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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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042617frontsession.jpg

LISTENING SESSION-Legislators listen as members of the public speak during the Joint Finance Session held in Marinette on Friday, April 21. Lawmakers heard from many people how they would like their tax money spent. Bottom photo-Some of the several hundred people in attendance get ready to speak.

Joint Finance Hears State Budget Concerns At Hearing In Marinette

For the first time in Wisconsin history, the state legislature's Joint Finance Committee held a hearing in the City of Marinette, one of six in the state, to receive comments on the proposed state budget for the 2018-2019 biennium.

The auditorium at Marinette High School was nearly filled for most of the day. Some speakers came by the bus load from other areas for their chance to urge legislators to fund their interests.

Stands with volunteers supporting Public Education were set up outside and in the commons area inside. There was also a table inside with volunteers and literature promoting support for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Speakers, limited to two minute each, had begun signing up at 8 a.m. for the hearing, which began at 10 a.m. and lasted non-stop until 3 p.m. Those signed up to address the committee were called to line up in two queues of five speakers each, and the 2-minute per speaker timetable was strictly enforced.

State Rep. John Nygren, co-chair of the committee, directed the hearing. For him, the event, held in the auditorium of his alma mater, was something of a homecoming. He graduated from Marinette High School in 1982. His co-chair is Sen. Alberta Darling of River Hills, in the 8th Senate District.

Sen. Tom Tiffany, of Hazelhurst, in the 12th Senate District, which includes northern Marinette County, is also a member of the Joint Committee on Finance. All 16 members, half from the Senate and half from the Assembly, were present. Nygren introduced them and pointed out that they come from all parts of the state.

Also on hand were Rep. Jeff Mursau of Crivitz, Sen. Dave Hansen of Green Bay, and Rep. Joe Kitchens who represents Door, Kewaunee and a small island of Marinette County. Other legislators and numerous local officials were also present for at least part of the proceedings.

Nygren opened proceedings by welcoming everyone to his old school, and by explaining the rules. He said rules of the legislature would apply. This meant those present should neither cheer nor boo or show any signs of disapproval or support for opinions expressed by the speakers. The committee would say nothing in response to the public comments, Nygren said, "Our job is to listen to you." Speakers would be held to the two minute limit.

Nygren said he and several committee members had toured Marinette Marine the previous day. He said he had been eager to have his colleagues see the ship builders' economic importance to the area and in fact to the whole state. He said the shipyard had three ships in the water, and the legislators were allowed to board the Sioux City, which gave him a unique opportunity to show it off.

"I was blown away," one of Nygren's fellow committee members declared..."I am very proud to have that shipyard in Wisconsin!"

Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee said she was particularly impressed by the technology in the ships, and particularly proud of the USS Milwaukee. She said America has the best military, the best education and the best economy in the world. "This community goes to work," she said of Marinette. "You directly or indirectly help to keep our country strong!"

Some local officials had been invited to speak first.

Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot welcomed everyone and said this first ever visit of the Joint Committee on Finance "is a great opportunity for us in the northern part of the state to get our voices heard." He told of visits the previous day to view other projects including the business incubator being built with the help of a $5 million contribution from the state, an the improvements to the Menominee River and Menekaunee Harbor being done with the help of EPA funds. "This is a great time to be Mayor of Marinette!" Genisot declared, adding that he is extremely proud that the USS Marinette is being built in its namesake city.

Nygren pointed out a group of students seated in front, and noted that students from the school's Applied Government class were there witnessing democracy in action. He said education today is planned so some students graduate ready to join the work force, and some graduate with the equivalent of a 2-year degree, thanks to cooperation between high schools and branches of Wisconsin higher education.

He said funding had been provided for a modern technical education that aligns with the needs of today's learners.

Several speakers asked the committee to support Gov. Scott Walker's proposal for increased categorical aid to schools, but without the Act 10 compliance certification that currently goes with it. More than one said eliminating that provision will allow districts the flexibility to do what works best for them. The Act 10 compliance would require proof that school district employees pay at least 12 percent of the cost of their health insurance benefits.

Marinette County Board Chair Mark Anderson welcomed the legislators and invited them to come back and tour Marinette County's waterfalls an ride the recreational trails.

