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Monday, June 11, 2018

A Newcomer, a Look Back, and the Road Ahead - Sen. Patty Schachtner column

On my “first day,” I drove down to Madison thinking of the people across Senate District 10 who I had the responsibility to fight for. While I was not officially sworn in until mid-February, I was excited to roll up my sleeves and get to work. I have helped people all my life - as a first responder, health care provider, and medical examiner - and I was ready to serve the communities of northwestern Wisconsin.   

Getting Situated
In a legislative office, my duties extend to policy, communications, and what we call constituent relations. Constituent relations includes everything from responding to questions and helping people navigate state government to honoring community members with proclamations.  My first objective was to surround myself with an experienced team that would hit the ground running. My next objective was to familiarize myself with upcoming bills and the history behind them.

Legislative Work
I had the opportunity to participate in a few hearings for the three committees I was assigned to: the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Small Business, and Tourism, the Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining, and Forestry, and the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges.  I voted on appointments, heard testimony on committee bills, and voted some bills out of committee.

On the Senate floor, I voted on close to 200 bills through two long session dates. While it was exciting to be in this space, I was surprised at the lack of notice and communication that occurs between senators about the bills we are expected to review and vote on.

I remember during the March session, we were asked to vote on over 120 bills. Changes were still being made to the calendar’s bills just hours before we were expected to vote. In the case of school safety legislation that provided one-time grants to school districts for safety upgrades, the proposal was attached to a bill about Tuberculosis screening. It was drafted without ever consulting Democratic members.

While I supported the bill, I think we could have made it even better by making the grants available to all school districts, not just the applicants chosen by the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and by ensuring funding continues into future years.

I think everyone benefits when we all have a seat at the table. After all, is that not the purpose of gathering us in Madison – to discuss and decide what works for our communities?

I also had the opportunity to work with colleagues and introduce a few bills before session ended. One bill provided UW System students who have experienced sexual assault with reasonable accommodations, such as help changing dorms or meeting academic commitments, at no cost to them. Another would have provided state grants for school Science Olympiad teams.

Over the summer, I will be the vice chair of the Legislative Council Study Committee on the Identification and Management of Dyslexia. The committee brings together legislators, school administrators, parents, and issue-area experts to discuss best-practices relating to dyslexia screening and interventions.

Community Engagement
As a state senator, I have also made community engagement my priority. Since being elected in mid-January, I have participated in 158 meetings and community events, including five listening sessions and holding office hours in Polk, Dunn, and St. Croix counties.

These meetings include sitting down with local businesses, local government officials, and community members. Events include speaking at school graduations, attending suicide prevention walks, and honoring members of our community like Eagle Scouts, teachers, and small business owners.

Moving Forward
Northwestern Wisconsin is full of beauty and potential. Just like a plant that needs sunlight to grow, we need to shine a light on stubborn areas where Wisconsin can do better. These include the areas of transportation, mental health, and substance abuse.

Only 41 percent of Wisconsin’s state highways were rated in good condition or better in 2015, which is down from 54 percent in 2010. Additionally, a 2016 report conducted by the state Department of Transportation found that the number of highway miles rated in poor condition or worse would double by 2027 if funding stayed at 2015 – 2017 levels.

Instead of investing more money into roads, the 2017 – 2019 budget cut funding for the highway rehabilitation program by $79 million, relative to the 2015 budget. Following the $4.5 billion state-taxpayer deal with Foxconn, a further $90 million was diverted from local road and highway projects to pay for Foxconn-related development.

As a medical professional, I have also noticed that a failure to adequately address mental health and substance abuse is harming communities. A lack of regional hospital beds means that individuals suffering from a mental health emergency have to be transported to one of two state hospitals four hours away. The cost of each trip falls on the counties and local law enforcement agencies, creating significant budgetary impacts for more rural communities.

Substance abuse is also a serious issue – notably the growing problem of meth. According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, meth use has increased by 462 percent statewide between 2010 and 2017.  The economic cost of meth is $424 million annually, partly due to child placement and removal services. Across the state, 7,300 children have been removed from homes due to drug addiction in the residence. 

The next legislative session will not begin until January 2019. However, that does not mean I cannot get things done. Until then, I will continue to be engaged in the community, meet with local officials, and plan my legislative agenda. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the coming year.

State Senator Patty Schachtner represents Wisconsin’s tenth senate district. The district covers parts of Burnett, Dunn, Pierce, Polk, and St. Croix counties.

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