Reshaping Wisconsin's future

Wisconsin stands at a crossroad. The population is aging. Income is lagging. And, if the state is going to compete in the 21st Century, it's going to have to rethink the way it handles and creates public policy and pays for services. That's the c...

Wisconsin stands at a crossroad.

The population is aging. Income is lagging. And, if the state is going to compete in the 21st Century, it's going to have to rethink the way it handles and creates public policy and pays for services.

That's the conclusion the Wisconsin counties, Realtors, and transportation builders associations, Wisconsin Education Association Council and Wood Communications Group, all came to independently of one another, according to Dan Burkhalter, executive director of the education council, one of the sponsoring organizations behind Wisconsin Way.

Wisconsin Way is a collaborative effort to create a public dialogue to make the state's tax system fairer while protecting the services and quality of life in the state.

In the spirit of the former governor and senator, "Fighting Bob" La Follette, the groups are taking the cause to the public for workable solutions.


Jim Wood, founder of Wood Communication Group, said each of the organizations were independently conducting surveys and hosting focus groups in an effort to gauge public opinion on taxes and spending. After gathering this data, the independent organizations started coming together and talking collaboratively to determine a way to make more Wisconsin more competitive for the future, he said.

The collaboration is currently hosting a dozen town hall meetings throughout the state, and Thursday, Superior, Douglas County and northern Wisconsin residents will have a chance to weigh in during a session at the Rothwell Student Center on the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

"Our hope is that we can change the debate about the future of Wisconsin," Burkhalter said. "If we keep doing the same things, we're going to keep getting the same results."

And those results haven't been good, as evidenced by the lengthy and contentious battle over the state budget. Even after a deal was reached, more than three months late, Senate Democrats ousted their leader after only 10 months in the role.

Instead of fighting over limited resources, Burkhalter said there needs to be a new approach -- finding out what the citizens want and working backward to create the policy that makes it a reality in the long-term.

"Everything is on the table," Wood said. With four of the planned dozen sessions behind them, he said the town hall meetings have drawn 150-200 people, except in La Crosse where about 350 people attended the session.

After all, there's a lot at stake.

According to Mark O'Connell, director of the Wisconsin Counties Association, the average income for a household over the age of 65 is about $35,000 per year. With the baby boom generation headed toward retirement, it's creating a situation where Wisconsin's property tax system will no longer be able to sustain the cost of local government services and education.


"This, two- and four-year visioning we seem to be operating under in Wisconsin isn't sufficient," he said during an interview with Wisconsin Public Television. "We need to look 10-, 20-, 50-, 100-years into the future ... We have to look at different ways to fund government."

O'Connell was unavailable for comment this week.

"We think part of what's broken in the debate about policy and the direction Wisconsin is going on tax policy and investment in public services is that there really isn't a place for citizens to come together and share their point of view," Burkhalter said. He said Wisconsin Way is trying to gauge what citizens' value, what they think can be done differently, what they think they can afford.

In order for Wisconsin to compete, it's going to have a 21st Century work force and infrastructure, but the cost of getting there is one of the serious challenges Wisconsin faces as the capacity of the current tax structure is reached, Wood said.

So finding solutions means everything is on the table. Whatever ideas come forward will get serious consideration, organizers agree, even when the ideas challenge positions the individual organizations may have stood for in the past.

While other commissions and task forces have been convened in the past, and their proposed solutions collected dust, Burkhalter said that was probably because those proposals didn't have the level of citizen input Wisconsin Way is seeking.

"What I can tell people is folks left feeling it had been a worthwhile exercise," Wood said of the sessions in La Crosse, Wausau, Eau Claire and Appleton. "We're taking this very seriously. It's not an idle exercise, and we'll do everything to make sure they are heard."

The plan is to provide the public with information on Wisconsin's trends, then open up the microphones so people can weigh in with their ideas on how to improve the system.


Douglas County Board Chairman Doug Finn said he encourages people to attend the town hall meeting and get involved in the dialogue. He said he plans to get in touch with groups like the Douglas County Taxpayers Association to get involved.

"Government can't do it alone," Finn said.

"I have enormous confidence in the citizenry," O'Connell told Wisconsin Public Television. "We are going to come up with some diamonds of ideas with the citizenry discussing, raising ideas and creating a conversation about the various issues. I think we're going to come up with some very viable ideas."

Shelley Nelson is available at or (715) 395-5022.

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