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'Like a boxing match': Local legislators talk state budget at UW-L, prepare for drawn-out process


Area legislators compared it to a dance, a boxing match and a five-act play.

The budgetary tug-of-war in Madison is ramping up as Democrats and Republicans dig into Gov. Tony Evers’ $83.5 billion proposal — one that calls for significant investments in education, roads and the environment over the next two years.

“It’s refreshing because many of us waited eight years to hear what Gov. Evers is talking about,” said Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse), speaking at a forum with area legislators Friday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. “It’s a good budget, and it’s a robust budget for higher education.”

The four-person panel — which also included Reps. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) and Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua) — spent most of the 70-minute session discussing exactly that: higher education.

All four said they would back Evers’ proposal for a 2 percent pay bump for all state employees, including university professors. UW-L and system administrators have long lamented their inability to offer competitive salaries.

There was also unanimous support for key capital projects across the UW System, like the $83 million second phase of the Prairie Springs Science Center, and for a system-wide tuition freeze.

But the devil, and the disagreement, is in the details.

Oldenburg said Wisconsin simply cannot afford everything that Evers has suggested, neither his $83.5 biennium budget nor his $2.5 billion capital budget.

Legislators should be selective about which projects to fund, Oldenburg said, to avoid overtaxing and overborrowing.

“We do have revenue, but we need to spend it wisely,” he said, citing the Prairie Springs project as an example. Building the facility in one phase instead of two, he noted, would have saved taxpayers millions of dollars. “Those are the kind of things we need to look for.”

Local Democrats were quick to argue that the governor’s budget is less of a spending spree and more of a long-term investment in the state and its agencies.

“For so many years, things have gone unattended, and projects have been deferred,” Billings said. “Anyone with a car or house knows … you have to make small investments along the way so you don’t have to make a huge investment in the future.

“The governor has made a historic investment in the capital budget, and it was needed.”

Doyle, too, commended Evers’ capital budget for its focus on education. Under the proposal, UW campuses would receive more money for building projects than the entire state did from 2017 to 2019.

“They say that you can tell your priorities by looking at the budget,” Doyle said. “If you look at the governor’s budget, he is the education governor.”

All four legislators agreed that the state’s final budget could look starkly different from the one on the table, and that the divided nature of Wisconsin’s state government makes this budget cycle especially unpredictable.

Shilling said she hopes to send a final budget to the governor in July, but would make no guarantees. In 2017, Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature didn’t finalize the budget until September.

“It’s like Democrats and Republicans find themselves in a boxing ring,” Shilling said. “We’re feeling each other out, throwing punches to see what will land.”


Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

A UW-La Crosse student walks around a puddle on the corner of 15th and State streets as he heads home after class. For more on the weekend forecast, turn to Page A8.

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Conservation groups split on Tony Evers' stewardship strategy

MADISON — Wisconsin conservation groups have heaped praise on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers plans for restoring water quality protections, but two prominent environmental advocates said they were disappointed that Evers hasn’t proposed restoration of the state’s program for preserving natural areas and improving outdoor recreation.

The state chapter of the Sierra Club and Wisconsin Conservation Voters both issued statements saying they wished Evers had included in his budget a proposal for a 10-year renewal of the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund, which is due to expire in 2020 after being reduced and revised over the last eight years by former Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature.

But another state conservation leader said history shows the governor’s plan to call on a “blue ribbon task force” to study options for the stewardship fund is the best bet for re-establishing a robust and stable program two years from now.

Joe Koshollek 


“In the past, a blue ribbon task force was always set up before the stewardship fund was going to expire,” said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation. “That is the way a consensus is reached between stakeholders, the Legislature and the administrative branch on a solid footing that everyone can agree on for the next 10 years.”

Some of the conflicts around how the program should operate were apparent Thursday in a state Senate sporting heritage committee confirmation hearing for Preston Cole, Evers’ designee as Department of Natural Resources secretary.

Douglas Sonders 


Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, asked Cole if the state was reaching a tipping point with too much land that is off the tax rolls and too much of the state budget devoted to repaying 20-year low-interest loans that finance the stewardship program.

