“Just who decided there ought to be a law?” the young man asked at the hearing. “Who decided buying raw milk should be illegal?”
After ten and a half hours of testimony and 89 speakers, we had the answer. In 1909, Eau Claire passed the first Wisconsin ordinance banning the sale of raw milk. The law was the reaction to public outrage after many who consumed unpasteurized milk were sickened.
The Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education, which I chair, joined the Assembly Committee on Rural Affairs in conducting a public hearing in Eau Claire to consider a pair of bills aimed at repealing the state law banning the sale of unpasteurized milk.
Just as snow melt brings a rush of spring chores, the end of the two-year Legislative Session brings a rush to finish business. The pace at the Capitol has stepped up as legislators take stock of what work remains.
Like college students, writing papers and presentations the week before finals, legislators scramble to finalize ideas for bill drafts and to prepare testimony on bills pending before a committee or the full Senate. The past few weeks brought a dramatic increase in bills drafted, bills introduced, legislative hearings and work ‘on the floor’ with the full Senate. Deadlines loom and work not done by May will need to wait until next January when the new Legislature convenes.
Early spring always brings many visitors to the Capitol to share their concerns and ideas. Often the best ideas for bills come from citizens. While many folks will comment on the big issues – like health care, school funding and tax reform – frequently the bills that make life better for Wisconsinites in little ways started as someone’s good idea.
“What can be done to help our schools?” the woman asked. She traveled to Madison from rural Eau Claire to participate in a citizen lobby day on another topic but was concerned about funding schools.
“Just this morning,” I said, “rural legislators gathered to announce a package of bills to assist schools. Schools are struggling and we are working together to bring them help – despite the fact the state doesn’t have any money.”
Solving the problems facing schools is especially difficult given the state’s lack of financial resources. But rural legislators are committed to finding solutions for cash strapped schools.
Every year about this time, citizens from all across the state come to the Capitol to inform and educate their Legislators. These citizen lobbyists are so critical to our democratic process. They provide insight necessary to make wise public policy decisions. As Marcia Avner puts it, “Public policy is the set of decisions that we make as a society about how we will care for one another, our communities and the land.”
A couple weeks ago, farmers filled the Capitol halls. Last Wednesday was Nursing Home Advocacy Day. If ever we need to make wise policy decisions about the way we care for one another, it is how we care for our elderly and disabled.
I had the opportunity to meet with Nursing Home Administrators from around the state including our Senate District. They talked about being paid well below their costs by the state’s Medicaid program and, as a result, about wanting to improve buildings and upgrade facilities and not being able; about wanting to pay their workers more and not being able.
Health care is back on the state’s agenda. The Governor announced a new public insurance program called Badger Basic. This new program is targeted to those individuals who are on a waiting list for the most recent expansion of the state’s health program for low-income families – BadgerCare.
Last year, the existing BadgerCare program was expanded to cover low-income individuals with no dependent children. Within months, the expansion of BadgerCare went over budget and was closed to new applicants. The state Department of Health Services (DHS) reported last week they were adding hundreds of names a week to the waiting list of about 25,000 people without insurance.
A few weeks ago the Governor announced his solution to the problem. He created another new program - Badger Basic - a public insurance program for people on the waiting list for $130 a month premium.
Last summer, John told me BadgerCare saved his wife’s life. John is a dairy farmer and could not afford insurance with dairy prices well below his costs. He thanks God and the state of Wisconsin for a program that brought his wife back home.
BadgerCare is a Wisconsin success story. In the last two years Wisconsin has provided coverage to over 150,000 people who did not have or could not afford health insurance. BadgerCare now covers a total of 700,000 people. More than one in five Wisconsin citizens are helped with health care through Medicaid.
This health care comes at a cost. From nursing home care, services for the disabled and BadgerCare for low income families, taxpayers spent nearly $6 billion last fiscal year for health care.
“How can they make a rule about spreading manure when they haven’t worked with farmers?” the Trempealeau County farmer asked me. These farmers were concerned about water rules being drafted by the Department of Natural Resources and they wanted to make a difference in the final version.
Nearly forty farmers from our Senate district came to Madison last week as part of Ag Day in the Capitol. They came to share their stories and their concerns. They came to make a difference.
A Trempealeau County farmer told me, “You can’t just shove the rules at us without working with farmers.”
The hearing room was quiet. Legislators were milling around waiting for the meeting to begin. The Joint Legislative Audit committee was to vote on approval of an audit of Medicaid – the state’s health program for low income people.
But something was not quite right. The chair convened the meeting and explained he was trying to reach consensus and had not yet been successful. Ten minutes after it began, the meeting ended. No vote had been taken.
After more than a week of intense negotiation, I found myself joining four Republicans on the committee calling for a vote to audit the fast growing Medicaid program. Not a single Democrat agreed to join me and we needed one more vote to move forward with an audit of this important program.
On Christmas Eve, from an undisclosed location in Iraq, a First Lieutenant in Wisconsin’s National Guard shared with me his Christmas wish. He wrote; “I will be returning home and would like nothing more than some time to sit in the woods with some peace and quiet.”
Because of their service to our country, members of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Combat Team missed many of the things we take for granted, including the traditional gun deer hunt in November.
The First Lieutenant was part of the largest operational deployment of Wisconsin National Guard troops since World War II. The 32nd Brigade estimated they may have been the best trained ever to report to a mobilization training site – Fort Bliss, Texas. Which is where they were headed last time I and hundreds of our neighbors and friends said goodbye.
My family likes honey. There’s often a little bear shaped container of honey in our pantry. That little bear may have come from Sue Bee Honey, one of America’s largest and oldest honey cooperatives in Sioux City, Iowa. Formed by five bee keepers in 1921, today Sue Bee produces 40 million pounds of honey.
Honey is one of the oldest known foods. Ancient Egyptians kept bees and used the honey not just for sweetening but for its healing power. Ancient Olympians used honey to help maintain energy and boost their performance.
Today honey is still considered an important health food but the story behind honey production is not sweet.