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Wednesday, April 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Overcast and Windy
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Madison holds its own public hearing on Gov. Walker's budget for Wisconsin

Speakers said they feared the effects of Walker's budget on education, the poor, health care and the environment.
Credit:Joe Tarr
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It was, as everyone kept saying, like preaching to the choir.

At a public hearing Wednesday night at Memorial High School, Gov. Scott Walker's radical budget proposal was roundly condemned, by both the hundreds of residents who showed up and the hodgepodge of elected officials there to listen.

The hearing wasn't one of the four official hearings scheduled by the Legislature's Joint Committee on Finance: the committee snubbed Madison by not holding a hearing here. State Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) said the low number of hearings was unprecedented: "Usually we have six public hearings."

Andy Potts, a spokesman for Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), the committee's co-chair, said earlier Wednesday that the committee thought enough hearings had been held here in Madison over Walker's "budget-repair" bill. "We wanted to give an opportunity to people in other parts of the state to comment."

But that didn't sit well with local officials. Spearheaded by Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the hearing was attended by six state legislators, five Madison school board members, school Superintendent Dan Nerad, two Madison Common Council members, Dane County Board Chair Scott McDonell and another supervisor, Madison College President Bettsey Barhorst and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney.

Before the meeting, McDonell admitted "we're just talking to ourselves." But he added, "We have to do something. We can't just let them dictate the agenda."

So the city video recorded the hearing, which it planned to send to Walker and the Joint Committee, along with written comments.

The meeting began with a summary of the budget situation from each of the governmental bodies. All painted a bleak picture.

Barhorst said Madison College stood to lose $10.3 million in funding and added: "We can't be open for business if we aren't open to train people for jobs."

Nerad said the budget, for the first time in 18 years, reduces revenue per children and eliminates 10 aid programs. "We as a community cannot stand for this."

Then came the comments from the public, who roundly denounced the governor's plan.

Matthew Stomerjohn said he spent part of his childhood in St. Louis, where property taxes were cheap, but the public schools horrible. His parents paid about $3,000 a year in property taxes, but spent $13,000 a year sending he and his sister to private schools. When the family moved to Wisconsin, their property taxes jumped to $7,000 a year, Stomerjohn said, but added, "you get what you pay for." In Wisconsin, he said, there was no advantage to going to a private school and the family saved $9,000 a year overall.

Some of the comments made it clear why the Republican legislators snubbed Madison in holding a public hearing.

Sharon Williams, a 56-year-old driver for Madison Metro, said the budget would make it harder for her to retire. "My personal opinion about Scott Walker is I think he's the anti-Christ."

John Kalinoski, a mechanic with the city, said the protests over the past several weeks had twice brought him to the verge of tears and he'd never been prouder of his local officials. But each day, he picked up the newspaper and read about new outrageous things the state government was doing.

"I'm 62 years old and I'm getting to the point where I'm going to show 'em what a union thug is."

Speakers said they feared the effects of Walker's budget on education, the poor, health care and the environment.

Mahoney noted that the governor's budget increases funding for prisons and jails, which might be needed but would be better spent on education. "The chance for a job and the chance for self-esteem will prevent the next generation coming into the jail system."

Former and current candidate for mayor Paul Soglin said that local governments need to avoid making risky investments in trying to make up the budget shortfall and avoid borrowing to maintain basic services. He added that investment in infrastructure and education have proven to lead to private investment -- not tax cuts.

Lisa Subeck, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin and a candidate for Madison Common Council, said the budget would devastate access to health and family planning services.

But she lamented, "the folks who really need to hear this aren't here tonight."

Seizing on that recurring them, Cieslewicz said that "There's a reason to preach to the choir: it makes the choir sing better."

Then he added, "Even if Gov. Walker and the Republican legislators continue to ignore us, you've have provided us with information and more importantly inspiration to keep up the fight."

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