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WI State Senator Chris Larson on Budget Repair Bill, Gov. Walker, Assault on Public Employees

Chris Larson, one of the 14 Wisconsin State Senators currently in Illinois as the battle over public employee rights plays out, wants to bring attention back to the legislation at hand. “There are provisions in there attacking worker rights, allowing no-bid contracts, putting Medicare at risk,” Larson said in an interview. “There are over 200 law changes and they tried to jam it through in 4 days.”

Larson focused on two pieces that haven’t gotten the attention of the public employee part of the budget repair bill, but which in many ways are just as egregious. One I mentioned yesterday – the piece that allows no-bid sales of state-owned heating, cooling and power plants, and actually redefines “public interest” of those sales under the law as basically to mean whatever the seller, in this case Gov. Scott Walker, wants it to mean. Larson connected this a major player in power plant purchases, the Koch Brothers.

The Kochs were one of the biggest contributors to Scott Walker’s election, and also contribute to groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth, which ran ads on the Wisconsin budget repair bill before it even existed. “There’s a direct line you can draw through who benefits and who’s paying,” said Larson, pinning this squarely on Koch Industries, who would be able to buy up the state-run power plants with no oversight. “It’s scary stuff but it’s not getting as much attention.”

Another major piece in the budget repair bill concerns BadgerCare, a health care program for low income individuals and children not eligible for Medicaid, which has allowed Wisconsin to have the second-highest rate of insurance coverage in the nation, behind only Massachusetts. An add-on program, BadgerCare Plus, covers young adults without children. Under the budget repair bill, the income qualifications for BadgerCare would be drastically reduced, affecting the coverage of 65,000 Wisconsinites. In addition, authority for the BadgerCare program would transfer from the legislature to the Department of Health Services, which could then make “emergency rules” to save costs. “Governor Walker has made no secret of the fact that he thinks (BadgerCare) is the wrong way to go,” Larson said. “His secretary who would be in charge of this program wrote for the Heritage Foundation that we should abolish Medicaid.”

Indeed, Dennis Smith, the head of the Department of Health Services, did write for Heritage that states should drop out of the Medicaid program entirely in response to the health care law. That’s who would be in charge of the state’s low-income health care program under the bill. “He wants the free market to decide who lives and who dies,” Larson said. “This is the classic fox in charge of the hen house scenario. He’ll gut it.”

Governor Walker stepped up his attacks on state workers today, saying that if his bill wasn’t passed by Friday, when time would run out to implement a refinancing scheme that would save $165 million in this budget year, he would send out layoff notices to state workers. Larson dismissed the threat. “This threat of furloughs and layoffs, it’s just misdirection. The guy’s trying to pit the middle class against itself. If anything it’s brought the middle class together. His deadlines don’t mean much to us. We don’t work for Governor Walker, we work for the people who elected us. People in my district say, Chris, I love you and I hope I don’t see you for a while.”

The demand is simple: remove the most offensive piece, the stripping of collective bargaining, and allow the legislature to work its will on the bill. The Friday deadline could work to the advantage of Democrats out of state, as legislative Republicans may not want to do the deeper program cuts, or to the Governor, making threats against state workers. But it’s not playing into the strategy of Larson, at least. “We’re united behind collective bargaining, worker’s rights cannot be assaulted. We’ve talked about collective bargaining because it’s the worst provision, but there are equally bad ones in here. This changes 200 laws and gives more power to governor.”

You can see exactly where Walker and legislative Republicans want to go when they justify the need to strip collective bargaining in a budget bill. Last night, the Governor and the Senate Majority Leader, Scott Fitzgerald, explained that the state and localities need more “flexibility” to make an expected $1 billion in cuts in the next two-year budget. In other words, the goal of stripping collective bargaining is to make cuts to worker pay and benefits by fiat. “They’re not even trying to hide their intentions,” Larson said. “In his press conference he said that the health care changes and collective bargaining will save $68 million. We also know he plans on cutting shared revenue by $800 million (in the next budget). The only way that the other $700 million-plus can be made up is by going after workers. He’s going to gut pay and benefits to workers in municipalities. He thinks his election means he has divine authority and that he’s infallible. I think this is the end of his homeymoon.”

Larson urged Walker to listen to the mass of protesters at the Capitol. “End this assualt and stop this ridiculous bill from moving forward,” he insisted. ” We’ll be back if he takes out these ridiculous pieces and we’ll be happy to get back to work.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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