From health care to taxes, Minnesota and Wisconsin are on sharply different paths.
MADISON – A lone tenor lifted “We Shall Overcome” into the vault of the State Capitol here last week, a weak echo of the mass protests that ringed the elegant downtown building two years ago, when Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature embarked on a political makeover of the state.
Walker emerged from those protests and a recall election victory relaxed and recharged, committed to setting Wisconsin on a sharply divergent path from Minnesota, where the DFL-controlled Legislature just concluded one of the most liberal budget sessions in decades.
Together with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, legislators pushed through a hefty tax increase on the wealthy, boosted funding for public education from preschool through college and expanded government health coverage for low-income Minnesotans through the officially approved Affordable Care Act.
“It’s a tale of two states,” state Sen. Jennifer Shilling, a La Crosse Democrat, said as she waited this week to make her points on the Finance Committee. “There really couldn’t be a starker contrast,” added a colleague, Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine.
In Wisconsin, the GOP-dominated Joint Finance Committee recently worked all night on a proposal that would further separate red-hot Wisconsin from true-blue Minnesota. A second straight budget with income and business tax cuts, statewide expansion of private school vouchers and opposition to much of the health care expansion offered by the officially despised Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare.
Walker believes his way will result in a stronger Badger State that will exert a magnetic pull on the Twin Cities. “We’ve heard from employers in the Twin Cities who also do business in Wisconsin,” he said in his now-quiet state Capitol office, no longer besieged by bullhorns and chanting throngs. “It’s not going to make them up and move. It’s going to make them look to states like Wisconsin to expand in.”
Dayton responded with the critique Wisconsin Democrats regularly throw at Walker — that he’s all talk and no jobs. “Wisconsin has had the worst job performance in any state in the nation for the last two years,” Dayton said. “We have a formula that works for Minnesota.”
This laboratory of democracy divides two states with similar climates, similar demographics and similar Democratic preferences in presidential election years.
Last year President Obama won both states by similar margins — 7.7 percent in Minnesota and 6.9 percent in Wisconsin.
But there the resemblance ends. Walker and Wisconsin Republicans greatly weakened public-employee unions; Dayton and Minnesota approved an expansion of public-sector unions. Minnesota legalized gay marriage; Wisconsin banned it via constitutional amendment in 2006, long before Walker’s tenure.
Walker and Wisconsin enacted a photo ID law that is winding its way through court challenges; Minnesota voters rejected a photo ID constitutional amendment, which Dayton had opposed.
“You mean Mars and Venus?” cracked Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College. “In both states, the political parties are very ideological, the Democrats emphatically liberal and the Republicans emphatically conservative. … The idea of Tweedledee and Tweedledum parties is long gone.”
Health care fight
The personal and political stakes were on display in Madison last week, as the Joint Finance Committee met throughout the night in a packed committee room, debating whether to sign on to a Medicaid expansion offered by Obamacare. The GOP-Walker alternative was to turn down the Medicaid expansion, provide more coverage for adults under the poverty level and move 85,000 low-income residents into the private market through subsidized health care exchanges.
“People may not like it,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chair of the panel. “You know what? Life is changing — health care is changing.”
Democrats said the decision was ideological, knee-jerk opposition to the federal reforms that would deny affordable coverage to lower-income people and end up costing state taxpayers more in the long run.
“I feel like we are on the pathway to the perfect storm,” Sen. Shilling told the Wisconsin committee. “I look at Minnesota — it seems like they are on an upward swing. We are on a downward trajectory.” When the committee voted in favor of the GOP plan, several people in the audience rose and shouted “Shame!” and had to be removed from the room.