State GOP’s “Jobs Agenda” includes plans to reduce health care costs

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Three proposals to help reduce the soaring costs of health care are part of the "100 Day Jobs Agenda," which Republican leaders in the state Legislature will pursue during the start of the next legislative session in January.
The health care planks in the nine-point GOP agenda are:
¥ Making health savings accounts exempt from state taxes. Health savings accounts (HSAs), set aside by individuals for health care expenses, are already tax deductible at the federal level. However, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed a state health savings account tax deduction bill passed during the last legislative session.
¥ Elimination of state taxes on the money individuals pay in health insurance premiums.
¥ Expansion of the health care co-op program. Last year, the legislature created, and Doyle signed, legislation for a pilot health care insurance cooperative program. The pilot program allows businesses and governments to join together to form health care cooperatives that take advantage of economies of scale to lower health care costs. The Republican leaders in the Legislature want to expand the program to allow more health care purchasing cooperatives statewide.
Making HSAs exempt from state taxes and eliminating state taxes on the money individuals pay in health insurance premiums would cost the state about $20 million in annual revenue, Sen. Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said.
"I think it would be $20 million well invested," he said. "(Rising health care costs) is a concern for individuals, but more than anything it’s a drag on the economy."
Sen. Minority Leader Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) criticized Republicans for failing to approve a proposal during the last session to help small businesses pool together to lower their health care costs.
"When you kill the small-business health care plan, like Republicans did last session, you better come up with some solid new proposals that actually help real working people get health care coverage," he said "This agenda lacks those kinds of serious new health care initiatives."
Erpenbach said the state should try to convince the federal government to allow the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. In addition, he said the state should require insurance companies to offer the same rates to small companies that they do to larger firms.
"If they can do it for the large company, they should offer it to the smaller company at the same price," he said.
Earlier this year, when he vetoed the proposal to make HSAs exempt from state taxes, Doyle said HSAs could decrease employer-sponsored insurance coverage, which he said were only viable for people with higher incomes and lacked a clear economic benefit. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the cost of the HSA tax exemption would cost $38.7 million over an eight-year period.
"We were in a very tight fiscal time," said Melanie Fonder, press secretary for Doyle. "The governor believes it is irresponsible to propose that much in tax breaks without knowing the benefits."
Assembly Speaker John Gard (R-Peshtigo) said Republicans will try to change Doyle’s mind about the proposed HSAs tax exemption.
"People are going to pay taxes on the money they set aside for health care. It’s unfortunate," Gard said. "We need to offer ways for small businesses and their employees to find savings in health care. This has the potential to be the most important piece of health care legislation in this state in a long time."
Republicans want to find a way to fix the private health care system, instead of going to a universal health care system funded by the government.
"The alternative for some is to just have the government pay for it," Gard said. "If you think health care is expensive now, just wait until it’s free."
Erpenbach said he does not support a total government takeover of the health care system, but he said the government should make sure everyone has health insurance.
"It’s not a luxury, it’s a right," he said. "Solving the problems with health care is the key to turning around the state’s economy."
Republicans control both the state Assembly and state Senate. It is unlikely that will change after the November election. Therefore, the elements in the Republicans’ 100 Day Jobs Agenda have a good chance of reaching Doyle’s desk.
The other elements of that agenda include proposals to:
¥ Freeze property taxes.
¥ Create more regulatory reform under the Job Creation Act Part 2. During the last session, Doyle and the Republican-controlled legislature agreed to pass the Job Creation Act, a regulatory reform package. Critics said the new law weakens the state’s environmental protections. But Doyle and Republican supporters said excessive red tape stifles economic development and job creation. Now, Republicans say more regulatory reform is needed to further stimulate the state’s economy.
¥ Provide a research and development tax credit.
¥ Expand workforce training and retraining programs at the state’s technical colleges.
¥ Create a rural finance authority to provide financial assistance to farmers and agri-businesses. Republicans say the plan is modeled after a similar program in Minnesota.
¥ Establish uniform training standards for health care worker training programs at the state’s technical colleges.
"The tax cuts and regulatory reforms we passed last session are working to give our job creators an assist and our economy a boost," Gard said. "(In) January, we’re going to pick up right where we left off and keep working to make sure existing jobs stay in Wisconsin and new jobs come here."
October 15, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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