The Joint Finance Committee took testimony in West Allis yesterday and listened  to the public’s concerns about Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2011-13 budget. Approximately 1,000 people attended the meeting throughout the day, with half of them arriving after 5 p.m.

The committee listened to more than 200 speakers during a hearing scheduled from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The sign-in period for speakers ended at noon.

Once larger crowds arrived after the first shift, the testimony became more passionate. Applause and cheering continued as speakers spoke against Walker and the Republicans. Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) asked the crowd to use a silent hand wave to show their approval. She said earlier in the day if the public demonstrated a cooperative, polite tone the JFC’s co-chairs might be inclined to continue the hearing past the scheduled end.

But things began to unravel. A speaker directed a profanity-laced, recall rant at JFC Co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and it was evident fellow co-chair Rep. Robin Vos (R-Burlington) was not pleased. When the speakers who had signed up prior to Noon were finished, Vos moved on to reading the names of people who attended, but choose not to speak. Some of those people were still in the room and demanded to testify, but by then Vos and Darling had the microphones turned off and dismissed the security and committee pages.

Cries of “shame” immediately rose as Republicans left and Democratic committee members tried to quiet the crowd.

Lacking microphones, Democratic Sens. Chris Larson (Milwaukee), Robert Jauch (Poplar) and Taylor, along wtih Reps. Jason Fields (Milwaukee), Sandy Pasch (Whitefish Bay) and Tamara Grigsby (Milwaukee) listened to individuals tell their stories one-by-one after the hearing ended.

Milwaukee speak out

Throughout the hearing, everyday citizens shared their concerns, along with program advocates and local government representatives.

Points of discussion focused on Medicaid, transit, public education, corporate welfare, undocumented students and school choice. The testimony was impassioned and clear — and at times incoherent and silly — but each person was given two minutes to share their stories.

Milwaukee County Executive-elect Chris Abele testified about his commitment to working for Milwaukee and the region.

“I may not know all the details yet, but I know that in its current state, this is a budget that hammers the greater Milwaukee area,” Abele said. “During my campaign, I spoke a great deal about the need for all of the entities of government in the Milwaukee area to work together for the greater good of our region. Everything is interrelated, even if it’s not all under the same jurisdiction or organizational chart.”

Abele advocated for the county bus system, which benefits all the municipalities in Milwaukee County. He spoke up for Milwaukee Public Schools, saying its “success or failure impacts the quality of life of every corner of the County, in ways big and small.”

He also decried the tools that Walker has put in place to offset the cuts in state aids, road funding and Medicaid programs, saying the “toolbox is empty.”

“We need a partner at the state level who will work with us to make sure we all make it through (tough) times,” Abele said. “This budget is not a partnership, but it needs to be, and by working together it can be.  And we stand ready to help achieve that.”

Mayor Tom Barrett spoke against the proposed increases to state road funding while local governments will see a reduction in road aid.

“I’m here to tell you that local streets have incurred the same harsh winters, and to say that one group of roads should get an increase while another group of roads gets a decrease is just wrong.”

While Interstate travel is important, Barrett said the focus shouldn’t be on making it “easier for people to get from Chicago to Door County in the summer. Our goal should be so that the people who live in our communities can get to work, can get to play, can get the goods delivered throughout the state of Wisconsin.”

Tim Sheehy, president of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce, praised Walker’s proposal. He described it as reducing the state’s structural deficit, eliminating the raids on designated funds and not pushing fiscal problems down the road.

MPS won’t be spared from cuts, losing $166 million over the biennium. Superintendent Gregory Thornton told the JFC that if the cuts go forward, there are still ways to protect the district’s students.

“I would ask that you count the students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program in the state equalization aid formula so that the studetns in MPS and the taxpayers in Milwaukee are not financially harmed as they are now,” he said. “I would ask for a fair and transparent accountability system for all students so that parents truly know how schools are performing.”

What the people are talking about

Democratic Senators and Representatives take individual testimony after the hearing ended.

School choice had its advocates, such as Andrew Neumann of HOPE Schools. He brought members of the Choice School Association and a large group of students from Milwaukee Messmer and St. Anthony School with him.

“Students need to succeed regardless of where they go to school and we demand access for all parents to high quality schools,” Neumann said. “We need to approve the lift in enrollment caps and the expansion to all county schools. And please eliminate the barrier to entry by removing the income cap.”

Dr. Howard Fuller repeated his support of choice and increasing the enrollment if poor performing schools are shut down. He also wanted the Wisconsin Concepts and Knowledge Exam used in choice schools, and permission for the DPI to determine choice school feasibility.

But he promised to turn on the choice program he has embraced for years if the income caps are lifted and wealthy families are allowed to use taxpayer vouchers.

“Please don’t make it true that you were using the poor just to eventually make this available to the rich,” Fuller said. “If this is done, I will become an opponent of this.”

Typically, those for choice avoided the topic of Walker’s school aid cuts to public K-12 schools. But many of the attendees came to speak specifically about public education cuts.

Hope Lloyd spoke about her autistic son. “He entered Oak Creek schools at age 3, unable to speak. Now he is in 4th grade and working at grade level. I believe he can do anything he wants to do and he will be a working taxpayer. Without special education, where would he be?”

Delores Scollonick described public education as vital to the future of the state, saying that [the state] shouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of children.

“You are hurting my kids and I am angry,” Scollonick said. “The JFC is made up of mainly Republicans and I used to support you, but no more. I am ashamed. I though you were the good guys, but the good guys would protect our children.”

Another parent challenged the committee to look her child in the eyes if they allowed Walker’s school funding cuts.

“You tell her she doesn’t deserve an education or a bright future.”

