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Northlanders weigh in on state budget

About 70 residents from around the Northland made their way to Superior Middle School to share priorities the newly elected governor should keep consider while shaping Wisconsin's next biennial budget. Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Lt. Gov.-elect Man...

From left, Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes shares a laugh with Jan Provost and her son, Jerry Provost, as the Superior residents get ready to leave a budget listening session Monday, Dec. 17, at Superior Middle School. (Shelley Nelson / snelson@superiortelegram.com)
From left, Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes shares a laugh with Jan Provost and her son, Jerry Provost, as the Superior residents get ready to leave a budget listening session Monday, Dec. 17, at Superior Middle School. (Shelley Nelson / snelson@superiortelegram.com)

About 70 residents from around the Northland made their way to Superior Middle School to share priorities the newly elected governor should keep consider while shaping Wisconsin's next biennial budget.

Gov.-elect Tony Evers and Lt. Gov.-elect Mandela Barnes are traveling the state to hear from the public about what they would like to see in Wisconsin's next biennial budget.

Barnes was in Superior on Monday, Dec. 17, with Democratic state Reps. Beth Meyers of Bayfield and Nick Milroy of South Range, and state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Mason, to hold listening sessions in Superior.

"It starts in rooms like this," Barnes said. "This is not the last conversation. This is a very important one."

For more than an hour, people split up into two focus groups. One discussed what's good for kids and the economy; the other focused on health care and the environment.

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At times, the issues blurred a bit because of the impact of one on the other.

Health care

Reggie Leckel is a single parent of a 41-year-old woman who requires round-the-clock care to meet her special needs. By providing care in her home for her daughter, Leckel said the state saves money. Nursing home care would cost many thousands of dollars more.

Still, Leckel said it places financial burdens on her and the workers that provide the care her daughter needs. Leckel, who earns $10 an hour, says she pays higher costs for renters insurance so care workers can come into her home to help her daughter.

"My in-home workers hourly rate is $7.25 per hour," Leckel said. "They can't do all the cares. I have to come home or get someone else to catheterize her."

She said the workers who care for her daughter don't even receive benefits like health care and

sick time.

"The crisis in home caregiving is not hyperbole," Steve Carlson of Caregiver Challenge said. "We've known it's been coming for 10 years, and currently, what we're finding all over the northwoods is that we cannot find people to provide in-home care. And it's primarily ... because the Medicaid reimbursement rate is so low that wages can't be paid, and workers can find better jobs with better benefits at Kwik Trip or Walmart."

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He said it's a particular problem in Northern Wisconsin because of its disproportionate aging population, longer distances to provide care in rural communities - for which mileage and time is uncompensated - and the same work in Minnesota could net workers $2 to $3 more per hour.

Jeff Fox, a board member of North Country Independent Living, knows firsthand the challenges workers face as a consumer of long-term care.

"The wages that we pay our workers is disgusting," Fox said. "You have to have toxic waste stuff sometimes if I have a problem. The wages are terrible. Why is it we have unemployment at an all-time low, but yet social services, people needing food stamps, is at an all-time high. We need better wages for our health care workers. We need living wages for everyone."

Economy

Pat McKone of the American Lung Association in Duluth said she wasn't asking for more money, but is hoping that the state won't cut funding for tobacco control in light of new tobacco delivery systems that have tobacco use and nicotine addiction on the rise. However, she had suggestions for other ways the state could improve the economy.

McKone said she lives in Superior but works in Duluth, and she would like income tax reciprocity restored.

"I want my state taxes to go to the state I live in," McKone said. "That would be an important thing to re-establish. It's the health of our state, and I would rather pay for Wisconsin than Minnesota."

Kent Makela of the Wisconsin Woodlands Association had a couple of suggestions, including restoring the forestry mill tax created in 1924 to help communities with state forests pay for the cost of services, which was eliminated in the last state budget.

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"I would like the governor's office to take another look at the use value assessment," Makela said. He said the system was originally proposed to help small farmers encroached on by urban sprawl to get a tax break so they could continue farming. However, he said the program has ballooned so severely that concentrated animal feeding operations are taking advantage of it. He said he would like to see an income limit to return the program to its original intent.

McKone said the state should consider whether it's necessary to "buy our jobs."

Environment and education

"When I think of the future ... I think of despair, not because the issues we're facing are insurmountable, but because the dire warnings of experts are met with inaction," said Bridget Jones, 28, who moved to the area from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, in August.

She said Wisconsin should be working on a transition to all renewable energy and the next budget should reflect that.

"I know it's a big ask with a Republican-controlled Legislature to ask for something like a 'Green New Deal' but funding that can support a transition to renewables ... is really not too much to ask for and is something we should all be demanding," Jones said. "It is past time for courageous action in our leaders for all of us."

Dave Conley of Lake Nebagamon said he believes the state can do a much better job of protecting the environment, starting with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

"Let's have a DNR that really represents the integrity of the natural resources that we have, and is committed to doing a great deal better," Conley said.

Other issues participants discussed included the number of state inspectors, the need for mental health services and education.

"It's been interesting to live in a small, rural part of the state with kids in school in the last six to eight years," said Charmaine Swan of the Chequamegon Bay area. "The amount of stress that I've noticed teachers are under and how that trickles down has an effect on these kids has been really quite stunning."

She said teachers need to be empowered and paid better wages so they know their work is valued.

"This is how we're getting input to build the budget ... it's not about what the largest donors say or what some lobbyist says we should do, but having real input from people around the state," Barnes said.

Related Topics: MONEY AND FINANCE
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