Superior Days delegation focuses on wins, eyes challenges
The biggest win, organizers say, was that the annual lobbying effort took place.
MADISON — The second day of Superior Days involved a series of meetings with legislators and their staff.
Delegates from Douglas County scattered through the Capitol in groups of twos and threes Wednesday, Feb. 23, sharing issues of concern that impact Douglas County.
Minnesota students who attend Wisconsin universities pay the amount of tuition they would at a Minnesota institution of comparable size. Because the Minnesota rates are higher than tuition rates in Wisconsin, which have been frozen for years, that difference is a net gain for the Wisconsin side.
Those extra funds currently flow into the state’s general fund. Delegates sought to encourage legislators to support a pair of bills that would allow the universities themselves to keep that difference.
At the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where about one-third of students come from Minnesota, that would bring in up to $700,000 annually. That amount is “decimal dust” compared to the state’s general fund, UWS Chancellor Renee Wachter said, but it would make a huge difference for the campus. The move would benefit other campuses that border Minnesota as well.
A pair of companion bills has already been introduced in the Assembly and Senate that would allow universities to keep the difference between the tuition amounts Minnesota residents pay. Delegates asked legislators to support those bills.
From 2019-2020, the cost of care for Medicaid residents in Wisconsin nursing homes was underfunded by $294 million statewide. Nursing homes are losing about $80 per day per person on Medicaid, delegates told legislators.
That loss has a big impact on the northern Wisconsin area, which has a lower income average than other areas of the state and is seeing a significant increase in the aging population. Delegates asked for an additional per diem to nursing home Medicaid rates that would cover the cost of care and redirection of ARPA funds to address the immediate needs of nursing homes.
Lack of staff at nursing homes is causing a ripple effect, Douglas County Public Health Officer Kathy Ronchi told Cameil Bowler, a staffer for Rep. John Spiros, R-Marshfield.
“What we’ve seen in the last year is a lot of the hospitals are showing to be at capacity, but a lot of times it’s not because of COVID. It's not people being under the care of COVID in the hospitals, but there’s no place for those patients to be discharged to, because the nursing homes are at their capacity because they don’t have staff. So there’s empty beds, but there’s no staff to care for people,” Ronchi said. “So they have to limit how many they can take, so then they’re staying in the hospital for sometimes months longer than they need to be.”
A number of staffers and representatives acknowledged the issue of Medicaid reimbursement and its impact on nursing home care.
Sales tax increase
Douglas County representatives asked legislators to allow the county to impose a 0.5% sales tax, with the proceeds going to roads. The move could bring in $4 million annually and keep the county from having to borrow funds for road projects, County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said.
Delegates stressed that they would accept any conditions necessary, such as requiring it to go to referendum or splitting it with towns and villages in the county.
“We’d like to control our own destiny up north,” Derek Pederson, a business representative for Labor 1091 told Bowler.
The half-percent sales tax is an idea that's gaining momentum, Liebaert said, due to backing from the Wisconsin Counties Association and a push from Milwaukee toward a half-percent sales tax of its own.
Wins and challenges
The Douglas County Board chairman said he felt Tuesday’s agency meetings were more productive than the lobbying in the Capitol.
“The heads of these departments recognize a good idea when they see it,” Liebaert said. “The Legislators who give them their marching orders are playing politics.”
Superior Mayor Jim Paine was more upbeat.
“I think it was one of the best Superior Days in quite a while,” he said after returning to Superior and digging out from the week’s snowfall. “I was very pleasantly surprised.”
One win came during the meeting with Department of Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson.
“We were asking that they use the Local Road Improvement Program to distribute the federal infrastructure dollars as opposed to the STP-Urban process, which is a very technical ask, but it matters quite a bit,” Paine said. “One is a local process that just says ‘Hey, city of Superior, we're going to give you money to do your projects. Here it is, go ahead.’”
STP-Urban requires the state to design and execute the project, such as the U.S. Highway 2 reconstruction work. Distributing the funds through the LRIP, Paine said, would allow the city to do almost all the local projects it already has planned and may allow for additional infrastructure projects to be done.
Another win happened on the legislative side.
“The Chairman and I had really great conversations around local option sales tax,” Paine said, particularly with Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, chair of the Ways and Means Committee.
“He’s a big believer in sales taxes and he’s very keen to change the way local governments are funded. And he was just, he was supportive of our proposals,” Paine said.
The meeting with the Public Service Commission was also encouraging, Paine said. The delegation was trying to convince department members that broadband access is every bit as much of an urban problem as it was a rural problem.
“And after we made the case they said, ‘Yes, we agree, and those are the conversations we’ve been having. And so we consider that a win. We think going forward we’re going to be eligible for quite a bit of money for our broadband project,” Paine said.
For the Superior delegation, it marked the 37th year of lobbying.
The biggest win, both Paine and Liebaert agreed, was that Superior Days took place, in person, in Madison.
"This came pretty close to not happening again," Liebaert said. "I'm glad we did it."
Wachter said they were appreciative of the legislators' attention to the issues and hopeful that bipartisan support for them comes to fruition.
"The last few times down there the conversations were not this productive and they’re just the best they’ve been in years," Paine said.