Have state legislators written off rural Wisconsin?

Wisconsin State Farmer
Bob Panzer

This past winter I read the book “Politics of Resentment” authored by Professor Katherine J. Cramer. Over the past few years, Professor Cramer has studied how rural Wisconsinites have voted in major elections. Cramer lays out the thought that rural Wisconsin voters are full of resentment and distrust of the state of Wisconsin and that many rural voters believe that the state government in Madison is not delivering a “fair share” to rural Wisconsin.

I found Professor Cramer’s research and conclusions of interest but then got busy with some other projects around the farm and with my activities on the local school board. Earlier this month the local Lions club did a roadside clean up and the discussion of the condition of State Hwy. 27 became a topic for discussion among the volunteers. After some discussion the conclusion of the group was that the road surface has been declining in quality for many years and yet we are all paying gas taxes and increased vehicle registration and not getting the road surface maintained and needed repairs completed. The discussion of the condition of Highway 27 reminded me of the conclusions that were presented by Professor Cramer.

If you look at local funding of our rural schools, the lack of investment in the roads that rural folks depend upon to get to work or get farm products moved to market, and the recent headlines concerning water quality in rural Wisconsin, a citizen of rural Wisconsin needs to start asking questions: What is going on with State of Wisconsin investment of tax dollars? Why can new roads continue to be built in southeast Wisconsin? How are new tax dollars being used to fund voucher schools in southeast Wisconsin? Are voters filled with resentment, or are they just aware that there are some major shifts in Wisconsin that have occurred over the past 20 years with the suburban ring of counties near Milwaukee benefiting greatly from this shift in funding?

I reached out to former Wisconsin State Senator Thomas Harnisch of Neillsville to find out his thoughts on rural Wisconsin and what he thinks is happening in Wisconsin. Mr. Harnisch is a practicing attorney and heavily into political activity in the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Senator Harnisch is considered the father of the Wisconsin Farmland Preservation program that has offered real estate tax relief to Wisconsin farmers and worked to protect farmland losses from development.

One of the issues pointed out by Mr. Harnisch is that rural voters tend to be voting for representatives that do little to represent rural Wisconsin. Often issues and policy are hammered out by elected leaders from Wisconsin suburbs, and elected rural representatives appear to rubber stamp policies that offer little of value to rural Wisconsin residents. Often rural Wisconsin issues are ignored by representatives from both major political parties.

Examples of issues that are not addressed are funding of road projects in rural Wisconsin, funding for rural schools, protection of resources such as water, and economic development for rural Wisconsin. Funding has been drained off of rural Wisconsin for major road construction in the greater Milwaukee area, school voucher programs and tax incentives for development in the Milwaukee ring counties.

I asked Mr. Harnisch what he thought should or could be done to help move rural Wisconsin forward. He provided me a list of things that he believes would move rural Wisconsin forward and indicated he is attempting to get others in the Democratic party of Wisconsin to support. The agenda is one of building upon solutions to transportation, education, economic development, natural resources and taxation and how they impact rural Wisconsin.

Education: ACT scores are the measure of students as they prepare to leave high school and move forward. More funding needs to be focused on improving ACT scores. Low ACT scores prevent students from attending many schools and limit career opportunities for students. Better retention of quality teachers is needed in rural Wisconsin as quality teachers are attracted away to suburban schools that offer better pay and benefits.

Transportation: immediate construction and funding of 13 rural state highways to convert them into four lane roads to allow for safer travel and greater economic development.  Mr. Harnish gave 2 examples including Hwy 2 in northern Wisconsin and Hwy 11 in southern Wisconsin. Bridge rebuilding is also another priority as bridges are collapsing in many areas of rural Wisconsin. Just recently a bridge in Buffalo County collapsed causing issues in feeding cows and getting milk to market from farms in the area. Many rural areas also lack transportation options for the elderly living in rural areas, and greater emphasis needs to be placed on a long-term rural transit system.

Management of natural resources is another major issue. Clean water is becoming a luxury for some residents in Wisconsin as wells and rivers are loaded with organisms or chemicals that cause harm. Greater well testing of private wells is needed in rural counties.

Economic development is another area of concern. Counties such as Price County are losing major employers in forestry products and manufacturing and with these losses other businesses are also closing. Quality cell phone and internet services that many companies and consumers use are also missing in many rural counties.

Can the Democratic and Republican Parties represent rural Wisconsin?

Bob Panzer farms in Chippewa County, WI and is a retired lender that offers farm management consulting in the Midwest and Great Plains regions.  He may be contacted at 920-539-8728.