By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Funding for the University of Wisconsin system and maintaining local control of frac sand mines were two prominent topics constituents discussed with state Senator Sheila Harsdorf at a listening session January 29.
About 20 people attended Senator Harsdorf’s listening session at the Dunn County Judicial Center.
Senator Harsdorf (R-River Falls) represents the state’s 10th Senate District, which covers the 28th, 29th and 30th Assembly Districts — all of St. Croix County and portions of Burnett, Dunn, Pierce and Polk Counties.
Governor Scott Walker’s proposed decrease in state funding to the University of Wisconsin System of $300 million over the next two years is a “second Act 10” aimed at UW employees, said Terry Nichols, a Town of Colfax resident and a retired employee of UW-Stout.
Nichols said he takes offense at the governor’s characterization of public employees as the “haves” and pitting the “haves” against the “have nots.”
“The wound has not healed, and the governor broke it open again,” Nichols said.
Details of the governor’s proposal are expected to be included in the state budget.
The 13 percent reduction in state aid, which amounts to $300 million over two years, is reported to be the largest cut in funding in the history of the UW system.
The governor’s proposal also includes moving the UW system from being under the control of state Legislature to being under the control of a public authority, giving the UW system more autonomy.
Senator Harsdorf said that giving the UW system more autonomy would provide the flexibility and “the tools” to deal with the $300 million reduction in state aid.
Senator Harsdorf said she advocates for greater flexibility to allow the campuses to manage their operations.
“I believe it has merit long-term,” Harsdorf said.
At this point, it is not clear what increased flexibility to manage operations means, but news reports have suggested it could include delaying maintenance and decreasing faculty and staff.
Governor Walker has gone on record saying that university professors should work harder and teach more classes.
Kathy Stahl, a Town of Colfax resident and the former host of Spectrum West on Wisconsin Public Radio, said the $300 million reduction in state aid is only one decrease for the UW system.
“It has been cuts time after time,” she said.
Morale on University of Wisconsin campuses “has been hugely hurt,” Stahl said.
“We have already cut out the excess. I fear we will now be losing quality (faculty and staff),” she said.
“I am aware we will be losing good faculty,” Senator Harsdorf said, adding that the Legislature must hold the UW system accountable.
The increased autonomy will give the UW system long-term flexibility to manage the payroll, she said.
Stahl also said she was concerned that the issue of removing local control of the frac sand mines would be a provision tacked onto the budget.
Local control is a policy issue and not a budget issue, Stahl said, and asked Senator Harsdorf not to vote in favor of removing local control.
Stahl said she respects landowners’ rights to use their property but that sand mines “go beyond their boundaries.”
All counties in the state have different environments and different needs, so a central set of regulations from the state would not take those differences into account, she said.
Jerry Lausted, a farmer in the Town of Red Cedar and the Town of Tainter, said he, too, was deeply concerned about the loss of local control.
Two bills were introduced by Senator Tom Tiffany last year undermining local control of the sand mines, he said.
The extraction industry wants to be able to move from section to section and expand the acreage of the sand mine with no new regulations, Lausted said.
Being able to expand with no new regulations is known as the diminishing assets rule.
According to an analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau of one of Senator Tiffany’s bills regarding diminishing assets, a zoning ordinance that is adopted after a nonmetallic mining operation has started cannot apply to land that is contiguous to a nonmetallic mining operation that is under the control or common ownership of the person who owns or controls the land where the mining is occurring, even if non-metallic mining is not taking place on the contiguous property at the time the new ordinance is adopted.
Under diminishing assets, “if the sand mine is five miles away now, it could be in your backyard three years from now,” Lausted said.
“The extraction industry is not your best buddy,” he said.
Senator Harsdorf said this area of the state needs the jobs from sand mining and that sand mining can be done “in a smart way and an environmentally smart way.”
Lausted said that the Fairmount Minerals (Wisconsin Industrial Sand) mine across the road from the judicial center employs 14 people.
Senator Harsdorf said that regulations for sand mining could hurt aggregate mining.
Aggregate refers to the sand and gravel pits that are used for road construction and other local construction projects.
Dunn County’s nonmetallic mining ordinance exempts sand and gravel operations used for local road construction or other construction.
Lausted also said he was concerned about the ponds at the Wisconsin Industrial Sand mining site that from aerial photos look like they are filled with antifreeze and wondered what is in those ponds to turn the water that color.
Another woman at the listening session who did not identify herself said the state Department of Natural Resources does not have the staffing or the funding to handle central control of the sand mines.
The DNR would have to get up to speed with staffing and equipment, she said, noting that the DNR is currently understaffed for the responsibilities they have now, never mind giving the agency additional responsibilities.
At the beginning of the hour-long listening session, Senator Harsdorf noted that the state Legislature is working on reforms to make a positive, business-friendly climate to encourage job growth.
The state has a need for a more skilled workforce to fill jobs that currently are not filled, she said.
A program called Fast Forward will help regional and local employers find the skilled people they need, Senator Harsdorf said.
The Legislature prioritized tax relief for state residents and reduced the income tax rates from five to four, Senator Harsdorf said.
The Legislature also moved part of the technical school tax levy off local property taxes to the state level and pledged $400 million per year, which will reduce the local property tax levy for technical schools by 50 percent, she said.
The Legislative Fiscal Bureau is projecting a revenue growth of 3.7 percent, but the state is facing a budget shortfall, Senator Harsdorf said.
Medical assistance will require an additional $760 million over the next two years, she said.
The increase in medical assistance spending and the tax relief have contributed to the state’s budget deficit, she said.
The state is reported to have a current-year budget shortfall of more than $280 million, and the projected budget deficit for 2015-2017 is $2.2 billion.