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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010

Elections Have Consequences: The Safety Net

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What’s the best response to those who are struggling during this recession? Or to those who rely on the social safety net even during good times? An auto accident or a business failure could put any of us in need of some short-term or long-term assistance. The two gubernatorial candidates—Democrat Tom Barrett and Republican Scott Walker—are polar opposites on how the government can provide assistance to those in need.

While the two men have held public office for decades, they have had differing responsibilities while in office. Most notably, Scott Walker, as Milwaukee County executive, has been given more authority over “safety net” functions, like overseeing the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex, the bus system, and child-care, food stamp and medical assistance programs. Barrett, as the mayor of Milwaukee, has had fewer “safety net” programs to manage. But his record in Congress and his personal conduct and campaign statements indicate how he’d handle these issues as governor.

Tom Barrett: Preserve Access to Health Care

Health care is a major issue for those in need. Barrett is a strong supporter of the wildly popular BadgerCare for Wisconsin’s lower-income residents, along with the national health care overhaul that will provide tax cuts this year to small businesses that provide insurance to their employees, as well as end insurance industry abuses, like denying coverage to those who have a pre-existing condition. On the campaign trail, Barrett has highlighted his support for all stem cell research, which is both an economic driver in Wisconsin and a pathway to potentially lifesaving treatments for those with spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Barrett’s also shown a willingness to stand up for women’s issues. He’s supported measures to ensure that women get equal pay, and his running mate, Assembly Majority Leader Tom Nelson, pushed the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act through the state Legislature. Barrett is also a champion of women’s reproductive freedom and family planning choices. Lastly, the mayor made international headlines in 2009 when he personally intervened to aid a grandmother and baby caught up in a domestic violence incident that spilled into the street.


Scott Walker: State Forced to Take Over His Failed Programs

Walker, on the other hand, has had more direct oversight of safety net functions while serving as Milwaukee County executive.

Unfortunately, this pastor’s son has failed to protect the county’s most vulnerable residents.

Walker’s leadership of the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex is so disastrous that patients have died, been assaulted and become pregnant. Staff members—who are under strain because of Walker’s orders to cut back on personnel and furlough employees—are routinely assaulted by patients and sent to the hospital with injuries. The complex was so mismanaged that its federal funds were almost pulled earlier this year.

The Milwaukee County Transit System, a lifeline to Milwaukee’s workers, has been slashed to the bone. Since Walker took office, 13 routes have been eliminated while one-way tickets have spiked from $1.50 to $2.25, a 50% increase. A UW-Milwaukee study estimated that 40,000 jobs have been cut off from the system because workers cannot access a bus line. An estimated 500,000 rides may still be cut in 2011.

When Walker could have worked on a compromise to save the system, he refused to help. Walker opposed a proposal to secure dedicated funding for transit when he vetoed an advisory referendum on shifting transit and other county duties from the property tax to the sales tax. That would have been real property tax relief. Supervisors overrode Walker’s veto, and county voters supported the referendum on the November 2008 ballot.

So even though Walker has trumpeted his supposedly successful fight to keep property taxes down, when he had a chance to take transit and other county functions off of the property tax, he refused to support the measure.

Walker has also stood in the way of regional transit, which would allow city workers easy access to jobs in the suburbs. Improving cross-county transit would undoubtedly help African-American men in Milwaukee—53% of who are jobless—expand their pool of potential jobs.

And if you had a question about your food stamp or medical assistance benefits, you were out of luck while Walker was managing those programs. Only a shocking 5% of all calls placed to the Milwaukee County Call Center in 2008 were answered. Walker’s failure forced the state to take away this program from the county.

Walker’s management of the Wisconsin Shares program also was fundamentally flawed. Although the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has blamed the alleged fraud in the program on state agencies and individual day care providers, a 2009 report from the Milwaukee County Audit Department found that the Walker administration did little to prevent fraud from happening, even though it was charged with administering the program here. The audit found that county workers routinely overrode fraud-prevention controls when signing up new parents, which created opportunities for overpayments and clerical mistakes to occur.

As governor, Walker has pledged to cut state employees’ wages and benefits and the popular BadgerCare program to pay for his tax cuts for the state’s wealthiest residents and corporations. He is committed to stopping the high-speed train from Milwaukee to Madison that will bring federal funds and jobs to Wisconsin. Walker also has vowed to repeal federal health care reform, and his “100% pro-life” record means he would force victims of rape and incest to give birth to an attacker’s child.

His record in Milwaukee County shows that he’s willing to sacrifice the needs of the county’s most vulnerable residents to promote his political career.