GOP House Budget Fray’s Nation’s Safety Net

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 24, 2018

Just six months ago, the Republican-controlled House passed their massive $1.5 trillion tax cuts for the nation’s largest corporations and to the wealthiest 1 percent. The day of reckoning has now come as the GOP spells out how it will rein in the nation’s spiraling deficit through its recently released FY 2019 budget resolution. On Tuesday, the House Budget Committee unveiled its 85-page budget resolution, making trillions in spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, he nation’s two largest entitlement programs, health care, and programs benefiting veterans, students and working families. ‘

The budget titled, “A Brighter American Future,” calls for $8.1 trillion of deficit reduction while including reconciliation instructions for 11 House authorizing committees to enact at least $302 billion over nine years. Consistent with levels signed into law in February 2018, this budget sets topline discretionary spending at $1.24 trillion ($647 billion for defense spending and $597 billion for non-defense discretionary spending).

The budget blueprint cleared the House Budget Committee by a partisan vote of 21-13, with a vote, with a Democratic and Republican lawmaker absent from the vote. Political insiders Fortunately, Capitol Hill-watchers say the 2019 House GOP Budget proposal is unlikely to make it before the full House or pass this year. But, it sends a message out to voters about the Republican’s legislative priorities to rein in a skyrocketing deficits and debt by slashing entitlement and popular domestic programs.

Putting the Wealthy and Powerful Ahead

When unveiling the House GOP’s budget, Chairman Steve Womack of Arkansas, notes that it addresses “unsustainable mandatory spending, continues economic growth, encourages better government and greater accountability, and empowers state and local governments.”

During a CNBC interview on June 22, 2018, Womack said, “We have done our job and it is a reflection of what we believe is the stark reality of the fiscal condition of our country right, unstable deficits year over year and $21 trillion in debt that is going to continue to grow over time. We just felt like it was time to sound the alarm and do something about and this and this particular budget resolution does it.”
Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline counters Womack’s rosy assessment of the House GOP budget. ““If a budget is a statement of your values, then this budget shows Republicans are putting the wealthy and powerful ahead of working people. Just a few months after passing a massive tax cut for billionaires and corporate special interests, Republicans are proposing to repeal the Affordable Care Act; cut funding for road repairs and other infrastructure projects; cripple Medicare and Social Security; make deep cuts to Pell grants; and repeal Dodd-Frank so the big banks can do whatever they want once again. In fact, this budget is so terrible, it’s hard to imagine Republicans will ever bring it to the floor,” says the Rhode Island lawmaker.

“But despite an extraordinary past and a booming economy thanks to tax reform, there are real fiscal challenges casting a shadow of doubt on the nation’s future, including $21 trillion of debt that is rapidly on the rise. We must overcome the challenges,” says Womack.

Womack says that his budget plan “offers a balanced and responsible plan to not only address the challenges but give rise to the nation’s prosperity.”

Medicare and Medicaid on Budgetary Chopping Block

Numerous federal programs affecting old Americans would be put on the budgetary chopping block, which includes another call for full repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), leaving 23 million Americans without health coverage. $5.4 trillion of cuts would come from mandatory or automatic spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The plan calls for raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, as well as combining Medicare Parts A and B, and allowing for privatization of the entitlement program. The projected cuts for Medicare alone add up to $537 billion.

The GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare runs counter to what Americans want, preserving the program in its current form. The Kaiser Family Foundation released poll results in 2015, celebrating Medicare’s 50th Anniversary, the respondents by a margin of more than two to one, do not want to see their traditional Medicare privatized.

As to Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that helps with medical costs for some people with limited income and resources, the GOP budget plan limits per capita payments and allows states to turn it into a block grant. It also introduces stricter work requirements for beneficiaries and shifting to a capped system linked to medical inflation rates, these changes cutting about $1.5 trillion. Additionally, Womack’s budget would no longer allow people on Social Security disability to receive unemployment insurance at the same time, slashing $4 billion for the FY 2019 budget.

Outside of mandatory spending programs, the budget would cut trillions from “welfare,” federal retirement programs and veterans programs, while overhauling rules for medical liability lawsuits.

“This budget proposal is a direct attack on the quality of life of America’s seniors,” said Robert Roach, Jr., President of the Alliance of Retired Americans. “We must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. We predicted cuts to our hard-earned benefits after the GOP passed their unfunded tax cuts for billionaires and corporations. Unfortunately, that reality is now staring us in the face,” he says.

Adds Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “Speaker Ryan is obviously making good on his promise to come after safety net programs to pay for the reckless Trump/GOP tax reform. In so doing, he and his party are sending a clear message: older, poorer, and disabled Americans are not as important as the billionaires and big corporations who are the main beneficiaries of a tax scheme that is blowing up our nation’s debt.”

