chip corporate and government clients worldwide.”

Currently, about 9 percent — or $270 billion — of America’s $3 trillion public pension fund assets are invested in private equity firms. With the financial industry’s standard 2 percent management fee, that quarter-trillion dollars generates roughly $5.4 billion in annual management fees for the private equity industry — and that’s not including additional “performance” fees paid on investment returns. If CEM’s calculations are applied uniformly, it could mean taxpayers and retirees may actually be paying double — more than $10 billion a year.

Public officials are overseeing this massive payout to Wall Street at the very moment many of those same officials are demanding big cuts to retirees’ promised pension benefits.

“With billions of public worker and taxpayer dollars put at risk in the highest-cost, most opaque investment schemes ever devised by Wall Street for a decade now, investigations that hold Wall Street profiteers accountable are long, long overdue,” said former Securities and Exchange Commission attorney Ted Siedle.

Private equity firms have argued that their fees are worth the expense, because they supposedly deliver returns for investors that beat low-fee index funds, which track the broader stock market. But those private equity returns are typically self-reported by the firms over the life of those longer-term investments, meaning there are few ways to verify whether the returns are real. Indeed, a recent study from George Washington University argued that private equity firms are using their self-reporting authority to mislead investors into believing their returns are smoother and more consistent than they actually are.

In a 2014 speech, the SEC’s top examiner, Andrew Bowden, sounded the alarm about undisclosed fees in the private equity industry, saying the agency had discovered “violations of law or material weaknesses in controls over 50 percent of the time” at firms it had evaluated.

To date, however, the SEC has taken few actions to crack down on the practices, but some states are starting to step up their oversight.

In New Jersey, for instance, pension trustees announced a formal investigation of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration after evidence surfaced suggesting that the Republican administration has not been disclosing all state pension fees paid to financial firms.

In Rhode Island, the new state treasurer, Seth Magaziner, a Democrat, recently published a review of all the fees that state’s beleaguered pension fund has paid. The analysis revealed that the former financial firm of Democratic Governor Gina Raimondo is charging the state’s pension fund the highest fee rate of any firm in its asset class.

In Pennsylvania, the new Democratic governor, Tom Wolf used his first budget address to call for the state “to stop excessive fees to Wall Street managers.”

These moves are shining a spotlight on one of the most lucrative yet little-noticed Wall Street schemes. With so much money at issue – and with pensioners retirement income on the line — that scrutiny is long overdue.

 

By: David Sirota, Senior Writer at the International Business Times; The National Memo, April 24, 2015

April 24, 2015 Posted by | Pension Plans, Public Employees, Wall Street | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Cancer Growing On Our Society”: Progressives Must Stand Up Against The Right Wing War On Public Employees

For many years the American Right — and many of the most powerful elements of corporate and Wall Street elite — have conducted a war on public employees.

Their campaign has taken many forms. They have tried to slash the number of public sector jobs, cut the pay and benefits of public sector workers, and do away with public employee rights to collective bargaining. They have discredited the value of the work performed by public employees — like teachers, police and firefighters — going so far as to argue that “real jobs” are created only by the private sector.

Last week a conservative court ruled that by going through bankruptcy the city of Detroit could rid itself of its obligation under the state constitution to make good on its pension commitments to its retirees.

It should surprise no one that the Republican Chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, is demanding that a budget deal with the Democrats include a 350 percent increase in pension contribution by all civilian federal employees. That would effectively mean a pay cut of about 2 percent for every federal worker. And that cut would come after a three-year pay freeze and multiple furloughs caused by the Republican “sequester.”

Unbelievably, in Illinois the right wing Chicago Tribune and the state’s corporate elite snookered the Democratic-controlled legislature into passing changes in that state’s pension laws that slashed the pensions of its public employees. The changes affected all state employees and many of Illinois’ teachers. All of them had faithfully made their required contributions to the state’s pension funds for years, even though the legislature regularly failed to make its required payments so it could avoid raising taxes on the state’s wealthiest citizens.

Illinois cut teacher pensions, even though many do not participate in the Social Security system and the state pension is their only source of retirement income.

All of these attacks on public employees — and cuts in public sector expenditures in general — are premised on two myths that are simply untrue.

Myth number one. The Right claims we live in a period of scarcity that requires extreme public sector austerity. They claim “we just can’t afford” to pay people like teachers the pensions that we had agreed to in the past, because “America is broke.”

