The Capital Times of Madison, July 5
Democrats should follow Tammy Baldwin’s lead on health care
There are many reasons why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s attempt to reorganize America’s health care system as a get-richer-quicker scheme for his wealthy campaign donors lost support even among Republicans. But one reason that is too little noted is the opposition that arose in the rural regions that provided GOP candidates with their winning hand in 2014 and 2016.
In announcing her opposition to the Senate bill, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine objected that “access to health care in rural areas (is) threatened” and complained that the “Senate bill doesn’t fix (existing) problems for rural Maine.” Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia complained that the legislation “will not ensure access to affordable health care in West Virginia, does not do enough to combat the opioid epidemic that is devastating my state, cuts traditional Medicaid too deeply, and harms rural health care providers.”
In fact, a steady gripe from Republican senators who jumped off McConnell’s sinking ship had to do with the distinct harm the Senate bill would do to rural communities. The problem for the Republicans who are still trying to pass some kind of “repeal and replace” scheme is that the harm is baked into all of their strategies for remaking the health care system — as rural areas have distinct vulnerabilities that are not going to be addressed with tax breaks for the rich and guaranteed-to-fail “market-based solutions.” As such, the minor tinkers that will be made in hopes of getting a few GOP senators on board won’t alleviate legitimate concerns about bad policy.
The bottom line is this: Any health care “reform” forged by McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan is certain to do harm to farm country and small-town America.
Democrats, who have bumbled their appeals to rural America since the 2006 and 2008 elections saw congressional Democrats and Barack Obama make significant inroads in those areas, would do well to recognize an opening that could prove definitional in 2018.
Rural voters have been casting a lot of Republican ballots in recent years. But in much of the country, they remain swing voters. That means that issues matter more than partisan labels — especially issues that hit close to home. And no issue hits closer to home than health care for rural voters, who often lack access to programs that are more easily available to suburban and urban voters.
Few groups have been more pointed in their opposition to Republican House and Senate proposals to mangle health care than the National Farmers Union. The NFU begins with a basic argument that parallels those of other groups. Noting Congressional Budget Office scoring that found McConnell’s plans would cost roughly 22 million people their health coverage, NFU President Roger Johnson said, “We cannot support any legislation that would reduce the number of Americans with health coverage.”
The critiques from the group have been sharply focused — and influential with politicians of both parties who recognize that they cannot afford to neglect rural communities.
“As passed by the House, the (Republican-backed American Health Care Act) would worsen access to health care for many Americans and would disproportionately disadvantage family farmers and ranchers and rural communities,” explained an NFU analysis of the devastating impact the schemes advanced by Ryan and McConnell would have on rural America. In particular, the NFU argues, lawmakers must do more to preserve rural hospitals. “With another 673 hospitals at risk of closure,” said Johnson, “we need to increase — not decrease — support for rural hospitals.”
Savvy Democrats have been taking note of the concerns raised by the NFU and other farm and rural groups. The most serious of their number, senators with established track records on rural issues such as Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, are working to renew the historic commitment of the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman to rural America.
During the Obama years, they sought to address issues with the Affordable Care Act. And when President Trump was elected, they began urgent efforts to avert threatened cuts not just to rural health care initiatives but to rural development programs, which often support those initiatives.
In May, Baldwin, Brown and Sanders joined two dozen Democratic senators in formally objecting to the Trump administration’s proposals for “drastic cuts to USDA Rural Development that undermine its ability to serve rural America.” Those cuts would, the senators argue, “undermine the ability of local communities to support rural home ownership; provide clean drinking and waste water systems; and promote access to critical services such as rural hospitals, police, and firefighters. If enacted, these cuts would have a damaging impact on rural communities throughout the country.”
Baldwin has worked across lines of partisanship and ideology in recent months to defend rural health care programs. In February, for instance, she joined rural senators from both parties in circulating a letter that urged Trump to “work with us to ensure that the federal government does not act as an impediment to providing health care in rural communities.”
Trump did not do that. And Ryan and McConnell, with their deference to Wall Street interests and the insurance industry, came up with plans that were worse for Americans in general — and for rural Americans in particular — than even the most cynical commentators imagined possible.
Trump, Ryan and McConnell have created a litmus-test issue for rural voters in 2018, when Baldwin, Brown and a number of other Democrats will be running in states Trump won in 2016. The Democratic Party has been far too neglectful of rural regions of our country. By getting focused on rural issues — ranging from health care to education to transportation to the plight of farmers to the impact of trade policies on agriculture and rural industries — Democrats can reconnect parts of the country that are profoundly threatened by the policies of the Trump administration and its congressional allies.