Walker’s proposal to eliminate in-state tuition for undocumented students brought out a large contingent fromVoces de la Frontera. They shared stories of how these students, who were typically brought to the U.S. when they were toddlers and have worked hard through K-12 schools, would not be able to attend state universities.

“My brother is graduating from Marquette University High School and has been accepted to all the schools he wants,” an unnamed man testified. “But he won’t be able to attend because he will have to pay out-of-state tuition. It is a waste of potential and will not allow him to achieve his dream of being what he wants to be.”

An undocumented student at Marquette University, who is attending school on a full scholarship, said she fears for the future of her undocumented friends.

“It is unethical to deny an education to them,” she said. “We all deserve a chance at an education. I will be a great Wisconsin taxpayer and so will all the other undocumented students.”

A large group came out to save transit funding, explaining how transit provides access to jobs, educational opportunities, health care and social freedom. Others said they didn’t want transit funding moved from the dedicated transportation fund to the general fund where transit dollars would have to compete against other programs, such as education, health care and tourism.

Barry Kress is disabled and a respite care worker. He depends on Transit Plus to live his life.

“It is about everyday living – shopping, visiting friends and family,” he said. “Going from county to county is a fantasy if you depend on transit. It’s a fantasy to go to other parts of Milwaukee County. Put more money into this program so we can go shopping and visit your communities.”

Phillip Demming is a UW-Madison student and member of WISPIRG, an advocacy group. He described the cuts to public transit as “awful.”

“We’re spending $745 million on highways in the next two years, but we’ll defund municipal repairs for roads and spending on transit,” he said. “It should be spent on transit. It’s awesome, it’s green, it’s efficient and it connects the poor with jobs.”

Mayor Tom Barrett

Many of the people who depend on transit also rely on Medicaid programs offered through the state. SeniorCare, FamilyCare and IRIS, a self-directed care program, were the top services mentioned by attendees at the hearing.Kathy McCarty struggled to tell her story due to Down’s Syndrome, but with the help of her aide she gave powerful testimony.

“I live in Wauwatosa and I want you to please lift the caps on FamilyCare and IRIS,” McCarty said. “I have many friends waiting for services. I need transportation to go to work, to the library and to swimming for the Special Olympics. I need IRIS to help me live in my house.”

Leanne McGregor told the JFC she has been costing the government money since her birth in 1958. She pleaded that they should maintain disabled transit services and independent living programs that allow her to be an active, taxpaying participant in society.

“If I don’t have transportation, I will have to move into a nursing home. I will lose my job,” she said, holding back tears. “What the government pays for me to be independent … it will cost you more to have me in a nursing home. You gave me wings, now you want to clip those wings.”

Some focused on the proposed cuts to family planning services and the unintended consequences that would follow.

Santara Michaels is a medical student at UW. She explained that prenatal care will save the state money and asked for family planning services for both women and men be restored.

“This budget is fiscally irresponsible,” she added. “Gov. Walker told us last November that help was on the way. Please help him eliminate these health discrepencies in the budget.”

Another woman explained Planned Parenthood and other agencies offer services that are 97 percent preventative, including 5,000 cervical cancer screens and 5,000 HIV tests in Southeast Wisconsin last year.

“This budget codifies discrimination, it denies a man’s role in a relationship and puts more people at risk for cervical cancer,”  she said. “These programs save the state money. This budget puts women at risk.”

But another woman spoke against Planned Parenthood, asking the committee to remember all the children that have been aborted who could have been educated, working and paying taxes to the state.

And some people just shared their suggestions on the overall budget.

One man reiterated Walker’s point that the state is broke and that all our money comes from levying taxes.

“If you asked us to raise taxes, the same people whining about cutting programs would whine about higher taxes,” he said. “We’ve seen what the unions have done to Detroit and Gary. Lake Mills had a 5,000 employee factory. Now it is empty because the unions asked for too much.”

Another suggested the legislature expand the Miller Park .1 percent sales tax to the entire state and use the money to fund the tax breaks to corporations and incentives to create 250,000 jobs.

Keith Roberts of Greendale asserted that ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) wrote the budget proposal “to serve the corporate masters.”

“But I also know the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute has surveyed the people and 67 percent oppose reducing aid to local governments and schools,” Roberts said. “And 72 percent of the voters favor raising taxes on those making $150,000 or more. You can do these things and your base will support you. You can have the courage to tax those over $150,000. It will balance the budget and move us forward.

Russ Tursred thanked the governor for stirring up a hornet’s nest that forced the public to look at the budget deeply and thoroughly, while Pat Capana told the JFC that even though her property taxes have doubled, she supports the budget.

“I think the cuts could go deeper and this is a good start to eliminate some of the waste. I support Gov. Walker.”

Others asked the legislature to fix the unintended consequence of scaling back bargaining rights for public employees. That measure in the budget repair bill could cost the state $46 million in federal funds because of the loss of collective bargaining.

Melissa Warner didn’t speak last, but her comments sum up what many in the room were thinking. She stood against the budget and invoked the story of King David and his desire for another man’s wife. The story concludes with a prophet telling David of a rich man with many sheep who takes the lone lamb of a poor farmer to serve at a party. King David vows to punish anyone who would take from the poor to benefit the rich.

“You are the rich man,” Warner said, pointing to the JFC members. “You are taking from the poor; students, the disabled and then giving it to those who have too much. This budget has no compassion.”

“What does it profit Wisconsin to avoid fiscal bankruptcy if we fall into moral bankruptcy?”

The Joint Finance Committee will hold its final public hearing on Walker’s budget proposal tomorrow in Neenah.

View a slideshow of Monday’s testimony by  Nickolas Nickolic and Editor Patti Wenzel.

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