This, of course, is simply wrong. In spite of the hardships brought on by the Great Recession that resulted from the reckless speculation of Wall Street banks — and even though George Bush thrust our country into an unnecessary war that cost our economy a trillion plus dollars — America is wealthier today than ever before in its history.

Per capita income in America is at an all-time high because productivity per person has gone up 80 percent since 1979.

Of course the Right is able to make the case that “we can’t afford” to pay our teachers as much as we once did, because everyday Americans feel like they have been losing ground – which of course they have. That’s because virtually every dime of that increase in our per capita national income went to the top 1 percent.

The solution to this problem is, of course, to change the rules of the game that have been rigged over the last three decades to bring about this result. By cutting the incomes, pensions and collective bargaining rights of middle class public employees rather than raising taxes on the wealthy, we make the problem worse.

But from the standpoint of the corporate Wall Street elite, that is precisely the idea. They want to continue to siphon off more and more of America’s bounty. And they want to shrink the public sector, because they don’t want to pay taxes at rates like they did back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s when the American middle class was born and the portion of our national income going to the top 1 percent actually dropped.

That gets us to myth number two.

Myth number two. The right wing is doing its best to convince ordinary voters that the only way to make our economy grow and create “real jobs” is to cut public sector spending and allow big corporations and Wall Street to control a bigger and bigger portion of the country’s wealth.

Unfortunately, even the most basic understanding of economic history — or a shred of common sense — make clear that this is categorically untrue.

Historically, spending by government has been a critical engine for long-term economic growth.

America’s investment in universal public education has provided the indisputable foundation for our economic expansion.

The public infrastructure of roads, airports, and public transportation are essential to all economic activity. Rural electrification, our system of farm to market roads, the agricultural extension service — and a whole system of federal programs to stabilize the agricultural economy — have made possible the most productive food production system in the history of humanity.

The Internet was invented by the American government. GPS navigation that is essential to modern commerce, was developed by our government, and depends on a system of government-run navigation satellites.

Anyone who has ever been to a third world country that is ravaged by starvation and disease understands that the nutrition and health of a population is a prerequisite to vibrant economic activity. People can’t work hard if they are hungry or sick. Government provides the public health infrastructure that gives us sanitary water, picks up our garbage, disposes of our wastes, protects the quality of the air we breath and invests in the research that underlies most new medicines. And the government food stamp program is intended to prevent a significant number of our people from going hungry.

And just try to engage in productive economic activity in a society where there is no physical security, where there is no functioning police or fire protection, or that is constantly threatened by war or conquest or civil strife.

People who argue that investments by government do nothing to create economic growth — or that the only “productive” economic investments are made by a bunch of investors on Wall Street, many of whom are nothing more than professional gamblers — are just plain nuts.

Cutting back on the public sector — and demonizing public employees — has nothing whatsoever to do with economic necessity — or with “redirecting” our resources into “more productive” uses. In fact, just the opposite.

The greatest threat to our economy is the shrinking buying power of everyday Americans and the growing concentration of wealth in the 1 percent. Economic inequality is a cancer growing on our society.

Fact is that if ordinary people don’t get a proportionate share of the income from increased economic productivity, it stands to reason that they won’t have the money to buy the products the economy produces. That leads to economic stagnation and recession, it’s that simple.

Every economic and political decision we make should be viewed through the lens of whether it reduces or increases that economic inequality. When it comes to public employee pensions and wages, the corporate elite tries to convince ordinary people that the choice is between “lavish” benefits to public employees or education for our kids. They play upon the resentment that most ordinary people feel that their incomes have been stagnant for three decades to pit them against middle class public employees.

Of course the real choice is not whether ordinary people must fight over the crumbs, while the Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” jet off to gamble in Monaco on their private jets. It is whether to further reduce the share of income going to middle class teachers, fire fighters and police officers or to increase taxes on millionaires.

It’s time for Progressives — and Americans of all stripes — to wake up and smell the coffee. Without a robust, efficient, well functioning public sector, our economy will fall behind in the world and our standard of living will drop.

Government is the name we give to the things we choose to do together.

