People of Faith United in Wisconsin

By Phil Haslanger 2-23-2011

In the midst of the national uproar over the attempt by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to remove most collective bargaining rights for most public employees, there's another issue lurking in the budget measure that the governor is trying to push through the state legislature which takes aim at health care for the working poor, senior citizens, children, the disabled, and others trapped in poverty. The changes that would result could affect 1.2 million of the most vulnerable people in Wisconsin. As a result, a coalition of faith-based groups seeking both to protect workers' rights and the most vulnerable people in society have called for shared sacrifice to deal with budget woes. This sacrifice would include the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

Walker originally proposed to remove any legislative involvement in changing the terms of Medicaid eligibility. Medicaid is the federal program that provides health care for the poor. A modification of that plan which is now before lawmakers would give a legislative panel a chance to review any changes. These changes could restrict eligibility, increase premiums, modify benefits, or revise reimbursements to doctors and hospitals.

States pick up a significant share of the cost of Medicaid, and it has a big impact on state budgets. What advocates for the poor fear is that by taking unilateral control of the program in Wisconsin, Walker will drastically cut back on the number of innovative health-care programs in the state, which have been developed over recent years.

To deepen the concerns even further, the new governor's appointee who heads the state's health department, Dennis Smith, has in the past floated around with the idea of states dropping out of the Medicaid program altogether.

Faith leaders from various denominations, Christian and Jewish groups, and interfaith activist groups are mobilizing not only for the immediate battle over bargaining rights and the shift in decision-making over Medicaid, but also for the larger state budget battle that will begin next month. The governor's proposals that are now drawing attention are only fixes to measures intended to balance the current fiscal year budget.

"Budgets are moral documents," said a statement announcing a press conference and prayer vigil by religious leaders around the Capitol in Madison last Tuesday. "They convey our values and priorities."

Cutting health care for the most vulnerable people in society and taking away workers' rights to bargain are values that do not square with the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, or other faith groups. As the picket signs outside the Capitol say, "All religions believe in justice."

The protests over Walker's attempt to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights is where the powerful forces of politics are engaged in an enormous struggle. The voices of the low-income parents, the disabled, the elderly, and the children are barely breaking through.

This, then, is where faith leaders need to be so that they can amplify these voices and carry the message of God's vision of what can be to the people in power. Those in power are now tilting the balance way too far towards those who have much by taking away from those who have little.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, a suburb of Madison.

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