What Walker Cost Wisconsin
New report shows big decline in federal aid for state while he was governor.
Former governor Scott Walker never cared much about federal funding for Wisconsin. In fact, he actively opposed it on many occasions. The result can be seen in a recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which found that just 26.3 percent of the state’s budget came from federal dollars in 2016 and 2017, ranking Wisconsin a dismal 45th among all states in that category.
That represented a big drop since 2010, just before Walker took office, when 33.2 percent of the state budget came from federal dollars, ranking Wisconsin 33rd, as an Associated Press story on the Pew report noted.
That huge drop in the percent of the state budget coming from the federal government meant a loss of billions of dollars. Had Wisconsin retained its 2010 ranking for federal funding under Walker in say, 2016 (when the state budget was $45.7 billion) it would have gotten $3.15 billion more in federal funding for that year.
As Milwaukee County Executive, Walker bragged about not accepting federal stimulus money aimed at combatting the Great Recession in an op ed for the Wall St Journal. The result helped build Walker’s reputation among national Republicans who opposed the “Obama stimulus money,” but meant a loss of federal money that could have helped pay for county programs and lower the burden for Milwaukee taxpayers in the midst of an economic crisis.
In his run for governor, Walker opposed the federal grant for high speed rail Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle had won. The idea for this project actually went back to Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, who wanted a line connecting Milwaukee and Madison to Chicago and Minneapolis, as a recent story by Wisconsin Public Radio recounted. But Walker rejected the $810 million federal grant that would not only have paid for construction of the high-speed rail line from Milwaukee to Madison, but would have paid for $99 million in costs to upgrade the current Hiawatha line to Chicago. Walker said he objected to the estimated $30 million in operating costs the state would face for the new train’s first 20 years. In fact, as experts noted at the time, the majority of those costs were likely to get picked up the federal government, given past practices. Instead all that money went to other states.
Walker famously rejected the federal money to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The governor claimed he was doing this because the federal government might some day cut off the funding. But then why not reject all federal funding to Wisconsin, which accounted for more than a quarter of his entire budget? The real reason Walker rejected it was because he intended to run for president and wanted to distinguish himself from other Republicans as the governor most opposed to Obamacare. And even after his 2016 campaign failed, Walker still harbored ambitions to run for president again and continued to reject the money.
That resulted in a loss of some $1.1 billion for state taxpayers by 2018, according to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, money which once again went to other states. Even deep-red bastions like Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky and Utah were among the 36 states and the District of Columbia who accepted the federal ACA funding to expand Medicaid.
Walker also rejected another pot of federal money for political reasons. The governor and Republican legislators implemented a law that disqualified any able-bodied adult without children who works less than 80 hours per month from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The new policy cuts off their food assistance if they have not worked for a cumulative total of three months during a three-year period.
The result was a loss for the state economy. Research by the federal Department of Agriculture shows that every $5 in SNAP assistance generates $9 in economic activity, meaning the $92 million in lost SNAP assistance would cause a loss of $166 million in economic activity in Wisconsin.
Walker also slashed state spending at the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, spending the minimum possible under the law to prevent being subject to federal penalties, as a story by the Wisconsin Center for Investigation found. Wisconsin could have gotten an additional $14.2 million in federal funds if it were to come up with a $3.9 million match to cover funding for the next two years, the story noted in 2013. Instead DVR was left far short of resources, forcing “thousands of people with disabilities” to “wait for months to access state employment services,” the story found.
It was there was one thing that past Wisconsin governors, Democratic or Republican, had in common, it was a recognition that the state needed lobbyists to grab every federal dollar they could, because it reduces state costs and adds more services. Money for transportation of any kind was always welcomed by the business community, which has also pushed the state’s congressional representatives to deliver federal dollars from many other programs. Scott Walker was the anomaly, who regularly bragged about rejecting federal money while running for president.
Walker’s aggressive rejection of federal help meant the loss of a high speed rail system that instead went to other states, the loss of ACA funding that would have covered 80,000 more people in Wisconsin, the loss of food money for the state’s most desperately poor people, the reduction in employment services for disabled citizens.
And a much higher price tag for state taxpayers, as each year the state received billions less in federal funding than during the years before Walker as elected. And ironically, this destructive policy, meant to make Walker more electable in Republican primaries, was also a complete failure.
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