EAU CLAIRE — When Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers invited people from throughout the area to attend a state budget listening session at Chippewa Valley Technical College on Tuesday, more than 100 people with a wide variety of interests responded.
Nicole Estenson of Chippewa Falls brought her reason for attending with her.
“Our son, Elliott, is autistic,” Estenson said, with her son sitting next to her in a group of people interested in education issues. “When we got his diagnosis, we got more involved in education than we were with our first two children.”
Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes have been holding listening sessions around the state to hear how the state budget could affect people like Estenson. While both officials made opening remarks, the bulk of the two-hour session was spent with people in small groups talking about the issues that matter to them. Evers and Barnes moved around the room, sitting with the visitors in groups focused on education, jobs and tax fairness, transportation/infrastructure, energy and environment, healthcare and criminal justice reform.
“When Evers proposed a $600 million increase for special education, I was very supportive,” Estenson said before the session started. “But a lot of legislators are not supporting that big of an increase. But we haven’t had an increase in special ed funding for 10 years.”
After listening to what Estenson had to say during the session, Evers approached her and Elliot and spoke with them. Estenson noted Elliott was very interested in government issues.
John Wagner of Eleva came with a group from Join Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope (JONAH), which focuses on child poverty issues. “In Wisconsin, one in five children live in poverty by federal standards, which only considers the cost of food,” Wagner said. “By other measures, 38 percent live in poverty.”
Wagner came armed with statistics that showed how being impoverished affects brain and social development in children, and how that leads to many future social problems and a generational culture of poverty. He maintains that addressing the issue of child poverty saves money in the long run. He sat with the healthcare issues group.
So did Jim Britton, a Chippewa Falls Middle School teacher. “I’m here to talk about the opioid crisis,” he said. “My son is a recovering addict. We would like to open a treatment facility in Eau Claire, or a sober house. I’d like to learn how to best utilize funding.”
Mark Lauer of Ridgeland, the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 14, headquartered in Fall Creek, came to advocate for restoration of the prevailing wage law. The law, repealed by the last administration, required contractors on public works projects to pay wages consistent with those in the area in which the project is taking place. Lauer said it prevents out-of-state contractors paying low wages from taking jobs from local workers.
“I want to talk about funding for the buildings for local universities,” Lauer said. “I think it’s important that workers for those projects be from the area.”
While the attendees appreciated the opportunity to speak about what was important to them and thanked CVTC for hosting the event, the format restricted them to one particular subject area when they may have been interested in many subjects.
“The issues are not vertical; they’re horizontal,” said Helen Peterson of Eau Claire. “I’m interested in a lot of issues. I was going to ask a question about Foxconn. And climate change should be on the top of everyone’s list, because if that goes, everything goes.”
“We came here to listen, to talk about every part of this budget,” Evers said in his brief opening remarks. “People are expressing their opinions and drawing each other out. This is democracy in action.”