Don Vruwink’s Rutland listening session started in the parking lot.
The Democratic state representative from Milton, elected in 2017, had scheduled a session at the Rutland Town Hall before a Town Board meeting, but he showed up to find the building locked. While a town supervisor left to get a key, Vruwink started talking in the parking lot to the two people who had shown up early to hear him speak.
By the time Town Sup. Deana Zentner come back to unlock the building, Vruwink had already touched on the massive amount of student debt owed by Wisconsin students ($25 billion, he said) and his multi-step plan to solve it (it involves bundling the debt together and having the state take on the risk so that banks can lower interest rates.)
Once inside, the crowd continued to grow until about 20 people were there to listen to the former teacher explain his positions. He focused on school funding, the intransigence of state politics and the need to figure out a way to pay to fix the state’s roads.
Vruwink said he was drawn to the issue of student debt when a constituent told him of the excessive suicide rate among veterinarians who are saddled with seemingly unpayable loans. He said he had met with a consortium of bankers to work on a deal that would yield lower interest rates for debt-holders, less risk for banks and a tax incentive to keep graduates in Wisconsin.
Shifting to K-12 education, vouchers are costing public schools, Vruwink said, though he drew a sharp distinction between those and charter schools. He said an active lobby supports voucher schools in the legislature, allowing its participants to continue to profit from the industry.
“If you starve the public schools (and get them to fail), you’ll get more money for vouchers,” Vruwink said.
He agreed with an audience-member’s assertion that teachers aren’t being valued for their work, and described how districts have been forced to part ways with longtime teachers and the state has lowered licensing standards in an effort to save money.
He said former Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s recent increases for school funding, which increased per-pupil funding in the form of solvency aid and rural transportation aid, came about because 16 schools were going to go bankrupt without it. The school-funding formula is broken, he said, and Republicans in the legislature have tried to fix the symptoms rather than addressing the formula itself.
“I was told there wouldn’t be many bills passed this year,” Vruwink said.
He said the strategy is to obstruct the work of the legislature to make the new Democratic governor look as though he can’t get anything done.
Vruwink also said Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ budget is “dead on arrival” and that the Republicans would “tear it up” and write their own. While the governor in Wisconsin has far-reaching powers to edit a budget using the line-item veto, he or she is not able to add money to what is already proposed.
“(Assembly Speaker Rep. Robin) Vos (R-Burlington) told me personally we’re going to give (Evers) a budget and if he vetoes it, we’ll give him another one with less (money) in it,” Vruwink said.
To deal with the state’s roads, Evers’ budget proposal raises the gas tax by $.08 per gallon, but cuts the state’s “minimum markup requirement” which he has said might mean drivers will end up paying less at the pump.
Vruwink expressed tepid support for such a measure. While a gas tax is worth considering to pay for roads, the minimum markup might hurt smaller, rural gas stations that would be forced to compete with giant chains that might be able to afford to lower prices, he said.
He held his hands about a foot apart to describe the potholes he had to dodge driving down Hwy. 14 outside Janesville.