Rep. Summerfield listening session: schools to roads to broadband to DNR

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX  —  Constituents who attended a listening session held by state Representative Rob Summerfield (R-Bloomer) brought up a wide variety of topics ranging from school funding to transportation to rural broadband to the state Department of Natural Resources.

Summerfield, the representative for the state’s 67th Assembly District, held the listening session on the governor’s proposed budget for 2017-2019 in the Colfax Municipal Building auditorium the afternoon of February 20. 

The 67th Assembly District covers the Towns of Colfax, Elk Mound, Grant, Hay River, Otter Creek, Red Cedar, Sand Creek, Sheridan, Sherman, Spring Brook, Tainter and Wilson, along with the Villages of Colfax, Elk Mound, Ridgeland and Wheeler, and part of Barron and Chippewa Counties. 

About 25 people attended the listening session. 

Schools

School funding topics included the state’s technical college system, the governor’s proposed increase in school funding, the University of Wisconsin system, school vouchers, and holding private schools accountable to the same standards as public schools when they are receiving public money.

Terry Nichols, Town of Colfax resident, spoke about moving funding for the technical college system to the state level.

The state’s technical college system represents public higher education funded on the backs of local taxpayers, Nichols said. 

Technical college boards are appointed and not elected, and they have the power to borrow millions of dollars that must be funded by taxpayers, but because they are not elected, they cannot be held accountable by the taxpayers, he said.

Taxpayers suffer a “double whammy” because they fund K-12 education locally and the technical colleges, Nichols said.

Steve Scoll, a Town of Otter Creek resident, noted that under Governor Walker, funding for K-12 education and the UW system “has been butchered. And now he is giving back a little money, and he is being called a hero.”

Rep. Summerfield said he has heard some talk about changing the taxing authority for technical colleges.

Structural deficit

One woman in the audience who said she has served on a school board in the past urged Rep. Summerfield to look at the structural deficit being created by the governor’s proposed budget.

The $200 per pupil increase in categorical aid should instead be an increase in the revenue limits, she said.

The school funding formula ends up with winners and losers, and the Joint Finance Committee is going to look at ways to aid schools better, Rep. Summerfield said.

Rural school districts that do not have the tax base are hurt, noted one man in the audience.

Requiring school staff to pay more of their salaries toward health insurance premiums as a result of Act 10, and the fact that health insurance premiums have been increasing, resulted in some people ending up with a “negative pay increase,” he said.

“That really hurts a lot of people … how many people will want to work to get less pay?” the man asked.

The real issue is the cost of health care and the cost of medical insurance, said the woman who had previously served on a school board.

Because of high health insurance costs, some food service workers in the school district received checks for 15 cents, she said. 

Several people said they were concerned about the cuts in funding to the UW system.

In the last budget, Gov. Walker reduced funding to the UW system by $250 million, but the governor is now proposing to increase the funding by $100 million.

Rep. Summerfield said “everybody I talk to” has said $250 million was too much of a cut for the UW system.

Adding $100 million back in is “a starting point,” he said. 

Vouchers

One woman in the audience said she was very concerned about taxpayer money going to private schools. 

The state cannot support both a public and a private school system, she said, adding that private schools which receive public money should be held accountable in the same way as public schools.

The vouchers are siphoning off money from the public schools and are mainly benefitting wealthier parents, the woman said.

If the voucher is for $8,000, and the tuition to the private school is $12,000, families with less financial means will not be able to make up the $4,000 difference to send their children to a private school, she said, noting that the money for vouchers “should be limited to the financially needy rather than the wealthy.”

“We need to hold private schools more accountable because they are spending tax money,” Rep. Summerfield said.

Self insurance

In a somewhat related issue to school funding, one woman in the audience wondered if the governor’s proposal to go to self insurance for the state to cover public employees would gain any traction.

“I don’t think so. It’s too risky,” Rep. Summerfield said.

Self-insurance “could” end up saving the state $60 million, but the estimates say it could also end up costing the state $20 million, resulting in an $80 million gap in the projections, he said.

“The risk-reward is just too big. We have a good system (now) … I am not comfortable with that proposal,” Rep. Summerfield said. 

Redistricting

Lisa Bragg-Hurlburt, director of the Colfax Public Library and a Town of Colfax resident, wondered if money was in the budget to pay attorneys to fight the court ruling about redistricting in Wisconsin.

A panel of federal judges has ruled that the redistricting done by a private law firm in Madison hired by Republican legislators, and with no input from Democratic legislators, advantaged Republican candidates and discriminated against Democrats.The state has been ordered by the court to redraw the districts.

The money is not in the budget, and the Legislature had no vote on spending the money, Rep. Summerfield said.

Colfax resident Mark Berge said the Legislature should make the redistricting a non-partisan process.

Partisan re-districting has been going on for as long as the state has been in existence, Rep. Summerfield said, noting that both Republican and Democratically-controlled legislatures have engaged in partisan re-districting.

Rep. Summerfield also noted, however, that both sides engaging in partisan redistricting does not make the practice right.

