Looking Back, Looking Forward

During the Holiday Season there are many visitors to the Capitol including many school groups. This past week I had the opportunity to meet with high school students from Sparta who are competing in the Project Polar Bear Contest.

The students are partnering with the elementary schools in Sparta and community members to encourage recycling and to plant trees. They journeyed to Madison to share with their work with me as part of their student project.

The students are part of the Earth Club at the Sparta High School. They started a recycling project that spread across the Sparta School District. If you walk through the schools you may see big white bins decorated like polar bears.

The students also took their ideas to the community working at City Hall on Election Day to encourage recycling and sign up volunteers for spring tree planting.

The students amazed me with their ability to look forward and think of actions they could take to improve their community and our world.

At the close of the year, I also take time to look back and look forward; to think of the work accomplished and look forward to the coming year. My job as servant to the people of the 31st Senate District involves helping and responding to concerns from people over our nine Western Wisconsin counties.

During the past year over twenty-seven hundred people had contact with my office.

Almost half of those contacting me did so by email; about a quarter called and another quarter sent a letter or card. Two hundred and fifty people met with me, either near home or came to visit in Madison. I met with people from every walk of life you can imagine from artists to zucchini farmers!

Sometimes people contacted me in favor or opposed to a specific bill; sometimes they called because they need help navigating the state bureaucracy and sometimes they called about problems in their lives or their communities.

Many people expressed an opinion about specific legislation. The top bills people cared about enough to call or write were related to licensing dietitians (455 people), environmental issues (355 people), labor issues (143 people) and elections (118 people).

In the first four months of this year several environmental bills were discussed by the Legislature. The Clean Energy Jobs Act and the Ground Water Protection bill were two initiatives that generated many calls and letters. Both bills failed to muster enough votes to become law but the people who contacted me overwhelmingly favored the two bills.

Sometimes people expressed concerns about issues that were not related to a specific bill. Often these issues related directly to problems in people’s lives. Over the past four years, the top issue has consistently been health care. People have trouble finding affordable care or are struggling without health insurance. Almost two hundred people expressed similar concerns the past year. But, for the first time, education dominated health concerns; by nearly double the number.

Schools, like all of us, have had to do more with less. The problems schools face were intensified by the state’s budget problems. Remember almost half of our state tax dollars go to public education. As the largest part of the state’s general fund, financial problems with the state inevitably ends up in problems funding local schools.

People are concerned about cuts in public education and the shift of money from the state to property tax payers as schools raise their levy or as referendums pass.

Education is sure to be on the top of the state’s ‘to do’ list in the coming year. There is talk of privatizing public education and more cuts to local schools. Earlier this fall the state superintendent of schools offered a proposal to change the way the state pays for schools. I expect his suggestions to receive much discussion among my colleagues.

The first major item of business for a New Year is the state budget. By mid-February the new Governor should unveil his plans. Although the budget covers a two year period, many of the decisions made will have a much longer impact.

When I met with the Earth Club students from Sparta we discussed the long term importance of their work teaching youngsters to recycle and planting trees.

“It’s really important that we think about how what we do will affect our great grandchildren,” one of the students told me.

She reminded me that ‘looking forward’ needs to be much longer than just a year.

Something all of us would be wise to remember.