Working for the Rural Areas
Living in a small town is truly a blessing. Knowing your neighbors, the forests and lakes, schools where teachers know their students, the bustling farm fields, and the hardworking, compassionate people are just a few of the benefits. However, rural areas also have their own unique problems.
As a legislator, part of my job is identifying problems in my district and searching for solutions with my colleagues. While there are many issues that need to be addressed, some affect rural areas especially hard. Some rural schools have been struggling to keep up because of issues with the state aid formula going back to the 90s. Economic development in rural areas can be daunting due to the high costs of investment with a small rate of return in sparsely populated areas. Internet service has proven to be an extremely important tool for education, emergency services, job applications and many other things, but access is limited or the service is too slow in many rural areas. Without education, rural economic development and access to internet, many small towns are having trouble keeping people around, which results in “brain drain” and workforce shortages.
School funding, especially for smaller school districts in rural areas, is a complicated issue because it is based on the number of students enrolled in the district and there are disparities between large and small school districts over the amount of money they can receive. This is why legislators have worked so hard to see what kind of solutions we can find to fix it. Schools receive much of their funding through property taxes. In 1995, when property taxes were high, revenue limits were permanently locked in place to help relieve the burden on taxpayers. Unfortunately, many schools that were being more frugal then have been penalized in the decades since. One proposal by the Legislature would increase the revenue limits for those schools in addition to increasing sparsity aid. Sparsity aid is for schools that have large, spread out districts, but not a lot of people in it. I am proud to say we passed this bill with overwhelming, bipartisan support.
To help with rural economic development, Governor Walker has introduced an initiative that would provide funding to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) for use in rural counties. WEDC has a grant program for economic development in cities and the program has worked well for cities that need assistance jump starting a project. For example, Chippewa Falls recently won an award to buy and renovate a downtown building for the new Chamber of Commerce and Chippewa Falls Visitors Center. This re-development will create a central location for visitors to find resources and tourist information for the Chippewa Falls area. The rural grant program will work similarly, but the winners of the grants will be in rural areas. Economic development provides the opportunity for new businesses and public spaces, and draws in more people to west-central Wisconsin.
In our area and across the state, the difference in the quality of broadband service available in urban and rural areas is remarkable. Unfortunately, without a high concentration of customers, service providers have little incentive to upgrade the service infrastructure in rural areas, leaving many residents in the dark.
To resolve this problem, both the state and federal government are subsidizing the construction of broadband facilities in rural areas and looking at alternative technology. The 2017-2019 State Budget provided $14 million in funding for broadband expansion grants that will be awarded over the next two years and is just one of several state efforts.
Given the high costs of installing new infrastructure, there has also been a focus on using alternative technology to get internet to residents. Microsoft has been working on transmitting internet through the unused channels on your television, or what’s commonly referred to as “white space.” Transmitting internet this way is cheaper, uses infrastructure that is already in place, and can navigate geographical barriers like hills without the speed being affected. My colleagues and I are actively looking into how we can make this happen in Wisconsin and I have already signed onto a resolution supporting the introduction of white space technology here.
The district I represent has many rural areas, from Ridgeland to Stratford, so improving everyday life in the country means a great deal to me. While there is already a lot of work being done to help rural areas through legislation, grants and initiatives, there is always more that we can do. The things that make small towns great, like good schools, thriving farms, stunning landscapes, and that neighborly feel is something that we want to preserve for future generations so that they too can enjoy the beauty and quality of life of Wisconsin’s rural areas.