By Doug Hissom Special to Published Jan 26, 2007 at 5:19 AM

The Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, Milwaukee’s version of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, set its conservative sights on squashing the idea that all Wisconsinites should be covered by health insurance. The WPRI put Lakeland College economics professor Scott Niederjohn and Mark Schug, director of the UWM Center for Economic Education, to the task of tearing down what’s known as the Wisconsin Health Plan.

The Wisconsin Health Plan would allow residents to purchase health insurance from any number of providers, eliminating the need for most small businesses to offer health coverage for their employees. The plan would be paid for through a sliding scale payroll tax from 3 percent to 12 percent on businesses and a 2 percent assessment on employee’s wages.

It also covers people without insurance or a job. Initial cost estimates came in at around $12 billion a year. The state would save about $500 million in costs over what it spends on health coverage now, say the plan’s backers. Estimates are that businesses already spend about 15 percent of their payroll on employees’ insurance. 

The plan’s chief proponent, David Riemer, devised a similar plan for city of Milwaukee employees when he was chief advisor to former Mayor John Norquist. Riemer most recently was director of administration for Gov. Jim Doyle and now consults full-time on the Wisconsin health Plan.

The WPRI scholars’ main argument that the costs estimates are too low and that the payroll tax will ultimately be about 15 percent, discouraging employers from creating high-wage jobs. They also bemoan that the plan does nothing to affect the escalating cost of health care and suggest it is not wedded in the free-market as much as they would like.

An indication that the WPRI might be off the mark this time comes from the Journal Sentinel, the newspaper that usually puts all things uttered from WPRI on the front page. This latest missive received nary a word from the daily.

In an interview, Riemer says the WPRI duo shouldn’t get a lot of attention for their work, since it’s quite premature to estimate the real cost of the plan. He says the prominent health care research firm known as The Lewin Group is crunching the numbers again and should be issuing its report by March. He says he tried to meet with the WPRI duo several times but they kept putting it off.

“I don’t quite know what’s bothering these guys,” he says. “How much more market-oriented can you get when you have 4 million buyers shopping around making choices based on price and quality? Our plan makes the market work better.”

Riemer says the payroll tax is not the be all and end all in paying for the plan, just one suggestion as a way to continue making employers pay a fair share of insurance coverage. The way the system works now, he says, is that those employers offering insurance end up paying for those who don’t through higher health care and insurance costs. The tax is one idea to level the playing field. 

State Rep. Jon Richards (D-Milwaukee) is the leading advocate for the concept in the state Legislature.

Niederjohn is no stranger to the WPRI researchers’ fold, most recently authoring an attack on the Milwaukee Public School’s teachers union, promoting the idea that the union’s negotiating stance on a residency requirement is an example of union greed overarching quality education. 

Ironically, Niederjohn wrote a WPRI piece last year arguing that competitive insurance bidding would reduce costs for school districts, which is precisely the premise of the Wisconsin Health Plan.

Screw the Bamboo: The Third Ward’s foray into creating hip public green space has taken what appears to be a permanent hiatus after a Milwaukee Common Council committee this week shelved what’s known as the Bamboo Park project. The space slated for the end of Erie Street was put on indefinite hold after a project by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District gobbled up most of the construction area.

Downtown Ald. Bob Bauman did not have kind words for Milwaukee Department of City Development representatives after they told the Public Works Committee that the space -- featuring bamboo tress and illuminated benches at the culmination of the Riverwalk -- could be fashioned while MMSD did its thing as well.

“You’re either lying or you don’t know what you’re doing,” Bauman told the reps.

The project received only one bid for $1.2 million -- a leap from the original $800,000 that was budgeted -- and was supposed to be completed this year. Given that nothing has been done, Bauman pushed through the delay until MMSD is finished with its effort in about three years. The DCD folks said that it would add another $77,000 to the cost of the park with the delay.

Bauman, a one-time supporter of the park, called DCD’s responses “a bunch of hooey.”

Club Chaos: The city’s largest club catering to black clientele was dealt some harsh punishment by a Milwaukee Common Council committee this week when it voted to suspend the license of Questions Entertainment, 3041 W. North Ave., for 45 days. The 7,000-sq. ft. club has been the scene of some 16 police incidents in the past year ranging from a shooting, cruising, under age patrons, fights and over-capacity citations.

