EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard  Pat Finder-Stone, De Pere, speaks Friday on behalf of the AARP organization at a budget hearing conducted by the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance at Marinette High School.
EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Pat Finder-Stone, De Pere, speaks Friday on behalf of the AARP organization at a budget hearing conducted by the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance at Marinette High School.

MARINETTE — Across the hallway from Marinette High School juniors decorating for prom, the Wisconsin Joint Committee on Finance wrapped up its tour of the state with a stop in Marinette for its sixth and final state budget hearing on Friday. 

State Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, welcomed members of the committee and attendees to the listening session, commending the committee for holding a budget hearing for the first time ever in Marinette. 

"Welcome to my high school," he said. Nygren is co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance.

He also thanked committee members who had the opportunity to tour Marinette Marine on Thursday prior to the budget meeting, and some members voiced how impressed they were with the shipyard and its workers, pledging their support for the Littoral Combat Ship program. 

"You directly make our country stronger, and we thank you for that," said Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, vice chair of the committee. 

After welcomes and comments from Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot, Superintendent of Marinette Schools Wendy Dzurick, Marinette Schools Director of Business & Finance and Ward 4 Alderman Brian Walters and Marinette County Board Chairman Mark Anderson, the committee opened the floor to comments from those who came to address them. Individuals were given two minutes to speak on whatever issue they wanted to address, while groups of three or more were given five minutes. 

Members of the Wisconsin chapter of AARP were some of the first to speak, and asked the committee to invest in programs that benefit senior citizens, such as access to health care, digital literacy programs and affordable broadband internet access, and called the payoff "a silver dividend in cost savings in the future." 

"We know that there is no value to a type of communication that you cannot use or cannot afford," said AARP speaker and registered nurse Patricia Finchville, referring to the difficulty for low-income seniors to attain internet access. 

Another early speaker was Cathy A. Sandeen, Chancellor of UW-Colleges and UW-Extension, who voiced her support for things in the budget such as an increase in financial aid for the UW flexible option program, a new transmitter for Wisconsin Public Television and aid for UW-Extension's Lowell Hall renovations in Madison. 

"We are appreciative of the investment in faculty and staff compensation increase," she added. "Our faculty and staff are paid well below their peers, in some cases 15 to 25 percent less, and we're losing people and finding it difficult to recruit people." 

Over the course of the day, committee members heard a variety of responses from Wisconsin residents around the state, ranging in subject matter from opportunities in education to property tax rate decreases, from bilingual, bicultural funding to alternative energy sources and from state infrastructure problems to high-speed internet access. The two topics most commented on were education funding and dementia care specialist funding, which many individuals and groups spoke up in support of. The 2017-2019 state budget is currently set to remove funding for dementia care specialists throughout Wisconsin, and a planned increase in per-pupil aid of $200 to the 2017-2018 school year and an additional $204 to the 2018-2019 school year was proposed by Gov. Scott Walker. 

Heather DuBois Bourenane, executive director for the Wisconsin Public Education Network, said she and the group attended all six of the committee's public hearings across the state. 

"The testimony we've heard has overwhelmingly been in support of the social programs and services on which our communities depend," she said. "The predominant issue by far of concern for folks at these hearings has been supporting our public schools." 

Bourenane said that tallies of the speakers at the hearings revealed that almost 200 of the 700 who spoke at the hearings had spoken in support of funding public education. 

"People have taken the day off, unpaid, to come share their concerns," she said. "They've driven for hours to wait for hours to testify for two minutes, and they've used those two minutes to beg you to fund their students, to put our kids first." 

Kathryn Carley, a member of the Green Bay Advocates 4 Public Education, echoed this sentiment in her comments. 

"If you are not investing in the majority of children who attend public schools across the state, you are not investing in the future of the state, and you are not doing your job," she said. 

Nancy Farber spoke on behalf of dementia care specialist funding, and shared the story of her late husband, who was diagnosed with dementia in the late 1990s. Farber sought to care for him at home, but did not have the resources to do so and wound up placing him in a nursing home in 2000 in order to keep working to pay for her insurance. Farber's husband wandered away from the care facility, and became confused and resisted the police officers sent to retrieve him. Farber said he was then placed in a Brown County mental facility, and was kept there until he passed away in 2003. 

"If we could have had this care, what we have now, maybe he wouldn't have suffered as much," Farber said. "We could've kept him home. ... I feel that my husband was a victim in a time of no enlightenment. I feel I was a survivor that has carried a lot of guilt because of the lack of knowledge. We have it now, please, let's not go backward, let's continue to go forward." 

Local issues from the Marinette-Menominee area also cropped up in the commentary, including the proposed open pit sulfide mine on the Michigan side of the river. A few individuals asked the committee to obtain funding to combat the mine placement. 

Marinette County District Attorney Allen Brey, soon to depart the position, asked the committee to consider adding two employees to the district attorney's office into the budget. Ed Harding, President and CEO of Bay Area Medical Center, spoke about the "inadequate" Medicaid program reimbursement for health care facilities in the state. Marinette County Circuit Court Branch II Judge James Morrison commended the committee for its support of the drug court programs in the state, including the one in Marinette County which he oversees. 

After the committee wrapped up the session, Nygren said he was pleased with the turnout for the event and the comments he heard. 

"At all six hearings we heard a lot of issues that were consistent, education being a priority for most people," he said. "I think it was important for my colleagues who might not be from this part of the state to hear issues that might be different from what they hear back home." 

Nygren said his main takeaway from the session was investing in schools, but said he was concerned about some of the possible strings attached to Walker's proposal. 

The committee will now go into executive session to begin voting on individual sections of the budget, starting May 1 with a goal of finishing by the end of June.