LAKE DELTON — When the Joint Committee on Finance came to the Kalahari on Wednesday, it wasn’t to take a ride on the indoor Ferris wheel.
Rather, the committee — composed of eight state senators and eight state representatives — came to hear more than 130 citizens from all over Wisconsin speak their minds on Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed 2013-15 biennial budget.
Numerous issues were raised, including the future of the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, school funding (including proposed expansion of vouchers), health care, anti-tobacco programs and community-based program to offer non-violent offenders alternatives to the criminal justice system.
Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Falls, co-chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Finance, said the committee was there to listen, but would not respond to any comments shared.
She noted, too, that the Kalahari offered the space for the hearings at no charge to the state.
“But we paid for our lunches, so there’s no free lunch,” she said.
Speakers from as far south as Beloit and as far north as Phillips came to the Kalahari to speak in opposition to several education-related proposals in budget, including:
• State funding for public schools that is basically flat.
• Expanding the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for children attending private schools.
• Setting up a “scholarship” program for special-needs students that many characterize as another voucher program.
• Consolidating the oversight of all charter schools into one entity, instead of in the public school district where the charter school is operated.
Julie Lankey-Smallwood, business manager of the Mauston School District, said the district had already made cuts that hurt student services, including elimination of a dean of students, a gifted-and-talented program director, nine teachers, 10 aides and even some bus routes.
“And,” she added, “we only have one (security) camera to rotate between 23 buses.”
Portage School District Business Administrator Margaret Rudolph was one of several speakers who expressed support for a proposal offered by state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, a member of the Joint Committee on Finance, and Senate President Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, to give public schools an additional $150 per pupil in the budget’s first year and another $150 per pupil in the second year — a move that Rudolph said would help the Portage School District, which had already closed two rural schools and reduced its staff.
Baraboo School Board Member Peter Vedro applauded Olsen for defying some of the Legislature’s Republican leadership in proposing an increase in per-pupil funding.
Many speakers from throughout the state said the voucher proposals would have the effect of taking resources away from public schools, and in the case of special education students, taking away the type of accountability that is required in public schools.
“Let’s be clear,” Vedro said. “You’re talking about putting Wisconsin’s public education system to the highest bidder — no qualifications required.”
That view, however, was not unanimous, as advocates for religious private schools said vouchers offer a “level playing field” for students who would be better served in private schools than in public schools.
And, a couple who identified themselves as parents of special-needs child said they would like to use state aid to send their child to a private school because the programs at his school don’t meet his needs, and because the child is bullied in the public school.
In the hallway before the committee, jugglers wearing red “Save the Circus” T-shirts entertained by juggling colorful clubs, while other supporters handed out pale blue postcard-size fliers calling for retention of the existing public-private partnership that has operated the popular site in Baraboo.
Circus World Executive Director Steve Freese told the committee that Walker’s proposal to have the Wisconsin Historical Society take over Circus World operations is based on “false information” about the site’s financial condition and operations, and he characterized the proposal as a “power grab.”
Sauk County Board Vice Chairwoman Joan Fordham of Baraboo said Circus World could use money from the state, but the Wisconsin Historical Society should not take over the operations because the existing partnership with the Circus World Museum Foundation has resulted not only in successful fundraising, but also in a strong sense of community ownership.
“The sense of personal connection is a significant asset, and part of our growth and success,” she said.
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Michael Youngman of Milwaukee, a member of the board of directors of the Wisconsin Historical Society Foundation, said he supports the governor’s proposal because he thinks Circus World could maximize its existing strengths through a closer association with the historical society, which already owns the site’s buildings and collections.
“I believe the vast experience of the historical society would deeply benefit Circus World going forward,” he said.
But Baraboo attorney Joseph Screnock said Circus World is not a “traditional museum” in the same sense as some other State Historic Sites, such as Pendarvis in Mineral Point and Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien.
Rather, he said, it is an attraction that is heavily advertised in numerous publications touting Wisconsin Dells area attractions, and people of the area, not state officials, should continue to control its future.
John Lloyd, board member for the Circus World Museum Foundation, said he applauded the proposal to infuse $1.2 million into Circus World, but “I do not see a need to create a state-run enterprise.”
Jonathan Lipp, chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, said, “Circus World is Wisconsin’s crown jewel. There is nothing like it in Wisconsin, perhaps in the galaxy.”
Standing up for opportunity
Among the speakers making a case for better funding for work programs for special-needs adults was Yael Kerzan of rural Pardeeville, who said she values her job at Northwoods, Inc. in Portage.
“I want to work and make people proud of me,” she said. “I don’t want to stay home all the time and do nothing.”
Her mother, Dallas Kerzan, called on the committee to boost funding for the Family Care program that helps pay for the program that benefits Yael at Northwoods. Managed care organizations are not currently paid enough due to state budget cuts, she said.
Tobacco: Up in smoke
A large number of people, of all ages, called on the committee to improve funding for programs designed to prevent young people from starting tobacco use, whether it’s smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco.
David Guran, 18, a Wisconsin Dells High School Senior, said the most effective program is like the one in which he participates.
“The best way that teenagers can learn,” he said, “is to work with other kids.”
Advocating the arts
Jay Salinas, co-founder of the Wormfarm Institute in Reedsburg, told the committee that state money spent on encouraging the arts and creativity — including money offered through the Wisconsin Arts Board and the Wisconsin Humanities Council — is a sound investment in economic development.
He touted the Reedsburg Fermentation Fest in October — billed as “a food and farming festival with a focus on food and fun” — as being at least as vital to the state’s economic well-being as “chasing smokestacks” (seeking to attract manufacturing jobs).
“Support of the arts,” he said, “is not just food for the soul.”
In additional to Darling and Olsen, members of the Joint Committee on Finance include Sens. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls; Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan; Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin; Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend; Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse; and Robert Wirch, D-Pleasant Prairie.
Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, is co-chairman of the committee. Others from the Assembly on the committee are Reps. Pat Strachota, R-West Bend; Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield; Dean Knudson, R-Hudson; Dan LeMahieu, R-Cascade; John Klenke, R-Green Bay; Cory Mason, D-Racine and Jon Richards, D-Milwaukee.
State Rep. Fred Clark, D-Sauk City; Rep. Joan Ballweg, R-Markesan and Jon Richards, D- Milwaukee, also were present for part of Wednesday’s hearing.
Other hearings have been held in Greendale and Green Bay, and another is scheduled for April 18 in Baldwin.