More than 100 northwestern Wisconsin residents gathered Tuesday night in Eau Claire to give Gov. Tony Evers and his administration a piece of their mind.
And that’s just what the Democratic governor was hoping for in hosting a state budget listening session at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
From health care to criminal justice and from education to the environment, residents shared personal stories and strong opinions in advocating for spending and policy priorities to be included in Wisconsin’s 2019-21 budget, due to be approved this year.
“Tonight was a special night,” Evers said in a news conference after the 90-minute event. “The people in the Eau Claire area are engaged in their lives and care about what happens in Madison.”
Evers, who moved among several breakout groups focused on various issues during the listening session, said he was impressed that friends, neighbors and strangers carried out an honest, and sometimes emotional, discussion about important issues for Wisconsin’s future.
The discussion was particularly poignant in the group talking about criminal justice reform.
Tod Bergemann, 45, of Eau Claire, fought back tears several times as he told the group about his struggles serving 26 years in prison and how his record still affects him today.
Bergemann said he was convicted of felony second-degree sexual assault of a child for having relations with a girl he was dating at the time, a crime that since has had the sentence reduced. The girl was the daughter of a public official in eastern Wisconsin.
Bergemann has been out of prison for the past three years but said it’s difficult to land and keep a job when employers learn you have a criminal record, are listed on the state sex offender registry and still wear an ankle bracelet that must be charged every 10 hours.
With little support to help people who have been incarcerated reintegrate into society, Bergemann said, “You’re literally left feeling helpless when you get out.”
Some prisoners have such a hard time adjusting that they commit new crimes so they can go back to someplace that feels normal, said Bergemann, who encouraged Corrections Secretary-designee Kevin Carr and other officials to do what they can in the budget to provide education and mental health services for inmates so they are not treated like second-class citizens.
The anecdote prompted Eau Claire social justice and immigrant rights advocate Mireya Sigala Valadez to apologize to Bergemann for his treatment on behalf of his fellow citizens and to lobby for a larger increase in funding for criminal justice reform.
“Figure it out and make it happen,” Sigala Valadez said.
Others in the group advocated for incarcerating fewer people for nonviolent crimes and emphasizing treatment over prison for people struggling with addiction.
“There are lots of people who could be released, and that would save a lot of money,” said Jackie Christner of Eau Claire.
Evers’ budget calls for keeping 17-year-olds in the juvenile justice system, Department of Corrections official Jason Weber said.
In a group discussing health care, several people advocated for a public option to enable more people to obtain health insurance coverage.
Evers said a public option could be possible someday but added that having the state accept Medicaid expansion money from the federal government to get coverage for 82,000 more Wisconsinites would be a good first step. However, former GOP Gov. Scott Walker opposed the expansion, and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said there’s “no way” Medicaid will expand.
Bob Andruszkiewicz of Eau Claire said ensuring people have health insurance shouldn’t be a partisan issue.
“I implore everyone to stop thinking of us as Republicans and Democrats and start thinking of us as Americans,” he said.
State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said Chippewa Valley residents attending the session appeared grateful to have the opportunity to talk to leaders of the executive branch of state government.
“We have this bubble surrounding the Capitol,” and it’s important to hear from the public and bring those ideas back to Madison, said Evers, who has labeled his budget proposal the “people’s budget.” Evers, noting that he already has met with more than 100 legislators about his budget, promised to share the views he heard at the Eau Claire session and other stops on his statewide listening tour with lawmakers as he continues to advocate for his budget.
Meanwhile, Republican legislative leaders have called Evers’ budget plan a “liberal, tax-and-spend wish list” and vowed to write their own version. Republicans still control the state Senate and Assembly.
Asked why these sessions matter amid such proclamations, Evers declared, “I have the strongest veto pen in the country, so they might not get some things they feel very strongly about, and I’ll use whatever is at my disposal to make sure that we at least get to the point where we can reach common ground. If they want to start with their own budget, they do it at their own peril.”
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes said “people have been ignored long enough” and suggested legislators must move beyond their “gerrymandered bubbles.”
“We are still going to represent the will of the people,” Barnes said, “and that’s why it’s important for us to be here.”
Larry Guthrie struggled to describe the joyous reactions he’s seen when he delivers a new bed to a child who needs one.
“We had one kid who said this is better than Christmas,” Guthrie said. “We find for a number of these kids, it’s the first bed they’ve ever had.”
Guthrie is the Pigeon Falls chapter president of the non-profit organization Sleep in Heavenly Peace, which is a group that constructs and delivers beds to children. The group was formed last fall, and in the past seven months, they have donated 113 beds, almost entirely to children in need in Trempealeau County.
“We want to get kids off the floor and into a secure place to sleep,” he said.
The first big build was last September in Pigeon Falls in the parking lot of Peace Lutheran Church, where they built 23 beds.
Another 30 were made with the FFA in Whitehall in October, and 20 were constructed in November in Blair.
“(The organization) has really been instrumental in bringing communities together,” he said.
Guthrie said it is eye-opening to learn about the need.
“Nationally, it’s estimated that one percent of kids under the age of 17 don’t have a bed of their own,” he said. “We are still continuing to get requests.”
The group’s next big build will be April 24 at Independence High School, where the senior class is going to construct the pieces. Guthrie said the shop class students will cut the wood to specific measurements.
“Each of these beds we deliver will be complete with linens, a mattress, and a hand-knitted quilt,” he said.
Rainbow Community Club, a non-profit volunteer organization in Independence, is working with Sleep in Heavenly Peace on the project next week.
Tracy Halama, president of the Rainbow Community Club and a school district secretary, said one of the women in the group invited Guthrie to speak at their meeting a few months ago. Halama said she was surprised to hear how many children need beds.
“We see the kids, but we don’t know what home is like,” Halama said. “So, it was a shock to us.”
Halama said the group purchased the lumber at a discount from a supplier, and they collected donations of pillows and linens.
“We have more bedding than we need for the 20 beds we’re making,” Halama said. “The design of the bed is amazing; it can easily be put together. We’re really looking forward to it.”
More to come
In just one year, Sleep in Heavenly Peace has grown from 11 chapters nationwide to about 150. There are three chapters in Wisconsin, with the others in Racine and Portage. Organizations are being formed in La Crosse and Eau Claire, he added.
“I’m excited to meet the needs of the north and south of us,” he said.
Guthrie said they have another big build slated for mid-May, where they plan to build 20 more beds.
The Sleep in Heavenly Peace national organization has announced plans for each chapter to do a huge build on June 15. The project is titled “Bunks Across America.”
“Our goal is to build 5,000 beds in one day for distribution across the country,” he said.
The Pigeon Falls chapter hopes to make 50 that day, he added.
The estimated cost for a bed would be about $150 each, between the wood frames, mattresses and bedding. However, Guthrie said chapters have been successful in finding lumber companies who sell them wood at steep discounts. Between those savings, and receiving donated linen and beddings, the cost is much lower.
Guthrie said that some of the kids come from recently-divorced families and they don’t have their own bed. He added that the beds are purposely made so they can become bunk-beds. He loves taking the beds into houses and putting them together in a child’s room.
“The kids’ reaction is just excitement,” Guthrie said. “It is a daily reminder to that kid that someone loves them.”