STEVENS POINT — George Meyer offered some insight at a recent roundtable discussion on political decision-making.
Meyer, one of the most respected voices on the environment in Wisconsin, said at the gathering here that recent — and rather sudden — interest in water quality by some Republicans in the Legislature is likely driven by internal polling identifying it as a big issue among voters. The former Department of Natural Resources secretary and current executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation said his organization and others have plans on the shelf if the Legislature is serious about attacking declining water quality across the state, especially in rural areas.
Meyer, a pragmatist and results-oriented leader, has long been willing to work with anyone who’s interested in protecting Wisconsin’s natural resources. We’ll see how serious lawmakers really are. Remember, this is the bunch that marched in lockstep with former Gov. Scott Walker in his determined attempt to neuter the DNR and end science-based natural resource protection. The same is true for public education, which Walker and his pals bound here for most of his two terms, driven by out-of-state ideological interests rather than voter preferences. Last November’s elections changed all of that.
As to Meyer’s point, consider southwestern Wisconsin, where Democratic Gov. Tony Evers won several counties by razor-thin margins. The counties siding with Walker did so with similarly slim margins. This is the same general area where private well contamination has been identified as a huge problem. Recent studies showed 42 percent of the tested wells in Grant, Iowa and Lafayette County to be contaminated with bacteria and chemicals.
In Wisconsin statewide elections, where races are often a tossup, it doesn’t matter so much whether a candidate wins a county. What the 2018 election showed us is issues like funding for public education and the environment are big drivers of the overall vote. So, a few hundred votes here and a few hundred there can make a huge difference.
Clearly, funding for public education has emerged as a major issue for many state voters. Again, Walker and his colleagues get the credit, er, blame, for the renewed interest. After battering public education and funneling money to private schools for most of his two terms, Walker magically proposed increasing school aids as the 2016 election neared. You can bet the internal polling Meyer referred to drove that, too. If not, the assault on public education would probably have continued.
November’s vote showed local communities had had enough. Local referendums tell the tale most clearly. State taxpayers approved local referendums that provided around $1.3 billion more for their public schools last November, as reported in state newspapers. They raised their own property taxes to do this, for the most part.
Voters approved 77 referendums by school districts asking to borrow money for capital projects or exceed state-mandated revenue limits to maintain or expand programming. They rejected five. Little wonder the argument over the state budget today is over how much to increase funding for public schools, not whether to cut it in the Walker way.
Clearly, the two “E”s, education and the environment, have emerged as key issues for state voters. And little wonder. Education and a safe environment are powerful local issues. It appears the GOP is catching on. But we’ll see whether it’s window dressing or real.
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