‘Citizen Lobbyists’ Bring Local Concerns to the Capitol

As I walked through the Capitol, going from a committee hearing to my office, I was stopped by a man asking how to find his legislator. He and his wife, small business owners, traveled all the way to Madison to lobby their legislators on issues in the state budget.

Last week marked the opening of the ‘citizen lobbying’ season. Ordinary people from all over the state gathered in Capitol offices to lobby their legislators. My office was a buzz as groups from every part of our Senate District came to visit.

The focus of many groups is the state budget just introduced by the Governor. Citizen lobbyists are doing their homework and learning how the state budget affects their businesses, schools, municipalities and counties.

“You need to be here as much as I do,” I told a group of health professionals. “Legislators need to know what you know.” Every one of the citizen lobbyists had an important message to share about action the state should or shouldn’t take.

The sheriffs have concerns about public safety. Budgets have been cut to the bone. Communication systems need to be upgraded. Rural deputies need to be able to communicate across the hills in the rural counties.

Town officials need money to repair aged roads and bridges. County officials worry about state budget cuts and new programs needing money. They see more people needing services and fewer resources to get the job done.

School superintendents consider significant cuts on top of previous cutbacks to programs and services. Schools are in trouble and more budget cuts threaten education equality and the ability of rural students to achieve.

Nursing home administrators speak passionately about taking care of more low-income people and not getting the necessary money from the state to pay the bills.

Conservationists were lobbying for money to keep our drinking water, our rivers and streams clean. Local tavern and supper club owners who struggle to keep their businesses going in tough economic times worried about the smoking ban being part of the budget bill.

The budget is a 1,743 page document. It is written in ‘statute’ language so translating all the details is not easy task. It takes nearly a month for the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau to analyze every detail and give us a version in ordinary English.

What I do know is there are $2.2 billion in cuts to state services; a 1% across the board cut to all programs – including higher education and local government. General revenue is nearly identical to 2007-2008 spending. The Governor is making up the $5.7 billion deficit with about 40% in federal dollars, about 40% in program cuts and about 20% in new fees and taxes.

The Governor’s proposal is only the first quarter of the football game. The second quarter starts with a series of public hearings across the state. Every citizen must take the opportunity to share their opinion on the state’s priorities. All legislators will be listening and working to balance the concerns of all those citizen lobbyists.