July 1, 2009
“Highway officials say roads will be snow-covered longer than typical this winter and layoffs in the summer are imminent if a provision in the state Senate’s version of the budget is adopted,” reported the Wausau Daily Herald.
The article continued, “The provision requires that local governments allow outside contractors to do all road projects that cost more than $25,000, rather than having municipal public works crews do the work.”
I spent most of the morning phoning highway commissioners and workers. How does this provision affect what you do? I asked. Their answers gave me important insight.
We would not be able to cooperate and be as efficient. We share equipment and know-how. Chippewa County found an inexpensive way to build small bridges and helps Jackson County. Trempealeau County has a hot mix plant and supplies nearly every county in our Senate District. St. Croix County found a way to fix roads running through swamps. Towns help plow county trunk roads. Counties plow town roads. We need to help each other and this budget provision would make it illegal.
The state’s been telling local government to get efficient and work together. And local officials tell me this is working.
But a seemingly innocent budget provision would stop counties and towns from cooperating and saving tax payer dollars. By the end of the morning I knew the provision must come out of the budget. By the end of the next day it was out. Had I not sought out answers and listened to those who knew, an ill conceived plan might have been law.
Cooperation and efficiency are hallmarks of good government.
Another hallmark of good government is protecting those most vulnerable. Throughout this budget debate I sought to protect those least likely to have a voice in the process: the frail elderly, the mentally ill, children and the developmentally disabled. Often these people are served through our counties.
The budget, as originally proposed, was particularly hard on local government. Not only were counties asked to pay the state’s share of services for county nursing homes, elderly and children with mentally illness and the developmentally disabled, but the budget proposed siphoning off federal dollars sent to cover these services – forcing counties to pay even more.
I fought for and achieved more equity in the cuts we all knew had to be made. Now county nursing homes will get the federal dollars to help cover their losses in the care of the elderly. Counties providing care of mentally ill children and elderly will pay only about 30% of the cost as federal dollars to cover the rest will now flow through to them.
Fairness is hallmark of good government. Removing a slaughter fee that fell unfairly on one company; providing increased aid to underfunded rural schools and providing aid for roads not eligible for federal stimulus dollars were all efforts rural colleagues and I spearheaded to find balance in the way dollars were collected and spent.
Despite the sometime chaotic process of passing the state budget, some good things got done. Working together, rural legislators including Rep. Mark Radcliffe and Rep. Chris Danou successfully lobbied to remove the changes to the “Use Value Assessment Program” – a change that would have increased property taxes on about one twelfth of Wisconsin’s farmland.
I fought against other policy items unrelated to fiscal decisions included in the budget. These items are better dealt with in the legislative public hearing process. In the end, much of what was short sighted, ill conceived or designed to curry favor was removed.
When the budget debate is laid to rest, people want decisions made for the greater good of our state. We know cuts must be made, but cuts should be fair. We must focus government’s efforts on doing the basics right; educating our children, caring for our most needy and our elderly, maintaining our roads and public safety and listening to those whom we represent.
Above all we must have a vision of where we are headed. Because the decisions we make today create the future we dream of tomorrow.