Early this spring Representative Ann Hraychuck and I invited our colleagues from western and northern Wisconsin to join us for informal discussions of issues important to our constituents. We started what became known in the Capitol as the Rural Caucus which also included Representatives Mark Radcliffe and Chris Danou.
In the week before the budget passed this group communicated daily, including a week-end conference call. Our focus was making changes to the budget that would benefit western and northern Wisconsin.
The initial version of the budget was written by a small group of people mostly from Madison and urban southeastern Wisconsin. And it showed. Proposals to downsize state government meant Department of Natural Resource offices, Motor Vehicle Centers and State Patrol offices in rural areas were slated for closure.
My rural colleagues and I combed the proposed state budget for provisions that penalized rural areas. We talked with constituents to learn how seemingly innocent cuts actually hurt rural areas and small cities. For example, cuts to the Department of Justice had a disproportionate effect on rural law enforcement. While a big city may have its own resources to investigate and prosecute criminals, rural communities and counties rely on the law enforcement professionals at the Department of Justice. Training, crime labs and the state litigation unit all play an important role in keeping rural areas safe.
Rural counties rely on resources the state provides in ways their wealthy urban cousins might not. For example, the state paid a portion of the cost to serve severely mentally ill elderly and youth. The budget proposed that counties pick up the state’s share of those costs. At $800 a day, adding the state share to the counties’ costs was a significant burden.
Clean Sweep is a state-funded program counties use to collect toxic materials once a year. Pesticides, old paint, farm chemicals, even old medications are collected for free and disposed of in a safe manner. This program was on the chopping block. While urban counties could afford to maintain the program, rural counties would have to give it up. Ironically, it is rural counties that most need the Clean Sweep program.
Our focus on fairer distribution of both budget spending and cuts brought necessary changes to both the Assembly and Senate versions of the budget.
The rural DMV centers were not closed; the rural DNR centers will stay open – albeit at reduced hours; cuts to county conservation and Clean Sweep programs were restored; cuts to the state Crime Lab and other essential law enforcement services were restored; changes in liability laws were removed and the Governor’s oil tax was eliminated; limits on public access to Stewardship lands were not made. Sparsity aid – money for small rural school districts – was fully funded at $15 million state-wide.
Our Rural Caucus also opposed policy provisions in the budget that simply didn’t belong there – changes in liability laws; provisions requiring counties to competitively bid every project over $25,000 and changes to the farmland property tax law called “use value assessment”.
As the budget process entered its final phase, we were blessed to have an experienced ally in our Rural Caucus, Representative Mary Hubler. At the request of Rep. Radcliffe and the Rural Caucus, the Assembly Speaker appointed Representative Hubler to the Conference Committee tasked with crafting the final version of the budget. She advocated for rural Wisconsin convincing her urban colleagues to include our changes in the final Conference Committee report.
Passing a state budget that balances the needs of urban and rural Wisconsin was possible because the Rural Caucus worked together, simultaneously, in the Senate and the Assembly. As a group, we had the power to convince legislative leaders to move forward on our priorities. No single person could have accomplished as much.
I am reminded of what Ben Franklin said as he signed the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." As the newly formed Rural Caucus we learned that important lesson.