By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
First state budget hearing held at UWPlatteville
Sesquicentennial Hall, the proposed new engineering department home at UW-Platteville, was not in the governor's proposed budget, but brought up again and again during the joint finance hearing. Courtesy of UW-Platteville

The first of six scheduled Legislature Joint Finance Committee public hearings on the 2017–19 state budget was held at UW–Platteville Monday.

An estimated 160 people testified for more than six hours, sometimes approving of budget provisions, more often seeking more funds in some areas or opposing other budget provisions.

“I appreciate the time and effort dedicated by every resident of the 17th Senate District who took time out of their day to share their thoughts with the Joint Finance Committee,” said Sen. Howard Marklein (R–Spring Green), a member of the committee, in a news release Monday afternoon. “The personal stories, passionate concerns and ideas are all helpful to us as we work to craft a budget that will be positive for all residents of the state of Wisconsin.”

“We certainly learned a lot about the issues that are important to this area,” said Sen. Alberta Darling (R–River Hills), cochair of the committee.

The banquet area on the second floor of Ullsvik Hall was filled with people testifying, many, but not all, in suits. AARP members wore red T-shirts and spoke about the “silver dividend.” One set of green T-shirts denoted public school supporters, while another set of green T-shirts were worn by members of Americans for Prosperity. A set of purple T-shirts represented people who wanted to see the Aging and Disability Resource Center dementia specialist program expanded statewide.

Also appearing, though not testifying, were Southwest Wisconsin representatives, including Reps. Travis Tranel (R–Cuba City), Todd Novak (R–Dodgeville), Ed Brooks (R–Reedsburg) and Lee Nerison (R–Westby).

The first speaker was UW–Platteville chancellor Dennis Shields, who touted two proposed building projects, the Sesquicentennial Hall engineering building and the second and third phases of the Boebel Hall renovation project. Almost one-fourth of the state’s engineers are UWP grads, he said.

Shields also touted increases in financial aid instead of the budget’s proposed 5 percent tuition cut. The former would represent a $350 savings, which he termed “one less hour of work” a week for a student being paid minimum wage. The latter, he said, would mean more students could participate in internships and co-ops.

Shields said there had been no “significant state input in compensation” in his seven years, with the $2 million UW–Platteville has spent on pay raises coming from campus funds.

Maria Layton, a 2015 UW–Platteville graduate, said after medical school she plans to return to southwest Wisconsin to practice psychiatry because of the experiences she had at UW–Platteville. She said, however, that the STEM education spaces in Boebel Hill need updating because they are antiquated, and do not make an impression on those who tour the university looking to possibly go to school there.

Layton added attracting students to go to the university is important because many could be like her, who plan to return and work in the region, instead of migrating away from the state.

Scout Harrison, a UWP senior, echoed those sentiments, adding that some of the classrooms do not have modern equipment, just chalkboards.

“We can’t attract students here like Maria,” said Elizabeth Gates, chair of the UWP Psychology Department, because of the antiquated facilities. Gates added that Ottensman Hall, which currently houses the engineering department, was designed for one-quarter of the students the program now handles.

“The labs are very outdated,” said Taylor Hunley, a student graduating in May. “Our lab space simply cannot accommodate the new equipment.”

UWP alumna and former instructor Mary Robinson Wagner she the updated labs were so important to provide an education that continues to have UWP grad so sought after.

Senior Justine McDermott said that because of the hands-on programs like the second year construction lab, she was able to get a job lined up before graduation, as businesses flock to get engineers from UWP. She said that it does not make sense, however, that she will make 90 percent of what the professors who helped her make in her first year out of school.

Several area school superintendents testified in support of the budget’s increases of $200 and $204, respectively, in per-student aid each of the two years of the budget.

Potosi superintendent Ron Saari said the budget proposals increasing sparsity aid for school districts of low enrollment in large land areas and high-cost transportation aid “significantly helps our school district.”

Saari said Potosi was going to have to cut $150,000 this year due to declining enrollment, but the school district has already made “a significant amount of cuts. … We’ve done a series of cuts, and we have nowhere else to cut.”

Platteville Public Schools superintendent Connie Valenza, who called Platteville “one of the top performing school districts in the state,” said her district would receive no additional state aid targeted at rural school districts because Platteville doesn’t meet the definition of a rural school district, though “we are by no means a wealthy school district.”

Valenza said the school district is in the process of laying off five teachers “that we need in our school district” because of declining enrollment and increasing costs, particularly in health insurance.