Another committee member, Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, said the state needed to be ready to acquire property when private owners were ready to sell. Lands with high recreation value might become available once in a generation, and if the state wasn’t able to act the property could be lost forever to development, Wirch said.


The committee should be pushing for more investments in outdoor recreation to help bring more tourism dollars into the state, he said.

“Tourists don’t come here to see our suburbs,” Wirch said.

Cole added that public land was important to state efforts to promote hunting. Many people — particularly those who live in cities — don’t own acreage that can be used for hunting and don’t have friends or relatives with such land, Cole said.

About 17 percent of the state — 5.9 million acres — is public conservation land. Close to three-quarters is federal or county parks and forests.

The program began in 1989 with about $25 million a year with a goal of increasing opportunities for nature-based recreation.

The program was popular. Funding levels grew when it was reauthorized in 1999 and in 2007. The program’s spending authority stayed at about $60 million a year for most of the 2000s, but rose as high as $86 million.

Amid concerns about costs, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Walker in 2013 ordered DNR to sell 10,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres it owned. A variety of restrictions on new purchases were imposed during that period and by 2015 stewardship spending had been reduced to just over $33 million a year.



Cole said he expects Evers’ blue ribbon task force will give everyone a voice in determining what the future should look like.

Evers proposed extending the program’s life for two years without an increase in funding while options for a 10-year reauthorization are studied.

Not everyone was persuaded that it was a good idea to continue at the current funding level.


“We appreciate his plan to bring diverse stakeholders together to determine the next phase of the program but are disappointed that his budget only allocates funding for two years at current levels,” said Wisconsin Conservation Voters executive director Kerry Schumann.

STEVEN VERBURG — State Journal  


Sierra Club John Muir Chapter director Bill Davis said continued low funding levels concerned him because it can take many months to pull together important acquisitions that may be available for limited periods of time.

Stewardship money is available for state, local governments and nonprofit groups to purchase property, expand public access, preserve natural features and develop recreational facilities.

Meyer, a former state DNR secretary, said the initial authorization and the 1999 reauthorization were preceded by blue-ribbon panels that worked out differences about the fund’s priorities.

Meyer attributed conflict and changes in funding levels since 2007 to former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s decision not to appoint a study panel before the program was reauthorized.

Walker took office in 2011, led efforts to restrict the fund, and he didn’t set up a blue-ribbon panel to make recommendations before the 2020 expiration, Meyer said.

About 17 percent of the state — 5.9 million acres — is public conservation land. Close to three-quarters is federal or county parks and forests.

“Tourists don’t come here to see our suburbs” State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers

Jennifer Shilling


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FSC conference to feature women who overcome challenges with grit, grace

The late John Wayne’s claim to true grit pales in comparison with Sarah Thebarge’s really true grit in not only cheating death to breast cancer but also operating without a safety net amid earth-shattering life changes.

“I think cancer set me free, in a way, to take big risks,” said Thebarge, who will be keynote speaker at a daylong Franciscan Spirituality Center conference March 16 at Mary, Mother of the Church in La Crosse.

The conference, sponsored in part by Mayo Clinic Health System, also will feature three other women offering insights on the theme, Overcoming Challenges with Grit and Grace, gleaned from their own experiences.

The conference is billed as celebrating Women’s History Month during March, as well as International Women’s Day, which was Friday “and all women who have faced obstacles and ordeals yet persevered, kept the faith and emerged more resilient.”

The 40-year-old Thebarge’s step into uncertainty followed a series of events that began with being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 27 and, seemingly, overcoming it.

But it came back and, five surgeries and a series of chemotherapy later, she ended up with only a 50-50 chance of surviving a severe case of sepsis.

“My fiancé broke up with me during treatment, and my world fell apart,” the San Francisco-based author, physician assistant and inspirational speaker said during a phone interview.

“After nearly dying, there is a lot of freedom when your life is falling apart to take risks,” she said.

Living in Boston at the time, she quit her job, “sold everything I had and moved to Portland, Ore., because it was as far away as I could get.”