Before the House Budget Committee vote, Joyce A. Rogers, AARP’s Senior Vice President Government Affairs, urged that Medicare not be cut. She called for good changes such as “reducing prescription drugs costs, enhancing payment and delivery reforms, and addressing the widespread fraud, waste, and abuse in the program.”

According to Rogers, “The typical senior, with an annual income of approximately $26,000 and already spending one out of every six dollars on health care, counts on Social Security for the majority of their income, and on Medicare for access to affordable health coverage.”

Finally, Rogers notes that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays vital role in providing nutritional assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families, many seniors. “In 2016, 8.7 million (over 40 percent of) SNAP households had at least one adult age 50 or older. Proposals to block grant the program, or expand work requirements, will make SNAP less responsive and accessible in times of need,” she says.

Educate Yourself About the Issues

With the upcoming Rhode Island primary on September 12, and midterm elections just 135 days, AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell urges all registered Rhode Island voters to review candidates’ positions on the issues and go to the polls and cast your ballot. “The 2018 midterms will be among the most historic elections in a generation,” she said.

Nationwide, the balance of power in both houses of Congress, as well as in many state legislatures and governorships, could shift because of the results in the fall’s general elections, says Connell.

While the most common way to vote is for registered voters to go to their local polling place on Election Day, Connell said that many family caregivers and others who may have difficulty voting on that day may be eager to take advantage of other methods of casting a ballot.

“With all that unpaid family caregivers have on their plates each day, it can often be hard for them to get to the polls on Election Day,” said Connell. “If a caregivers’ loved one is voting, it can be even harder, especially if their loved one has mobility issues. When available, alternative methods of casting a ballot (a mail ballot) are essential to allowing our state’s family caregivers and others to participate in this important election.” To learn more about mail ballots, visit https://vote.sos.ri.gov/

To mobilize it’s 35 million members, AARP has launched “Be the Difference. Vote,” a campaign designed to maximize the political influence of over age 50 voters. The initiative seeks to get the largest possible turnout of older voters to the polls during the ongoing primaries and in the November general election. It will also put front and center issues like Medicare security and family caregiving, along with other topics of particular interest to older voters.

To learn more about “Be the Difference. Vote,” check out aarp.org/vote to see how to get involved and state informed.

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Olon Reeder’s Fix for the State’s Ailing Economy

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2014

As the 2014 General Assembly session ended, CNBC released its annual Top States for Business rankings. It was not good news for the Ocean State. According to the report’s findings, Rhode Island finished last among the 50 states for the third time in the last four years. States were ranked in these 10 categories: cost of doing business, economy, infrastructure, workforce, quality of life, technology and innovation, business friendliness, education, cost of living and access to capital.

After the release of the scathing report, CNBC senior correspondent Scott Cohn caught up with Governor Chafee in Chicago, attending a regional Democratic Governors Association conference, who gave his thoughts to the report’s outcome. Rhode Island was on an upswing with the state putting funding into education, infrastructure and workforce development.

Reviving Up the State’s Economic Engine

Yes, as Chafee noted, a Rhode Island Senate staffer says that economic development was a priority on Smith Hill this year.

Gregg Parė, the chamber’s Director of Communication, says state lawmakers agreed with Chafee’s positive assessment of the progress made to make the state more competitive. “Many important components of the Senate’s Rhode to Work action plan to improve the skills of the existing workforce as well as the workforce of tomorrow were passed by the Assembly,” he noted.

Paré notes a centerpiece of the Road to Work plan was placing responsibility for coordination of workforce development with the Governor’s Workforce Board. Legislation was passed to accomplish this, ensuring that Rhode Islanders can access the training programs they need in a timely and effective way, he said.

“Additionally, the Jobs Development Fund was exempted from “indirect cost recovery,” which had directed a portion of the employer funded program for workforce development to the state. This provides an additional $1.2 million for worker training programs,” adds Paré.

Paré detailed some educational reforms that were addressed by lawmakers this year. The Board of Education was directed to seek lower cost but equally effective high school equivalency tests to the GED, and to reinstate a hardship waiver of fees for low-income test takers. This removes a potential barrier for obtaining an equivalency which can open doors to employment opportunities,” he says. Enacted legislation also provided more time for those receiving cash assistance to undergo training programs, and to provide professional development for high school counselors to ensure they are helping students as they enter today’s workforce. Passed legislation also helps communities transition to full-day kindergarten, a proven, effective way to better prepare students for success in school.

Paré says the newly enacted budget invests in initiatives the Senate has worked on for years which will have long-term benefits for the economy. “The Senate’s 2013 Moving the Needle report recommended reducing the corporate tax, which the 2015 budget reduces from 9 percent to 7 percent. At the same time, it shifts the method of corporate tax assessment to a single sales factor, which removes a disincentive for investing in jobs and property in Rhode Island. The budget also eliminates the cliff on the estate tax, and increases the exemption to $1.5 million.”

