UW-Whitewater hosted the first of three public hearings on the state budget April 9. I’m pleased that the first of the “roadshow” hearings was held in my district. Other hearings followed in Rhinelander and Menomonie. The fourth and final hearing will be held online Wednesday, April 28.

I want to thank UW-Whitewater for hosting a well-organized event with distancing between people seated in the Irving L. Young auditorium, mandatory face coverings and microphone cleansing when people chose to take their masks off to speak. The university also set up an excellent audio/visual system so people in line to testify knew when it was their turn to come to the microphone.

I was impressed with the people who waited patiently for their turn to testify—153 in all, as well as the 15 who registered without speaking. People traveled from Green Bay, Oshkosh, Milwaukee and Madison, but the largest number of people who testified came from closer to home.

As a university town, it was understandable that 24 people asked the Joint Finance Committee to fund the UW System with more state support. Seventeen people asked specifically for more state funding for UW-Whitewater, which receives less funding per student than the other system schools.

I want to note that Gov. Tony Evers’ budget proposal includes increased funding for UW System operations, continues the tuition freeze, reimburses campuses for the lost revenue from the tuition freeze, and increases financial aid for students from low-income and moderate-income families.

The governor has proposed $59 million to upgrade Whitewater’s Winther Hall, which is home to classes for aspiring teachers. UW-Whitewater graduates more future teachers than any other college in Wisconsin, public or private.

During the hearing, UW-Whitewater opened the doors to Winther Hall for public tours. I joined one of the tours to get a first-hand look at how outdated the facilities are, including access for students with disabilities. There is exactly one elevator to get between floors, and it routinely breaks, making students late for classes or miss them altogether.

At the hearing, 18 people spoke in favor of increased funding for public schools and special education. They support the governor’s proposal to return to the 1990s-era pledge of providing state aid for two-thirds of local school costs. Six people spoke in favor of increasing state reimbursement for special education costs from 20% to 50%. This would allow schools to direct more of their property tax dollars to regular education.

Prison and criminal justice reform were another priority we heard. Speakers said allowing a judge to reduce the term of a person’s extended supervision if they meet all the criteria would help them continue their progress toward becoming a contributing member of society.

Also, expanding the conditions for which an individual could have his or her criminal conviction expunged would help them get back into the workforce at a time when “help wanted” signs are hanging everywhere.

Many people have written to me in support of extending the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. We heard the same at the listening session. The fund was created in 1989 to preserve natural habitats, protect water quality and fisheries, and expand opportunities for outdoor recreation. The fund gives the Department of Natural Resources authority to award grants to local government and nonprofits for such things as park infrastructure, boat launches, trails and land purchases for preservation.

In recent years, demand for stewardship grants has far exceeded available funds. Evers proposed designating $70 million per year for the fund for the next 10 years. Since the pandemic caused the shut-down of many gathering places, people have flocked to our public parks and other recreation areas. This experience has demonstrated the value of hiking, biking, fishing and other outdoor activities. Nature is great therapy.

Other frequently mentioned topics during the public hearing were mental health, Medicaid expansion, help for the blind and deaf, and caregiver funding. By my count, 98% of the speakers spoke in favor of measures in the governor’s budget proposal. Let’s hope the Joint Finance Committee members heard the same.

Please email me with your comments and questions about the state budget at Rep.Vruwink@legis .wisconsin.gov.

Don Vruwink, D-Milton, represents the 43rd Assembly District. He can be reached at 608-266-3790,

Rep.Vruwink@legis.wisconsin.gov, and P.O. Box 8953, Madison WI 53708.

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