Once there, she said, “I realized I had no plan.”

With degrees in medicine and journalism — the reason for that is a whole other story — she began working in an emergency room in a Portland hospital.

An intense friendship evolved from an accidental encounter on a crowded commuter train with an impoverished Somali refugee whose abusive husband had left her with five girls under the age of 9. The bond was based in part on Thebarge’s belief that, even though their life experiences were vastly different, they were in similar straits.

“I knew what it was like to almost die, have few clothes and a broken heart,” she said. “If things were reverse and you dropped me in Somalia with five kids, I’d want somebody to help me.”

As they navigated language barriers and societal gaps, she said, “I realized you don’t need expertise. You need empathy.

“I just fell in love with them. As I was trying to save these girls, they were saving me,” she said, adding that her blog about the family eventually became her first book, “The Invisible Girls.”

Thebarge said she wanted to make a lasting imprint on the girls’ lives but initially wasn’t sure how to do so.

“You know the saying what do you get a girl who has everything? I wondered what to give a girl who has nothing — education,” she said.

So she created a trust for proceeds from the book to go to the girls’ college education, she said.

Thebarge, whose risk-taking endeavors have leapt to the continent of Africa with volunteer stints as a physician assistant in Togo, West Africa, and helping start a clinic in Kenya for children who have lost their parents to AIDS, also has administered medical care in the Dominican Republic.

“Using healing as a metaphor,” she said, “how can we pour love into the cracks in the world and fill them with love. Pour love and compassion into people and places.”

Reacting to people’s saluting her as brave, she said, “Those words don’t resonate. I didn’t feel brave. People often use brave and courageous interchangeably. Bravery means you don’t feel fear, and you take risks. Courage means you feel fear and risk anyway.”

Another speaker at the conference, Tara Shilts of Onalaska, has experience her own share of fear, risks and gritty responses.

Shilts, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has been a chaplain at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse for nine years — initially serving patients in general and recently shifting to ministering to patients in pediatrics and behavioral health.

The 38-year-old Shilts recalled wanting to become a minister since her childhood days at Franklin Elementary School in La Crosse — even pretending to baptize and marry kids on the playground.

Shilts and her husband, Joe, who now teaches technical education at Onalaska High School, moved to Chicago so she could attend seminary.

She planned to be a pastor, but sensing a call to the chaplaincy threw her for a loop, she said, explaining, “It was a huge loss of identity and loss of what I expected my life to be. I wondered who am I if I’m not an ordained pastor?”

A counselor and her husband helped sort things out, and her first call during her chaplaincy training, in effect, confirmed her choice, as well as her identity, Shilts said.

“A 90-year-old woman said, ‘I really want to die, but I can’t tell my family because they want me to keep on trying,’” she said. “I thought, ‘This is it.’”

Ministering to children in pediatrics is “incredibly different,” she said, adding, “The wisdom of children is incredible, with their ability to name their truth and ask big questions.”

As for behavioral health, “I believe Jesus would be in that ministry, helping people experiencing the dark night of the soul,” being present to them without judgment because their condition is not their fault.

“It’s honoring the dignity of the person,” she said.

The Shiltses, who have two children — 11-year-old Sophie and 9-year-old Wendi — also have faced challenges at home, particularly Sophie’s diagnosis of epilepsy when she was 6.

“God has given me the life experience to share my gifts for this ministry and, in turn, this ministry has helped me with my daughter. It gives me hope,” she said.

“Part of the grit comes in learning how to communicate with my husband. We have to be a team,” she said.

“What got me through some difficult times was my faith, my husband and my team of friends and family who love me. Similarly, part of the grit was figuring out who I couldn’t trust that I’d thought was on our team and being OK with that. That’s the grit and the grace for me.”

Also speaking at the conference will be Elizabeth Lewis of Mequon, Wis., and Melina Garcia of Brooklyn Center, Minn.

“After nearly dying, there is a lot of freedom when your life is falling apart to take risks.” Sarah Thebarge, keynote speaker