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Published May 01 2011

Forum editorial: Medicare cuts spur voter angst

The sometimes-boisterous town hall gatherings freshman Rep. Rick Berg,

R-N.D., has experienced in his first round of constituent meetings are a preview of more to come as this country starts to confront its addiction to deficit spending.

North Dakotans love to think of themselves as a self-sufficient lot, not wards of federal largesse, but we do pretty well when it comes to collecting Uncle Sam’s money.

As a share of the state’s economic base, federal payments made up a quarter of all the outside dollars brought into North Dakota in 2009, while primary industries brought in three-quarters. Still, 25 percent represents a big slice of the economic pie, and it’s been sweetening life for residents in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Perhaps the most obvious, and most keenly felt, are the so-called entitlements – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which together account for 43 percent of federal spending.

Add the Defense Department, and you’ve got 63 percent of the federal budget. So cuts in entitlements and the defense budget are inevitable. The key to preserving Medicare and Medicaid will be to subdue health care inflation, which so far has defied a meaningful solution.

In town hall meetings in Fargo and Bismarck, Berg heard – loudly and pointedly – from constituents who are concerned that he voted for an overhaul of Medicare that would provide seniors with “vouchers” to pay their doctor and hospital bills, leaving them at the mercy of health care inflation if reimbursements don’t keep up with rising charges. Berg denies supporting the Medicare vouchers but stressed the need for making tough decisions, including big cuts, to tame record deficits.

Bringing the bloated federal budget into balance will be painful, but it can be less painful if representatives are thoughtful and realistic as they cut. Blind adherence to ideology should not be the top concern. Many look with hope to the bipartisan “Gang of Six” in the Senate, which includes Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., for a consensus plan. Reports suggest the group aims to cut $3 for every $1 gained on the revenue side, with proposed revenue gains coming from closing loopholes and ending certain credits, rather than increasing tax rates.

The details will take time to hash out. Meanwhile, it’s clear that constituents will be watching closely as their representatives wield the knife, as evidenced by the fiery reception Berg found at his town hall meeting in Fargo.

Berg will have plenty of opportunities to put into practice a slogan that served him well on the campaign trail: “We’ve got to bring North Dakota common sense to Washington.” North Dakota voters will decide once again, in 2012, what that means.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.