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Capital City Sunday: Education budget warning, election investigation

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Republicans on the state's budget-writing Joint Finance Committee have branded their education budget as a $500 million increase. But a letter sent Friday from the U.S. Department of Education warns the $350 million portion set to go into the state's rainy day fund doesn't count toward a state's education spending.

Under the rules outlined in a memo to lawmakers dated April 8, states have to ensure their education spending at least matches the average school funding from that state during the 2016-17, 2017-18, and 2018-19 fiscal years.

Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee maintain they only became aware of the rules this past week.

"There are many states who still have a lot of questions on the [Maintenance of Effort rule] so we believe there's gonna be more information coming up," said Rep. Jessie Rodriguez (R-Oak Creek).

State Superintendent-elect Jill Underly said the committee's spending plan was "reckless" in its use of federal relief as justification for a smaller bump in state funding.

"We must not rush through an education budget that attempts to replace the state's obligation to public school funding with federal one-time COVID relief dollars intended to help children recover from the pandemic," Underly wrote.

Republican leaders on the Joint Finance Committee have said with an expected relief sum of more than $2 billion in federal money coming to Wisconsin schools, a massive increase in state funding was unnecessary.

"One of the things we wanted to make sure is that even though we were getting a lot of federal funding this time around, that it's likely we're not gonna get as much funding in future years so we wanted to set aside $350 million in our budget stabilization fund," Rodriguez said.

Republicans acknowledged they will have to do addition work on their education in the coming weeks to ensure the final state budget that goes to Gov. Tony Evers is compliant with the federal mandates.

Election investigation

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) is launching a taxpayer-funded investigation into the 2020 presidential election. The story was first reported by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Patrick Marley.

"It's just another sign the 2020 election will never die," Marley said. "There's been numerous lawsuits, there's been all kinds of reviews, there were two recounts all finding Biden had won. Republicans are convinced there were problems."

Vos has told Marley and others in interviews he's hiring former police officers - including a former Milwaukee cop who's drawn criticism for past efforts to expose alleged voter fraud - to dig into what municipalities did with outside grant funding.

Conservatives have especially targeted money given by a group largely funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The Center for Tech and Civic Life provided more than $6 million to the state's five largest cities.

Republicans have maintained some of those cities then used the money to bring in outside consultants to have undue influence on how the elections were run, using the public apparatus to drive turnout on the Democratically-leaning cities.

When pressed for evidence, they often point to the protests of former Green Bay Clerk Kris Teske who alleged an outside consultant was trying to order other workers around at the city's central count site. Other city officials there have denied any wrongdoing.

"I would not be surprised if that's a big focus of the investigators Robin Vos has brought on," Marley said. "There seems to be the most questions in Green Bay rather than the other cities."

Marley noted the investigation will likely serve as justification for the election bills Republicans are currently pushing in the legislature, including measures banning cities and villages from accepting outside money and limited how many ballot drop-off sites a municipality can have.

Marley said when Evers inevitably vetoes those bills, it will set the stage for election integrity to become an issue in the 2022 campaign as Republicans look to replace Evers with a GOP governor who will enact sweeping changes to how elections are run in Wisconsin.

Medicaid expansion and outcomes

While Wisconsin Republicans have refused to expand Medicaid eligibility since 2013, Democrats insisted Tuesday's rejection was the worst one yet.

The GOP-controlled legislature gaveled in and out of a special session called by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. A handful of Democrats were present in the Assembly chamber and shouted 'no!' over a meaningless voice vote before the session ended in less than a minute.

Democratic legislators argued with an additional $1.6 billion at stake over the next two years, the refusal to make more people eligible for BadgerCare denied both the needy and citizens at large.

"By accepting Medicaid funding, not only would more Wisconsinites have access to affordable health insurance but we could restore the devastating cuts to our UW System and provide more funding to our K-12 schools," said Assembly Minority Leader Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh).

Democrats also noted Wisconsin is now one of 12 states in the country, and the only one in the upper Midwest, to have not adopted Medicaid expansion.

At the heart of the issue are about 90,000 Wisconsinites who earn between 100 and 138 percent of the federal poverty line. For a family of four, that range is between $26,500 per year and $36,570.

Currently, people above the 100 percent threshold can get at least partially subsidized health insurance via exchanges set up through the Affordable Care Act.

Republican lawmakers say Wisconsin has already achieved success in its own way; it's the only state to reject Medicaid expansion but still provided Medicaid eligibility for everyone making up to 100 percent of the poverty line.

"The state of Wisconsin has no gap in its medical coverage and we've done a beautiful job of making sure everyone is covered in the state of Wisconsin at 100 percent [of the poverty level]," said Rep. Janel Brandtjen (R-Menomonee Falls.)

But what about the health care part?

Rebecca Myerson has researched health care outcomes for people with chronic conditions in states before and after they expanded Medicaid.

"We saw a similar trend that access did increase overall in states that adopted the policy," Myerson said. "And there was an increase across the board in terms of the use of diabetes medications including, importantly, access to access to insulin, which can be quite costly in the absence of insurance."

Myerson acknowledged it's hard to compare Wisconsin to the other dozen or so states who've resisted expanding Medicaid eligibility since it is the only one of those states who guarantee Medicaid coverage for everyone up to 100 percent of the poverty line.

"50 states have 50 different Medicaid programs and baseline eligibility criteria that they use prior to deciding whether or not to adopt this policy," Myerson said. "So there can be some heterogeneity in the effect based on what the baseline was and I'm sure this applies in Wisconsin as well."

While Republicans have also raised concerned of possible insurance premium increases due to hospitals getting lower reimbursement rates on Medicaid cases, Myerson pointed to another study that found hospitals' finances improved after Medicaid expansion, including in red states like Indiana and Louisiana.

Medicaid-Expansion-Effects-On-Hospital-Finances

"Taking on that policy change, expanding Medicaid to lower-income, non-disabled adults was associated with improvements in hospital profitability, reductions in uncompensated care costs, and an increase in reimbursement related to Medicaid," she said.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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