“I’m asking you to make our public schools a priority in this budget,” she said. “We’re not afraid to be accountable here in Platteville.”

Lancaster Community School District administrator Rob Wagner spoke against the proposal to self-insure state employees, because Lancaster is provided by the state employee health insurance plan.

Lancaster previously self-funded insurance, which Wagner said “went really well” the first years, until a doubling of stop-loss insurance costs to $600,000, followed by a $1.2 million bill afterward. He said there is “a great risk for the state” if it moves to self-insuring.

Fennimore Community School District superintendent Jamie Nutter also spoke in favor of the increase in per-student aid. He said Fennimore relies on the state equalization aid formula for funding; without it, the school district would have a tax bill of $35 per $1,000 assessed valuation, he said.

Prairie du Chien School Board president Christine Panka spoke against a budget proposal to require that school districts certify their compliance with 2011 Act 10, restricting public employee collective bargaining rights to give small school districts tools to attract teachers, and “allow school districts local control over referendums,” opposing the elimination of Act 32, which allows borrowing for school energy-efficiency projects without referendum votes.

Two speakers sought a $300-per-student increase in state school district levy limits. Others sought an expansion of the budget’s proposed $200-per-student state aid increased raised to $300 per student.

Other speakers sought an increase in special education funding to levels where they roughly were in the 1990s, which would need to be 33 percent.

Christine and Robert Burke want other families to get the help they got for their son, Jason, who was found to be dyslexic. Despite the diagnosis and proof he was falling behind in school, the district they lived in could not have him in a special program because he had not fallen enough.

The Burkes paid for a tutor for Jason for three years, where he learned a method of reading and writing that helped him learn and thrive.

Damien Gross, a middle school student from Marshall, talked about his issues with dyslexia, and how he and his friends can’t be helped because of the lack of funding.

UW Colleges Dean Charles Clark, who supervises UW–Richland, said the budget was “a step forward for the UW System,” but opposes a proposal to allow students to earn UW four-year general education credits at either UW two-year campuses or technical colleges.

Several speakers spoke against a budget provision to allow UW students to opt out of allocable fees that fund campus programming, including athletics.

UWP Student Senate President Matthew Castelaz said that a recent survey of the student body showed only 35 percent would look to opt out of the fees, while implementing an opt-out system would be a nightmare to create.

The subject of state roads and increasing gas taxes to pay for more road work came up repeatedly.

Platteville Common Council president Eileen Nickels spoke for more transportation funding because transportation infrastructure “is economic development for rural Wisconsin.”

Grant County Highway Commissioner Dave Lambert spoke on general transportation aids, which have dropped 20 percent from where they were in 2011.

“Whatever you provide us, we will do the best with what you provide,” he said.

Lambert also said he was pleased that the Legislature formally approved funding for the stretch of U.S. 61 between Lancaster and Fennimore, slated for this summer. The project was put in limbo temporarily as the bids came back higher than estimates.

Blanchardville resident Mike Berg, who recently broke four lumbar vertebrae in his back, said he wondered if he would have to go back to the hospital when traveling home and the bumps in the road doing more damage to him.

“I really think you can do something about it,” he said of increasing the road budget. “Gov. Walker likes it on his resume that he has no new taxes,” Berg told the committee, but he said they should get the ball rolling on fixing the road issue.

Berg also told the committee that in his job hauling items across the state, he has to travel through Milwaukee, and that there should be nice roads there too.

“If the governor is serious about making Wisconsin open for business … he better put his money where his mouth is,” said retired Iowa County Highway Commissioner Glenn Thronson said, who proposed a 10-cent increase to help maintain and rebuild roads.

“The state just can’t kick the can down the road,” said Betty Manson from Juneau County, a district representative of the Wisconsin Towns Association. She said her town’s budget was so small they could only do one mile of sealcoating a year, and that roads would have to keep up for 371 years before all could bear rebuilt.

Lambert was followed by Sheriff Nate Dreckman, and Sheriff’s Office Communications Director Chris Johll, who, along with Bob Frank of Richland Center is a member of the Wisconsin Interoperability Alliance, which was tasked to come up with a plan to update the state’s 911 response network.

The “network” is a group of individual systems that have been operated by communications companies, most of which are obsolete, and cannot handle items like Text 911, allowing people to text in emergencies.

“Imagine you are at work, and a violent incident breaks out,” said Dreckman to make committee members put themselves in the place of an individual who finds a place to hide and wants to tell authorities of the danger. To stay safe, the person elects not to call, but instead text the information.

