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Many implore legislators

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) introduces herself prior to the start of Thursday's Wisconsin Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance budget hearing at Baldwin High School. <i>Jeff Holmquist photo</i>

BALDWIN -- The Joint Committee on Finance, made up of state senators and assembly members, met for seven hours April 18 to gather testimony from people concerned about budget priorities.

Hundreds were on hand at Baldwin High School auditorium to watch proceedings or get on a list so they could have two minutes to speak.

Among members of the committee were State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and State Assemblyman Dean Knudson (R-Hudson).

Several topics kept popping up during the day's testimony.

Both supporters and opponents of school vouchers, and tax credits for families who send their kids to private school, were on hand to express opinions on the proposal.

Gov. Scott Walker has suggested that the voucher program, which provides students with state aid that allows them to attend private schools if they choose, be expanded across the state. Another plan would establish a tax credit for those who pay private school tuition.

Students and administrators from such schools as St. Mary's in New Richmond and Trinity Academy in Hudson showed up in force to urge legislators to support an expansion of vouchers and tax credits.

Mari Zarcone Patterson, principal of St. Mary's School, said her institution has worked hand-in-hand with the New Richmond School District and the partnership has worked well.

She said the tax credit idea would help private schools stay financially strong, and provide an option for parents who want their children to learn in a faith-based atmosphere.

In the end, she said, "it doesn't matter what school they attend."

Rebecca Paulson, Baldwin, who has three children attending St. Mary's, said the tax credit would help many families afford private education, while also helping public schools by keeping overcrowding down.

When it was their turn to testify, dozens of students and adults with Trinity Academy filed in front of the committee to stand in silent support of the tuition tax credit proposal.

Alison Johnson, principal from Trinity Academy, told the committee that having the public and private options available to students is important. She said each student is different and having more educational options improves the chances that students will have their needs met.

"There is room for all of us in the community," Johnson said.

Parent Todd Erickson, Hudson, said the presence of private schools also improves the public school system because competition can be healthy.

Numerous public school district representatives spoke against vouchers and the use of tax funding to support private education.

Randy Rosburg, Somerset School District superintendent, said he didn't feel the voucher discussion should be a part of the state budget process. He urged legislators to remove the language from the bill. Many public school representatives echoed his opinion.

Rosburg went on to urge legislators to back a proposal to increase state revenue limits by a minimum of $150 per pupil for next year, though he noted that $200 per student would be even better.

Numerous school district administrators, from such places as Amery and Osceola, also spoke in favor of the higher funding level. In Walker's budget plan, a freeze in the funding level is proposed.

Among the other items discussed during the day-long hearing:

  • St. Croix County Judge Scott Needham, New Richmond, asked legislators to restore funding for the court system. He said reduced funding could mean the discontinuation of such programs as Drug Court, which has kept about 134 people out of prison while they receive rehabilitation services. The program has saved the state about $4 million a year, Needham estimated. Needham also added that reduced funding could put collections efforts in jeopardy, noting that St. Croix County's efforts to collect bad debts resulted in $2 million in payments in 2012.
  • Duana Bremer, a member of the Wisconsin Access to Justice Commission, urged committee members to reinstate funding for civil litigation services for low-income families.
  • Joan Schneider, River Falls, represented a group of AARP (American Association of Retired People) members who attended the hearing donning matching red T-shirts. Besides access to health care, she said the group is concerned about maintaining access to land-line telephone service in rural Wisconsin. Schneider said cellphone coverage is unreliable in many areas. "We think this is not a telemarketing issue, but a safety issue for rural seniors," she said.
  • Chuck and Terry Nelson, Somerset, spoke in favor of continued funding for state programs that assist families and individuals who are uninsured and face large medical bills. "I'm extremely grateful for the program," Terry Nelson said. "If not for this, we would have lost our home and probably our business."
  • Wendy Kramer, former health officer for St. Croix County, spoke in favor of funding for health priorities in Wisconsin. "The state can help make the healthy choice the easy choice," she said.
  • St. Croix County Public Health nutritionist Teresa Kvam, New Richmond, urged legislators to continue support for such nutrition programs as Farm To School, which connects local producers with school in an effort to get fresh vegetables and fruit into the school lunch program.
  • Katy Kapaun, St. Croix County child support director, urged legislators to restore funding to child support efforts in the state. She said any further reduction in funding will result in staffing cuts and children will be impacted.
  • Tim Ramberg, St. Croix County highway commissioner, urged legislators to support funding for infrastructure projects and maintenance of current roads and highways. He noted that rough roads cost motorists $335 in additional maintenance costs per year.
  • Newly elected Hammond trustee Laurie Gruber spoke in favor of greater shared revenue with municipalities so communities can maintain adequate services.

Among other topics discussed during testimony were land conservation funding; University of Wisconsin System funding, funding for grazing programs, tourism funding, tobacco education program funding, and funding for domestic violence programs.

Perhaps the most unusual testimony of the day came from Steve Perkins, who was dressed in "sack cloth." He used his two minutes to chastise the Republican members of the committee for their support of Walker's budget-cutting efforts the past two years. He called Republicans and their supporters "greedy" and out of touch with the state's poor.

The hearing, which ran from 10 a.m. until about 4:20 p.m., was the last of four hearings that the Joint Committee on Finance held across the state. Past hearings were held in Green Bay, Greendale and Wisconsin Dells.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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