He said the county feels the effect of revenue limits, with a permitted revenue increase of only .8 of a percent growth in revenue for each of the last three years due to a lag in new construction. He asked them to ease the limit by allowing counties to add one-tenth of a percent to the county sales tax to allow more investment in economic development. If approved, the counties would be allowed a sales tax of .6 of a percent rather than the current .5 percent, giving them added revenue without affecting property taxes. He was delivering the message on behalf of Marinette County Board, which had passed a resolution to that effect.

Another resolution, delivered by Marinette County Conservationist Greg Cleereman and passed by the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin land and Water Conservation Association, asked the governor and members of the Joint Committee on Finance to protect Wisconsin's Forest Heritage by Preserving the Forestry Mill Tax.

The resolution says the DNR's Forestry Program is nationally renowned for service to woodland owners and wise stewardship of Wisconsin's $29 billion forest products industry.

In 1924 Wisconsin established the Forestry Mill Tax to fund the Forestry Program to ensure the recovery and maintenance of a critical renewable natural resource.

"The Governor's Budget call for the conversion of the Mill Tax for the Forestry Program to General Purpose Revenues which are often moved to cover short-term budgetary emergencies, thus jeopardizing the stability of program funding; and" the program provides critical information to woodland owners on technical forestry concerns like insect and disease issues, invasive species prevention, tree planting and harvesting advice, questions about the Managed Forest Law Program, and assistance to apply for a Wisconsin Forest Landowner Grant; and critical fire control services are provided by the DNR Forestry Program which cannot be consistently provided by local volunteer fire departments.

The resolution states that "the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association encourages the Governor and members of the Joint Committee on Finance to retain the Mill Tax for the DNR Forestry Program, to ensure woodland owners the services they need to manage the forest resource and sustain it for future generations."

Need for increased school aids was the message delivered by many speakers. Current general aids total $250 per pupil. The was enthusiastic support for Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to provide school districts with an additional $200 per pupil in general aids for next year and another $204 the following year.

Several speakers on behalf of school districts strongly supported the increased aids, but urged eliminating a requirement for proof of compliance with an Act 10 provision for staff to pay at least 12 percent of their insurance costs. There were arguments that the reporting is too complicated and "one size fits all."

"Don't stifle the innovations that Act 10 was designed to accomplish," one speaker urged.

Brian Walters, Finance Director for the Marinette School District and a City of Marinette alderman, urged support for Gov. Walker's proposed increase in aids, as well as for a change in funding Department of Public Instruction formulas to bring more equitability between districts. He said some districts get $13,000 per pupil, while Marinette School District is allowed $9,000 each. He said that meant an $8.2 million difference in allowed revenue, "and you can only imagine what Marinette could do with that."

"We need to compensate our teachers," he said, adding that quality is vital, and in some families, the teacher spends more time with students during the school year than the parents do.

"Give low spending districts the chance to catch up," Walters urged. Several other speakers repeated those sentiments throughout the day.

A contingent of AARP members, all wearing bright red shirts, was visible up front. Their spokesperson said the group is visiting all six hearings to urge the state to provide a "silver dividend" by funding programs aimed at keeping seniors in their homes, and plan so fewer will be dependent on government programs in future.

Part of the AARP request was for broadband grants, through which seniors, by using technology, can reduce their sense of isolation and cut the number of visits to doctors and various agencies by getting information on-line. In addition to funding low-cost broadband, the speaker urged some training to use it, "There is a need for digital literacy training for seniors"There's no value to a type of communication that you can't afford and can't understand."

Ann Hartnell, Executive Director of Marinette County Association for Business and Industry (MCABI), noted they had applied four years ago and received $5 million from the state for construction of the Center for Excellence that is now being built. It will be an incubator to help new businesses get started, and provide space and facilities to meet the educational needs of local employers Hartnell said they are partnering with NWTC and other state level people to benefit the entire county.

Hartnell said right now she is working with two new businesses that may locate in Marinette County, and if they come in they will create 75 new jobs in the next two years.

Kathy Sandini, chancellor of UW-Marinette and UWEX, said statewide, their system teaches 250,000 Wisconsin residents each year. She said they are very appreciative of most of Gov. Walker's proposed budget, and mentioned the $700,000 it includes to provide a new transmitter for public radio. She said their staff is paid well below their peers, but it is critical that the 2 plus 2 program be funded so it does not lead to a structural deficit.

