Wisconsin Governor Candidates Battle Over Obamacare, Economy, and Sexual Health

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Analysis Politics

Wisconsin Governor Candidates Battle Over Obamacare, Economy, and Sexual Health

Nina Liss-Schultz

As the race for governor heats up ahead of the November election, incumbent Gov. Scott Walker has consistently aligned himself with the Republican Party and against the clear front-runner among Democratic primary candidates, Mary Burke, on issues like Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and the economy.

When Mary Burke announced her candidacy for governor of Wisconsin in October 2013, she accused her incumbent opponent, Scott Walker, of pandering to the Republican Party instead of helping the state’s residents. “Our state capital has become so focused on politics and winning the next political fight, it’s pulling our state apart and our economy down,” she said.

Now, as the race for governor heats up ahead of the November election, Burke, who has made herself the clear front-runner among Democratic primary candidates, has stuck with that sentiment and used it to leverage her own message, highlighting how she differs from her opponent. Similarly, Walker, whose name has been thrown in as a possible GOP contender for the 2016 presidential race, has consistently aligned himself with the Republican Party and against Burke on issues like Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and the economy, which are becoming central to each candidate’s election strategy.


Only a month after assuming office in 2011, Walker, who served in the Wisconsin assembly for almost a decade starting in 1993 and then as the Milwaukee County executive until 2010, proposed a budget bill that was perhaps simultaneously his most controversial and influential piece of legislation. The budget that would come to define his term as governor and influence legislatures across the country, including in Ohio, Missouri, and Oregon, not only cut millions of dollars from education funding, but also effectively obliterated public employees’ collective bargaining rights.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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When Walker made it to the governor’s mansion in 2011, Wisconsin, a rust-belt state hard-hit by the Great Recession, faced on enormous budget deficit, estimated by him as $137 million and projected to grow to $3.6 billion during his term.

Gov. Walker’s budget fix, known as Act 10, axed collective bargaining by limiting government employee negotiations only to wages and not other benefits, doubled the health-care premiums paid by state employees, and required some unions to renegotiate contracts each year.

“I’m just trying to balance my budget,” Walker told the New York Times in 2011. “I don’t have anything to negotiate with. We don’t have anything to give. Like practically every other state in the country, we’re broke. And it’s time to pay up.”

Tens of thousands of Wisconsinites protested the bill and its passage at the state capitol, and Democratic and labor leaders gathered over 900,000 signatures for a recall election, making Walker just the third governor in U.S. history to face recall. After Gov. Walker introduced the legislation in 2011, 14 Democratic senators fled to Illinois from Wisconsin, to protest the bill and avoid a vote on it. The Madison teachers’ union and one representing Milwaukee public schools sued the state over Act 10.

The bill was eventually passed, and Walker survived the recall election, making him the only governor ever to do so. Last month, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin ruled against teachers unions and upheld Act 10.

Burke, who “supports the rights of workers to collectively bargain,” has pushed to make a name for herself—in opposition to her opponent—as an experienced financial manager able to balance budgets. Though Burke has only held one elected position—on the city of Madison school board—she is well-known in the state as the executive of the Trek Bicycle Corporation, originally founded by her father. In 2005, she was appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle (D) as state secretary of commerce, a position she held for two years.

Gov. Walker has criticized Burke’s economic track record, with varying success. This year, the federal government asked the Walker administration to repay several million dollars in grant money, which the federal government says were improperly awarded under Burke’s leadership as the secretary of commerce. Three grants awarded by Burke, including one $12.3 million grant given to Abbott Laboratories, have come under federal scrutiny because they did not meet the requirements of the grants developed by the Department of Housing and Development (HUD). For example, according to an investigation by WisPolitics.com, HUD found that a grant issued to Juneau County in 2006 didn’t meet federal standards because though the grant helped create jobs, it did not directly benefit low-income individuals.

According to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel, Alleigh Marre, a Walker campaign spokesperson, has said that the grants are just one example of Burke’s failures as secretary of commerce. “Seven years later Wisconsin taxpayers are still on the hook for millions of dollars as a result of Burke’s bad and careless decisions,” Marre said. A Burke spokesperson countered that she “makes no apologies” for granting the money, and that the grants created jobs.

In February, Burke said during a talk-show interview that she would support raising the minimum wage to $10.10, a plan that Walker called “political grandstanding,” according to the Wisconsin State Journal. Walker has opposed increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, saying the change would hurt business.

In Wisconsin in 2013, 5.3 percent of the employed population, or 91,000 people, were paid either minimum wage or less, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s higher than the national average of 4.3 percent.

Abortion Access and Reproductive Care

Though Burke doesn’t explicitly mention abortion or reproductive care, she alludes to the “war on women” on her website: “The last three years have seen an unprecedented assault on the freedom of women to make their own health care choices. And Scott Walker has led the charge.”