We have to attract the best and the brightest to staff our government. That requires that the teaches, firefighters, police officers, maintenance people, researchers, clerks, constituent service workers, programmers, air traffic controllers, managers, construction workers, corrections officers, policy analysts, and everyone else who works for our governments must be respected, well compensated, and have the right to collectively bargain over the wages and working conditions.

It’s time for us all to stand up against the Right Wing war on public sector employees.

 

By: Robert Creamer, The Blog, The Huffington Post, December 9, 2013

December 10, 2013 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Economic Inequality, Public Employees | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Corporate Tax Subsidies Are Out of Control”: Want Jobs Back, Axe Business Tax Subsidies

It’s no secret that state and local government employment has nosedived during the current economic crisis. According to the St. Louis Fed, total local government employment has declined from 14,481,000 when the recession began in December 2007 to 14,033,000 in March. State government employment has fallen from 5,139,000 to 5,050,000 over the same period, for a total loss of 537,000 state and local government jobs.

This starkly illustrates the opportunity cost of out-of-control use of subsidies to business at the state and local level. In my academic work, I estimated these to be $48.8 billion a year in 1996, of which $26.4 billion was for investment attraction, and almost $70 billion in 2005, of which $46.8 billion was aimed specifically at investment attraction.

Many critics of investment incentives, such as Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, argue that the money would generally be better spent on education and infrastructure, policies that benefit businesses generally as well as the entire population. My cost estimates show just how true this is.

Total business subsidies could be used to hire 1.4 million government workers at $50,000 per year in salary and benefits. Instead, what we have seen in state after state is that there have been sharp cuts to these very areas, even extending to such economic development crown jewels as the state university systems in California and North Carolina, among others.

This is doubly short-sighted: It weakens the very factors that make a state or locality attractive to investment in the first place, and the state/local economic development subsidies largely cancel each other out with little net effect on the overall location of investment in the country. From the point of view of the country as a whole, then, most of these subsidies are a waste of money. But changing the way the economic development game is played will require tremendous effort at the local, state, and federal government level.

 

By: Kenneth Thomas, U. S. News and World Report, April 10, 2013

April 11, 2013 Posted by | Corporations, Public Employees | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Grounding Of A Romulan”: Federal Judge Strikes Down Part Of Scott Walker’s Anti-Collective Bargaining Law

A Wisconsin federal district court judge has ruled that some key elements of Wisconsin’s Act 10—Governor Scott Walker’s anti-collective bargaining law—violates the equal protection rights of affected state employee unions.

The ruling extends to the law’s prohibition of automatic dues collecting and the requirement that the affected unions hold annual recertification elections requiring a majority of the union’s workforce members.

At the heart of the court’s ruling is the exemption Scott Walker gave to police and firefighter unions who remain free to automatically collect membership dues and require no annual recertification vote.

Walker has long claimed that these unions were given special treatment because the state could not afford a strike or any disruption of the critical services provided by police and firefighters as a result of being saddled with the restrictions placed on the general service unions.

The remaining unions have never bought the explanation, believing that the exemption was payback for the support given to Walker’s candidacy by the police and firefighters. Clearly, Federal District Judge William Conley agreed, writing in his ruling published today,

The fact that none (emphasis provided by the Judge) of the public employee unions falling into the general category endorsed Walker in the 2010 election and that all (emphasis provided by the Judge) of the unions that endorsed Walker fall within the public safety category certainly suggests that unions representing general employees have different viewpoints than those of the unions representing public safety employees. Moreover, Supreme Court jurisprudence and the evidence of record strongly suggests that the exemption of those unions from Act 10’s prohibition on automatic dues deductions enhances the ability of unions representing public safety employees to continue to support this Governor and his party.

Wisconsin Education Association Council et al. v. Scott Walker, et al.

Acting on the ruling, the Court issued an injunction allowing all of the state’s public employee unions to begin the automatic collection of member dues and striking the requirement that they recertify each and every year.

In a statement on the ruling, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman, Mike Tate, said;

Scott Walker’s so-called budget repair bill has been divisive, unfair, radical and offensive to the values of Wisconsin. Now it’s been found to be offensive to the Constitution. Wisconsin deserved better than this bill, just as it deserves better than Scott Walker.

Governor Scott Walker is facing recall on June 5th.

By: Rick Ungar, Contributing Writer, The Policy Page, Forbes, March 30, 2012

March 31, 2012 Posted by | Collective Bargaining, Public Employees | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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