Janesville Gazette, July 5
Hands off our brew, legislators
Beer lovers, watch out for the state Assembly.
If something slips into the state budget that would impose new regulations on Wisconsin’s burgeoning craft beer industry, it’s a good bet Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and his allies have given it their blessing.
Vos has shown a propensity for siding with established players, notably through his ongoing opposition to the “cookie bill,” making him and other Assembly leaders the likely vehicle of new measures to protect wholesalers and taverns from the growing craft brewing industry. The number of breweries statewide has nearly doubled in the past five years, and one of the state’s newest breweries, Rock County Brewing Company, opened here in Janesville this year.
Current law allows craft brewers and wineries to sell their products on site_Rock County Brewing’s primary source of revenue_but a memo circulating at the Capitol reveals a way to end this practice through the creation of a state Office of Alcohol Beverages Enforcement. The memo’s author likely views on-site sales as unfair because they allow craft brewers to circumvent the traditional distribution system, which of course favors large breweries, wholesalers and taverns.
That no group is taking credit for writing the unsigned memo should send up red flags. The Tavern League of Wisconsin denies writing or supporting this document, but it’s easy to see why established players would want stricter oversight of craft brewing and wineries. Many craft brewers and wineries_being the innovative bunch that they are_have turned their businesses into tourist destinations, mixing tours and booze to give people an experience they cannot get at the corner bar or by buying a 12-pack at the liquor store.
Fred Gray of Janesville’s Gray Brewing summed up the situation in an interview with The Gazette. “The new proposal doesn’t benefit anyone at all other than the wholesalers, which is not surprising,” Gray said last week. “I think it’s all being driven by a false insecurity by wholesalers that small breweries or brewpubs are popping up all over, and the wholesalers just can’t get a taste of all of that. Wholesalers want a taste of every beer that comes across the counter.”
Instead of imposing new regulations on craft brewers and wineries, we should be removing barriers to their growth. Supporting local craft breweries is the least we can do, given how much they’ve done for our palates. Craft brewers showed us that beer doesn’t have to all taste the same. Beer can be more than that yellow liquid marked “Miller” or “Bud.” Craft brewers singularly introduced (or reintroduced) us to the world of ales. Thanks to craft brewers, we discovered hops. We learned hops aren’t merely a bittering agent; they are a gateway to exotic flavors and smells.
To think that legislators would show their gratitude to craft brewers by creating an office to stifle brewing innovation is almost as repugnant as downing a warm can of Bud Light on a hot summer’s day after a five-mile run.
Legislators have tricks for avoiding public scrutiny, notably a legislative tactic known as the 999 motion, which they will deploy if they think nobody is looking. But we are looking closely. Legislators, especially Robin Vos, need to get the message: Keep your hands off our craft beer.
The Journal Times of Racine, July 5
Save the Amtrak Empire Builder from the knife
While congressional Republicans have said much of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget are “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill, Wisconsin’s congressional delegation should keep a fork handy to spear his proposed passenger rail cuts.
Amtrak is on Trump’s spit, and he has proposed a $2.4 billion cut in the federal transportation budget, dropping it by 13 percent.
The cuts would be focused outside the Northeast corridor of the United States, which would be spared, and would spell the death of the Empire Builder, the 2,200-mile passenger rail line that runs though the heart of the Upper Midwest and provides needed service to thousands of passengers in cities and small towns from Chicago to Seattle and Portland.
While the Chicago-to-Milwaukee link would still be served by Amtrak’s Hiawatha trains, the westward links would be severed, ending service at dozens of smaller communities like Columbus, Portage, Tomah, Wisconsin Dells and La Crosse, and then up the Mississippi River to St. Paul.
That has raised eyebrows — and hackles — in communities along the route which fear the impact of the loss of rail service to their economies and to the connectivity it provides to larger metro areas and their services. Those same concerns are echoed across the Great Plains — from Minnesota through South Dakota and Montana where the Empire Builder provides one of the few non-motor vehicle links to urban areas.
Yes, passenger rail service is subsidized — just as most other forms of transportation across the country are subsidized in one way or another. The Empire Builder generated $51.7 million in passenger revenue last year and its ridership of 454,000 was up 3.7 percent. That covers almost two-thirds of its cost of operation and it is the most-traveled long distance route in the country.
While the Northeast Corridor may turn a profit, the president’s cuts fail to understand that for many citizens in the Midwest and West, passenger rail service is more vital and the need for connectivity to cities and medical services should be maintained.
Congress, which holds the power of the purse, should look at the impact of these proposed cuts beyond the Washington Beltway — and our congressional delegation, along with those in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana — should be there to make sure the less populous areas of the country don’t get the short end of the budget stick.