Medicaid

One woman in the audience said under Gov. Walker’s previous budget, services for her autistic son were no longer available and her son also no longer qualifies for an Individual Educational Plan (IEP). 

There is now no transitional planning for him, and the “safety net” is gone, she said.

As a society, we can be in a position of paying today for services or paying tomorrow for more group homes, the woman said.

She also was concerned about the idea floated by the federal government of a Medicaid block grant.

The woman said she was worried hospitals would close and that various groups and programs would be competing with each other for Medicaid dollars. 

“Maybe we have to invest on the high end but it pays off in the long run,” Rep. Summerfield said, adding he supports investing now to solve a problem later.

Transportation

Several people at the listening session said they were concerned about transportation funding and wondered where the money would come from to fix roads.

For every $1 the state spends on transportation, 23 cents now goes for debt service, Rep. Summerfield noted.

“We are borrowing too much for roads. We need a long-term fix,” he said.

Rep. Summerfield said he supports investing in roads, and that if it takes increasing the gas tax or registration fees to obtain more money, then the Legislature should consider those options.

“My goal is to fix … to have a long-term solution for a funding mechanism,” he said.

Rep. Summerfield said he also advocated for having a 20-year plan in place for fixing the state’s roads.

Unfortunately, he noted, Gov. Walker has taken a firm position that he would not support any increases in taxes or fees to support transportation without a comparable reduction elsewhere in the budget.

“I don’t know where the governor is coming from,” Rep. Summerfield said, adding there is a “broad consensus” the state needs a 20-year plan.

Town of Colfax resident Kathy Stahl said town boards are “wasting” the transportation money they have on patching roads, although they have no choice but to patch because there is not enough money to do a proper job.

Rep. Summerfield said he would like to see the state pay down the transportation debt, increase revenue for roads and set priorities for roads so big highway projects in the southern part of the state do not use money that could be used to fix roads in rural areas.

Delaying the big highway projects for several years might be necessary to help other roads that need fixing now, he said. 

Broadband

Nichols, from the Town of Colfax, said he lives one and a half miles south of town and “the broadband sucks.”

A number of people in the audience indicated their agreement that Internet service in the rural areas leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Rep. Summerfield said the fiber optics is good in and around Bloomer, and Internet access was “not on his radar” until he started campaigning.

“Then I found out otherwise,” he said.

The governor is proposing investing millions of dollars in rural broadband, Rep. Summerfield said.

“I want to be a strong advocate … I want to make this is a huge priority,” he said, pointing out that rural Internet access is another area needing a long-term solution and not a short-term fix.

One woman in the audience said she and her husband have an agricultural business, and they require high-speed Internet to help them operate their business.

The woman said she had called CenturyLink about the slow Internet speeds but had been told CenturyLink had not been getting any complaints, other than from her.

The woman urged people who live in rural areas with slow CenturyLink Internet service to write letters to the editor and to call CenturyLink.

Internet access in the rural areas should be treated like rural electricity, and it needs to be invested in like the electrical utilities, Rep. Summerfield said.

“We are changing a system, and it will take time,” he said.

One man in the audience said Governor Walker had refused to accept millions of dollars in rural broadband stimulus money from the federal government but was now proposing to put money in the state budget for rural broadband.

“Why?” the man asked.

The $23 million in rural broadband stimulus money in 2011 was intended to construct a fiber optic network to nearly 400 Wisconsin communities and would have included libraries, schools and public safety offices. 

DNR

Several people in the audience were concerned about groundwater and the proposal to break up the Department of Natural Resources. 

Stahl, from the Town of Colfax, said when the Town of Colfax plan commission sent out a survey to town residents for updating the comprehensive land use plan, protecting the groundwater “was off the charts.”

About 16 percent of the wells in Dunn County are above the recommended level for nitrates, and Stahl said residents need assistance in helping to pay for testing well water. 

The townships and counties also need good information about water withdrawal rates, and local controls for sand mines are important too, Stahl said.

Testing for lead in well water is important as well, she said, adding that she is concerned about the proposal to break up the DNR and scatter the personnel to other agencies in the state.

“I think the DNR break-up is off the table,” Rep. Summerfield said.

The Legislature needs to look for smart ways to make government more streamlined, but certain ideas might not be smart, and those ideas might not save money, he said.  

Berge, who lives near a sand mine north of Colfax, said he was concerned about the reductions in DNR staff, which have affected their ability to monitor the sand mines.

Several years ago, run-off from the sand mines polluted Eighteen Mile Creek, he noted.

Berge said he lives in a “pristine area” that is “dotted with eyesores that are not regulated very well.”

Berge wondered if there was money in the 2017-2019 budget to increase DNR staffing levels.

Rep. Summerfield said he had only recently gotten a copy of the proposed budget and would have to search through it to see if more money was allocated for increasing DNR staff.

Todd Wanish, a Town of Howard resident and a supervisor on the Howard Town Board, wondered about the money that had been taken out of the previous budget for 4-H funding.

“It’s a wonderful program for kids,” he said.

4-H funding would have been part of the budget cuts affecting UW-Extension.

“If the Extension cuts were a mistake, then that needs to be fixed,” Rep. Summerfield said.