“You try, and nothing happens,” said Dreckman, because all but one of the state’s 72 counties cannot handle text 911. “We are 10 years behind neighboring states,” Dreckman said of implementing Next Generation 911, which became a standard of the federal government in 2009.

“We’re lacking the infrastructure,” said Johll, adding that the network that Grant County currently uses is at its end of its lifespan and will not be supported after this year.  “When it fails, it fails for everybody.”

Johll pointed out that the current network has issues that when a communications line was accidentally cut two years ago between Lancaster and Platteville, half the county lost 911 services, and if something like that happens again, they have to get the word out on how people need to get a hold of emergency services, which is not helpful in the event of an emergency.

“When they call 911, they expect us to be there,” he said of the service, adding the legislature needs to move forward and place the item in the budget.

“It took 27 years,” said Frank to get the original 911 service adopted statewide. “The residents cannot afford to wait that length of time.”

Nickels also said rural areas are “struggling with construction of single-family homes,” because Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and other funding programs are funding “large apartment complexes,” as well as Platteville’s Library Block project.

Platteville city manager Karen Kurt spoke about the proposed the elimination of the personal property tax and what the League of Wisconsin Municipalities calls the “dark store tax loophole,” in which large commercial buildings are assessed only on their infrastructure and not their use. <!-- /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:" "; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:fixed; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} @font-face {font-family:" "; panose-1:0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-format:other; mso-font-pitch:fixed; mso-font-signature:1 134676480 16 0 131072 0;} @font-face {font-family:Cambria; panose-1:2 4 5 3 5 4 6 3 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-536870145 1073743103 0 0 415 0;} @font-face {font-family:"Franklin Gothic Book"; panose-1:2 11 5 3 2 1 2 2 2 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:647 0 0 0 159 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-qformat:yes; mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:" "; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:JA;} p.MsoHeader, li.MsoHeader, div.MsoHeader {mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-link:"Header Char"; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; tab-stops:center 3.0in right 6.0in; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:" "; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:JA;} span.HeaderChar {mso-style-name:"Header Char"; mso-style-priority:99; mso-style-unhide:no; mso-style-locked:yes; mso-style-link:Header;} .MsoChpDefault {mso-style-type:export-only; mso-default-props:yes; font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-font-family:Cambria; mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-fareast-font-family:" "; mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast; mso-hansi-font-family:Cambria; mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin; mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi; mso-fareast-language:JA;} @page WordSection1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.0in 1.0in 1.0in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.WordSection1 {page:WordSection1;} -->

“We’re also troubled by the prospect of the dark-store tax loophole and the elimination of personal property taxes as placing an even greater tax burden on our residential homeowners, and we hope that you’ll consider elimination of that loophole as well as making sure that the personal property tax elimination isn’t shifted onto residential properties,” she said.

Kurt said Platteville now must manage its stormwater, and “we have no idea how we’re going to fund these new mandates.”

Platteville Ald. Barb Daus spoke in favor of “a tax credit program designed to help schools and communities in Wisconsin build endowment programs.” She said a 25-percent tax credit could give a $250 tax credit to someone who donates $1,000 to an endowment fund. A program in Iowa started in 2003 has invested more than $115 million.

Gene Weber of Platteville added that the Endow Wisconsin proposal would help funds stay in the state instead of going to heirs who moved away from the state.

Driftless Market co-owner Heidi Dyas-McBeth spoke in favor of Wisconsin Creates, a program that would provide funds to “support businesses and organizations to support our creative economy,” she said.

Grant County Sup. Mark Stead of Platteville talked about reduced funding from $9.2 million to $8 million for conservation staffing statewide. He said those people are the “boots on the floor” and that agriculture plays a huge role in southwestern Wisconsin. Stead asked that the funding be restored to $9.2 million. He said without an investment in conservation the decline in support will make it harder to protect the land resources in the state. He said while it is important to adequately fund roads, "without land there would be no roads and without clean water there would be fewer reasons to use those roads.”

Jim Strosha of Mineral Point argued that the elimination of Wisconsin Natural Resources Magazine, published by the Department of Natural Resources, was shortsighted, as informing the public is an important job of the department, and no blog could take the place of what the magazine does.

Lafayette County Sup. Kriss Marion of Blanchardville told the committee that with nine impaired waterways in the county, she hopes the committee increases the amount of money that goes towards land and water conservation. She said the county’s land and water conservation office was running “lean and mean,” but that the funding for such programs was below statutory goals.

