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Capitol Newsletter: With Speaker Paul Ryan holding gavel, entitlement programs could face change
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Social Security and Medicare changes could become key election topics next year with Rep. Paul Ryan of Janesville now leading Republicans in the House of Representatives.

Republican conservatives are demanding changes in America's entitlement programs - Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Ryan has long been pushing to change those programs where much of government spending occurs.

Ryan has backed the idea of partially privatizing Social Security. On Medicare, he is seen as a person who could promote the conservatives' idea of converting Medicare to a program in which recipients get vouchers and then buy their own health insurance.

Medicaid - the state-federal medical program for the poor - may offer an easier solution for the folks in Washington. The federal government could solve its own budget woes by sending grants to the 50 state governments and letting them devise care for the poor and disabled.

If additional money is needed, state tax dollars could fill the gaps. Proponents say state governments are better at solving social problems.

Social Security already has bubbled up in next year's race between Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Russ Feingold, who are competing for a six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Johnson won the Senate seat in 2010 by defeating Feingold as part of the tea party election landslide. Feingold had served 18 years in the Senate, but once-defeated ex-incumbents rarely get returned.

Johnson has called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and has said it's a shame that it has not yet been privatized. Feingold champions the current Social Security program as he campaigns across the state.

Republicans who control state government seemed to have helped Johnson's chances for re-election. They have tightened absentee voting rules, and now photo IDs are required to vote. They are also changing regulation of elections by replacing a board of six retired judges with a partisan-dominated commission. That change will occur just in time for the 2016 elections. Labor law changes have hurt unions, which traditionally support Democrats.

The Republican Party notes, with enthusiasm, that Gov. Scott Walker has made his campaigning apparatus available to Johnson. Walker has won three statewide elections for governor using those volunteers and lists of telephone numbers and addresses.

Walker has said he will be out campaigning next year to assure that Johnson is returned to Congress. The governor has slipped in recent polls, especially among independents and in so-called "outstate" areas stretching across northern Wisconsin.

But Walker seems in tune with the concept of changing national entitlement programs. He refused having Wisconsin accept hundreds of millions of federal dollars for the expansion of Medicaid programs. Other states with Republican governors, such as Iowa and Ohio, fashioned programs to use part of the available funds being made under Obamacare.

Walker has predicted the federal government can't afford to send states large amounts of Medicaid money. And, afford it or not, Republicans are vowing to repeal all of Obamacare.

Obamacare repeal, probably not earlier than 2017, could accelerate changes for Social Security and Medicare. But the Feingold-Johnson outcome may have a larger impact.

- Matt Pommer is a 35-year veteran of covering state government in Madison. His column is published Tuesdays in the Times.