Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eau Claire's Town Hall Meeting - March 10th

A cute comic that a teacher from Cleveland, WI sent me early this morning:

Sara and I attended a town hall meeting last night with our local governing bodies to find out how the budget will affect us and our surrounding community. It was held at DeLong Middle School. I think there were about 600 people there, along with a panel featuring representation from the City of Eau Claire, Eau Claire County, Chippewa Valley Health and Human Services, and the Altoona School Board. I feel like I'm forgetting one person.

All of them were in good positions, suited to their personalities, and dedicated to their service to our community. Robin Elvig, Altoona school board representative, was so obviously empathetic and committed to the students. The county representative was a great numbers guy - the kind of dude you want spending your tax dollars wisely. I didn't know this, but Eau Claire's City Council Member Thomas Kemp is an Econ professor at UWEC. Professor Kemp did the opening, big picture on the budget.

There were some drastic cuts outlined, and a lot of big numbers. Despite our deficit, there are other options besides cutting services that no one is considering. For example: Wisconsin has some of the lowest sales tax rates in the Upper Midwest. Raising this sales tax 1% would generate an estimated $860 million dollars. That's slightly more than we're taking out of public schools. Also, the proposed "balanced budget" Walker submitted still leaves us in a $50 million dollar hole for the biennium.

But again, it was the personal stories that hit me the most last night.

After perhaps thirty minutes of public questions, a rough-looking dude made his way to the microphone. He was skinny, about 5'10", long blonde hair hidden under a black bandana, and a goatee that looked like something Dimebag Darell used to wear. He spoke forcefully.

He's a prison guard. The comment I won't forget, coming out of this skinny guy, was this: "I've stood toe-to-toe with the most dangerous criminals in our state. Now the governor wants to send in these Wackenhout security guards to take over our prison systems. " He's right, and it's something lost in all of this. Taking away his voice as a union member is a key step in privatizing our prisons. First his voice, then his job.

Privatized prisons tend to lead to nasty things. Put a profit motive into incarceration, and suddenly, I think we may see lobbying groups popping up asking us to get "tougher on crime." Meaning, put more people in prison, so I can make more money. I've heard awful things about the prison system in Virginia. I don't want a corporate conglomerate overseeing our citizens. We need accountability.

He moved on, though, to another important topic.

He and his wife have a son that was struggling to read. Reading specialists, to be cut out of school board budgets by Scott Walker's biennium bill, have helped his 14 year old son dramatically improve his reading skills. Without these educators, his son would have had untold struggle. His voice quivered as he talked about the teacher that brought his son into a world of new opportunities. There was a sense of anger at the unfairness - that anyone would think this was a good thing to take from our kids. All of our kids deserve to learn at the same level. It's empowering to any family to know that each child, regardless of their parents' income level, has the same shot at success as anyone else.

My wife's story is similar. She was raised by a single father who worked the second shift at UniRoyal Tire Factory in Eau Claire. It was a struggle for her to learn to read in her early childhood, but the specialized reading instructors in Eau Claire public schools gave her the attention she needed. She is now a registered nurse working in the Mayo system. I still get goosebumps when I remember the day she walked across that stage to get her diploma. This didn't happen in a vacuum. Yes, she worked hard, but there were many great schoolteachers who helped her along the way. Our community took care of her, and now she has the opportunity to take care of all of us. We need to take care of each other.

A famous politician once said "budgets are moral documents." Where is the morality in taking away this help? How do these cuts help our state?

We'll have time to give our input. There are six public hearings that will be scheduled across the state this summer for us to give public comment about our budget. I would encourage everyone to look through this budget carefully. Get the facts, and know them by heart. Learn them like a song. Pay close attention to dates and times for these hearings as they are announced. Our leaders needs to walk into these decisions with eyes wide open, and they need to leave with a full understanding of the impact their choices have on us. We need to make our priorities clear. Are they going to send our tax dollars out of state, or will they keep our money here, in our pockets?

This is not Scott Walker's budget. This is our budget: Our kids. Our teachers. Our roads. Our neighborhoods. Our power plants. Our school nurses. Our guidance counselors. Our prisons. Our cops. Our firefighters. Our snowplow drivers. This is our state. Let's keep it that way.

Say it again: Wisconsin will be ours.