By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — State employees who smoke, food stamp recipients and retirees were all touched by the Legislature’s Committee on Joint Finance Tuesday, as the panel plowed through a busy day of budget work.
The committee passed Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to tie FoodShare — Wisconsin’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — benefits to employment as part of his effort to “end generational dependency on government.”
If the proposal becomes law, qualifying FoodShare beneficiaries would have to work 20 hours a week and enroll in a training program through the state departments of Health Services, Children and Families or Workforce Development. If they don’t, the beneficiaries could lose FoodShare benefits after a few months.
The changes don’t apply to people 50 or older, parents with children up to age 18 or pregnant women, all prohibited under the federal standards.
DHS estimates half of FoodShare beneficiaries might drop off the program due to the changes, according to a report from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
“I think the goals of independence and getting training and trying to get a job is a much better lifestyle than government dependence,” said co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. “We’re talking about able-bodied people without children. If you’re able-bodied you have to make an effort through training or work to get the benefit and I think that’s fair.”
Democrats, however, attacked the GOP for lacking compassion. Two southeastern Democrats contrasted FoodShare, with benefits at $191 a month, to a meal at the upscale 21 Club in Manhattan, where Walker was scheduled to speak for a New York Republican State committee fundraiser. Entrees at the posh restaurant start at $72.
“It’s one of the most mean-spirited things I have heard coming out of here,” said Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine. “Today we’re going to say we’re going to take food away from poor people.”
Mason contends the change won’t put more people back to work, but will create more hunger in the state.
The state will spend an extra $16 million to enact the changes, what Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, called an “investment” in getting people back to work. And it might require a waiver from the federal government, which funds most of the FoodShare bill.
In Wisconsin, FoodShare participation has risen sharply in recent years.
More than $100 million in food assistance benefits were paid out to 858,331 recipients of the program in March, according to the state Department of Health Services.
A record 47,791,996 people across the nation received SNAP benefits in December 2012, according to USDA data. That’s an increase of nearly 1.28 million stamp collectors from December 2011.
Read more on the proposed FoodShare changes here.
Sale of state buildings
The budget committee also passed a motion allowing the state Department of Administration or the Building Commission to sell, with some restrictions, state heating, cooling and power plants without soliciting bids for a property. The JFC also would have to approve sales of those assets.
Buildings funded at least 50 percent through gifts or federal dollars would be exempt from the changes. Sales from the buildings would be used to retire debt. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper shows the state owes $312,885,400 on state-owned heating, cooling and power plants.
DOA indicated a “specific reason for the proposed sale of state utility plants is so the state can get out of the utility business,” according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau paper on the motion.
“The point of this contention being that the state should be in the business of providing the public services specific to each agency, and should not be in the heating and cooling service business,” the fiscal bureau wrote.
Democrats, however, focused on more extreme implications of the policy. They pointed out, and LFB confirmed, that under the proposal, the state could technically sell Camp Randall Stadium or even the state Capitol.
“It starts us down the field of selling state assets,” said Rep. Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee, making his broader point.
Republicans, though, scolded Democrats for demagoguery of the issue.
“Let’s get real,” Darling said. She assured “there’s not a chance this committee would sell the state Capitol.”
The Republican-controlled committee later rejected a proposal by Sen. Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie, to sell the Governor’s Mansion.
Smoke? Work for the state? You could pay more
Walker proposed in his 2013-15 budget to charge tobacco-using state employees $50 a month, a fee that’s expected to bring in about $2 million in 2013-14 and $4 million in 2014-15.
The finance committee voted in favor of Walker’s proposal, but changed part of it so that the Group Insurance Board could not terminate an employee’s health care coverage for lying about tobacco use.
The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, prohibits the practice, anyway. The JFC motion does allow for recovery of lost payments.
Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, questioned whether the state should continue to meddle in citizens private health issues.
“As the government takes over more and more of the health care, the more they’re going to say they can run our lives,” he said.
Adam Hoffer, assistant economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, told Wisconsin Reporter in February the fee is akin to a “sin tax,” similar to a $2 tax on a pack of cigarettes.
Hoffer is co-author of “Sin Taxes: Size, Growth, and Creation of the Sindustry,” a study by the Mercatus Center, a free-market research organization at George Mason University.
“It’s just a separate tax on smokers, in a different form,” he said.
Mason, the Racine representative, criticized the proposal as “short on policy and short on its effectiveness and not a good deal for the employees or the taxpayers.”
On double dipping
The committee also approved restricting “double dipping” to only retired public employees who come back to work to collect both their pension and paycheck — if they work less than two-thirds of full time hours, or about 26 hours a week.
A legislative audit found state agencies hired 2,783 public employees after they had retired between 2007 and 2011. Local governments and schools hired 2,599 Wisconsin Retirement System annuitants from January 2011 through March 2012.
Democrats asked, to no avail, for the proposal to be pulled for full legislative scrutiny.
“I would hope we would step back from this and have a broader conversation on it in a public hearing where it’s appropriate.” Mason said.
The finance committee also voted in favor of $1 million in funding for Teach for America in Milwaukee and to allow college graduates with job experience to teach in charter schools.
“Academic achievement for our children starts with great teachers in the classroom,” Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, vocal advocates of the Teach for America funding, said in a statement. “TFA takes the best and the brightest young teaching talent and deploys them in some of the most challenging urban education settings in America. The Finance Committee’s actions will enable a dramatically expanded presence of these school leaders where they are most needed.”
The funding boost would double the number of teachers from 150 to 300. TFA teaching experience also would be counted toward the necessary qualification requirements for school administrators, under finance committee action.
The committee also approved hiking fees $39.8 million to cover the costs of regulating air pollution. That’s about $2.6 million less than Walker has requested.
And the state added $1,100,000 annually for implementing academic and career planning statewide for students as young as sixth grade.
“It’s always easy to be bipartisan when you’re spending money,” said Grothman near the end of the meeting.
The finance committee meets again Thursday.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]