Local legislators discuss the state budget, support UWEC Science building and broadband expansion
The Chamber’s May 21 Eggs & Issues program featured four state legislators from the Senate and Assembly who represent the Chippewa Valley. The event was streamed via Perigon at WIN Technology and together the lawmakers discussed a few key issues important to the business community including deliberations for the 2021-23 state budget, the current workforce shortage, broadband expansion, and mental health concerns.
The 2021-23 state budget
Right away, Senator Kathy Bernier (R-Lake Hallie) explained that as a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, the state budget is currently taking up much of her time. As one of her top priorities, she believes the budget will be “fiscally responsible and future focused.” One of the challenges has been working with the governor to decide exactly how all the federal dollars will be spent. However, Senator Bernier did say that “we do know that broadband expansion will be an important aspect of the budget [and] we know that the federal dollars will help up with some broadband expansion, but of course with any federal money, there are strings attached.”
She also explained that the budget making process has been slower this year because income taxes were pushed back to May. While this means that the committee does not yet know the exact numbers they will be working with, she expects the committee will have a budget ready for the governor to make a decision on it before June 30.
As a Democrat who is currently in the minority in the state legislature, Senator Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) said, “from our perspective, we have just two members out of caucus, two members out of the assembly caucus […] but we are what we are. We know what our role is, and our role is to, through the governor, introduce our ideas and to communicate with the governor as much as we can about what we like and what we don’t like, and try to coordinate through the governor.”
The science building
Each of the local lawmakers explained that funding for the new UW-Eau Claire is also a top priority for them. “It is so important. This is clearly the most important project that we could break ground for in this region”, Senator Smith said. Representative Rob Summerfield (R-Bloomer) agreed saying, “everyone in the area is fighting to hopefully get phase two in the process.”
Senator Bernier said she is working on getting at least the planning and design funds into the budget this year. She noted that Joint Finance committee members are averse to commitment. Representative Jesse James echoed this saying, “there are no promises being made with the conversations I’m having with Rep. Wittke and Rep. Swearingen who are on the Planning and Building Commission. Also with Representative Warren […] it appears that maybe COVID is the excuse or there is maybe some other things happening.” Despite the other legislators being unwilling to commit, Senator Bernier is still not ruling out additional funding and said she will continue to advocate for the second phase of funding.
Workforce and housing shortages
A continual struggle for local businesses has been the workforce shortage in the local area and across the nation. Much of the discussion surrounded the $300 unemployment benefits where Representative Summerfield and Senator Bernier said these payments need to go away so that things can go back to normal. However, Senator Smith explained that the problems with the workforce are not new, but have likely been exasperated by COVID. “There are a lot of factors here and I think we need to be very careful about jumping on the fact that $300 a week is actually ruining the workplace and ruining the opportunity to find workers. People want to work. In Wisconsin, we know that people are not lazy.”
However, the problem is not simply getting people back to work. There is also a demographic problem with a housing shortage. With how expensive building materials are, affordable housing also becomes a concern. Representative Summerfield explained that there are many factors that have caused these problems, but he believes there are little pieces that could help address this. Looking into regulations, tax credits, and what local communities could offer as incentives for building may help bridge the gap. “One bill won’t just fix the problem. It’s going to take talking to industry experts, talking to municipalities, just to see what packages or proposals we can come up with to help address this issue” Representative Summerfield said.
Another priority for each of the legislators is broadband expansion. Senator Smith and Representative Jesse James (R-Altoona) consider broadband to be a bipartisan issue that will get done and will see people come together on. “It hits every aspect of life right now and it's so important [...] It is an investment and I know that it works as an investment for the economy,” Senator Smith said. Representative Summerfield explained that he is working on improving and revamping the broadband expansion program. “Expansion is a work in process,” he said. While he would like to see the entire state covered, he described how expensive it can be and explained that the grants are designed in a way so that they can be good stewards with the money Wisconsin has.
Mental health concerns
Addressing the mental health issue and ensuring the wellbeing of families and law enforcement in the local community has been a top priority of Representative James. “We need to get these services expanded throughout our state,” he said. Representative Summerfield acknowledged that this has been an ongoing issue, not just a year-long problem as isolation during the pandemic has led to new or worsened mental health problems. Senator Bernier explained that it is very difficult to fully understand all the services available for mental health because no one really knows what services are currently out there. “DHS doesn’t even know. No one really knows what services we have and where we can improve. We need to understand what we have and what we don’t have.” As a result, she has created an amendment to the budget to study the resources available and put money behind it.
Wisconsin Legislature (contact information for all legislators)
Legislators talk jobs, broadband at chamber breakfast (Leader-Telegram $)
50 rural internet pilot users to start soon (Leader-Telegram $)
Evers announces $100 million to expand broadband (AP)
Rep. Rob Summerfield and Sen. Howard Marklein Circulate Broadband Expansion Grant Program Legislation (News release)
Wisconsin's legislative budget committee delays action on state broadband expansion grants (The Cap Times £)
GOP largely rejects Tony Evers' plan to spend $70 million to combat homelessness (Wisconsin State Journal £)
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Posted by Grace Hanson, Governmental Affairs Intern
This is Grace's final blog post as an Eau Claire Chamber intern. Click the following link to read more about Grace's experience and information about other past interns: Reflections from this year's Governmental Affairs intern
Eau Claire Chamber
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