Dec 18 Virtual Eggs & Issues: UWEC Science Building, workforce, mental health among top priorities of area legislators
Left: Senators Kathy Bernier and Jeff Smith speak with Scott Rogers and Jennifer McHugh
Right: (Clockwise) Reps. Jodie Emerson, Warren Petryk, Rob Summerfield, Jesse James
Each December, the Eau Claire Area’s monthly Eggs and Issues program brings the business community and local representatives together to offer a glimpse of what the upcoming legislative session will bring. Despite the challenges this year has brought with the pandemic, this December is no different. While in a slightly different format, the Eau Claire Chamber invited members of the State Senate and Assembly who represent the Chippewa Valley to join virtually for a preview of the session and a discussion of top priorities that will impact the region. Among those participating include Senators Kathy Bernier (R-Lake Hallie) and Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire); Representatives Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), Jesse James (R-Altoona), Warren Petryk (R-Eleva) and Rob Summerfield (R-Bloomer); and Representatives-elect Clint Moses (R-Menomonie), Dave Armstrong (R-Rice Lake) and Donna Rozar (R-Marshfield). Hosting the discussion were the Chamber's Governmental Affairs Committee Chair, Jennifer McHugh, VP of Public Engagement for Royal Credit Union, and the Chamber's Governmental Affairs Director, Scott Rogers.
Top priorities of Senators
The program began with Senators Kathy Bernier and Jeff Smith explaining their top priorities as they enter the new legislative session scheduled to begin in January. Senator Bernier has just been appointed to the Joint Finance Committee. She explained that her top priorities will be deeply involved in the budget process. The senator also plans to meet with the elections commission to discuss fine tuning election laws. Senator Bernier also considers mental healthcare to be front and center and hopes to get the behavior center up and running in HSHS sooner rather than later.
Senator Jeff Smith explained that this year has illustrated the deep need for broadband expansion. He recognizes this requires government cooperation with private industries and desires to see this cooperation take place. Non-partisan redistricting reform is also a priority of the senator. He hopes the Democratic governor and Republican legislature will work together to draw district lines fairly.
The UW-Eau Claire Science Building
The two senators also discussed the current status of the UW-Eau Claire science building. The building is a critical part of developing the Eau Claire area economy, and the partnership with Mayo would make Western Wisconsin a top leader in rural health and research. Senator Smith explained that funding and finalizing the development plans was his top budget request when he met with Governor Tony Evers. Although Senator Smith is concerned that COVID-related pressures could affect the state budget, he asserted that this is a pressing issue and will continue to fight for it to move forward. Senator Bernier considers the project a top priority and will work for it when the Joint Finance Committee deals with the state budget. She recognized the challenges presented by the UW System not including the project in its current budget request, but intends to "fight the system" if necessary.
How can we see more bipartisanship in the legislature?
The Senators were also asked how they might encourage bipartisanship in the Legislature as this past year has been long and difficult for all Wisconsinites. Senator Bernier recognized the philosophical differences that come from working in a two-party system. However, despite parting ways on these philosophical issues, legislators are united by the needs of constituents. Senator Smith also recognized the importance of developing relationships outside of their own region or committee group. He explained that having conversations outside of the sometimes bitter and partisan environment could improve relationships in the legislature.
How does the legislature intend to address the pandemic?
Senator Smith explained that both sides desire to help address this public health and economic crisis that the current pandemic has created. However, all legislators are at the mercy of the Majority Leader in the Senate, the Speaker in the Assembly, and the Governor’s office. While Senator Smith hopes everyone is on the same page and providing aid can be a bipartisan effort, these leaders may not be in as much of a hurry as the rest of the Legislature. Senator Bernier agreed, saying that although they have freed up extra dollars in the budget for the Governor to utilize for COVID relief, when it comes to calling a session, that is completely up to the Speaker and the Majority leader. Both are anxious for the pandemic to go away so that they can begin to work on things they are more familiar with and passionate about.
Newly elected members of the Assembly
The newly elected members of the assembly provided a brief introduction of themselves and explained any specific things they would like to see in Madison. Representative-elect Dave Armstrong has lived in the Rice Lake area since 2005. As Director of the Barron County Economic Development Corporation, he has experience working on housing bills and workforce issues and decided he would like to do that work in Madison, as well. At the time of the event, Assembly committee assignments had not yet been confirmed by Speaker Robin Vos. Armstrong has requested to be on the Workforce, Economic Development, Rural Development, or Community Development committees. Representative-elect Clint Moses has served on many local boards and is currently on the School Board in Menomonie. He has always been interested in politics and has been involved with his county party for some time. Moses has requested to be on the Rural Development, Agriculture and Environment, Healthcare, or Education committees. Representative-elect Donna Rozar is a small business owner, Registered Nurse and retired RN instructor. She chose to run because of retiring Representative Kulp called asking her because he believed she had a number of experiences that would be beneficial to the Assembly.
When the new Assembly members arrive in Madison, Armstrong explained that he hopes to see more done for affordable housing. Moses wants to make sure the environment is good for both small and large businesses and welcoming for new businesses. Rozar hopes to address workforce shortages and public partnerships.
Top priorities of Assembly Members
Returning members of the Assembly also look forward to beginning the new legislative session this January. Representative Jodi Emerson explained that her top priorities are to get COVID under control and then help the state and local communities rebound. After the new census data is received, she also intends to draw the maps in the fairest, most equitable way possible. Representative Warren Petryk said that overall, investing and encouraging economic development would be his top priorities. Using attraction, retention, and training, he hopes to attract people to the state, retain them through a good business environment, and train them with good business training. Representative Jesse James said his top priority was to get out of his comfort zone. Now that he is entering his second term in office, he hopes to build new relationships and have conversations with new people. Representative Rob Summerfield wants to see businesses open fully once again. He knows many of his constituents are struggling to get by, and he would like to minimize the fear of the unknown.
Mental health initiatives
Representative James has been very concerned with the mental health of both the children in Wisconsin and the public safety officers. He shared ideas such as making mental health services available online and having social workers available at schools to create relationships with students. Representative Emerson was also excited that both sides have come together for the HSHS agreement but notes that while this helps those who are severely suffering, there is still a shortage of mental healthcare professionals. As a result, it is important they find ways to prevent mental health problems from starting in the first place.
According to Representative Petryk, workforce development is his number one concern. In order to see good economic recovery after the events of this year, wise decisions and being prudent with the budget is crucial. Petryk also explained he wants to see recovery and further development of the workforce without increasing the tax burden and creating additional bureaucratic regulations on businesses.
Representative Summerfield has been focusing on workforce housing and also considers broadband expansion to be an issue. Both Representatives Petryk and Summerfield recognize the importance of furthering and developing skills in the workforce and believe keeping the education system strong will provide opportunities for students to discover new areas where they might like to work one day.
Local legislators want UWEC building money in next state budget (Leader-Telegram$)
Mental health, COVID relief among top priorities for local lawmakers (WQOW News 18)
Meet the Freshman Assembly Representatives (Hamilton Consulting)
Wisconsin Legislature website
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Posted by Grace Hanson, Governmental Affairs Intern
Eau Claire Chamber
The Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce has more than 1,200 members.