Sunday, July 10, 2011

Joel McNally: Walker administration hazardous to health

With his administration launching an unprecedented assault on education and public health throughout the state, Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s political agenda literally appears to be to keep Wisconsin fat and dumb.
Far more needs to be written about the slashing of funding for public education by nearly a billion dollars, the largest gutting of public schools in state history. Hundreds of teachers in Milwaukee and around the state will be thrown out of work as children suffer.
But, for now, let’s consider Walker’s opposition to public health programs, something that shows just as clearly how mean-spirited and extreme this administration really is.
Some sour tightwads have always been shortsighted enough to believe education doesn’t matter to them if they don’t have any kids in school. But health matters to absolutely everyone, doesn’t it? And no sighted person in Wisconsin can go out in public these summer days without becoming aware the public health epidemic of obesity is massive in this state.
What sort of state public health official would refuse to apply for federal funds to combat adult and childhood obesity, reduce diabetes and other chronic diseases, promote healthier lifestyles and eliminate avoidable deaths from smoking and alcoholism? The answer is a public health official who cares absolutely nothing about public health.
Walker did not appoint Dennis Smith as his secretary of health services because Smith had any expertise or training in public health. Walker appointed Smith because he was a right-wing ideologue who opposed public health programs.
In the administration of President George W. Bush, working for Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, Smith threatened to kill Wisconsin’s popular SeniorCare prescription drug program. Only a last minute amendment by Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl saved it.
Before Walker appointed him, Smith was a senior fellow at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, where he advocated states drop out of Medicaid, the federal-state program that provides health care for the poor, elderly and disabled.
Now, unbelievably, Smith is trying to prevent the Milwaukee Health Department and University Health Services in Madison from applying for about $27.5 million in federal funds that could save lives and prevent serious health problems in the state. The grants are available under President Obama’s federal health care reform law, which both Smith and Walker oppose. The programs cost the state nothing, but the applications require a letter of support from the state.
Smith has an absolutely incredible explanation for refusing to provide even that token support. He thinks the state already saves enough lives.
“Why are we asking for taxpayers’ money for stuff that we are already doing?” he asks rhetorically.
Well, if a state is already saving some lives and sparing some folks from debilitating disease, doesn’t it make sense to prevent even more disease and save even more lives?
Clearly, they aren’t the lives of Smith’s loved ones.
What many people don’t realize is that right-wing ideologues such as Walker and Smith really don’t believe in government doing good things for the citizens of their state. It’s not a financial issue. It’s an ideological issue.
As a tax and financial issue, conservatives should be in favor of federal health care reform and preventive health care that keeps medical problems from becoming far more serious and expensive to treat.
Hard as it may be to believe, right-wing extremists simply don’t believe government should play any role in either saving lives or making the lives of citizens any better. This is the outdated, extreme, right-wing philosophy I grew up with in Indiana. Many people do not realize Indiana, not the deep South, was the longtime national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, which had a powerful influence on Hoosier politics.
During the 1960s, an Indianapolis mayor bragged his city had never had a race riot because it had never accepted any federal funds. Federal funds, he claimed, came “with strings attached” requiring equal rights for minorities, which only leads to trouble.
That ignorant political philosophy ended with the election of a moderate, intelligent Republican, Richard Lugar, as mayor of Indianapolis in 1968. Lugar became known as “Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor” and accepted federal development funds hand over fist, transforming Indianapolis into a dynamic, modern city.
Proving such enlightened leadership is no longer in fashion as Republicans move back into the political dark ages, the Indiana tea party is targeting Lugar, now the state’s senior Republican senator, for defeat in 2012.
Under Walker, millions of dollars to improve public health and save lives are no more welcome in Wisconsin than nearly a billion dollars in federal transportation funds to create thousands of jobs and make the state a key link in a modern, national, high-speed rail network.
We can’t recall these dangerous political throwbacks fast enough.
Joel McNally of Milwaukee writes a regular column for The Capital Times.

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