Daily Union: Turbulent year showing citizens have voice, Jefferson Rotary told
By Pam Chickering Wilson, Union Staff Writer
JEFFERSON - Whatever their political leaning, Wisconsin residents ought to be able to agree that this has been an eventful year in state politics and policy.
"I've heard people use stronger words to describe it, but we'll stick to 'eventful,'" said state Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, as he addressed the Jefferson Rotary Club Wednesday.
"It was about this time last year that we started to hear rumblings of what was to come," said Jorgensen, who currently represents Wisconsin's 37th Assembly District. "Big changes for state workers, huge reductions in education spending and shared revenue, the elimination of some healthcare safety net programs, new tax breaks for businesses."
No doubt, Jorgensen said, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's agenda has fired up people from both sides of the aisle, and inspired many to become more politically active.
"We went through, and are going through, a historic time in our state," he said. "I will never forget the hundreds of thousands of people protesting, the thousands of emails and phone calls that flooded into my office, the tears people shed and the angry words they shared."
Despite the huge influx of communications from citizens, Jorgensen said, he has tried to respond to every one.
"Over the years, I've held hundreds of listening sessions, 70 in 2011 alone, attended countless events, talking with anyone who wanted to, because I care what my constituents think," the representative said, adding that he's never felt so connected to the people he serves.
Some feel that an individual can't make much of a difference, but Jorgensen said his experience over the past year has proven that every voice does have an impact.
"The proof that your voice matters is all around us," he said, citing examples from his own legislative agenda.
The first bills he introduced this session, the Marketing Manufacturers and Keeping Employees, (MMAKE) plan, were inspired by local business leaders, specifically Aztalan Engineering of Lake Mills.
The local company, which manufacturers precision parts for equipment used in the healthcare field, has just expanded its facility, doubling its capacity and resulting in more hires.
When Jorgensen visited the company last year, he asked its owner, Jim Brey, what the state Legislature could do to support businesses such as this and build on their successes.
"Jim said to me simply that Aztalan Engineering and other small and mid-sized manufacturers in Wisconsin could use help marketing their products," Jorgensen said.
Brey and his staff cited the fact that other states and economic development organizations had booths at trade shows promoting products from that state.
The Aztalan Engineering owner helped Jorgensen draft a bill to create and fund a five-year marketing plan to boost small businesses from Wisconsin, helping them reach larger manufacturers locally, regional and around the world.
This plan would send Wisconsin business ambassadors to trade shows where deals are brokered and critical connections are made. It also would create a website, advertising materials and brochures and it would also host its own trade show to bring businesses to "our turf."
These ideas have worked elsewhere, Jorgensen said, adding that now it's time to put them to work here.
Another bill he authored came about due to a veteran from Waterloo, Richie Stiles-Riddle, who contacted Jorgensen about the state's veterans preference points system.
This system awards certain veterans points to boost their scores when they apply for civil service positions. It's meant to help vets find jobs and get them working for the state.
However, not all vets qualify, a fact Stiles-Riddle learned the hard way.
She served in the Naval Reserve for six years and in the Inactive Ready Reserve another two years, spending time in South Korea during Operation Desert Shield with the Marine Corps.
After her honorable discharge, she applied for a position with the state Public Defender's Office and checked the box claiming veterans preference points.
She got the job, but the next day the offer was rescinded because her service did not make her eligible for those points.
Jorgensen's bill, SB 312, would expand preference points to other veterans, like the Waterloo woman, who served their country honorably.
The bill has been given a hearing and Jorgensen said he will continue to work toward its approval.
Jorgensen saw legislative success on another bill he developed with the help of local law enforcement and municipal leaders. AB 57 bans the manufacture, sale, distribution, or possession of synthetic cannabinoids, known as "fake pot" or "K2."
Area communities already have passed local ordinances to outlaw K2, but there was no state law against it.
"I'm pleased to tell you AB 57 received broad bipartisan support and ultimately became law this past summer," Jorgensen said. "The local elected officials and police officers who brought K2 to my attention, their voices mattered."
Jorgensen also took heed of an assistant district attorney who alerted him to a legal loophole regarding the purchase of pseudoephedrine. This cold medicine ingredient can also be used to produced methamphetamine, an illegal drug.
Wisconsin restricts the amount of pseudoephedrine a person can buy in a month, but not if it's purchased from a pharmacy or pharmacist.
What this means is that people interested in making meth can spread their purchases over 10 pharmacies in a month, and the state might not be able to file charges against them.
Jorgensen drafted legislation for the ADA which would ensure that law enforcement can go after criminals buying excessive amounts of products with pseudoephedrine, no matter where they get it.
A public hearing on that bill took place in December and a vote could happen soon.
Jorgensen also credited other successes of the past year to citizen involvement.
Saving SeniorCare, for example.
SeniorCare provides 90,000 Wisconsinites with low-cost prescription drugs. Jorgensen said it's much less expensive and easier for participants than Medicare Part D, and because it's so efficient, SeniorCare saves taxpayers $90 million per year over Medicare Part D.
Not everyone favors public healthcare programs, Jorgensen noted, citing Governor Walker's attempts to eliminate SeniorCare in his budget proposal.
When this happened, Jorgensen said, he launched a statewide petition drive to save SeniorCare.
The petition collected more than 14,000 signatures and drummed up overwhelming public support for the program, he said.
"Minutes after I delivered the Save SeniorCare petitions, word came that the final budget would keep the vital program in place," Jorgensen said.
The people who spoke up and signed their names in support of SeniorCare made a difference, he said.
Citizen action also played a key role in preserving Fort Atkinson's Department of Motor Vehicles center, he said.
"Just after the passage of the 'voter ID' bill - legislation which requires you to show a driver's license or similar form of ID to cast a ballot - the Walker administration, through the Department of Transportation, announced that it would shut down the Fort Atkinson DMV," Jorgensen said.
"It wasn't a question of demand or productivity," he said. "The DMV center in Fort Atkinson does a lot of business in the hours it is open each month."
Nor did the money saved by closing one site seem to justify the move, Jorgensen said, as the hours of operation were to have shifted to the Watertown center.
Jorgensen joined many of his constituents in asking why the Walker administration wanted to limit access to DMV services right after the passage of this voter ID law.
"We asked ... publicly, and ultimately, got the response we wanted," Jorgensen said. "The administration backed down, and kept our center open - and, I think, in part because of the public outcry, opened even more centers.
"Never forget, your voice matters," he told the Rotarians, urging anyone with opinions or concerns to share them and urging everyone to get out and vote.
"It's looking as though we may have a special election on our hands," he said. "And in November, we'll certainly have more."
Jorgensen himself, although he didn't mention it in his speech, might be facing an unusual situation in an upcoming election, as the recent redistricting would knock him out of the 37th District where he has been serving.
As it stands now, Jorgensen plans to run for the 43rd Assembly District seat against Evan Wynn.