Tim Pawlenty's New Deal

How Minnesota's new governor set the table for this year's budget-slashing "crisis" in state healthcare spending

Of course, conventional wisdom is that there won't be any new taxes. For starters, new tax bills must start in the state House, which is under Republican control. And Pawlenty and many other Republicans last year campaigned for office on a no-new-taxes pledge, a stance that the new governor has reaffirmed since the budget crisis began.

"It's just as sinister as it seems," says Kris Jacobs, executive director of the JOBS NOW Coalition. "The goal has been for a very long time to starve this kind of government out of existence. And when I say 'this kind of government,' I mean everything that makes Minnesota a place people moved to."

And with the exception of Minneapolis's Pogemiller, chair of the Senate Tax Committee, DFLers aren't yet talking publicly about raising taxes, either--for two reasons, according to Wayne Cox, head of the St. Paul-based Citizens for Tax Justice, a project sponsored by organized labor. "Their strategy is that you just keep quiet until Pawlenty reveals his budget, and until people see what this is really going to mean," says Cox. "The bad news has to be brought out by the new governor. It's a not a strategy I agree with. They're not serving the public well if they don't come out talking about it now, but there's some logic to their approach."

Cox favors a more straightforward one. "We should be telling people that we don't have the money for these tax cuts," he says. "We need to just go back to the system that worked before. So they made this no-new-taxes pledge. Well, they also pledged not to use tax cuts to cut services. And they pledged there would be no service cuts."

But he's not optimistic. "It may well be that this type of crisis is what's needed to bring about the rebirth of some real civic leadership. Unless some leadership emerges, I think the draconian cuts will become law. They control the governorship and the House, and the Senate is in a much narrower position. I think that the governor is going to get his way.

"It's utterly ironic that you would put the health of the most vulnerable citizens in jeopardy to preserve the tax cuts for the wealthiest," says Cox. "That's not the Minnesota of the past. But perhaps we're about to see that it really is the Minnesota of today."

 

Life or Death
Real people tell real stories about the state's medical safety net and what would happen without it

By Leyla Kokmen

You've seen the headlines. A state deficit that could soar to $5.5 billion. The enormous expense of Medical Assistance (expected to enroll nearly half a million people and cost Minnesota $2.5 billion by next year). A new governor, quick to target the program to make up some of the state's colossal shortfall.

What these stories often forget to mention, though, is that the state's healthcare programs are about much more than just dollars. They are a safety net that catches people when they fall on hard times. From the homeless, disabled man who needs seizure medication to the retired couple who can no longer afford skyrocketing insurance premiums, these are people who literally have nowhere else to turn. And contrary to conservative stereotypes, many have spent their whole lives working hard and paying their bills. A stroke, a layoff, an accident, and you might find yourself in the same vulnerable position.

Over the past month, we talked to several folks who have, for various reasons, found themselves relying on Minnesota's medical safety net. Here are three of their stories.

 

Joe Johnson
One Thing After Another

Joe Johnson says Medical Assistance was about the only thing that kept his family hanging on over the past year. "I just hope they don't cut it too bad. I know the shape I'm in and there are a lot of other people like me," says the 44-year-old husband and father. Without Medical Assistance, he continues, "we'd be so far in debt, we'd never see our way out of it. I don't know if we'd be able to sell everything fast enough."

Johnson's wife, Joan, her pale face peeking out of a sky-blue bathrobe, sits next to her husband. "I would probably not be here," she murmurs.

In July 2001, Joe, a veteran sheet-metal fabricator, quit his factory job in Monticello for a better opportunity in Fridley. His previous job provided health benefits for his family, and his new position would, too--but not before a waiting period had elapsed. Until then, Joe reasoned, he would carry the COBRA insurance from his previous job. The payment would be a hefty $500 each month, but he figured his higher wages (he was now earning $4.50 more per hour) would cover it.

"It was tough to carry the payment. But what I was thinking was, pay for it for three months, then get in full-time there and get on their insurance," he says. "But it hasn't quite worked out that way. It was kind of a gamble."

The gamble might have worked, had it not been for a succession of unexpected events. A few months after Joe started his new job, Joan, 45, learned that the cancer she had fought in 1999 had recurred. Then the couple's 14-year-old daughter, Holly, started suffering from symptoms they would later learn was a rare form of cancer. And, owing to September 11 and the faltering economy, Joe's company began to falter--six months after starting work he was laid off.

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