Looking Back, Looking Forward: Part One

The weather reports nearly whiteout conditions on the interstate and wind chills of negative twenty-one. I’m in Madison. Travel is not advised and I’m wondering when I’ll finally be able to head home.

The snow swirls outside the Capitol and I watch as a cross country skier heads down the middle of the street. The city is quiet.

The Capitol is decked in its holiday finest but I am longing for the hills of Western Wisconsin and the people who bless my life everyday.

As the year draws to a close, I look back on how many lives have touched mine.

The legislature follows a schedule – a bit like a school year – only our year is actually two years. We call it ‘session’. January will begin the cycle all over again. I am about to begin the second session of my first four year term.

As I reflect on my first two years, I have never had a job where I have learned so much, so fast. The job of senator is like no other. It is fast-paced and filled with new information, ideas and challenges. I move quickly from one complex topic to another. In one day I’m likely to cover health insurance reform, problems with property taxes, the need for electronic prescriptions, quality of care in a nursing home, helping veterans obtain services, helping farmers build manure digesters and helping a constituent struggling with a boundary dispute between a city and a township.

The breadth of topics was unimaginable to me as a rookie candidate. But in two years I have been a fast study. I was recently rewarded by my colleagues with a leadership position as Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus. I was also chosen as the Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Audit.

But much of the service I am able to provide does not come through Committee Chairs or legislation. It comes through the people I am privileged to serve.

In the past year I, and my dedicated staff, had the opportunity to serve almost twenty- one hundred people. About 500 people took the time to write a letter and send it through the mail. Almost two hundred people came to the Capitol and sat down to visit. Even though most of our constituents are rural (some with poor internet access) about half of those who contacted us did so through email.

People who wrote likely offered an opinion or sought assistance. The most common topic was health care. Over twenty-five percent of those who contacted my office wanted to offer an opinion or seek assistance related to health care.

The second most popular topic was the smoking ban – both for and against – although this topic only accounted for 5 percent of all contacts.

Education, the environment and agriculture tied for the third most popular topic. But the diversity of topics was so wide these areas together accounted for only eight percent of all contact. Over the past year, people contacted me on over 600 separate topics.

Many people needed special assistance. The types of problems I worked to solve included helping businesses secure grants, helping veterans obtain benefits, solving problems with utilities, helping people obtain building permits, gaining necessary inspections for child care providers and helping local government navigate state agencies.

Working with state agencies to solve problems takes time. Some of the cases are complex and involve many people working together. Some cases are related to disputes among neighbors – complaints about farm smells, fencing line disputes, enforcement of burning laws or motorcycle noise. After concerns about obtaining affordable health care, problems related to divorce, child support or family law probably are the most common reasons people call for assistance.

Every one of the people who called faced a challenge in their lives.

I was disappointed when the limits of my office meant I couldn’t solve every problem. But I hope every one I’ve met along the way knows how important their problem was and how much I appreciated the opportunity to serve them.

Next week I will take a look forward to what is in store for 2009.

Have a Blessed Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season!