By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature convened on Tuesday and within seconds ended a special session called by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to expand Medicaid, dashing chances for the state to receive a one-time bonus of $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding.
The Senate and Assembly gaveled in and adjourned the special session in mostly empty chambers with only a handful of lawmakers in attendance.
The Assembly session lasted all of about 40 seconds, while the Senate was done in less than 10 seconds. There was no debate, let alone any votes taken, on the bill Evers called on the Legislature to pass. It marked the latest in a long line of defeats for Democrats on the issue.
Democrats have for years advocated in vain to expand eligibility for the state’s Medicaid program known as BadgerCare Plus. This time, with the $1 billion in federal stimulus money at play, Democrats said it made no sense not to join 38 other states in accepting expansion.
Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz said rejecting Medicaid expansion was “absurd” and that no private business would make the same decision with so much federal money on the table.
“Wisconsin has essentially been handed a $1 billion dollar lottery ticket,” Hintz said. “The only acceptable answer is to cash it by expanding BadgerCare, and then invest it in our economic recovery.”
Republicans who have long opposed expansion called the latest attempt a political stunt. Republicans say they don’t want to move people from private insurance to the BadgerCare Plus plan and that they worry the federal money will dry up, forcing the state to pay a higher share for coverage.
Evers called the special session last week, promising to use $850 million of the $1 billion in federal money for a host of economic development projects. He called for saving the other $150 million.
Evers, in a statement after the vote, called it “breathtaking” that Republicans would turn down the $1 billion.
“I think we should be doing everything we can to make sure our economy bounces back from this pandemic, and this special session was about finding common ground and getting bipartisan support for our efforts,” Evers said. “Clearly, it’s disappointing Republicans don’t seem to take that responsibility seriously, and they’ll have to explain to Wisconsinites why they made the decision they did today.”
Republican Senate President Chris Kapenga defended the rejection, saying there was no point in continuing a debate over the expansion that’s been going on for “three presidents now,” despite all the money on the table.
Republicans have said if Evers wanted to fund those projects, he could instead tap some of the $2.5 billion coming to the state under the coronavirus stimulus bill.
Accepting federal money available through the Affordable Care Act would increase the minimum income threshold to qualify from 100% of the federal poverty rate to 138%, which would increase the income eligibility for a single person from $12,880 a year to $17,774.
That would make about 91,000 more people eligible for BadgerCare Plus in Wisconsin.
In addition to the one-time $1 billion approved under the coronavirus stimulus bill, Wisconsin would see about $635 million in additional savings over the next two years due to a higher federal reimbursement under Medicaid expansion, based on estimates from the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Wisconsin would have seen an additional $2.8 billion in savings between 2013 and 2019 had it accepted full Medicaid expansion, according to the Fiscal Bureau.