June 17, 2005
Bush is back

Despite all those visits during the campaign last year, President Bush lost Minnesota. But he's coming back anyway. He'll be in Maple Grove Friday to talk about Medicare, but of course he'll also probably hit on a number of other topics. Bush's poll numbers, both nationally and in Minnesota, have been sagging. His Social Security plan seems to be foundering, the insurgency continues in Iraq, and gas prices are high. What's a president to do? Hold a "town hall" forum. MPR's Mark Zdechlik has a look at the president's strategy and what the critics say:

Political analysts say Bush is using town hall forums so much because he comes across best in informal settings. Critics complain the forums offer no public policy debate and instead are crafted exclusively promote Bush proposals.

"I think it's so typical of the Republican Party to close out everybody they don't agree with," says Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Dean says the Bush administration's policy of shutting out opposition in his appearances is emblematic of what he says is an administration that has little respect for people who disagree with the president.

"There's nothing wrong with a town meeting. I think they're terrific," says Dean. "I think the problem is that these meetings that the president's having really aren't town meetings. They're really rallies with the faithful, and I don't think that gets you much in the way of policy."

The Star Tribune looks at the Medicare prescription drug benefit:

About 41 million Medicare recipients, more than 675,000 in Minnesota, qualify for the drug plan, the first major expansion of the health program since it was broadened to cover people with disabilities.

But counselors and advocates in Minnesota say they expect widespread confusion about the program. And for some, the letters that are being mailed to seniors are just adding to the uncertainty.

"An 87-year-old lady I work with got her [Social Security] letter. She was baffled and just handed it to me," said social worker Barb Lopata with Senior Community Services in Minnetonka. "I could help her fill out the application, but what about all the people without somebody to help?"

For many seniors without an advocate, "there will be a lot of baffled people," predicted Janine Stiles, who coordinates a network of nonprofit agencies in Minnesota that has received federal funding to advise Medicare recipients.

And MPR's Lorna Benson takes a look at another part of the federal health care equation, Medicaid.

President Bush wants to cut billions of dollars from Medicaid, the health benefit program for low income and disabled people. He says it's time to rein in what has become an enormously expensive program. Medicaid spending tops more than $300 billion a year. That's up about 50 percent in the past five years.

The growth isn't expected to slow down. The Congressional Budget Office says unless Medicaid spending rates are changed, the program will cost nearly $600 billion by 2012.

Initially, Bush proposed cutting $60 billion over 10 years. But that proposal met with fierce opposition from states and health care activists. Congress eventually reduced the president's proposed cuts to $10 billion over five years.

Still, a $10 billion cut is a substantial one that is likely to affect most recipients in most states, including Minnesota. In Minneapolis, officials at Hennepin County Medical Center fear they might bear the brunt of any cuts. HCMC is a public safety net hospital that serves a disproportionate number of people on Medicaid.

So in other words the federal cuts could make this year's fight over health care at the state Capitol look like just the opening round.

And what about things at the Capitol? Senate Republicans offered what they said was a new plan to end the special session. Bottom line--not all that new, and special session continues. Here's the Pioneer Press take:

Senate Republicans on Thursday offered a split-the-difference deal that would rely on an expectation of growing tax collections and a new state-operated casino to end a budget impasse that threatens to shut down Minnesota state government July 1.

Senate Minority Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, said the offer would boost spending by about $774 million over Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget.

But state economist Tom Stinson said a key assumption in the plan an expectation that revenue growth the state realized between last summer and this February would be repeated is flawed. Stinson said that growth already was included in a February revenue forecast, and the Republicans are double-counting it in their budget plan.

Day asked Pawlenty in May to order a new revenue forecast in hopes it would show that an improving economy would allow the state to spend more over the next two years than now appears affordable without a tax increase. Pawlenty has largely ignored the request.

And support for the racino hasn't exactly taken off either. So get ready for week five of the special session starting Monday as the clock keeps ticking toward a shutdown. And have a good weekend.

Posted by Mike Mulcahy at 6:45 AM