Katie Rosenberg speaks during a state budget hearing
Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg speaks Wednesday in Rhinelander's Hodag Dome during a state budget hearing hosted by the Legislature's budget-writing committee. She said Wausau is struggling to pay for basic services as a result of minimal financial aid from the state. (Screenshot via WisconsinEye)

Dollars for schools, local governments, and other services needed to continue services, advocates say.

Wednesday’s Joint Finance Committee hearing in Rhinelander had a decidedly northern Wisconsin feel, as residents from that region made pitches for why they need resources to address needs ranging from roads and schools to improving high-speed internet access. 

Advocates for those topics along with local governments, nursing homes, and many other sectors made their cases for inclusion in the 2021-23 Wisconsin budget during a public hearing by the state’s powerful budget-writing committee. Northern Wisconsin is sometimes left out of statewide initiatives, some speakers said, and the region needs additional resources to boost its economy and retain people. 

“We are a property-poor district,” Tim Prunty, director of business services in the Antigo School District, told Joint Finance Committee (JFC) members gathered inside the Hodag Dome. “Even a $1 million referendum is a big property tax increase for us. It’s simply not feasible that our community can do that.”

Prunty was one of dozens of speakers addressing the JFC during a 5 ½-hour hearing that ended 90 minutes before its scheduled finish because of a lack of speakers. 

Gov. Tony Evers’ proposed $91 billion state budget includes increased expenditures for K-12 schools and the UW System as well as such initiatives as increasing broadband access, money to agriculture programs, and road repairs. It also would roll back much of former Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial Act 10, which did away with most public employees’ collective bargaining rights, and seeks to legalize recreational marijuana.  

How much of Evers’ budget proposal, which includes a 9.5% spending increase, will be approved depends in large part on Republican leadership in the state Legislature. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) has criticized the governor’s plan as too expensive and said Republicans oppose some of its provisions.    

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Local government officials told JFC members that years of state aid failing to keep pace with rising costs has prompted budget cuts that in some cases leave municipalities without money to adequately provide basic services. Leaders in northern Wisconsin communities said they have been hard hit by long-term funding shortfalls. 

State aid to local governments at its current level “is not sustainable,” said Zach Vruwink, Rhinelander city administrator. 

Wausau Mayor Katie Rosenberg told the committee her city hasn’t received a significant increase in state aid for two decades, since she was in high school. “Now I have gray hair,” she said, noting Wausau and other local governments are struggling to pay for such basic services as street repairs, infrastructure needs, and public safety.  

Among the topics prompting the most input was education. Speakers advocated for additional funding, saying years of costs rising faster than state aid doled out by the Repubican-led state Legislature has left programs and buildings without enough resources to properly prepare students. 

Without adequate funding, school districts are forced to seek voter approval for spending from voters in the form of referendums, creating a system of haves and have-nots among state schools, said Ronald “Duff” Martin, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers union. 

“There shouldn’t be winners and losers. There really shouldn’t be,” Martin said during a press conference outside the Hodag Dome where the JFC meeting occurred. 

Retired Appleton school teacher Patti Clark-Stojke was among speakers advocating for increased special education funding. Evers’ budget calls for boosting that figure to 50% of the cost of educating special ed students, nearly double the current funding level. 

Underfunding mandated special ed programs shortchanges not only those students but other program dollars used to cover for the shortfall, speakers told the JFC. “There are no more corners to cut,” Clark-Stojke said.   

Other residents advocated for budget funding for such initiatives as roads, rural broadband, and high-speed rail. A lack of broadband internet access in much of northern Wisconsin hinders the regional economy, speakers said, and keeps that part of the state behind other areas. 

Former prison inmates and advocates for prison reform urged committee members to reduce spending on prisons, saying that money would be better spent on prevention/rehabilitation efforts. Of every 100,000 state residents, Wisconsin has 676 inmates, below the national average of 698 but higher than most countries, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.  

“We must divest from prisons. It serves us all,” said Sean Wilson, Smart Justice organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin. 

Speakers also addressed concerns about water contamination, particularly PFAS, compounds commonly found in firefighting foam and non-stick surfaces. The compounds cause adverse health impacts such as cancer, immune system issues and thyroid problems. PFAS have contaminated two wells serving Rhinelander and have been discovered in numerous other Wisconsin locations, most notably Marinette, Peshtigo, La Crosse, and Madison.   

“Rhinelander has a PFAS issue it simply cannot ignore,” Vruwink said, noting the city requires state assistance to deal with the contamination.

Several speakers criticized Evers’ proposed budget, saying it includes too much new spending. Others said increased expenditures are necessary and provide dollars for needed services, especially as the state continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. 

The public input session in Rhinelander was the second of four such forums at which JFC members are seeking public opinion about the budget. The first was at UW-Whitewater, and people will have an opportunity to offer their budget input at another JFC hearing Thursday at UW-Stout in Menomonie. The final event scheduled for April 28 will occur virtually. Registration for that session is full.