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Transit, Paratransit funding highlighted at Joint Finance Committee hearing

State Senator Alberta Darling, center, flanked by her co-chair Rep. John Nygren, and at far left, Rep. Patricia Strachota, with the committee clerk and timekeeper, and at far right, Sen, Luther Olsen, all Republicans, dominated  center of the committee.
State Senator Alberta Darling, center, flanked by her co-chair Rep. John Nygren, and at far left, Rep. Patricia Strachota, with the committee clerk and timekeeper, and at far right, Sen, Luther Olsen, all Republicans, dominated center of the committee.
Charlie's Digital

While Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposes to cut state aid for local mass transit systems by ten percent, and move remaining support out of the Transportation fund, into the general budget, only occasional voices highlighted the dire implications at the public hearing held by the legislative Joint Committee on Finance at Greendale High School Thursday April 4.

Delmar Schindhelm from Milwaukee made his support for public transit known to legislators at budget hearing in Greendale.
Delmar Schindhelm from Milwaukee made his support for public transit known to legislators at budget hearing in Greendale.
Charlie's Digital

The legislative committee "sees a united front, and wants to break us apart" said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 998 president Al Simonis the next day. Local 998 is working closely with MICAH, Independence First, and many other organizations in the VoteTransit coalition. Many of the people who participate in these groups use the Milwaukee County Transit System, and paratransit buses, "and we're not going to fight over transit or mental health or services for released prisoners or senior care," or funding for education, explained Simonis.

The hearing, chaired by Senator Alberta Darling, was structured to pit one priority against another, with a Republican majority committed to raising no new revenue, only to allocating or reallocating among existing priorities. Representatives from the Kettle Moraine and West Bend school districts comically competed with each other as to which was the more conservative area of the state, and which had made better use of "the Walker tools" while both pleading to add $150 per pupil to state aid to local school districts. They also expressed frustration that after holding their budgets to zero growth, they are losing federal funding due to the sequestration demanded by Republicans in congress as the price for keeping the United States Treasury out of default.

Dawn Green, a highly mobile independent woman from South Milwaukee with severe physical disablities testified that transit was quite as necessary to her as long-term care, in order to keep her independence and remain active in the community. Green, also speaking for Independence First, said she has used the paratransit bus service for 34 years, and now also uses the regular Milwaukee County Transit System bus routes, which are fully accessible to her motorized wheel chair.

Any further cuts to MCTS, Green reminded legislators, will also reduce paratransit coverage, since the service is only required by federal law within 3/4 of a mile of existing fixed-route bus service.

VoteTransit and TransitNow advocate maintaining transit funding from the Transportation Fund, and restoring cuts to local transit system made in the 2011-2013 biennial budget. The cost would be less than one precent of the transportation fund budget. Without this funding, Simonis said, Milwaukee's innovative Red, Green and Blue express lines will be abolished when $17 million in one federal CMAQ funding is exhausted, and other routes may be eliminated.

Several citizens castigated the reduction in bus service that has rendered 40,000 jobs inaccessible by bus between 2000 and 2008, a trend that will only accelerate with further cuts in bus routes. A speaker from the Racine Inter-faith Coalition highlighted this concern, affirming that "spending money on transit is a wise investment." This was echoed by Laura Kukor-Shea, a Cudahy resident and teacher at Divine Mercy School in South Milwaukee, who said she has been riding MCTS since 1976, when she started her student years at Marquette University.

"Our county supervisors listen to their constituents" Kukor-Shea pointedly told the legislative committee. "People should not be punished because they don't have a car." She praised the sense of community that develops on the bus among regular passengers and drivers, and said that cuts already made over the last several years have "already added 30-40 minutes to my commute."

James Macon, a bus driver, local 998 shop steward, and representative of VoteTransit, asked legislators "Are you up there because you care or are you going through the motions?" Macon recounted a passenger concerned that MCTS Route 68, which she relies on to get to work at a retail store on Brown Deer Road, might be eliminated if funding is not restored. The passenger, according to Macon, said that Alberta Darling shops at the store, but when she asked Darling about the matter, the Republican senator said there was nothing she could do about it. "You know that's not true" Macon told Darling.

This hearings held this session and last session mark the lowest number of hearings held by the Joint Finance Committee in 25 years, according to state senate Democratic leader, Senator Chris Larson. The election of Larson as senate caucus leader this session marks a sharp turnaround for Democrats, who failed to deliver a Regional Transit Authority bill at the end of the 2010 session. Many of the party leadership from that session lost their re-election bids, while Larson won his seat by successfully challenging Jeff Plale in the Democratic primary for his failure to support the transit bill. Plale then accepted a post in the Walker administration.

"Senate and Assembly Democrats understand that it will be impossible for many to get off work and participate in these limited events" Larson informed constituents in a recent report. Therefore, Democratic legislators will hold additional budget hearings across the state "to make sure that our neighbors have an opportunity to voice their priorities and values to members of the Joint Finance Committee, as well as legislative leaders."

Steven Shea of Cudahy, who works at Milwaukee Area Technical College, told committee members that cuts to transportation are "killing private sector jobs. Just because Grothman has a car doesn't mean everyone else does." Shea also reminded Darling that after the November 2012 election, she had publicly claimed there were "200,000 cases of voter fraud" in Wisconsin, and told her "we're still waiting for proof."

Darling, co-chair of Mitt Romney's Wisconsin campaign, asserted at the time that if the law requiring all voters to show photo ID had been in effect, enough votes would have been suppressed that Romney "absolutely" would have carried the state. Although many pundits were surprised, one way or the other, that the same electorate could decline to recall Gov. Scott Walker, and then vote to re-elect President Barack Obama, nobody has explained why a capacity for voter fraud on such a massive scale wasn't used in both elections, or considered that perhaps voters have their own reasons for voting as they do. Darling made no comment in response to Shea's question.

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