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Burke outlines rural issues

Aug. 27, 2014 | 0 comments


Wisconsin is home to a number of highly rated urban places, but it is also a very rural state. About a quarter of the state's population lives in rural areas of the state.

Mary Burke, the Democratic candidate for governor, recently released her plan for investing in rural communities and talked about it with farm reporters at her campaign headquarters.

"Rural communities are incredibly important to Wisconsin," she said, "as part of our economy but also as part of our heritage."

Noting that her great-, great-grandparents were farmers, she noted that farming and rural life are part of the values that are woven into the fabric of Wisconsin life.

Many people around the country like to hire Wisconsinites because people from this state are known as hard workers, she said.

Burke, who secured her spot in the November election against incumbent Gov. Scott Walker by winning the August primary, is the first woman to run for the state's highest office.

She has been making the rounds of the state, going to county fairs and introducing herself to people from the state's rural communities.

Burke said the state's rural citizens face challenges today, in terms of economic opportunity as well as in getting the same level of access to world-class education and health care as urban residents.

Her plan for rural Wisconsin includes growing the rural economy, promoting excellence and opportunity in public schools and ensuring access to high quality health care.

During her roundtable with reporters, Burke noted her concern over the declining number of farms in the state. "I am concerned. We've lost 9,000 farms in a five-year period. That's double the national average and it is very concerning to me."

Loss of family farming operations means that young people are not finding opportunities to stay in the rural areas where they grew up; and they won't sink down roots and build their own families there, she said.

That kind of situation will continue a cycle that will end up closing or consolidating rural schools and further diminish the quality of life in rural areas.

"It's not just about the losing and consolidating of farms," she said. "It's about the losses in rural communities."

Agriculture has so many tie-ins to other parts of the economy Burke said, and she hopes the state can build on the strengths it has in Wisconsin to make agriculture even more competitive.

Rural broadband

Expanding broadband coverage to rural areas is another of Burke's priorities. She sees it as a quality of life issue, but also an issue that affects the business climate in rural areas.

For young people, it is absolutely essential to have good high-speed internet connections, or they won't live in that place, she noted. Not having good broadband is also an issue for rural schools, as more and more learning is done online.

Burke said Walker had "turned down $23 million" in federal funding that would helped build rural broadband.

"We have to find a solution. I find it really frustrating that largely rural third-world countries have better access than we have here."

Her plan for rural Wisconsin notes that Wisconsin ranks 22nd among states in average broadband speeds and it ranks 27th in average peak speeds.

She said she would look at the problem community by community to give people the tools to do this. "It is not acceptable. It's about quality of life and it's about keeping young people in rural areas.

One of her solutions to solve the problem is to lift current restrictions on municipal broadband providers. A state law, which was supported by private telecommunications companies, created costly requirements for local governments seeking to provide broadband services to their citizens.

Burke said the state should not be standing in the way of a city or county that wants to make enhancements for its citizens like improve broadband coverage.

"If they can solve this in other parts of the world we can solve this in Wisconsin."

Rural schools

"We have to address rural school issues. In the last budget proposed by Gov. Walker there was no increase in funding for public schools at all and no increase in the cap. Forty-six percent of our districts are seeing cuts in state funding."

Burke said that if elected, she would look at changing the funding formula to make funding more equitable for rural schools.

For example, in districts where there are a lot of expensive vacation homes, it makes them look much wealthier than they really are and that skews the tax base for schools.

A Madison school board member, Burke said there is nothing more important than education and she is concerned about the increasing levels of poverty in the state's rural areas.

Burke said it's also important to attract and retain good teachers for both rural and urban schools in the state. Starting pay and future career opportunities for teachers in the state have declined in the last few years.

"With pay raises of 1-2 percent per year they can't pay off their student loans," Burke said. Disheartened teachers and newly minted graduates are finding better opportunities in Illinois and Minnesota, she added.

"We need to have great teachers in the classroom."

Rural schools also face the difficulty of high transportation costs because they often cover large stretches of land, but state funding doesn't help enough.

"Budget cuts have hit rural schools the hardest because they were already lean," she said. "There are rural schools where the superintendent is already the high school principal and the high school football coach."

The former Trek Bicycle executive said that money by itself won't solve problems but added that "money well spent is an investment. You do have to make investments to get results."

In her career at Trek, the Wisconsin-based bicycle company, Burke said it was important to analyze what resources are having the greatest impact. As the head of strategic planning and forecasting for the company, she said she's proud of the record that grew it from a $3 million business to one worth $50 million and to 1,000 employees.

Wisconsin, she added, needs to make sure "we're using our resources wisely."

"We have challenges I believe we can overcome."

She said she has been really frustrated to watch deep cuts to technical college with only a few grants putting money back into them.

"We need long-term solutions, not a band-aid on issues that demand long-term solutions."

Tax issues

Asked about use-value taxation of farmland, Burke said the state would see great losses in agriculture if it didn't protect that form of property tax.

On sharing the cost of services, Burke said she doesn't think the state is "doing its part to be a good partner."

Some counties are looking at things like a wheel tax to raise needed revenues. "You're not solving a problem when you cut over here and raise a tax over there."

A fourth-generation Wisconsinite, Burke said the state has a wide variety of farming operations from organic farms to those where neighbors got together and built a new facility together. There ought to be room in the state for all kinds and sizes of farms, she added.

The current system of providing tax credits for dairy processors is something she thinks should continue.

Burke served as Secretary of the Commerce Department in the Doyle administration and at that time her agency was in charge of the Dairy 2020 program. She said she read each of the grant proposals that came to the agency from dairy farmers and got to understand the problems of small and medium-sized farms.

Burke said she went to elementary school in rural Hartland where it was "big excitement" on the playground when one of the Vilter's cows got out.

She said she looks forward to introducing herself to more of the state's farmers and rural residents as she campaigns for governor.

To learn more:

Gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke has published her plans

■ "Invest for Success" and

■ "Invest in our Rural Communities"

For more on the plans go to www.burkeforWisconsin.com or call 608-807-0602.

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