There was a small attendance for Joel Kitchens at his listening session in the Gibraltar Town Hall on Aug. 25, fluctuating between eight and 12 people during the 90-minute meeting. Kitchens fielded questions focused on everything from local to federal issues. Topics included budget cuts, groundwater protection, school voucher programs, immigration, and the resurfacing of Hwy. 42.
A freshman in the assembly, Kitchens first answered the frequently asked question of what it is like to be in the assembly.
“The part that the public sees, the part when we’re on the floor, to me, is the least important because it’s really almost theater,” he said. “It’s behind the scenes in getting support for what you want done, I think that’s really where I’ve made a difference and those are the things the public just doesn’t see.”
Making the point that he strays from his party on many issues including education and environment, an audience member asked Kitchens why the state was cutting funding to these areas, which comprise some of Wisconsin’s greatest strengths. The question referenced the $250 million budget cut to the University of Wisconsin (UW) system and the 55 positions cut at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“Most all areas were cut,” said Kitchens. “I certainly fought to get money put back in education and to make the cuts in the least painful way possible. One of the real frustrations of this job is that it’s so difficult for me to find out the truth.”
Kitchens explained that following the proposed cuts to the UW system, he spoke with the Rebecca Blank, chancellor at UW-Madison, who told him that the only reason the cuts were hard was because of the short timeline they were given. She believed that they could find savings down the line with the autonomy given by Governor Walker.
“But then in public she would make the statement saying, ‘Oh my god it’s going to end UW as we know it’,” said Kitchens.
Similarly, at the DNR, which employs more than 4,000 people, Kitchens did not feel cutting 55 positions was as detrimental as it is made out to be.
“Any time you make any cut, you get demonized from the other side that you don’t care about the environment, you don’t care about education,” he said. Kitchens felt this demonizing is what encourages last-minute changes to the state budget, which caused conflict in the budget Governor Walker signed this year.
Wayne Kudick of Fish Creek then turned the topic to groundwater protection, which his family in Kewaunee County frequently struggles with.
“I haven’t seen one request for an expansion of a farm… that has been questioned,” said Kudick. “They’ve all been approved. So the growth pattern is there.”
Kudick’s family lives in Ellisville, in central Kewaunee County.
“This township, we wrote our 20-year master plan in 2004 and you know what the top three priorities were?” he lifted up his hand and flexed his fingers one by one. “Water. The second one was water. And you know what the third one was? That was water!”
Kitchens responded saying that a task force was created by the DNR to address the water concerns in Kewaunee County with an $80,000 budget. With this money, they will look at short-term fixes such as individual water treatment technology for homes before the long-term solutions such as large water treatment facilities and digesters, which can neutralize the harms of excess manure.
Don Freix of Fish Creek proposed a moratorium on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) until the technology caught up. This same proposal was brought up at Kitchens’ Feb. 27 listening session in Sturgeon Bay earlier this year, which he stated, “would have zero chance of succeeding.”
“I do think that it’s way simplistic to think that the large farms are the cause of all the problems that we have,” said Kitchens. “I’d hate for people to just blame them and think that these other farms don’t cause problems. It’s not the CAFOs that are spreading manure in the winter time, which is when we get the biggest problems because it runs off into our streams.”
Dick Skare, chair of the Gibraltar Town Board and owner of The Cookery restaurant in Fish Creek, brought concerns about restricting small businesses ability to grow, which led to discussion about immigration policies.
“Immigration obviously is a federal issue and not a state issue,” said Kitchens. “I wish that the federal government would come up with a realistic immigration policy. We have to have these people. I don’t like people coming in here illegally either but give them a legal way to do so.”
An audience member then brought up the school voucher program, which Kitchens’ expressed disdain for.
“I think there probably are areas where it is an advantage to those kids to give them some opportunities and I’ve accepted the fact that they’re not going to go away,” said Kitchens. “So what my focus has been on is making those schools accountable and slowing the expansion of them.”
Kitchens is vice chair of the Committee on Education and expects to be appointed chair in the future. Being open about his disagreement with the voucher program, which is well-supported by his Republican party, “I think it speaks that they want someone with experience in education that’s willing to discuss these things and not really someone that toes the party line on that,” he said.
Turning to a hyper-local issue, an audience member asked about the timeline for the Hwy. 42 resurfacing project, which Kitchens discussed in relation to the unsustainable transportation fund that passed in the state budget.
“I think that was one of the most disappointing parts of the budget and that’s why the budget took so long to get passed,” said Kitchens. He explained that Governor Walker proposed borrowing $1.2 billion in order to avoid raising the gas tax or imposing fees, a promise that was tailored more to a presidential run than the greater good of Wisconsin.
“In the end we reached a compromise but unfortunately that means less money for the roads right now,” he said. “To make it worse, the projects like the zoo interchange in Milwaukee eat up most of that money so, yes, we are going to suffer on the local level.”
Gas tax serves as the main revenue driver for the state’s transportation funds and with better gas mileage in vehicles, there is less money coming into the state coffers.
Gibraltar was the first of four listening sessions that Kitchens planned for this post-budget season. On Sept. 1, he will be in Kewaunee and Luxemburg, with a session on Washington Island still being discussed.