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Session gives glimpse of hard choices in federal budget

April 3, 2011
In The News

La Crosse Tribune

By Betsy Bloom

Nearing the end of a rambling discussion about farm subsidies, Debbie Haggerty managed to sum up the whole federal budget debate in a single comment.

"See, everything, it's just not an easy decision," the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student observed.

Nearly two dozen people showed up Saturday morning at UW-L's Cartwright Center to take a hypothetical whack at identifying ways to close an estimated $1.29 trillion deficit.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, set up the 90-minute budget workshop with the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that has presented similar sessions throughout the country.

The aim wasn't just gathering ideas but educating people about the process, Kind said. "Try to illuminate ... some of the tough trade-offs."

"It puts you in the driver's seat, makes you basically a congressperson for a day," Kind said.

The rub is, the areas the public often supports cutting, such as foreign aid or the environment, account for only a small fraction of the budget, said Sara Imhof, the coalition's midwest regional director and health policy analyst.

Meanwhile, areas least favored for cuts - Social Security and Medicare, for example - can offer the most potential deficit reductions. Those two programs, combined with Medicaid, now make up 41 percent of the budget, Imhof said.

Yet with the majority at the workshop appearing to be 50 or older, proposals to modify Social Security or other entitlements got a generally chilly reception when everyone was divided into groups of five or more to wade through a workbook of budget options.

Most were willing to see the retirement age gradually rise to 70 by about 2035, which would reduce the deficit by $120 billion in a decade's time, though the option to retire earlier should remain available, one man said.

Ellen Verwiebe of La Crosse agreed. "There are some jobs that 70 year olds can legitimately do," she said, "but there are a lot of them that you can't."

And the group could accept increasing the earnings cap for Social Security payroll tax, which has been at $106,800 for three years.

But a proposal to provide seniors with a voucher to purchase private health insurance, which could save an estimated $350 billion over 10 years, got a thumbs down at one table.

That same group not only supported freezing defense spending for five years, saving an estimated $161 billion over 10 years, they called for a 20 percent cut.

Reduce the federal subsidy for Amtrak, saving $45 billion? At least two tables had problems with that, especially considering the current cost of gasoline.

"It's good to know it's there and people can afford it," said Adeili Potts, also a UW-L student.