Finance Committee Hears from Western Wisconsin on State’s Priorities

“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.

Some people were unhappy with a new tax in the budget: hospitals administrators spoke against the hospital tax; a real estate broker against the raise in the real estate transfer fee; smokers against the cigarette tax; petroleum people against the oil company tax.

Some people had stories to tell about how the state’s dollars had been used wisely to improve people’s lives: one impressive young woman shared how the drug and alcohol court helped her become sober and productive. She ended by saying “If I had gone to jail, I would be getting out about now. I know my first stop would have been to the bar.”

Sometimes tears flowed like spring rains as people shared emotional challenges. A mother with the cutest blond youngster with autism told of her trials. Insurance companies are not required to cover autism, leaving many parents to seek state help and find long waiting lists. An emotional young woman pleaded with the committee to not raise tuition. She was halfway through her education and desperately wanted to finish college but struggled to find the dollars.

Several organized groups attended en masse to make a statement. Domestic violence opponents dressed in white shirts testified in favor of more funds, telling of the positive changes made in people’s lives; family care support women talked of the benefits of sharing help in parenting; a large group of youth dressed in orange T-shirts stood to support the smoking ban and the cigarette tax. The students explained the evils of tobacco using stories of their own lives.

Some people waited much of the afternoon and had to leave without taking their turn. A few tavern owners stopped me in the hall. They had to leave to return to their businesses and asked me to submit comments against the tobacco ban. The owners were concerned about how the ban would affect business. “Would private “speakeasy” smoking clubs open up and take the business away from the taverns?”

I was moved by the enormity of the task before the Finance Committee and impressed by the commitment of the committee members. The total state budget for two years is $60,346,104,400. That’s a lot of money! But the needs are great – much greater than the state’s ability to pay. Tough decisions must be made.

It was impressive to see the dedication of the committee members. The legislators know they have much responsibility and are very serious. The senator I was seated next to had her copy of the budget marked, tabbed and highlighted. When people spoke, she turned to that section of the budget and made notes in the margin. Remember, the budget is a 1,700 page document.

She nodded sadly as many told moving stories. Chippewa Falls was the third of six state-wide hearings for these legislators. My colleague quietly confided, “The people are different but the stories I hear around the state are the same. It’s amazing how similar the problems are here, compared with Milwaukee.” I was surprised.

After particularly moving testimony, I whispered to the co-chair Rep. Kitty Rhoades, “How can you possibly decide who will get money and who won’t?” She nodded. “It is very difficult – and to think that legislators actually want this job!”

If you would like to see democracy in action, or share your testimony, there is another hearing of the Joint Committee on Finance scheduled for April 4 in Prairie Du Chein. The hearing is from noon to 5 p.m. in the auditorium of the Prairie Du Chien High School, 800 East Crawford St. Judging from my experience in Chippewa Falls, the hearing will more likely go from noon to 8 p.m.! But the protocol for speaking is ‘first come, first served,’ so it does pay to come early.

If you have thoughts on the state’s budget or any other state related topic, please call or write: in Black River Falls at (715) 284-1730; In Eau Claire at (715) 838-0448 or in Madison at (877) 763-6636 (toll free); or write: State Capitol; P.O. Box 7882 Madison, WI 53707-7882 or email Sen.Vinehout@legis.wisconsin.gov.