“We need their education, the boots on the ground, and the cost share monies,” she of the conservation program.

Robin Meyer of the Sauk County Town of Sumpter told legislators to not change funds for clean water programs from grants instead of loans, as the Bluffview Sanitary District she represents could afford not the loan payments for an upcoming project to update the old system at the former Badger Army Ammunition Plant site near Baraboo.

Grant County District Attorney Lisa Riniker and public defender Rose Oliveto of Lancaster spoke about the need for paid progression for those attorneys who serve to defend the less fortunate.

Riniker said while everyone can agree with the need for efficiency in the criminal justice system, there is also a need for stability for those in the field, which is why she supported a pay progression.

Oliveto, a regional public defender supervisor for 10 counties in western Wisconsin, said some counties are represented by only one public defense attorney. She said without equitable pay funding there is no way to retain attorneys who stay for a year or two and then moved on to better paying jobs in the private sector. Oliveto said in the last couple of years, six new attorneys have left the public defender’s office. She said the positions used to be a career to fight the fight and now they are a stepping stone.

Nikki Swayne of Legal Action of Wisconsin wanted to see changes in the low-income offset program. Swayne said the program is turning into giving out flyers for job fairs and online classes instead of real help.

Heidi Wegleitner of the Homeless Service Consortium of Dane County was worried about what was going to happen with the emergency assistance grant program, which was slated to see cuts of 20 percent. “Cutting funding for this program, I believe, will result in an increase in family homelessness,” Wegleitner said, detailing a family she helped with the program.

Several students spoke in favor of more funding for tobacco-prevention programs for children, given the increase in the use of non-smoking tobacco and e-cigarettes.

Dr. Robert Smith, a Grant Regional Health Center emergency physician, wanted to see something be done about Medicaid reimbursements, which had fallen to 50th in the nation. He noted that because of that, hospitals in Minnesota and Illinois are getting paid 1.5 times more than Wisconsin hospitals.

Pointing to his gray hair, Smith said the issue was not only a problem for rural hospitals because they have to run at thinner margins, it is also hurting when he tries to find replacements for himself and other professionals. “It’s a hard sell to get a young doctor to move to the countryside,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to sell them on coming to the country for a pay cut.”

Numerous individuals spoke to the committee about individuals they know or were helped by the program, individuals who could not afford to send their loved one who was suffering from dementia into a care home, and were given tools and assistance to stay at home, which actually is less expensive than a care facility.

Marie Vandeberg said an estimated 115,000 people living in Wisconsin suffer from dementia, and that number will likely double in the next two decades. Families also provide $2.8 Billion in unpaid care in the state.

Melissa Track told of a woman who watched her husband who built parts of their house become so lost in the illness that he cannot even make a sandwich with all of the materials in front of him. Joyce Schmidt talked about Betty, a woman she knows who is in the early stages and was trying to get some planning done before she confronts her family to tell them her mind is like a milkweed plant, “floating away.”

Mindy Russell said she moved home seven years ago to help her mother care for her father — a Korean War veteran, retired police officer, and former Dodge County Coroner now suffering from dementia.

The red-shirted group from AARP touted, in the words of Noreen Holmes, “investing in Wisconsin seniors and their caregivers” by “build[ing] on the strength of existing programs, [and] use the tax system to encourage aging in place … By using the budget as a planning document, we can make smart investments that will pay off in the ‘silver dividend.’”

Another group of speakers sought initiatives to keep criminals out of prison, in part by increasing funding for the Treatment Alternatives and Diversions program.

Gilman Halsted, the former criminal justice reporter for Wisconsin Public Radio, said he wants an “in-depth audit of current incarceration policies” with the Department of Corrections. He said the average time between a hearing for an extended-supervision violation is 90 days, all spent in custody, in Wisconsin, vs. a maximum of 30 days in Michigan.

Sister Frances Hoffman of the Racine Dominicans said the proposal to abolish the Parole Commission was “less fair to parolees and more prone to political influence. … How can one person give full and fair consideration to 3,032 people who are eligible for parole?”

Near the end, Ray Spellman of Darlington pointed to an ad bringing up legislation currently being reviewed to eliminate rules on what local governments need to publish as public notices. A similar provision is in the current iteration of the budget.

“If you pass this, my Lafayette County Board proceedings go away,” he said, asking the committee to remove that from the budget.

The second budget hearing was held at State Fair Park in West Allis Wednesday. Future hearings will be held at Berlin High School Friday, Spooner High School April 18, Ellsworth High School April 19, and Marinette High School April 20.