Letting their voices be heard
ELLSWORTH — Ginny Ballantine and Vicki Datt were among dozens of Wisconsinites who signed up to speak last week to members of a key legislative panel.
The meeting at Ellsworth High School was the fifth of six public hearings the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee held around the state, each one packed with scores of residents offering their suggestions about Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal.
But Ballantine and Datt, both of Hudson, knew from experience that input expressed at the meetings doesn't go unnoticed by lawmakers.
"I think it does make a difference — attending and sharing your points of view," Ballantine said April 19 after speaking to the panel in support of transportation funding for disabled residents.
She said she was part of a group that spoke to the panel in 2015 and their feedback "did make a difference" in the final legislation.
The event served as an opportunity for residents near and far — some traveled from eastern Wisconsin — to register concern, approval and ideas for members of the legislative panel. The 16-member Joint Finance Committee shapes spending and tax-related measures before the full Legislature votes on them and ultimately sends those bills to the governor.
Part of the joint committee's responsibility is to take public feedback, though lawmakers did their best to first butter up the Ellsworth audience. During introductions to the crowd, several legislators professed their love of Ellsworth cheese curds — though one lawmaker offered perhaps the cheesiest line of all.
"Of all the people up here, I love your cheese curds the most," Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said with a laugh.
Some lawmakers even indulged in Ellsworth's namesake curds during the event. At one point, Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, circulated a bag of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery curds that several lawmakers, including Reps. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, and Warren Petryk R-Eleva, sampled.
Zimmerman and Petryk were among a slate of western Wisconsin legislators who sat on the dais, though they don't serve on the committee.
Committee Co-Chairman John Nygren, an assembly member from Marinette, said Petryk orchestrated the event to occur in Ellsworth.
"Finally the fruits of our labors are paying off," Petryk told members of the media before opening the public hearing in song, leading a singalong of "God Bless America."
But after lawmakers had their say during introductory remarks, they spent the rest of the day listening.
Several speakers, including New Richmond School District Administrator Patrick Olson, weighed in on Walker's K-12 funding package, which calls for additional funds.
Olson said his district supports the effort, saying the per-pupil increases called for in the proposal are "the most critical component."
"Going backwards is not in our vocabulary," he said.
Ellsworth creamery CEO Paul Bauer credited growth at his business in part to the strong education residents receive. He urged "solid" long-term funding for K-12 programs so "override referendums are not the norm."
Baldwin-Woodville School District Superintendent Eric Russell said that even with an influx of state dollars, his district might still have to consider cuts. Walker's proposal might not be perfect, Russell said, but "it seems like a great place to start working together."
Lawmakers also heard from members of the Lake Mallalieu Association, who urged support of Walker's proposal to fund a new Little Falls Lake dam at Willow River State Park. Since the old dam was torn out amid safety concerns, Lake Mallalieu-area residents said they have witnessed a surge in sediment rushing into that impoundment.
"Your support and funding for this project is greatly appreciated," North Hudson resident Jim Thomas told the panel.
Meanwhile, University of Wisconsin-River Falls Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academics Affairs Faye Perkins urged the committee to back Walker's higher education funding package, which includes a tuition reduction for undergraduates and additional funds for UW System campuses.
"We can't continue to lose excellent faculty and staff," she said.
Quentin Schultz, founder of River Falls-based BioDiagnostics, also urged "strong financial support for the university system," telling the panel that his business has thrived, thanks to connections with UW-River and its graduates.
Others raised emerging concerns, including Pierce County Public Health Department Director Sue Galoff and St. Croix County public health nurse Kathy Fredrickson. Galoff told the panel that communicable diseases, especially chlamydia, have risen 450 percent from 2011 to 2015.
Ellsworth Area Ambulance Service paramedic Jessi Willembring also touched on public health, telling the legislators that Medicaid cuts have resulted in a funding gap — and that Wisconsin has not accessed a mechanism to bridge that gap. She urged lawmakers to change Wisconsin's policy toward Medicaid gap funding.
Joe Williams, an Ellsworth High School teacher, told the panel that school voucher programs are having a negative effect on rural districts like Ellsworth.
"Honestly, we're losing pupils, we're losing teachers," he said.