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Capitol Update: Freshman senator shares legislative year in review
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It doesn't seem possible that this time last year, I was preparing to begin my role as the state senator for the 17th Senate District. I have experienced innumerable new things, met an amazing array of people and impacted a wide variety of legislative initiatives during the past year. It has been a true and sincere honor to serve you during the first year of my four-year term.

In 2015, the state legislature was tasked with passing a state budget and it was a welcomed challenge to serve on the Joint Finance Committee. I know that my role on this important committee directly benefited the residents of the 17th Senate District and I look forward to continuing to serve on this committee. Following is a brief summary of the highlights of my role on the JFC.

I also appreciated the opportunity to work with my colleagues on several important pieces of legislation and I have highlighted several of those items in the following list.

2015-2016 State Budget Highlights

Budget: Aging & Disability Resource Centers

With all the proposed changes to Family Care and self-direction in the budget, I heard from many of my constituents that one of the greatest resources in our communities is our Aging & Disability Resource Centers. I was proud to fight for ADRC and am happy to report that ADRCs and self-direction will be preserved in any new long-term health care structure moving forward.

Budget: Preservation of SeniorCare

In the original budget, a suggestion was made to move seniors away from SeniorCare and to Medicare Part D for prescription drugs. I opposed this move and fought to preserve SeniorCare. I have always been proud to support SeniorCare and will continue to support this popular program in the future.

Budget: Increased state support for K-12 education

In the budget, I supported an increase of more than $300 million in state aid for K-12 education. We also increased high cost special education aid $5 million over the biennium. For our rural schools, I supported an increase of $2.5 million in high cost transportation aid and $8.4 million in sparsity aid.

Budget: State Park Fee Structure

In the budget, I worked closely with the Department of Natural Resources on the funding structure for state parks and camping fees. The DNR asked for flexibility to charge differing fees based on the popularity of certain parks and for seasonally busy weekends. This change maintained the current funding levels for state parks and will create new revenue.

Budget: Prosperity Southwest

In the budget, I supported a $250,000 grant for Prosperity Southwest to promote job creation in Southwest Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the provision was vetoed by Governor Walker after the budget was passed by the State Legislature. I will be working with Representative Travis Tranel to introduce this as separate legislation and will continue to seek ways to support our local economic corporations.

Budget: Tax Package

In the budget, I worked closely with my colleagues on a package of tax ideas that would simplify and federalize the tax code. The largest piece of tax relief came from reducing the marriage penalty by increasing the maximum deduction for married taxpayers filing joint and separate returns.

2015-2016 Legislative Highlights

Senate Bill 252 (Act 61): Cassville Power Plants

I worked closely with Rep. Tranel on a bill that would help alleviate the impact from the closure of the power plants in Cassville. The bill would ensure that both power plants were eligible for a step-down reduction in state aid utility payments, rather than an immediate reduction. SB 252 was signed into law as Act 61 earlier this year.

Senate Joint Resolution 55: GAAP Constitutional Amendment

Currently, the state does not use Generally Accepted Accounting Principles for the state budget. The state uses cash-based budgeting which is not an accurate reflection of the state's current financial condition. The state should have to budget in the same way as local units of government and school districts. SJR 55 awaits floor action in both houses. Since it is a constitutional amendment, the bill requires the approval of two consecutive legislatures and voters statewide before becoming law.

SB 227 (Act 126): Tax Exemption for Construction Materials

Construction materials are exempt from sales tax when they are purchased for projects for governments like counties, cities, towns, villages, school districts, and nonprofits like churches and hospitals. However, the law was confusing and required unnecessary paperwork and a cumbersome process. SB 227 changed the law to allow contractors to purchase materials for construction directly, streamlining the process for saving money on local construction projects. SB 227 was signed into law as Act 126.

SB 242: Local Approval for Roundabouts

SB 242 bill gives municipalities a role in the process for planning a roundabout in their community. Too often we hear that the Department of Transportation is not taking local traffic needs seriously and that roundabouts are forced on communities without their consent. This bill aims to boost community involvement and encourages dialogue with local representatives about road decisions in our communities.

SB 182 (Act 26): Rural EMS Service

Several communities in southern Lafayette County utilize the Warren, Illinois ambulance service right over the border for emergency medical needs. A rule change from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services meant citizens would no longer be able to use emergency services from a bordering state, no matter how much closer those services may be. For many rural communities Wisconsin-based emergency services may not be the closest or the quickest to respond. This bill changed the law, allowing the use of emergency services, no matter the location of those services. SB 182 was signed into law as Act 26.

SB 236 (Act 62): Wine Walks

Wine Walks are an event that many local communities in the 17th Senate District hold annually to help benefit main street programs, downtown business districts or local chambers of commerce. Earlier this year, the Department of Revenue announced that these events were illegal because they did not abide by alcohol licensing laws. I worked with my colleagues and local communities to set up a specific licensing structure for Wine Walks. SB 236 was signed into law as Act 62 this fall.

Assembly Bill (AB) 550: Mauston Welcome Signs

I authored AB 550 with Rep. Ed Brooks (R-Reedsburg), to allow the City of Mauston to install welcome signs along highways within city limits despite a ruling by the DOT. Due to a federal rule change, the DOT is no longer allowing the city to put up welcome signs at several locations. These signs represent an investment of more than $30,000 and would increase the visibility of Mauston. This legislation seeks to address DOT's inflexibility and is currently pending.

Again, this summary includes highlights of the budget and legislative session to date. I look forward to continuing our work this winter and into the spring.

- Sen. Howard Marklein represents Wisconsin's 17th Senate District. His column is published Mondays in the Times.