The month of May brings us graduation time. Many of us are proud and excited to be with the graduates and as they move on to a new life. This week I will be joining the graduates, but in an unusual place.
I will be delivering the commencement address at the local prison.
“What do you tell someone who just graduated from high school and is facing five years in prison?” On a beautiful spring day I am mulling over a completely new task.
When is competition not competition? When the 800-pound gorilla teams up with few 500-pound gorillas and sets the rules for the game. What we end up with are tons of monkey business!
Who loses are you and I, small companies, local government, and the little gem called public access channels.
In this story, the 800-pound gorilla is AT&T and the 500-pound gorillas are a hand full of large cable companies. The fight is over the rules followed by the companies that bring us cable TV. This time the big guys are writing the rules. And if you want to know what is happening – follow the money.
Remember the story of the six blind men in India who went to see the elephant? They each came upon a different part and their descriptions, while accurate, never told the whole story.
The first approached the elephant and upon the beast’s side he happened to fall, “God bless me! But the elephant is nothing but a wall.” Said the second who came upon the tusk, “Ho what have we here? Tis very much like a spear.” And the one who felt about the knee, “Tis clear enough to me; the elephant is very much like a tree.”
And so these six different men “disputed loud and long, each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong, though each was partly right, and all were in the wrong!”
“Why are our schools in trouble?” my friend asked. It is Easter break for the Senate and I am enjoying a bit of time in the district. The conversation, as usual, turned to the problems of the day.
This day was Election Day. From Sparta to Shell Lake residents were asked to vote on money for schools. Thirteen local referendums were on the ballot; 52 out of 425 school districts state-wide had referendums. This was the largest single day effort by Wisconsin schools.
Taxpayers complain that school referendums are Band-Aids. It is true that the problems our local schools face are not going to go away with a referendum. But for a bleeding wound, sometimes a Band-Aid is critically needed.
“What should the priorities of the state be? What problems can the state reasonably solve; and at what cost? How to decide? I asked myself these questions as hundreds of people testified before the powerful Joint Committee on Finance last Tuesday at the Chippewa Falls Courthouse.
Nearly all 16 Finance Committee members journeyed to Chippewa Falls for the hearing. Members and several local legislators listened intently for seven and a half hours as more than 300 people testified before the committee. Some citizens waited several hours for their three minutes before the committee.
People came from Superior to Sparta and represented the diversity of our side of the state: a logger asking for a raise in truck weight limits; a personal care worker asking for a raise in salary; a school administrator asking for a raise in the revenue caps on schools.
People from Danbury to Neillsville, Black River Falls and Sparta drove to Eau Claire to testify before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last Thursday evening. The members of the committee and local legislators heard more than five and a half hours of testimony from people representing many communities and walks of life.
Authors of the health care plans presented their ideas. The public was then invited to testify on the merits of the plans and their own experiences. Seventy two people registered to testify with another thirty people registering in favor or opposed to the plans but not testifying. More than 150 attended the hearing.
I was struck with the diversity of those attending. Farmers, teachers, veterans, nurses, electricians, artists, bankers, truck drivers, doctors, insurance agents, parents, factory workers, retired people, and people who had lost their jobs came to share opinions and stories. Perhaps because Eau Claire is so far from Madison, almost no one from the ‘lobbying groups” spoke at the hearing. But many, many people from varied lives offered stories and opinions. So many personal stories of pain and suffering were told.
The state budget affects the life of every person in our great state. From schools and health care to parks and roads, all of the activities of state government are funded through a process that begins again every two years.
Next week people in our area will have an opportunity to comment on how our tax dollars are spent. The Joint Committee on Finance is holding a public hearing on March 27, 2007, at the Chippewa County Courthouse, 711 North Bridge Street, in the Assembly Room located on the lower level – Rooms 1 and 3. The hearing will begin at noon and conclude by 5 p.m. The hearing is free, open to the public and all members of the public are invited to come and testify.
The hearing is one of six public hearings held in communities around the state. For us, next week’s hearing provides a chance for committee members to learn of the important issues facing Western Wisconsin.
Last week the first of several public hearings on health care was held in Green Bay. Several hundred people turned out to let the Senate Committee know how much they wanted change. We heard preaching by pastors, were taught by teachers and told many health care stories by patients and their care givers. Nearly every health care worker was represented from podiatrists to hospital administrators.
The hearing began with an overview of five different approaches to solving the health care problem. The Canadian style bill, now introduced as Senate Bill 51, was the most popular among those testifying. Those with direct experience with the Canadian health care system provided first hand knowledge on how the system worked. One comment by a Canadian struck me; “we worried about food and having a job, but never once did our family ever worry about medical bills. This benefit is never seen or measured.” Indeed.
Testimony before the committee included two of my Republican Senate colleagues, Senators Roessler and Darling. They suggested many solutions to problems of cost and quality. Improving medical care by helping hospitals with electronic medical records; and using incentives for “best practices” and “evidence based medicine” were ideas to improve quality.
“How much does this cost?” What started as a simple question a few weeks ago has turned into the discovery of a problem that has been years in the making. It is costing the state millions of dollars in lost revenue with questionable results.
The question came as I was studying a bill that would extend the time film production companies could claim tax credits; some of them refundable tax credits. That’s the kind companies want. If your company doesn’t make money, you claim the credit and get a check from the state - a refund. No one had an answer to my question “How much does it cost?” But the best estimate was around $20 million. That’s a lot of money.
This summer, in the heat of the campaign season, a state audit of economic development programs was released. The report was ignored by most people but provided me with great insight into those programs that provide money to encourage business activity. The goal is laudable. But the audit uncovered many problems.
The Senate Committee on Health and Human Services is coming to our area. The committee will hold a formal hearing in Eau Claire on March 22 at 4 p.m. at the Chippewa Valley Technical College. The hearing is free and open to everyone.
As Vice Chair of this committee, I would like to extend a special invitation to all and encourage you to attend the hearing.
The hearing will consider all three major health care reform proposals and ideas from citizens on how to improve our health care system. The three proposals are diverse but share the common goal of covering everyone at an affordable cost. The Health Security Plan is similar to the Canadian style of health delivery; the Health Care Partnership Plan is similar to the Worker Compensation system and the Wisconsin Health Plan is modeled after the state employees’ system.