Gov. Walker’s biennium budget was a focus of a recent listening session held by freshman 1st District Assemblyman Joel Kitchens, which contains proposals that seem to confirm fears that Wisconsin is in a fight for its identity, with attacks on several sacred cows – public education, the UW System, the state parks, the Natural Resources Board, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, and, yes, even the Wisconsin Idea.
As summed up by Dr. Peter Sigmann at the Feb. 27 standing-room-only listening session at the Sturgeon Bay Public Library, in his time at the Medical College of Wisconsin, talented people were recruited to the college from other states because of Wisconsin’s quality of life, and now that is under relentless attack.
People at the listening session wanted to know what Kitchens was going to do to retain and/or return that quality of life to the people of his district.
But well into the scheduled hour-long session that ran into an hour and 45 minutes, an exasperated Kitchens explained that the only way he can make a difference is by working within the system.
“I know you guys want me to do these things that look great,” he said. “They have zero chances of succeeding. I would rather work with people than showboating. I guess I would appreciate the opportunity to do my job, to get those things done.”
Kitchens opened the session by saying he knew many would have questions about the budget.
“I tell everybody, don’t get too excited. There are going to be a lot of changes before it’s done,” he said.
He explained that he invited Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) to the two listening sessions – he held another in Algoma later the same day – because Schraa is a member of the all-important Joint Finance Committee, which decides which legislative budget amendments to accept and forward to the Governor.
“It will be really great for him to hear the concerns of our area. It will help him when he’s deciding how to vote on those amendments,” Kitchens said. “It’s very important to have someone here from Joint Finance and I’m very happy to have him here with me today.”
“I don’t want to hear from him,” several people said about Schraa.
The first question involved the Governor’s proposal to freeze any more land purchases through the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund until 2028.
“That is a much bigger deal in our area than it is in other parts of the state. I’ve certainly been hearing from a lot you,” Kitchens said, adding that other legislators are also concerned with the severity of the proposal, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos.
Kitchens said the proposed moratorium “would be terrible.”
“We can certainly soften it. And maybe it will be a couple-year moratorium on it. I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think, personally, it will survive in its current state and I will be fighting for an amendment on that to try to make that better.”
Asked about how to protect groundwater in an environmentally sensitive area with a growing number of industrial-size farms, Kitchens said that is “a high priority.” He said work is advancing on a plan for treatment plants for big farms in Kewaunee County so those farms could eventually sell phosphorus and nitrogen commercially as fertilizer.
“A couple big farms are interested in pursuing that,” he said. “It’s not that far away from getting started. I think that may be the long-term solution.”
A retired geologist suggested that the answer is to return to small farms, and he asked if Kitchens would vote to improve groundwater protection and end CAFOs. That idea was then taken up by a woman who asked if Kitchens would stand for a moratorium on CAFOs until better technologies catch up with them.
“Can I just interject something?” Schraa.
“No, no,” several loud voices chimed in. “We didn’t elect him. We did not ask you to come.”
“I’m not trying to steal his thunder,” Schraa persisted. “Joel is one vote up here. He could introduce a budget amendment to put a moratorium on CAFOs, and he would be the only vote. Wisconsin is an agricultural state.”
The woman who asked the question said she did not present it as a budgetary item, but wanted to know if Kitchens would support a CAFO moratorium.
Kitchens said that would have “zero chance of succeeding.”
“I would rather work within the system and get these changes made. This is something that’s extremely important to me,” he said, adding that it’s simplistic to blame all the pollution problems on CAFOs.
“The problems we’ve had in Door County we’re not caused by CAFOs,” Kitchens said.
“Yes they were,” many voices responded.
Don Freix of Fish Creek (one of only three people who identified himself before asking a question) pointed out that in 2000, the state was spending 32 percent more on the UW System than on corrections. “That’s what’s eating up our budget,” he said.
“As of this proposed budget, we’ll be spending 17 percent less on education than we will be spending on corrections,” he said. “We’re at a pretty hypocritical place right now. What will this Assembly majority will do to cut these costs?”
Another man said it is the sentencing system that is wrong. “We’re overcommitting too many people,” he said.
“We do need to look at the court system,” Kitchens said.
A woman pointed out that the elimination of SeniorCare would force her onto Medicaid, which will triple her premiums.
“I think we can save it. I’ll be introducing an amendment,” Kitchens said.
“A lot of representatives are hearing about that,” Schraa added.
There were several questions about the UW budget (“ a gem in the country being hammered once again”), public education (“every school system in this county has to go to referendum just to pay educational costs”) and the expansion of the voucher system for private education (“The state should not be paying for private education”).
Kitchens reiterated that before being elected, he served 15 years on the Sturgeon Bay School board, and that last 13 years as its president, which is why he was made vice chair of the Assembly Education Committee as a freshman.
“I’m vice chair of education and I do have influence on these things,” Kitchens said. “I’m fighting behind the scenes, within the system, to try to change some of these things, to try to make it less bad, I guess. I’m not going to be the one on TV yelling and screaming, ‘We’re going to get rid of vouchers.’ It’s not gonna happen. But I can do what I can to limit them and make them work out.”
“We’re asking you to not vote for the budget if the voucher system is in there,” said Don Freix.
“It’s an 1,800-page budget,” Kitchens said. “There are going to be things in there I don’t like, but I’m going to make it as close to what I like as possible. But I think it’s ridiculous to pick one item and say if that’s in there, I’m not going to vote for the budget. That’s just not how it works. If you want me to be an effective legislator, just let me do my job.”
“You might have some people get on your side if you show that anybody in the Republican majority is willing to stand up to a governor who’s on his way to the presidency and using the state of Wisconsin, destroying it, to get there,” Freix said with rising voice. “Who’s going to stand up if you don’t?”
“Calm down! Calm down!” someone in the back said.
“I think if you look at the response to the budget from my party, you will see that we’re not just blindly following the governor,” Kitchens said. “There have been a lot of statements along the way. UW, certainly the bonding project for the Bucks, the stewardship program, a lot of different areas. There are Republicans coming out very strongly, saying we’re not buying this. So we’re not just following the governor blindly.
“I will vote the way I believe is best for our district,” Kitchens said, but added, “That does not mean you will agree with me all the time.”