Dean Stuart, dean of the Technical College system, spoke of their work in corporate training. "There are really good things happening in the City of Marinette," he said, including the Marinette Marine wing at the Center for Excellence, NWTC's partnership with MCABI in training programs, and a "simulab" that opened in 2012. The Marinette campus manager for technical colleges said last year 227 students from Marinette and Peshtigo high schools were able to earn college credits while in high school. he said they are working on seamless transfer of those credits to a four-year university.

Mike Kuenish, speaking as a representative of Wisconsin Realtors Association, supported state property tax relief measures, including a proposal to eliminate the state property tax. He said currently Wisconsin is the fourth highest property tax state in the nation. The funding increases for schools in Walker's proposed budget will help keep local property taxes down, he said. He also supported eliminating the weatherization program, which he termed expensive and out dated.

Speakers representing the Green Bay public school system urged allowing districts flexibility to spend their money on schools that need it. The director of Green Bay's English Learners program said they are teaching English to 4,000 students, she suggested an additional $4.3 million in the budget for bi-lingual, bi-cultural programs that would bring the reimbursement rate up to 12 percent to help several hundred refuges from war-torn countries and refugee camps.

A number of speakers applauded Gov. Walker's efforts to bring Broadband to rural areas, but at least one said city students also need Internet access and urged, "Don't overlook one population to help another."

Another Green Bay School system speaker sought more support for mental health services for students.

Several speakers sought funding to construct a new mechanical engineering facility at Platteville University. One said 75 percent of the Platteville engineering graduates stay and work in Wisconsin.

City of Marinette Alderman Jason Flatt, who also is a history teacher, asked the committee to consider supporting historical preservation funds with no cap.

Kim Eparvier, Peshtigo School Administrator for the past 22 years, urged support for the $200 and $204 per pupil increases in state aids, and that be made a minimum, "and not negotiable to the end." He, like several other school spokespersons, urged a change in funding formulas to allow low spending districts a chance to catch up. He said Peshtigo ranks near the bottom in terms of spending per student.

Town of Peshtigo resident Wendell Johnson urged funding for a program that would bring Amtrak service to Green Bay. He said the proposed budget does not meet the needs for rail transportation in Wisconsin, and Wisconsin has been remiss in providing rail service. "Let's be creative and provide a viable option for car travel," he urged.

Pam Mueller Johnson spoke on the need for funding elderly services programs.

Oconto County Health Officer Debbie Konitzer said currently Wisconsin has no state funding for communicable disease control, and supported a request for $5 million for that program.

Several speakers representing towns and other municipalities sought more money to build and maintain roads, particularly in rural areas. All across the state, municipalities have supported a "Just Build It," initiative asking the state to provide increased road funding.

Late in the afternoon District Attorney Allen Brey urged the legislators to pass a non-partisan bill supported by a number of legislators including Mursau and Hansen as co-sponsors that would create a Prosecutors Board and Prosecutor's Office to assist and oversee District Attorney offices, since they are now state employees.

Brey congratulated the legislators on the good job they do writing the laws and protecting the citizens, but said there is supposed to be an agency looking out for District Attorneys, but it was never set up. The trailer bill would correct that. "This is a non partisan issue, Brey said, and repeated, "Please pass this so we have a voice down there in Madison."

Public defenders have a state board.  As a result of their board's advocacy, legislators have been better informed regarding their needs. Consequently, public defenders received $84,200,500 in 2015 while the state prosecutors received $48,383,000 in 2017.This is the case despite the obvious fact that the prosecutors act in all criminal cases and the public defenders only represent indigent defendants," declared the legislators who originated the bill. 

The bill would create an 11-member prosecutor board consisting of district attorneys and prosecutors from across the state, and the Attorney General (or his designee). The bill also creates a State Prosecutors Office consisting of an executive director and a legislative liaison. The Department of Justice and prosecutors support the bill.The committee remained in session throughout the day, but members left in groups of two or four for brief periods of respite as the day went on, and speakers waited patiently for their turn at the podium.

Nygren, on his web site, said the hearings are over, but comments received via phone calls, mail and e-mail will still be accepted and considered when the legislative debates begin in Madison.


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