By the year 2035, 29 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties will have a population that is more than 27% aged 65 and above. This is a looming demographic crisis that rural legislators have been watching for years. Moreover, a generation of out-migration has drained resources needed to fully support a rapidly aging population: many building blocks of vibrant communities are facing strain.
As the youngest legislator in Wisconsin’s statehouse and the former mayor of the rural city of Rice Lake, I came to Madison having seen firsthand the challenges rural Wisconsin is facing – but also knowing intuitively the incredible wealth of resources rural citizens possess. Rural Wisconsinites are resilient, resourceful, and second to none in willingness to work hard. But for too long, they haven’t had access to the same opportunities that their urban and suburban counterparts have.
Through lengthy conversations with legislators from a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds, it was clear that we could no longer afford to wait and hope things would get better. Working alongside my Assembly colleagues Rep. Ed Brooks and Rep. Travis Tranel, I began a movement we called the Rural Wisconsin Initiative (RWI): a group that came to include 26 Representatives from all corners of the state. We had in common a rural background and a strong sense of urgency to make sure that rural Wisconsin had the resources it needed to continue to thrive.
We have chosen to focus on four critical sectors where, if given a little more opportunity, rural residents would be able to realize significant results. These areas were education, health care, workforce development, and technology, particularly broadband internet access. Addressing any of these areas individually would be significant; tying them together and addressing rural needs systematically was a major step forward in how legislators in Madison began to understand and address the “opportunity gap” that existed in our state.
Rural broadband access has been the highest priority: broadband is the critical 21st century infrastructure, much as highways were critical in the 20th century. Urban ambulances can send updates ahead to hospitals with critical information on a patient’s condition because they have access to high-speed networks. Suburban students don’t have to worry about loading speeds for educational programs at home. Entrepreneurs in Milwaukee and Madison don’t have to depend on cell-phone hotspots to run an online business. Rural people need the same opportunities.
We introduced our first legislative package last session: eight bills that together addressed all four RWI categories. The tent-pole bill of the package targeted the Broadband Expansion Grant program, a program created by Governor Scott Walker in 2013 originally funded at $500,000 per biennium and later expanded to $1.5 million per year. It operates as a public-private partnership, bringing local stakeholders together to ensure community buy-in and to maximize resources. Our bill called for expanding funding for this program to $10 million per year.
To address health care, our first package called for $250,000 in funding for the Wisconsin Rural Physician Residency Assistance Program (WRPRAP), a program that helps expose physicians to residencies in rural areas. Doctors who conduct their residency programs in a rural area have an 86% likelihood of staying in those areas, contributing to the physical and economic health of their communities. Expanding these programs would significantly expand the pipeline of doctors coming into rural areas.
Other bills focused on enhancing cooperation between schools and businesses to grow our rural workforce. We proposed putting more support behind apprenticeship completion award grants, which reimburse apprentices and their sponsors for up to 25% of the apprenticeship cost, and an expansion of our youth apprenticeship grants. Helping young people find paths into trade jobs that support families and keep them in rural areas is a major step toward stemming out-migration. Another bill, modeled on Kansas legislation, called for the creation of Rural Opportunity Zones. If a person with a post-secondary degree or higher who had resided outside of Wisconsin for 5 years moved to certain rural areas, kept a job, and stayed off of government assistance, Wisconsin would repay their student loans up to 40% of the loan or $25,000. We also called for expanded funding for STEM schools in rural areas.
Of the eight bills in the package, two passed. One bill expanded a loan forgiveness program available only to education students who spent five years teaching in Milwaukee. Over the course of those five years, new teachers would qualify to have their state student loans forgiven. We knew that young teachers take about five years to decide whether to stay in their career or change paths, and that there were many students who wanted to return to their rural communities, but couldn’t due to the burden of student loans. Another bill created a “Broadband Forward! Community” certification: local governments would commit to a standardized process for implementing broadband projects, and would be registered with the Public Service Commission as being welcoming of new development.
Both of these programs have seen meaningful results in less than a year: we have seen $97,000 of loan forgiveness for teachers under our expanded program. Towns, villages, cities, and counties have registered to be Broadband Forward! Communities, with the town of Thorp getting an $800,000 broadband infrastructure grant in the wake of its certification.
More than that though, the RWI changed the conversation about rural needs, and showed our colleagues the urgency of the situation. In a press conference to announce our legislative priorities for the 2017-19 legislative session, my colleague Rep. Ron Tusler, noted, “It’s high time that our rural areas and our small towns had our attention... They’re waiting patiently for us to focus on the issues that they have.”
As Wisconsin went into our 2017-19 budget process, our message gathered steam. Governor Walker followed our lead, placing a total of $14 million into the budget for the broadband expansion grant program. He also picked up our WRPRAP funding bill, ensuring that new physician residency positions would be opened in rural areas specifically targeted to women’s health.
Through this success, the RWI members didn’t rest on our laurels. We built strong connections with Senate champions like Senators Patrick Testin and Howard Marklein. We also launched a second health care package of four bills, creating training programs for Advanced Practice Clinicians in rural areas, encouraging health care organizations and educational entities to form training consortia for Allied Health Professionals such as physical therapists and nursing assistants, creating grants for rural wellness facilities, and supporting quality assurance activities. The first two proposals were adopted in the budget as well, with the latter two working through the committee process. We are expecting to vote on them in the Assembly this autumn.
Rural Wisconsinites are resilient and resourceful: we can make significant impacts with relatively low-cost investments that focus on building sustainability through public-private partnerships wherever possible. Rural issues in Wisconsin are not partisan issues: we are proud that both packages of bills have had bipartisan support. We cannot afford to let rural residents miss out on opportunities available elsewhere in the state. Working together, rural legislators are using the RWI to ensure equality of access to the wealth of resources in our state.