Looking Back, Looking Forward

Has it really been a year since I assumed the responsibilities of State Senator? The time has flown. It seems like only yesterday I would look over my shoulder when someone said “Good Morning Senator.” It was hard to make the transition from dairy farmer to State Senator – and I am glad I kept my barn boots.

There is no other job quite like that of an elected official - although Den Mother might come close. The job is fast paced and filled with new people and new ideas.

For me, the job is all about service; and it is in the role of one who serves that I draw the most satisfaction.

This year I, and my dedicated staff, had the opportunity to serve over five thousand people who have contacted our office. We have responded with over 2300 letters providing information and have sent countless emails. In our district, despite the digital divide, the preferred method of contacting me is email. But phoning comes in a close second.

The type of issues people contact me about varies greatly. When I ran a computer list of the subject areas, the computer warned me that the list would be over 65 pages long. We are a people of many concerns.

Although it is difficult to summarize, the top issues include contact related to the budget and funding of essential services; school funding reform; the cable franchise bill; health care reform and Healthy Wisconsin and requests for help with state agencies. Most recently, the issue has been requests to veto or change the cable franchise bill.

Since April I have been working to change the bill that brings competition to cable TV so that it also protects consumers, local government and community access TV channels. I am grateful that last Friday the governor agreed the bill needed modifications and vetoed eighteen parts of it.

I led the Senate fight to fix the cable bill and joined with colleagues to request the governor’s action. He did act to protect consumers by adding state rule making authority; he protected taxpayers by allowing local government to recoup the costs of cable companies opening streets; and making sure every cable provider followed the same rules – something essential to creating a true competitive market.

There were some issues the governor could not address in the b ill. He asked the legislature to address the problem of funding our community access channels. I will introduce legislation in the New Year to protect the funding of community access TV channels – something that is a vital part of our democracy.

Last week the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education, the committee which I chair, held a hearing on collective bargaining for university staff and faculty. It seems hard to believe that faculty can not decide to have a union represent them, but that is the state of Wisconsin law. I expect this bill will pass the Senate in the New Year.

My committee will be on the road again, likely in February, to address the problem of farm land being gobbled up for development. We will hear legislation on the Working Lands Initiative to provide local government and local farmers tools to protect farm land. Several other agriculture initiatives are in the works from helping meat and cheese processors to beginner farmers.

Looking back and looking forward, I see some of the same issues appearing – although in a bit different form. The legislature will continue to struggle to find a better way to pay for schools. Through the newly created committee on tax fairness, I and committee members will travel the state to learn more about the inequalities in our tax system. Finding a way to reform campaigns will remain on the agenda as will health care reform.

For a year I and my staff have spent countless hours helping people with no or poor health insurance. I also worked with other senators to craft legislation that addresses the big picture of why people have no or very bad health insurance. The Senate passed a plan, Healthy Wisconsin, as part of the budget and I will be working to bring the bill back as a separate bill in the coming year.

There is much “behind the scenes” activity on health care reform happening and, as the old year ends, I am confident that 2008 will see our state further ahead in real reform.

Happy Holidays to all and a healthy New Year.