By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Part of the first proposed federal budget under President Donald Trump would defund a rural broadband initiative, said U.S. Representative Ron Kind during a listening session August 3 in Menomonie.
The proposed budget represents something of “a declaration of war on rural America,” he said.
Kind is the representative for Wisconsin’s third Congressional district.
[emember_protected] In addition to defunding a rural broadband initiative, the proposed federal budget also would cut loans for farmers as well as other programs targeted to help rural families, he said.
Most of the programs under consideration to be eliminated are not large programs, but they do help people living in rural districts, Rep. Kind said.
Fortunately, quite a bit of bipartisan push-back is occurring in Washington D.C., he said.
Cutting those programs “would be a good way to leave rural America behind,” Rep. Kind said.
United States Department of Agricultural rural development funding also is under consideration for being eliminated.
The Colfax Health and Rehabilitation Center and the Neighbors of Dunn County, for example, both received part of the loan money to build new facilities through USDA rural development.
Steve Rasmussen of Boyceville, chair of the Dunn County Board, noted that the National Association of Counties (NACO) had sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Purdue, about the proposed elimination of USDA rural development funding.
Purdue “chastised NACO for complaining,” Rasmussen said.
USDA funding is important to Rep. Kind’s district, he said.
“I am asking you to derail the effort (to eliminate USDA rural development funding),” Rasmussen said.
Eliminating funding for a rural broadband initiative would be disappointing for Dunn County residents.
If you ask just about anybody living in rural Dunn County about their Internet access, you could get an earful.
Either the Internet access is not available at all, or the Internet access is so slow, ordinary functions like online banking or downloading income tax forms or watching an instructional video on how to sharpen the blades of your lawn mower is an iffy proposition.
Non-existent or poor Internet access is the reason why Dunn County and UW-Extension teamed up to conduct a “gap analysis” survey to find out where the Internet access is good and where it needs improvement.
The information from the gap analysis will be used by local Internet service providers to apply for grant money available through the state of Wisconsin to improve Internet access in Dunn County.
Broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of three megabits.
Many rural areas in Dunn County have Internet access speeds of only a fraction of the FCC’s definition.
All together, more than 2,000 gap analysis surveys have been filled out by Dunn County residents, Rasmussen said.
Rep. Kind said he would like to have a copy of the gap analysis when it is completed because the information would be useful to him in helping Dunn County figure out what can be done to close the gap.
The impetus for the gap analysis started with a question of how to find more workers to come and live in Dunn County, said Eric Turner, director of the Dunn County Economic Development Corporation.
Businesses will not locate in this area if they cannot find people to work at their businesses, and of course, people will not move to an area if there are no jobs.
Chippewa Valley Technical College and UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout turn out some fine talent, Turner said.
The problem is that when students are done with school, most of them leave Dunn County, he said.
The question then becomes — what can be done to help retain residents and bring more people into Dunn County, Turner said.
Broadband Internet access also makes certain business opportunities more of a possibility.
Part of the gap analysis will be an overlay map of where Internet service is available, Turner said.
The gap analysis is expected to be rolled out in October and will allow Dunn County to leverage funding, he said.
“I would be interested in working with Dunn County,” Rep. Kind said.
Internet access is “crucial for business,” and it is “crucial for young people to stay,” he said.
About 60 people attended the listening session, and many of them who spoke expressed concern about healthcare.
The various proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which have been defeated in the Republican-controlled United States Senate so far, would have cut $834 billion from Medicaid and would have given $662 billion in tax breaks to the wealthy, Rep. Kind said.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in May.
The next step would be for the United States Senate to approve a repeal and replace bill, and then the House and Senate bills would have to be reconciled into one version that is then approved by both the House and the Senate before it could be signed into law.
Medicaid helps pay for healthcare for impoverished families and the disabled and also helps pay for skilled nursing care for impoverished elderly residents living in nursing homes.
One woman who spoke said she has two special needs boys.
“I had a great job. I loved my job,” she said.
Unfortunately, because of the needs of the children, “I can’t work,” she said.
The woman said she is tired of being characterized as “lazy.”
“I want the Democrats to stand up and say, ‘these are the families you’re hurting,’” she said.
“Medicaid is saving our family lives,” the woman said.
All together, 75 percent of those on Medicaid are senior citizens, the disabled and children, she said.
“I want the Democrats to start telling our stories,” the woman said.
Rep. Kind noted that his staff, with the permission of people who are telling their stories, are beginning now to videotape those stories and put them up on social media.
One man noted the problems with the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Some people make “too much money” and are paying thousands of dollars per year in health insurance premiums and have a $14,000 deductible, he said.
That is one of the problems with the ACA for people in the individual insurance market who do not qualify for help in paying for insurance premiums, and it is one of the problems with the ACA that should be fixed, Rep. Kind said.
One man wanted to know why the ACA was not “good enough” for members of Congress.
Congress should have the same healthcare that they expect the American people to have, he said.
Members of Congress and congressional staff members are in the Washington D.C. Insurance exchange, Rep. Kind said.
Congressional staff members are employees whose insurance premiums are subsidized by their employer, just like people who obtain health insurance through their employer, he said.
One woman said she had worked for 51 years but did not receive a pension.
Living in poverty is a problem for elderly women, she said.
“It’s stressful to think about losing healthcare,” the woman said.
Rep. Kind noted he has spoken to many people who are frightened about losing their healthcare.
Another gentleman said the ACA was a nice idea but the result is “spitting on a forest fire.”
The cost of healthcare is a big problem, but the cost was not addressed in the ACA, he said.
“Why can’t we get an estimate of what healthcare will cost?” the man asked, noting that mechanics are required to give estimates on car repairs.
“We need transparency in pricing,” Rep. Kind said.
The attack on Medicaid is “(the Republican party) prioritizing the very rich over the rest of us,” said one woman.
Other topics discussed during the listening session included redistricting, voting rights, the right to healthcare, veterans’ benefits, people with disabilities, water pollution from algae, privatization of air traffic controllers, public money being used for private schools, climate change, the sand mining industry, the state department no longer promoting democracy around the world, partisanship in Washington D.C., lack of leadership in the White House, the security of elections, gerrymandering, the proposed elimination of the Johnson amendment to allow pastors to endorse political candidates and to allow unlimited tax deductible donations to churches, and for-profit healthcare.
“I would encourage you to go back to Washington D.C. and make more noise about issues important to rural Dunn County,” said one woman.
Some of the issues she listed as being important to rural Dunn County included the environment, healthcare, water quality and jobs. [/emember_protected]