Sunday, June 9, 2013

Wisconsin and Minnesota: Different Directions



Neighboring states, with a lot of similarities and with distinctive differences, Minnesota and Wisconsin are moving in starkly different directions due to very contrasting state political leaders.
by Charlie Leck

We have a bit of a rivalry up here in the northland when it comes to matters of difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin. The rivalry may mostly be one-way in that Minnesota frequently and regular compares itself to Wisconsin. The badger-state, however, has two other very significant and populated states that touch its borders (Illinois and Michigan) and it is often more in a rival relationship with those states than Minnesota. Right now there is a distinct difference between Minnesota and Wisconsin in the political arena and in how they have chosen to approach state spending and social services questions. The differences are worth taking a look at. It was an article in this morning’s edition of the StarTribune, our local newspaper, that got me thinking about these varying directions. The piece was written by one of the paper’s top-notch reporters, Jim Ragsdale (click here to read it).

In Minnesota’s most recent legislative session, controlled by Democrats, a significant tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents was passed. This was in spite of warnings that many of these residents might move their places of residence to other states, like Florida. I know a number of people who’ve already done this in spite of the fact that their real home base is clearly in Minnesota.

In addition, Minnesota boldly increased spending on public education – from pre-school through post-high-school. Wisconsin passed legislation in this most recent session to cut both personal and business income taxes; and it also passed legislation that will encourage parents to used a strong private school system by expanding the use of vouchers.

Wisconsin passed legislation that will distance itself from Obama Care (as it is routinely labeled over there across our eastern border).

Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, has publically predicted that many Minnesota businesses will up and move into Wisconsin – and if they don’t move, he indicated, they will likely do any future expansions of their businesses in Wisconsin. Be aware that Wisconsin has not done a good job in expanding job possibilities in its state in the last two year.

Though Governor Walker regularly blasts all things Obama, the President carried Wisconsin in the presidential election last year by 7 percentage points.

Ragsdale puts the main emphasis of his article on the way the two states have approached health care. Wisconsin’s legislature looked hard at the idea of signing on to Medicaid expansion that would expand health care coverage for more adults and low-income citizens. They decided against that expansion. Minnesota’s legislature decided to go in a completely opposite direction on those questions. Here’s what a June 5 NY Times editorial said about these two decisions…

“Wisconsin and Minnesota are neighboring states with long traditions of caring for the least fortunate, but, at the moment, only one of them is concerned about the health of the poor and uninsured.

In February, more than 130,000 Minnesota residents who lack health insurance became eligible for coverage when the state expanded its Medicaid program under the health care reform law. That will save the state $129 million in the first two years alone.

“Wisconsin, however, has chosen to take the path of indifference. On Tuesday, the Republicans who control the State Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to reject the expansion of Medicaid, even though it would have covered 85,000 people at less cost to the state. The committee was marching in lock step behind the governor, Scott Walker, who claims to be worried that federal financing will run out. What’s really going on, of course, is that state Republicans have made poor people the victims of their ideological resistance to President Obama and his health care law.”

Wisconsin’s promoters claim all these legislative changes will mean a very favorable climate for business and produce rewards for those who seek job productivity. They also argue Wisconsin will make significant gains in improving the quality of it educational system as a result of taking bargaining rights away from public employee unions. The actions of our neighboring state smack clearly of the political ideologies of the nation’s most conservative political movements. And, these actions don’t seem to be in step with Wisconsin’s historical moderate political climate.

It will take time to see which direction proves to be the better. As of now, it appears that Minnesota is making much more significant gains in reducing unemployment rates. Minnesota Public Radio last week noted: “…Wisconsin talks a better game than it plays when it comes to economic success. The facts show Minnesota performed better than the Badger State in keeping people employed during the Great Recession and adding jobs in the recovery.”

And, the StarTribune noted a couple of weeks ago: “Minnesota’s economy grew faster in 2012 than it has in nearly a decade, spurred by broad gains in manufacturing, wholesale trade, finance and insurance, and real estate rental and leasing.”

Minnesota turned back an attempt to initiate photo identification in state elections. Wisconsin enacted such a law. Minnesota legalized marriage between gays and lesbians while Wisconsin passed in 2006 a constitutional ban against such marriage.

Many observers argue that Minnesota’s significant support of gay marriage and increased education spending will attract more top-level corporations than will Wisconsin’s very conservative and thrift minded approach.

My own prediction is that Wisconsin voters are tiring of Governor Walker’s mean-streak approach to governance and politics. Wisconsin moderates are beginning to shake their heads over there, waking up to the fact that this is not the kind of state they want. Minnesotans are proud to be part of a more moderate approach to social issues – from education to unionization to caring for the needs of lower income citizens. In both states it’s the moderates who make up the massive base of political power. We’ll soon see Wisconsin swing back more to the center position it has mostly favored in the past.

Don’t get me wrong. Wisconsin is a great state. I love it over there. It’s just that for the moment, and temporarily, they are a bit off kilter.


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