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Education, healthcare, and the justice system among top priorities shared during Minocqua budget listening session

People wait for their turn to speak during the Joint Finance Committee's budget listening session in Minocqua.
Katie Thoresen
People wait for their turn to speak during the Joint Finance Committee's budget listening session in Minocqua.

For seven hours Wednesday, people and organizations spoke to the Joint Finance Committee about their priorities for the next state budget.

The JFC held its last budget listening session at Lakeland Union High School.

People from the Northwoods who spoke before the Joint Finance Committee had a wide range of needs they said should be prioritized in the next state budget.

Former Langlade County District Attorney Elizabeth Gebert left that job for an assistant DA position in Marathon County because of a lack of funding.

“I resigned in January from that position largely because of the inability to recruit prosecutors to the Northwoods,” said Gebert. “When you consider public safety and the possibility you could be a crime victim, wouldn’t you want to make sure that your case was heard in a system that had equal and strong representation in every important role? We need this system to work and it’s not right now.”

Democratic Governor Tony Evers’s budget includes increasing starting pay for correctional officers to $33 an hour and$35 an hour for assistant district attorneys and public defenders.

Peggy McDowell from Tomahawk urged lawmakers to expand BadgerCare, the state’s Medicaid program.

She told the JFC that once she and her husband turned 65, they made $100 a month too much to qualify for Medicaid.

“So we decided to get divorced. This separated our incomes and made it possible for each of us to be eligible for Medicaid and still earn an additional $600 without losing our eligibility. We called it ‘living in sin for the win’. My adult kids thought it was hilarious. My mom cried,” said McDowell.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, BadgerCare expansion would bring additional federal dollars into the state and cover more people.

Republican lawmakers have not supported the expansion.

“If Wisconsin accepts the BadgerCare expansion money and raises the income eligibility, both of us, as able-bodied seniors could get part-time jobs to earn up to $459 a month each and still have healthcare. This could help a mom-and-pop shop in Tomahawk stay open and the money we earned would go back into the community,” said McDowell.

Evers has once again included the BadgerCare expansion in his proposed state budget.

Wisconsin is one of 12 states that have not expanded the Medicaid program.

One frequent topic by speakers was funding for schools.

Representatives from multiple districts including Northland Pines, Chequamegon, Crandon, and Antigo spoke of needed changes to state funding for schools.

Antigo’s Business Services Director KatieAnne Ostrenga asked lawmakers to increase the low revenue ceiling by $1,500.

“Antigo School District’s mission is to ensure high levels of learning through high-quality instruction. This is only doable by recruiting and retaining exceptional teachers which is not even an option when there’s an exponential gap in funding across districts, by increasing the low revenue ceiling, you would provide an equal opportunity for all students to receive the education they deserve regardless of their zip code,” said Ostrenga.

Some superintendents cited hiring challenges, special education aid, and sparsity aid as other issues facing their districts.

“These asks are what our schools in Wisconsin need, not what we want,” she said.

Evers has proposed a $2.6 billion funding increase for K-12 schools in his budget.

The majority of districts in the Northwoods currently rely on referendums to support day-to-day operations.

Now that the listening sessions are over, the Joint Finance Committee will begin voting on the budget starting next Tuesday.

Evers does have the power to line-item veto parts of the budget.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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