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A recent UW-Madison study projects 766,326 of the 808,914 additional people living in Wisconsin in 2040 will be over 65 — a demographic shift that almost certainly will require more taxpayer-funded medical, housing and income help for this group whose working days largely will be over.

So clearly, giving a multibillion-dollar company up to $62.5 million in tax credits over 12 years is the prudent thing to do.

I couldn't help but chuckle at the irony on Friday's front page, which featured a story about the costs of an aging state population above another story about how the state has decided to cut the tax bill for department store chain Kohl's to keep its headquarters from moving to another state.

It alludes to one of the stickiest of government problems today: How to balance a budget when politicians are as loath to scale back on government services for the elderly — consummate voters that they are — as they are to eliminate tax loopholes and subsidies for the rich — consummate lobbyists and campaign contributors that they are.

It's not a problem that always breaks along party lines.

It was former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle who created the tax-credit program Republican Gov. Scott Walker is using now to keep Kohl's in Wisconsin.

Similarly, Republicans who controlled the state Legislature last year were responsible for turning back Walker's plan to shrink the SeniorCare prescription drug program.

The easiest way to save money on elder-care benefits — in this age of longer life expectancies — is to nudge up the age at which people can start qualifying for them.

Eliminating corporate welfare will take a realization among policymakers that taxpayer-funded bidding wars usually result in every state's coffers being a little poorer.

Progress on either front is uncertain.

Nino Amato, executive director of the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, said there's a split among groups about whether to increase the eligibility age for Social Security, for example, although there's a lot of support for having high earners pay more Social Security tax.

And while policymakers including the Walker administration and officials in Menomonee Falls, where Kohl's will remain and expand, were clearly enthusiastic about the Kohl's deal, there are signs that kind of enthusiasm is waning.

Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. head Paul Jadin recently said he would prefer tax credits and state grants become "irrelevant."

"It would be great if all 50 states would be forced to compete solely on what their business climate was," he said.

I'm not suggesting future budget crunches be solved simply by upping the retirement age a couple years and ending corporate welfare — even if people are living longer and billion-dollar corporations don't need tax breaks.

But if even such common-sense solutions remain politically unfeasible, the elderly of 2040 might have a lot poorer retirement — or no retirement at all.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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