Joint Finance Committee: hundreds attend state budget hearing in Baldwin

By LeAnn R. Ralph

BALDWIN — Several hundred people traveled to Baldwin for the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance public hearing on the governor’s 2013-15 biennial budget.

The public hearing at Baldwin-Woodville High School on April 18 was the last of four public hearings held around the state.

Several themes emerged among those testifying before the Joint Committee on Finance, including opposition to expansion of the school voucher program and support for a $150 increase per pupil in the revenue caps for school districts; restoring a $17 million lapse in the court budget; support for restoring Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection staffing grants to county land conservation departments; and support for increased spending to promote tourism.

Several who testified also supported increasing the Medicaid eligibility to take advantage of federal funding; a number of students spoke about holding University of Wisconsin tuition increases to 3 or 4 percent;

Led by Senate Chair Alberta Darling and Assembly Chair John Nygren, the Joint Committee on Finance also held public hearings in Greendale on April 4, Green Bay on April 8, and Lake Delton on April 10.

Many school district administrators spoke against expanding the voucher program for private schools and in support of a $150 per pupil increase in the state-imposed revenue cap.

Stephen Schiell, the district administrator for the Amery school district, said private school voucher students would receive $2,400 more per student than students in the Amery district.

“Public schools have been hurt enough,” Schiell said.

Al Brown, district administrator in the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser school district, noted that declining property values and declining enrollment have already resulted in a loss of revenue for school districts without taking more money away to fund the private school voucher program.

Revenue limits

Bruce Quinton, district administrator for the Pepin school district, said that if the increase in the revenue limit remained at zero, within five years, Pepin would be facing bankruptcy.

School districts around the state have been dealing with unfunded and underfunded mandates for many years, he said.

Funding voucher programs for private schools while underfunding public education is not a good investment in education, Quinton said.

Randal Braun, district administrator for the Cameron school district, said that revenue caps have resulted in 18 years of underfunding.

If the state budget is passed as proposed, Cameron will be making additional cuts to the budget and would have to delay certain maintenance projects, he said.

Private school vouchers take resources away from public school students, Braun said.

Several of those who were opposed to expanding the private school voucher program said that taxpayers in Wisconsin cannot afford to fund two school systems, one for private schools and one for public schools, and that taxpayers should not be funding for-profit private education.

A couple of people also said that taxpayers should not be funding private schools that are not held to the same standards as public schools.

Private schools

Representatives for Trinity Academy in Hudson and St. Mary’s School in New Richmond said they supported tuition tax credits for Wisconsin residents who send their children to private schools.

Those who spoke in support of tuition tax credits did not say that they wanted to see an expansion of the voucher program.

The representative for St. Mary’s noted that 136,000 students attend private schools in Wisconsin.

At one point in the public hearing, Assembly Chair Nygren sternly reminded the audience there was to be no talking or commenting among themselves — and then realized that what he was hearing was the normal sounds of Baldwin-Woodville High School students passing through the halls and going to lunch.

Court funding

St. Croix County Judge Scott Needham, chief judge of the Tenth Judicial District, advocated for restoring a $17 million lapse in the state’s court budget.

The reduction for St. Croix County, for example, could mean eliminating the collection clerk’s position, he said.

Last year, the collection clerk advanced $2 million to the state in collected fines and forfeitures, Judge Needham said.

St. Croix County’s diversion court also saved $4 million in incarceration costs, he said.

Gregg Moore, chair of the Eau Claire County Board of Supervisors, said the lapse in the court funding would have an adverse impact on Eau Claire County providing services to residents.

Several other people noted that the diversion court system, which is an alternative to jail time for those with OWI convictions, saves taxpayers millions of dollars but will be in jeopardy if the $17 million lapse in court funding remains.

Land conservation

Tyler Gruetzmacher, county conservationist in Barron County, asked that the $1.3 million in DATCP staffing grants be restored.

Agriculture and tourism are the two biggest industries in Barron County, he said.

Ten years ago, the Barron county land conservation office had a staff of seven but is now down to three employees, he said.

A representative for the Polk County land conservation office noted that Polk County receives 60 percent of its tax revenue from lake properties but that because of phosphorus run-off, five lakes had been added to the impaired waters list last year.

A work-load analysis indicated that the Polk County land conservation office should employ 18 people but currently has a staff of seven, he said.

Tourism

Representatives for the Wisconsin Tourism Federation advocated for an increase in money the state spends on promoting tourism.

Wisconsin lags behind Michigan and Illinois on spending to promote tourism in the state, they said.

Joel Peck, city administrator for St. Croix Falls, said the city has a strong “creative economy” involving the arts and that the arts bring in $16 million annually to the St. Croix Valley.

“When there is a performance in town, cars line the streets, and all of the businesses do well,” he said.

Wisconsin spends 15 cents per capita on supporting and promoting the arts, compared to 30 cents per capita in Iowa, 60 cents per capita in Illinois, and $6 per capita in Minnesota, Peck said.