MADISON - Gov. Scott Walker said Wednesday he will not cut benefits to the popular SeniorCare program to help balance the budget, but he is open to refinancing state debt in order to plug a $136 million shortfall by July 1.
Walker has also said he intends to force public employees to pay more for their health care and pension costs, two areas that are now subject to collective bargaining.
The governor was asked about his plans for the budget after he signed a bill that reorganizes the Commerce Department into a public-private hybrid. Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, said Walker intended to refinance debt to save $165 million and use $20 million in savings from SeniorCare to help balance the budget.
"We will not be cutting SeniorCare benefits," Walker said. However, he did not comment on whether he may propose other changes to the program that may result in savings, such as limiting enrollments.
SeniorCare is a state prescription drug program for senior citizens that is an alternative to Medicare Part D. Backers of the program, which started in 2002 under bipartisan support, say it is easier to navigate than Medicare with a one-page application form, offers better coverage and lower co-payments, and is much cheaper to run.
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A Legislative Audit Bureau letter from Jan. 6 said there was a $20 million surplus in the program that former Gov. Jim Doyle had planned to tap to help balance the budget. Additionally, the Doyle administration planned to delay $43 million in payments to providers until the next budget.
Walker said he met with legislative leaders on Wednesday. He planned to brief Republican lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly about his budget plan on Thursday so the Legislature could act on it as soon as next week.
Ellis first spoke about details of Walker's tightly guarded budget plan to WHBY-Radio on Tuesday. Ellis said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press that he didn't know what ultimately would appear in the governor's final proposal, but he believed debt refinancing and SeniorCare savings would be a large part.
Walker said refinancing was an option. He also reiterated his support for immediately paying $58.7 million due to Minnesota under a tax reciprocity agreement that has since been canceled.
Refinancing state debt and tapping a surplus in SeniorCare, along with getting concessions from state employees, are all being discussed, said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, co-chair of the Legislature's budget committee. However, Darling said she hasn't seen the final plan from Walker yet.
Walker has been very public in his desire to force concessions by state employees to not only help with the current budget problem but also to start making inroads on the $3.6 billion shortfall projected by mid-2013.
Walker said in his State of the State speech last week that he wants to force state employees to make a 5 percent contribution to their pensions and increase their share of health insurance costs up to 12 percent. Walker said doing that would save more than $30 million over the next three months alone.
Currently, most workers don't contribute anything to their pensions and pay between 4 percent and 6 percent of their health insurance costs.
State employee union leaders on Tuesday urged Walker to resume negotiations with them instead of forcing concessions through a law change.
"This governor has made no secret of his desire to undercut the earnings of state workers," said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, which represents 39,000 workers. "But he's been in office for more than a month and his administration hasn't made a single effort to contact us, the biggest single representative of state employees."
While Republicans control both the Senate and Assembly, changing the state's collective bargaining law to turn health care and pensions into items the union can no longer negotiate could be political dynamite.
Darling said whether the Legislature would be willing to undo collective bargaining rights "is the big question."
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last month that he hoped Walker would first reach out to the unions before seeking law changes.
"We're not going to walk through hell and go through that if the governor doesn't offer that up," he said.
The right of state employees to form unions and collectively bargain in Wisconsin is established under a 1971 law. It would take action by the Legislature, not a simple executive order from Walker, to strip unions of their rights and authority under the State Employment Labor Relations Act.