The place is run by Devon Reid, who used to run a North Side club called Junior’s Sports Bar and Grill several years ago, but then shuttered that operation after various nefarious activities were swirling about the place. Reid received the support of some prominent local pols in front of the committee this time, including state Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee) and former Mayor Marvin Pratt.

Pratt had come to the aid of Reid before when Junior’s was operating, casting the decisive tie-breaking Common Council vote in 2003 allowing Junior’s to avoid a 10-day suspension. Later that same day Pratt held a fund-raiser at the club. The full Council considers the suspension Feb. 6.

Big Business Climbs on the Scales of Justice: Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has looked down from its pious perch as the state’s big business lobbyists and declared the upcoming state Supreme Court election as one where the “stakes are incredibly high for the business community.”

Written by chief lobbyist Jim Buchen, the WMC issued a three-page endorsement of Washington County Judge Annette Ziegler over her main opponent, Madison attorney Linda Clifford. A third candidate, Madison lawyer Joseph Summers, is not considered to be a contender.

It seems Buchen’s group is still smarting from earlier court decisions that threw out medical malpractice award caps, calling the court “Wisconsin’s self-appointed super legislature” and saying the court’s 4-3 majority likes to “invent legal theories out of whole cloth and disregard well-established limitations on their powers.”

Other than saying that Ziegler intends to “interpret laws and not legislate from the bench,” Buchen’s campaign tome offers no other reason to vote for Ziegler and instead, spends the bulk of the paper attacking Clifford.

Buchen contends that Clifford is bad news because she is not a judge; has opposed the constitutional same-sex marriage ban amendment and, god forbid, argues legal theories instead of going with the Ziegler view of the court having a modest role in society.  “Clifford’s legal arguments ... demonstrate a willingness to set aside laws, and even voter-approved constitutional amendments, based on her personal philosophy.”

Buchen says Clifford’s evilness is clearly showed by her accepting money from lawyers (who, in most judicial races, are the ones who donate to campaigns.)

Ziegler probably needs Buchen and WMC’s support after her campaign got off to a bumbling start when it was discovered that her Web site contained pictures of her Photoshopped in front of various county courthouses. The digital enhancement was the bane of jokes for the better part of the past two months.

The primary is Feb. 20 and the general election is April 3.

From Fish Wrap to Shrink Wrap: When a newspaper shrinks its size to cut newsprint costs, the reason has always been the “industry standard.” So wrote Journal Sentinel Editor Marty Kaiser in justifying the paper’s lopping off a full half-inch of its news hole.

What readers get will be shorter stories, less in-depth news and one-paragraph summaries of complex local issues. Not only will there be a smaller news hole, but the paper’s new redesign has also added larger section headers and graphics to gobble up even more words. Another new feature looks to be advertising on the front page of certain sections -- something we’re certain to see more of as Journal Communications attempts to maximize revenue from every speck of white space it can.

Latest reports have advertising revenue down 0.2 percent at the daily. The penny-squeezing sales trend was spotted on the newspaper’s Web site not too long ago when fees were instituted in order for readers to gain access to archived stories.

The Journal’s community newspapers, which ring the city, had substantial losses in revenue; likely the reason the company gutted staff and consolidated several of the weeklies into one paper, which is now inserted into Thursday’s Journal Sentinel. (Expect the announcement soon that the community newspapers -- now called [insert suburb here] NOW -- are enjoying massive circulation increases.) The tabloids also feature the menace of front-page advertising.

Stand Down for News: WTMJ-AM radio finally rid its airwaves of Paul Harvey, the ancient broadcaster who has become more of a streaming shill for products that cater to old folks than attempting to present news, or even “the rest of the story.” Station management likely saw its listeners twirling the dial when Harvey came on three times a day to give a rambling take on current events that lately weren’t all that current. Now if the station would only get rid of the incessant “biggest stick in the state” growling pitch from Jonathan Green at the top and bottom of the hour before he gets labeled “the biggest d*ck in the state.”

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.