More than 100 residents of Wisconsin’s four northernmost counties are hitting the road next week to lobby at the Capitol on behalf of the region during the 35th annual Superior Days.
The grassroots lobbying effort from Feb. 11-12 will be pressing lawmakers to act on familiar issues.
Since 2016, Better City Superior has been knocking on doors in Madison, seeking permission to write its own success story, and this year will be no exception, organizers said.
Delegates plan to ask legislators to vote on Assembly Bill 167, which would allow the city to create an exposition district and implement taxes on prepared foods and beverages, as well as hotels. The taxes would be used to leverage private investment to redevelop downtown Superior.
"We’re trying to thread the needle to create this opportunity for Superior,” said Bruce Thompson, president of Better City Superior.
The measure has already received bipartisan approval in the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee. It was authorized to go to the floor in late October but still hasn’t come up for a vote in the Assembly.
Thompson encouraged delegates to ask members of the Assembly to vote on AB 167 and its Senate counterpart, SB 157, before the end of the session. Similar legislation failed in 2018 when the Senate adjourned without voting on it.
Medicaid reimbursements and access to mental health services are back on the agenda, as well.
The delegation will be asking for increases in the Medicaid reimbursement rate for specific services: behavioral health, substance abuse treatment, nursing home care and personal care workers.
“The thing that I want to point out, and I hope you’ll remember when you talk about this issue, we’re asking for specific things,” Mayor Jim Paine said. “What this is not is accepting the federal Medicaid money.”
He said it’s a very sensitive issue for legislators in both parties.
“Because of the differences in those Medicaid rates and what Medicaid covers in Wisconsin vs. Minnesota, we have a very difficult time supporting facilities like drug rehabilitation and mental health care because providers simply can’t afford to keep facilities open with rates at this level,” Paine said.
When it comes to mental health services, the issue has become systemic, said Dave Longsdorf, AODA/mental health supervisor for the Douglas County Department of Health and Human Services.
Mental health care in Wisconsin is reimbursed at half the rate of mental health care in Minnesota, Longsdorf said. The lower reimbursement rate has caused two outpatient clinics and at least one inpatient facility in the region to close.
When facilities close, it creates a ripple effect that touches people who are suffering from a mental health crisis, as well as county taxpayers. To get the care they needed, people had to look farther away, Longsdorf said.
“We have to transport (people) five- to six-and-a-half hours. That pulls law enforcement off the street during the time they’re being transported," Longsdorf said. "And lastly, you have people in acute psychiatric distress that are going to be transported in the back of a squad car for six hours and separated from their friends and family … The Medicaid issue takes on a whole separate phase.
"Now, instead of saying it’s not enough money, you’re looking at services disappearing, which puts a strain on other systems that also separates people most in need from the people they need to be with the most. That’s really what this issue is encapsulating," he said.