By Kevin Boneske
ASHWAUBENON – About a half dozen people showed up Friday, Feb. 22, at the village hall where 2nd District State Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) held a listening session.
Cowles, who has been in the Senate for more than 30 years, was on hand to hear constituents’ opinions on state legislative issues, including the budget and other proposed legislation for the 2019-20 session.
“There’s an adjustment period going on – divided government for the first time in eight years,” Cowles said about Democratic Gov. Tony Evers taking office in January with Republicans still holding majorities in both houses of the state legislature. “I think a number of legislators are experiencing that for the first time.”
Cowles, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and co-chairs the Joint Audit Committee, said he will be working in those areas as well as looking through the budget upon the governor unveiling it at the end of February.
“I hope we can get (the budget) done on time July 1 with a fair deal for not only taxpayers, but schools and municipalities and nursing homes, etc,” he said. “There’s some real hot button issues. We know we’ve got problems in nursing homes – we’ve got to do something significant there. We’ve got issues with corrections… We’ve got to do something significant on corrections, too, to hold the staff and to make it a safer place… We’ve got a problem with a lack of enforcement because the DAs (district attorneys) are overburdened. We need more assistant DAs, more public defenders, so there’s places we have to spend money. I think we can do that in the context of the available resources without raising taxes.”
Cowles said he is against placing policy items in the budget, such as when a provision was included two years ago to limit the ability of local municipalities to restrict short-term rentals.
“Our friend, Mary Kardoskee, the (Ashwaubenon) village president, knows how some of these policy items get put in the budget,” Cowles said. “They have no chance to even testify on controlling short-term rentals, for example. That’s a headache for this community. That was put in without any public hearing. That’s a policy item.”
Cowles said he wants all policy items placed in the budget to be taken out and sent to committees to be considered on their own merits.
Regarding a provision placed in the budget to end what’s known as the dark store loophole, Cowles said that might not be identified by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau as a policy item and could stay in the budget.
“If it’s identified as policy, I want it out,” Cowles said. “Now if (Legislative Fiscal Bureau Director) Bob Lang and his team do not identify it as policy – sometimes it’s a close call – then it’s OK (to leave it in the budget).”
A bill to end the loophole never came up for a vote in the last session of the State Legislature.
Cowles said he expects the legislature will be forwarding its own version of the budget after the one released by the governor is analyzed by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
“Ultimately, what happens is the governor gets a lot of what he or she wants,” Cowles said. “That’s the way it works.”
When asked about an income tax cut backed by both houses of the legislature, but vetoed by Evers, Cowles said the governor’s action was “predictable.”
“We didn’t have an agreement with the new governor, and that’s what happens when you don’t have agreements,” Cowles said. “You have to have handshake agreements, if you want something to pass… I think the legislature is learning that. It will be a process.”
Cowles said there aren’t enough votes in the Senate for a two-thirds majority (22 out of 33 senators) to override the governor’s veto on the tax cut bill.
When asked about the condition of roadways in Wisconsin, Cowles said he favored more state funding for local roadways, but also expressed a reluctance to raise the state’s gasoline tax.
“I believe that the local roads are what we need to put more money into,” he said. “The state roads, I think, are in pretty good shape.”
Cowles said a Legislative Audit Bureau audit of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation released two years ago showed “many, many millions” could be saved by the DOT using its funds more effectively and improving how the agency manages the planning and engineering phases of state highway projects and the maintenance of state highways.
“I think ultimately we do need more money in the system when we’re still bleeding money,” he said. “We still have inefficiencies out there.”
Cowles said he “would not feel too good” about increasing the state gasoline tax until the “inefficiencies” in the DOT identified by the audit are handled.
When asked about renewable energy in Wisconsin, Cowles said the state Public Service Commission is considering the addition of utility-scale solar fields in the state.
“We’re aware that things are moving in the solar area, especially,” Cowles said. “Instead of just a few solar systems on a building like this, whole utility-scale solar. That’s a big thing. It’s very exciting.”
Cowles said he plans to hold a hearing before the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee on the status of solar energy in the state.
In response to the governor’s recent comments not to include funding in the next budget to replace the Green Bay Correctional Institution (GBCI), Cowles said he would be willing to work with Evers on a plan to phase out the GBGI with a new correctional facility.
“For the next four years you’ve got to deal with what’s in front of you, and that means you’ve got a governor that wants to have a prison be the same kind of prison that’s always been – you know, owned by the state, run by the state,” Cowles said. “That’s OK, and now we’ve got to go through the planning process to actually make it happen. I’m urging people to be patient.”
When asked about state laws on marijuana, Cowles said he is against legalizing marijuana for recreational use, but would be interested in allowing medical marijuana use that is regulated properly through doctors.