Rock County delegation reports progress from Washington, D.C.

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Jim Leute
Tuesday, March 18, 2014

JANESVILLE—Business and community representatives who recently traveled to Washington, D.C., say they returned with a better understanding of how things work in the nation's capital, a platform that will help them advance an agenda for Rock County.

Armed with nearly a dozen talking points that ranged from Interstate funding to law enforcement grants, the group of 32 met with Wisconsin lawmakers and their staffs and a variety of federal agencies and organizations.

“Our focus was to convey the message that Janesville and Rock County need support from their leaders to continue our economic growth as we recover from the loss of General Motors and the serious impact our community had during the Great Recession,” said Mary Willmer, co-chair of Rock County 5.0 and community bank president and regional market manager at BMO Harris Bank.

Organized by Forward Janesville, the three-day trip included a half-hour meeting with House Speaker John Boehner, who Willmer said provided an understanding of the macro challenges—at least according to Boehner—the country is facing.

“It framed for us the need to be engaged at all levels in telling our story and the importance of advocating for our community,” she said.

Other participants said the group learned that things move at a different pace and in a different process than the local level.

“As a group, myself included, we want things to move faster,” said Larry Squire, regional president of Johnson Bank. “We learned a lot about the process, which will be a real help in positioning ourselves for what we want to do and how we can best go about it.

“We came back as a group that can work together to form an action plan and then present the right information to the right people at the right time.”

As vice president of community advocacy for Mercy Health System, Rich Gruber gets to Washington several times a year.

Gruber said several members of the group were likely surprised to learn that getting legislation passed and signed into law is not the end of road.

“This was a first-time event for many, and I think they learned that just because you went to Washington and met with the speaker of the House in his conference room, that doesn't mean you'll be able to pound your fist and get things done,” Gruber said.

Squire agreed.

“As a member of the banking industry, I know all too well that getting legislation passed is barely the first step,” he said. “The devil's in the details, and that starts after it's signed with the writing of the law and its rules.”

Gruber said the group had a variety of productive meetings with lawmakers and staff from the Department of Transportation on the prospects for a federal highway bill, which local officials say is critical for the future funding of the Interstate 90/39 project.

The current highway bill, known by the acronym MAP-21, expires at the end of September. Without a new reauthorization bill, federal infrastructure investment falls to zero in 2015, at least theoretically.

In the past, Congress has been unable to craft an acceptable bill on schedule and has instead relied on repeated extensions to cover funding while it worked out the next reauthorization. It's uncertain if that will happen again.

“Everyone we talked to had a different take on what's going to happen, and the department has an even more unique take,” Gruber said. “That tells me that we need to spend more time on it to convince them that the Interstate really is a critical artery.”

Gruber said the department was able to make city officials aware of new incentive grants that could improve infrastructure.

He also said the group had a productive meeting with Sen. Tammy Baldwin on the Workforce Investment Act, which is up for renewal this year.

Gruber, a member of the Southwest Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, said the group and Baldwin discussed local concerns about the amount of paperwork required of the board and the possibility of renewed funding for customized and incumbent worker training programs he said have been highly successful in southern Wisconsin.

Baldwin, he said, responded with support and sent a staffer to the board's meeting last week.

Tim Weber, owner of Webco General Contractors in Janesville and the incoming chairman of Forward Janesville's board of directors, said he had two goals for the trip: building relations in Washington and building relationships within the Rock County delegation.

 “One of our focuses was to create relationships, put faces and names together because we're most often dealing with staff members,” Weber said. “The other, especially for me, was to spend time with (city and school officials) and look forward as to how we could all work together for the betterment of Rock County.

“It was a grand slam for both.”

Willmer is convinced Rock County will be better off because of the trip.

“All of us gained a greater understanding of the roles that each of us play in making our community a healthy and strong place for folks to work and live,” she said. “…My hope for this trip was that we would come together with a collective focus.

“…This trip moved our community to a new level in terms of creative strategies, collaboration and understanding of the issues and the solutions. It also helped us all understand the challenges that our elected officials—on both sides of the aisle—are dealing with as they try to represent their communities.”

Last updated: 4:33 pm Tuesday, March 18, 2014

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