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Delegates focus lobbying agenda

Superior Days delegates are heading to Madison next week with a more focused agenda than in years past.

“We’ve cut down the number of issues,” said Linda Bruce, community educator with UW-Extension of Douglas who coordinates the annual lobbying effort.

Instead of 32 issues as the delegation addressed last year, the citizen lobbying effort will focus on 11 this year.

And the major issues that will be brought to Legislators and their staff focus on transportation, emergency communications, and job creation and retention.

Among the goals this year is the expansion of U.S. Highway 2 to a four-lane highway from the Michigan to Minnesota border, said Douglas County Administrator Andy Lisak.

“I feel lucky that Highway 2 is still included as an issue,” said Scottie Sandstrom, executive director of the Bayfield County Economic Development Corp. As the only highway that traverses the northernmost counties of Wisconsin, Sandstrom said it is a vital link for economic development in northern Wisconsin.

“A very important aspect of the Highway 2 expansion is the safety issue,” Sandstrom said. He said with the number of logging trucks and emergency vehicles that use the highway, expanding the current two-lane highway featuring intermittent passing lanes would improve safety for everyone using the road.

Sandstrom said he contacted businesses in the region, and they responded saying it was the right thing to do.

In addition to seeking funding for a study of the expansion, the four counties participating this year — Iron, Ashland, Bayfield and Douglas — are asking Legislators to consider a proposal recommended last year by the Wisconsin Transportation Finance and Policy Committee chaired by Wisconsin Department of Transportation Secretary Mark Gottlieb.

The delegation is seeking legislation that would allow counties an option to increase the sales tax by one-half percent to fund county highway projects.

“County roads are the backbone of the rural transportation system,” Lisak said. However, current funding to maintain those roads is inadequate. “Our ability to pay for that through the property tax is limited,” he said.

Currently, Douglas County budgets about $2 million annually for highway maintenance, however, the cost to improve substantially the 330-plus miles of county highways exceed $100 million. A local option sales tax would allow the county to raise about $3 million annually designated specially for county highways.

Lisak said while legislation has been introduced that would allow a referendum to increase the sales tax, the goal this year is to have the Legislature and governor include the language to allow the local sales tax for county highway projects in the 2015-2017 Wisconsin budget.

Another area the delegation will focus on is funding 911 emergency communications.

Douglas County Emergency Manager Keith Kesler said existing legislation to fund 911 networks was drafted over 25 years ago, and the monthly fee collected by telephone companies to pay for the service is only assessed on landlines. Since then, there has been a marked decrease in the number of landlines used.

Kesler said while funding for 911 systems through cell phone charges was added five or six years ago, that funding goes to the state’s shared revenue fund to offset public safety. The money isn’t going to cover the increasing cost for 911 service.

The goal is to eliminate the ongoing funding crisis for 911 communications.

The final issue focuses on funding economic development efforts in northern rural communities in Wisconsin.

The way the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation programs work now don’t help businesses in the region create new jobs.

Businesses have to pay $10.88 per hour to even be considered for funding, Sandstrom said. For one business planning an expansion, he said the paper work to get funding wasn’t worth the trouble, forcing the employer to work with his bank to buy equipment to create additional jobs because of the low base funding offered.

The delegates goal is to reinstate higher funding levels to make employers efforts worth the trouble.

Delegates will also be discussing specialty crop products; development of the North Country National Scenic Trail in northwest Wisconsin; incentives for property owners that would allow public recreation trails; preservation and protection of Wisconsin Point; payment in lieu of taxes for county forest land; and recognition as a premiere travel destination with state agencies during the two-day lobbying effort that runs Feb 18-19.