Wimberger holds listening sessions on state budget
By Kevin Boneske
SUAMICO – State Sen. Eric Wimberger held four listening sessions last week on the proposed 2021-23 biennial state budget to receive input from his constituents in the 30th Senate District.
Close to a dozen people were present April 19 when he was on hand at Suamico village hall, where he fielded questions on various budget-related matters.
Wimberger, a Green Bay Republican who began his first four-year term in January, said he has “a steep learning curve to figure out how things kind of function together.”
“Right now the budget committee is taking… requests and incorporating them into a budget,” he said. “The Republicans are starting more or less from scratch and coming up with their own things.”
Wimberger said his budget priorities for the larger funding projects include building another bridge to cross the Fox River on the southern end of De Pere to alleviate traffic congestion and moving the coal piles out of downtown Green Bay.
“Hopefully there’s going to be some funding to at least study some of the issues in Marinette regarding PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances),” he said. “But the bridge allocation in De Pere looks to be somewhere in the ballpark of $40-50 million, if it’s going to happen. The coal piles in Green Bay will probably take $20 million (to move out of the downtown).”
Wimberger said Republicans in the state Legislature are focused on doing one-time projects.
“Things like a bridge in De Pere or moving the coal piles (in Green Bay), stuff like that, might actually get a good look…,” he said. “These are more or less one-time projects, rather than a new agency or something like that… If we have a road that needs fixing or some other building that needs to get built, I think this is a good year to handle those challenges.”
Wimberger said the state’s finances weren’t hit as hard as expected from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve been having a significant rebound with the economy it appears, and the tax revenue and everything’s healthy with the budget,” he said. “We’re in good shape going forward, and we’re not looking to make anything drastic as far as cuts…”
The proposed biennial budget introduced in February by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, calls for around $91 billion in spending over two years.
Wimberger said the current library building is “really inefficient with the bricks falling off.”
“It’s a safety hazard to be around that building at all,” he said.
Based on what he’s heard from UW System officials, Wimberger said replacing the library is probably third on the list of the university system’s building projects.
When asked about the Green Bay Correctional Institution, Wimberger said it’s an antiquated facility that is too expensive to maintain, and it should either be gotten rid of and not replaced or be part of a long-term plan to budget for its replacement.
“We’re in a good year (financially), but I don’t think we’re in that good of a year (to replace the GBCI),” he said.
When asked about the effect vouchers for students to attend private schools have on available funds for public school districts, Wimberger said he supports vouchers because they provide a choice in education.
“I don’t think a whole lot of people who go (to Howard-Suamico) are going to use a voucher system,” he said. “I think the actual use of them is low around here, because generally speaking, in our area we have decent public schools and good amenities and the community supports it.”
Wimberger said in some schools, particularly in the Milwaukee area, students could be stuck in a bad school without a voucher program.
“If a parent cares, and wants them out of there, and (a voucher program) is not there for them to move, then they’re kind of stuck in a cycle,” he said. “For that reason, I think the vouchers are good. They open enrollment to be able switch around and vote with your feet… There will always be a role for the public school system, I think, at least in my mind.”
When asked about the statewide mask mandate ending March 31, when the state of emergency ordered by the governor was struck down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Wimberger said “an emergency can’t be forever.”
“After 60 days, it’s not an emergency anymore, but a long-term problem and a very serious long-term problem…,” he said. “To use the emergency powers act, rather than coming up with legislation after that, was the problem.”
With a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases and vaccines now available in Wisconsin, Wimberger said he doesn’t see the health care system being overwhelmed by the virus, nor does he currently support enacting a statewide mandate to wear masks.
“You don’t have to go places where the people aren’t wearing them, and businesses can enforce masks in their businesses, and I encourage that…,” he said. “Are we going to pass a law that creates an intervention into your neighbors’ lives when you can control your own circumstances by managing your own personal behavior? We don’t do it with other diseases.”
When asked about the process to redraw legislative districts following the 2020 Census, Wimberger said he doesn’t support the appointment of a commission because there is “not such a thing as a non-partisan group.”
“Having non-partisan blue ribbon commissions running things just allows politicians to hide their intentions,” he said.
Being the governor and the majority of state legislators who are responsible for redrawing legislative maps are in different political parties, Wimberger said a legal battle is likely, but he doesn’t anticipate “a whole lot of change on the maps.”
Dark store loophole
Wimberger said he doesn’t favor changing state law to eliminate what’s known as the dark store loophole, which relates to commercial retailers and manufacturers challenging the assessed value of their properties by claiming they are worth the same or close to the lower assessed value of similar but empty buildings.
“There really isn’t a better way than petitioning people who are making the assessment, saying, ‘Hey, I want a different assessment,’” he said. “If they say, ‘No’… adversarial judicial processes are how we kind of hash it out.”
Under current law, companies which challenge their assessments with the loophole in court and win are able to receive a refund with the affected municipalities having to make up the difference of that lost property tax revenue, such as with homeowners having more of the tax burden.
In addition to being in Suamico, Wimberger’s other three listening sessions were scheduled April 19 at the Ledgeview town hall, April 22 at the Wisconsin Maritime Center in Marinette and April 23 at the Boys and Girls Club in Green Bay.