Summing up the legislative session, Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed said: “The budget invests in Rhode Island’s future. The reduction of the corporate tax rate and increase in the estate tax threshold help to make Rhode Island more competitive. The transportation infrastructure fund invests in the state’s roads and bridges. Our many initiatives in the area of job training will help the state’s economy continue to move in the right direction. I’m very confident that those initiatives will help students coming out of schools seeking employment as well as the state’s older workforce which is seeking employment.”

We Have More Work to Do

But, while it may have been a banner your for economic development reforms, Olon Reeder, President of Reeder Associates, a Southern New England based independent public relations and multi-media communications practice, calls on Rhode Island’s lawmakers to continue their focus on economic reform in next year’s session. More needs to be done, says the small businessperson, former public official and former award-winning media personality.

With the State of Rhode Island coming up with a new comprehensive economic policy early next year, the North Providence resident recently released his suggested economic development action agenda, as how to improve the state’s long term quality of life, through investing in people, communities and small businesses.

“We are at a critical crossroads where we must overcome our negative self attitudes and start taking actions ourselves if we all want our state and our lives to become successful,” says Reeder.

In his economic platform, Reeder calls for tying lifelong education to economic growth. “Brain power is a key element driving worldwide demands and economic activity today, through the convergence of non stop knowledge, creative economy, enterprise and innovation, art-design connections, which all start with lifelong learning,” he says.

Reeder says personal empowerment creates the environment for change “Empowerment encourages, and develops the skills for, self-sufficiency, giving people the abilities and knowledge that will allow them to overcome obstacles in life or work environment and ultimately, help them develop within themselves or in the society,” he says.

Reeder observes that companies are constantly replacing full-time employees and now relying upon independent contractors, where people who once counted on a steady pay check are now being left to fend for themselves in a hyper-competitive self employed market.

Based on 2011 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in Rhode Island, there re over 73 thousand self-employed contributing over $3 billion annually to the state’s economy. Most self-employed are hired out of necessity, are done so locally and through word of mouth. Because freelancers depend so much on self promotion to get their jobs, they must focus on the local markets, along with showcasing their diverse personal talents, marketing their skills to business owners in their community, along trying to compete with others for opportunities.

Reeder recognizes the importance of valuing our places, spaces and communities. “More than ever, people must be connected to where we live, work, play, stay and travel. People expect places and spaces they interact with daily to be vibrant, active, socially appealing, culturally stimulating and help them in improving their quality of life, especially with their physical and mental health,” he says.

Reeder notes active living communities provide opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to engage in routine daily physical activity, he says, like pedestrian and bicycle friendly design, access to intermodal transportation, mixed use development, ample recreation, walkable neighborhoods, access to fresh and healthy foods and commerce centers.

“Our economic revitalization is relevant to healthy and sustainable communities because active living communities encourage individuals to be more physically active, improving health by lowering citizens’ risk for health conditions, adds Reeder. “Active living communities create enhance quality of life, attract business and knowledge workers, and contribute to ongoing economic development,” he says.

Reeder noted that technology is a must, as people are now “required” to have 24/7 365 access to the Internet and must now communicate through social media to live, work, and transact personal activity, he calls for providing everyone with free online access “as a necessity of our 21st century lifestyles.”

Finally, Reeder thinks “Demand Driven Experiences” are necessary for not only reinventing our state’s manufacturing, but in changing our self attitudes about how Rhode Islanders see themselves, ultimately affecting expectations others may have about the perception of Rhode Island as the worst place for business.

“Because people no longer buy things for their personal benefit, they want enhancements to fulfill missing elements of their lives,” adds Reeder, noting that experiences are crucial for businesses and locations as a branding and marketing tool, especially with efforts in Rhode Island attracting people to live and travel here for our entertainment, food and lifestyles.”

“Using our experiences to effectively promote market and give an iconic brand, we must also stay true to the “real Rhode Island,” to our proud independent and working class heritage, the ethnic and cultural diversity in our state, and preserving our unique natural resources,” he says.

State lawmakers must be commended for their successful efforts to slash regulation and enact laws to make Rhode Island a more business-friendly place to operate. At press time, Reeder, a Rhode Island native, whose family has been very prominent in Southern New England for over four generations in small business, real estate, building contracting and public service, continues his efforts to get his voice heard by General Assembly leadership, state policy makers, business groups, even gubernatorial candidates.

Hopefully, they will choose to closely listen to Reeder and others who may well hold the keys to fixing Rhode Island’s sluggish economy.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a writer who covers aging, health care, medical issues, and the economy. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.