Bi-partisan agreement on the UWEC Science Building, but disagreement about other issues like accepting Federal Medicaid expansion, highlighted the exchange on Friday, June 21, among eight legislators who represent the Chippewa Valley in Madison. They appeared at the Holiday Inn South as part of the Chamber's monthly Eggs & Issues breakfast series, discussing the state budget and answering questions submitted from among the 80+ Chamber members attending.
Participating in the breakfast were State Sens. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) and Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire), and Reps. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire), Jesse James (R-Altoona), Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron), Treig Pronschinske (R-Mondovi), Rob Summerfield (R-Bloomer) and Warren Petryk (R-Eleva). The panel was moderated by the Chair of the Chamber's Governmental Affairs Committee, Jennifer McHugh of Royal Credit Union.
Broad local bi-partisan support for the UWEC Science Building
The $109 million capital item proposed for the UWEC Science Building was included by Governor Evers and retained by the legislature's Joint Finance Committee (JFC), whose version of the budget is expected to be taken up the the Assembly and Senate this week. The project, which includes a research partnership with Mayo Clinic, even received specific praise in comments from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Joint Finance Co-Chair Alberta Darling.
"The good news is that it's in the budget from both parties," said Sen. Jeff Smith, who noted that the project has the potential for "turning Eau Claire into the rural healthcare center for not just Wisconsin, but the rest of the nation."
"The key element is how the Chippewa Valley can pull together as a team regardless of which side of the aisle you're on," said freshman Rep. Jesse James.
"It's a great project. It was a huge lift, but it's not done yet. I know how important this is to western Wisconsin," said Rep. Romaine Quinn.
Senator Kathy Bernier said she hopes to pursue a pilot project to have the building bypass the state's usual process through the Department of Administration, both to speed up its completion but also to save overhead costs.
Path forward on the budget, other issues
The wide-ranging discussion with legislators on Friday also touched on issues like transportation funding, Medicaid expansion, workforce and education.
With a Democrat in the Governor's office and Republicans still in firm control of both legislative houses, Senator Smith said he prefers to think of it in terms of "it's not split government, it's shared government."
Even once the budget is done, noted Rep. Rob Summerfield, "there's work to do on issues like workforce and clean water."
Rep. Warren Petryk, who chairs the Assembly Workforce Committee, noted that workforce continues to be a critical priority, and that he and his staff worked with JFC to get initiatives into the budget that serve to "attract, retain and train" to meet the needs of Wisconsin employers. In particular, he noted increased funding for technical colleges, Project Search, job training for inmates in corrections, youth employment, apprenticeships and more.
Sen. Bernier also noted the $15 million included to place an additional 22 beds at HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph's hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls to address a severe shortage of mental health facilities in the region.
Mixed feelings on transportation budget
The most-asked question submitted by breakfast participants related to long-term transportation funding, and why JFC didn't endorse the gas tax increase proposed by Governor Evers.
"We are fairly sure most everyone agrees there is a need for more money for infrastructure," said Rep. Romaine Quinn, who said there were real differences within the Republican caucus on how to achieve that. "We had to be realistic that the Senate would not pass a gas tax," which meant pursuing other means, such as the $400 million the JFC plan will raise primarily through increased title and registration fees.
"Even WMC says we should do a 5 cent gas tax increase," countered Rep. Jodi Emerson, who said "too many people are hung up on the 'tax' word," and asserted that "the other side of the aisle didn't want to give Governor Evers a win" by doing a gas tax increase.
Rep. Treig Pronschinske suggested that the state should give counties the opportunity to raise their own sales taxes for transportation, and Rep. Warren Petryk noted that this budget has the lowest level of transportation bonding since 2001. Sen. Kathy Bernier pointed out that the budget provides $90 million in one-time money for local roads to help catch up from reduced funding in previous years. Senator Jeff Smith said the $400 revenue increase didn't go far enough to meet the needs that would have been achieved with the Governor's proposed $600 million, and that title and registration fees are really just as much of a tax and a gas tax.
No Medicaid expansion - right or wrong?
The sharpest exchanges between legislators came between the Democrats and Republicans on the JFC's refusal to go along with the Governor's proposal to expand Medicaid to cover an additional 82,000 individuals falling in the area between 100% and 130% of the federal poverty level.
Democrats maintain that bringing in over $1 billion in federal expansion money would free up over $300 million in state funds for other priorities. "Instead, we are spending more Wisconsin taxpayer dollars on health care," asserted Rep. Jodi Emerson, "we are giving away a billion dollars in federal tax money that is going to other states." Sen Jeff Smith said "it's disingenuous to call this welfare. Your costs go down if we accept Medicaid expansion."
Republicans defended JFC's budget that spends an additional $588 million on health care programs, including increased reimbursement rates for nursing homes and hospitals, and higher wages for personal care workers. Rep. Romaine Quinn maintained that those who would be covered under expanded Badger Care already are already covered though federally-subsidized private insurance on the exchange. Rep. Warren Petryk asserted that Wisconsin is "already the only state that covers every man, woman and child below the federal poverty level," and that only 5% of Wisconsin residents are uninsured.
Monthly Eggs & Issues breakfasts
The Eggs & Issues monthly governmental affairs series is one of the Chamber’s Business Advocacy Events. Investors include: Partner level, Xcel Energy; Advocate level, Miron Construction, and Supporter level, Banbury Place/Cigan Properties, Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, and HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals.
The next breakfast will be Friday, July 19, at the Lismore Hotel, and will feature Wisconsin Transportation Secretary-designate Craig Thompson.
Proposed plan would fast-track new UWEC Science Building (WQOW News 18)
Wisconsin Legislature website (contact information for local legislators)
July 19 Eggs & Issues: Wisconsin's Transportation System
Posted by Scott Rogers, Governmental Affairs & Workforce Director