“Millions for Milwaukee and pennies for Polk,” said Harvey Dueholm, a former legislator from Polk County. His legendary statement reflected the imbalance of state dollars flowing into urban districts with those trickling to rural areas.
Rural lawmakers from both parties struggle against the tide of dollars sent to Wisconsin’s urban areas.
No question needs are great in Milwaukee. Folks say, as the great city goes, so goes the state and urban legislators work hard to make Milwaukee first rate. However, as one Buffalo County Board member said, “rural people are treated like second class citizens.”
In the tradition of Harvey Dueholm, Representative Ann Hraychuck of Polk County is changing things. A strong rural advocate, Ann served as county sheriff before entering the Legislature. She understands what it means to drive rutted back roads, late at night protecting public safety and providing service to the people.
Ann joined the Legislature in 2006, when I and several other rural Democrats were elected. Election 2008 brought six more rural Democrats to the Capitol.
This spring Representative Hraychuck and I invited our rural colleagues to form a caucus of rural legislators focused on addressing the concerns of our rural districts. Whether representing the northeast, western or southwest Wisconsin, we found many common concerns: local roads falling apart, schools struggling, farm prices falling and local government lacking the resources to provide services citizens expect.
Simple geography makes the equation different in rural areas. Whether funding schools, law enforcement or local roads, a lot of territory makes costs higher. And the funding formulas are often stacked against us.
For example, the towns I represent hoped for federal stimulus dollars to fix the potholes on the back roads. We were disappointed to learn federal dollars came with strings attached – one being the number of miles traveled on a road. Fewer people means fewer miles traveled – which translates to fewer, if any, federal dollars.
My rural colleagues and I went to work to correct such inequities. We scoured the proposed state budget for dollars we could use to balance the flow of money. We looked for provisions that fell unfairly on rural businesses. One such provision was a new slaughter fee to be used for meat and poultry inspections and animal health - programs we definitely need. But the fee makeup was not fair. Over sixty percent of the fee would be collected from one poultry plant – in Arcadia.
Many rural counties have nursing homes. While everything funded by state government suffered cuts, the proposed budget seemed particularly unfair to the county nursing homes. Operating at a loss already, the state budget would deny county nursing homes money from the federal government and instead divert it to cover the state’s deficit.
Rural legislators pointed out how this was particularly unfair to county taxpayers – as county homes would have little recourse but to raise property taxes.
In the past weeks, rural legislators worked hard behind the scenes to change things for the better. The state’s budget writers – members of the Joint Finance Committee – made several changes that accomplished our goals.
The slaughter fee was eliminated. Money for local roads was added and county nursing homes were allowed to keep the federal dollars necessary to help cover their losses.
Last week, the budget committee finished its work. The budget process now enters the seventh inning with the full Assembly up to bat. The rural caucus will continue work on the tasks that remain. Schools still need help and so does local government.
Rural legislators want to assure, even in tough times, the county roads are plowed, sheriff deputies are on duty and rural children get the same quality education as their urban cousins.
We are reminded of a lesson our grandparents taught us. Rural people working together get things done.