Indeed, Walker, who has said he opposes abortion without exceptions, has support a number of anti-choice and anti-health care laws during his term as governor. “I don’t know if you can get more conservative than Scott Walker on abortion,” says Jenni Dye, the research director of One Wisconsin Now, an organization that works to get progressive candidates elected in the state.

In 2013, the Wisconsin legislature enacted several controversial abortion restrictions, including a targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) law that requires providers to have admitting privileges with hospitals within 30 miles of a clinic. A district court blocked enforcement of the law, SB 206, following a lawsuit filed against the state by Planned Parenthood. The trial over the litigation ended this June, and a decision is expected soon.

In addition to the TRAP provision, SB 206 included an ultrasound mandate, requiring that the physician perform an ultrasound, provide an oral explanation to the patient describing the embryo or fetus depending on the stage of pregnancy, show the patient an image of the ultrasound, and provide “a means for the pregnant woman to visualize any fetal heartbeat.”

Dye says that Walker’s legacy on reproductive access extends beyond his anti-choice legislation, extending to reproductive care and sexual health more generally.

In 2011, for example, shortly after Walker took office, the Wisconsin legislature largely repealed the 2009 Healthy Youth Act, which set state standards for fact-based and progressive sex education in schools, putting in its place standards mandating abstinence-only education and removing information about contraceptives from the law.

Most recently, the Walker administration announced that it would not be enforcing a state law mandating contraceptive coverage in certain company insurance plans, a direct response to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling and one which health advocates and consumer protection advocates called “absurd.”


In early 2013, Walker announced that Wisconsin would be rejecting federally-funded Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, making it one of 24 states to do so. But unlike most other states, Walker has gone forward with his own reforms of the state’s Medicaid program, called BadgerCare. The governor lifted a cap on the number of low-income childless adults eligible for BadgerCare, but at the same time changed the eligibility requirements for the program—now, only residents below 100 percent of the federal poverty level, $11,490 for a single adult, qualify for Medicaid. Before the change the cutoff for Medicaid eligibility was 200 percent of the federal poverty line, a number higher than the federal Medicaid cutoff.

The policy pushed an estimated 63,000 Wisconsinites from Medicaid coverage to the private insurance marketplace set up by the federal government, a change that Walker’s administration said was good for people’s health. “Governor Walker is focused on moving people from government dependence into the independence of making their own health care decisions,” Jocelyn Webster, a spokesperson for Walker, said in an email to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. “Governor Walker’s plan allows adults not living in poverty to access affordable health care through the private market,” Webster added.

The Walker administration also chose not to set up its own, state-run insurance marketplace, instead relying on the federal government’s exchange website, Healthcare.gov.

Kevin Kane, the lead organizer for Citizen Action Wisconsin, a social justice advocacy organization in the state, says that Walker’s reforms to Medicaid have hurt, not helped, low-income Wisconsinites. “Roughly 38,000 of the people kicked off of BadgerCare by Walker have not signed up for private insurance,” which is how they were expected to receive insurance after the eligibility change.

A recent state report confirms that coverage gaps exist among low-income Wisconsin residents. People pushed out of their Medicaid coverage due to the eligibility change had until June 1 to sign up for private insurance offered through the exchange. The state Department of Health Services found that more than 60 percent of the people became ineligible for BadgerCare following the eligibility changes have not purchased new insurance.

While it’s difficult to measure and explain why those 60 percent didn’t get new coverage, Kane says that private insurance is still cost prohibitive for many people over the poverty level. “The administration is going to say that they got employer or spousal coverage,” he told Rewire, but “the problem is that the private insurance is not affordable, and these people can’t spend money on it.”

Moreover, a White House Council of Economic Advisers report released early July found that by 2016, an additional 120,000 people would have health coverage if Wisconsin had opted into federal expansion.

Though citizen-initiated ballot measures aren’t allowed in Wisconsin, Kane says that a third of the state’s population will be voting on what’s called advisory referendums—non-binding questions on the ballot to which voters can say yes or no. This November, voters in the state will be asked whether their legislators should accept the federal money to expand Medicaid. According to Kane, while only a third of the population lives in counties that have put the question to the ballot, that number is likely to increase by the end of the month.

On her website, Burke says that she plans to overturn Walker’s refusal of federal dollars to expand BadgerCare. “Rejecting hundreds of millions of our own federal tax dollars means our money goes to cover health care in other states, and leaves us paying more as a state to cover fewer hard-working Wisconsinites,” she says.

Though Burke has almost no voting record to point to, both Dye and Kane say that the Democrat has successfully fashioned herself as an alternative to Walker—enough to convince Wisconsinites to vote for her in November.