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PLATTEVILLE — Public school advocates dominated testimony Monday during the first of six public hearings on Gov. Scott Walker’s $76 billion biennial budget.

In calling for more funding for the state’s public schools, the advocates echoed Walker, who separately Monday called on increasingly skeptical lawmakers to back his roughly $650 million increase for K-12 education in their own writing of a spending plan for the two years starting July 1.

The hearing also drew opponents of a gas tax, supporters of the Department of Natural Resources magazine that Walker has slated for elimination and college students who described how they used mandatory fees to spark intellectual inquiry and mutual understanding on the UW-Madison campus.

More than 150 people spoke for two minutes each at the forum held at UW-Platteville. Still, lawmakers and other observers were struck by the tone of a hearing that wrapped up an hour before its scheduled end.

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, a member of the Joint Finance Committee, said it drew the fewest people he could recall attending the first day of budget hearings in his 14 years in the Senate. He had a theory for why that might be.

“Because it’s a pretty good budget,” Olsen said. “Most people come to complain about the budget.”

Two years ago, for example, cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, Senior Care and the IRIS program for people with disabilities drew more than 200 people to Brillion High School in northeast Wisconsin for the first of four public hearings.

Seeing green

In Platteville, supporters of public education and a smaller group opposing a potential gas tax increase turned out wearing the same color on their respective T-shirts: green.

Tom Poppe, 65, a retired state employee whose wife is a public school teacher, wore a green “Go Public” T-shirt sponsored by the Wisconsin Public Education Network, advocating for a $300-per-pupil increase in K-12 education, or $100 more than what Walker proposed in his budget.

He said the amount would restore the funding cut from public schools during the 2011-13 budget. He also opposed any increase in funding for private voucher schools, which state law now ties to an increase in public school funding.

Though some people had left the hearing, Poppe asked the crowd who supported public schools, and almost everyone raised their hands. He then asked who supported private voucher schools and no one raised a hand.

“I think it was important to get the feeling,” Poppe told the panel. “I just wish that you would watch out for the kiddos.”

Earlier in the day, Carl Wiggert, carrying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and wearing a green T-shirt sponsored by Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin that read “The Burden Is Too Heavy. Stop the Gas Tax Hike,” shook his head as public education proponents testified.

“All I heard was parasites,” Wiggert said in an interview. “I’m willing to pay someone to convince me why I’m paying so much in taxes.”

Wiggert and the others sporting T-shirts opposing a gas tax increase — fewer than 10 in all — left the hearing before testifying.

Walker’s budget doesn’t call for an increase in the gas tax, though some Republican legislators are keeping the option open as they criticize his proposal to close a transportation funding shortfall with more borrowing and project delays. Walker said last week he would veto such a tax increase.

Walker himself, at Waukesha South High School, implored lawmakers in charge of writing the state’s next two-year budget to back his proposed $649 million increase for schools.

“There has been some talk that there might be at least a few — I don’t know if it’s many — but some that would prefer to start with a zero-base (budget) in education and build off of that,” Walker said. “My argument would be, we need, if anything, to build off of the foundation we put into this budget.”

Seeking help for schools

At UW-Platteville, common themes among the scores of students, teachers, municipal employees, business leaders and advocacy groups who testified included more money for public schools, restoration of cuts to the Department of Natural Resources, more money for local roads and keeping certain student fees mandatory for University of Wisconsin System schools. Many testified in favor of a new UW-Platteville engineering building that Walker deferred in his capital budget proposal.

“When we heard this year there’s going to be an increase in (public education) funding we could finally maybe breathe a little bit,” said Jamie Nutter, district administrator of the Fennimore School District.

Christine Panka, president of the Prairie du Chien School Board, said the district she helps oversee has managed to draw a number of awards for their students’ academic success despite also having high rates of poverty.

“All of this has been accomplished with a per pupil spending (level) in the bottom 15 percent of the state,” she said.

Panka asked the lawmakers to keep Walker’s funding increase in the state budget and to remove a requirement Walker proposed to tie that new funding to whether a district is requiring its staff to pay at least 12 percent toward health insurance costs.

Case for UW student fees

Two UW-Madison students, Nicole Niebler, president of Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics, and Anastasia Konopacki, vice president of Badger Catholics, offered joint testimony in support of keeping certain student fees mandatory. Walker is proposing to make them optional.

The fees represent about $178 of the $1,215 UW-Madison students pay, the majority of which pays for Metro Transit bus passes available to every student.

“Removing these opportunities for students to have community on campus at a time when they’re struggling to find where they fit in the world would be detrimental,” Konopacki said.

Niebler and Konopacki said the two groups provide services to all students, not only members. And they said they work together to help college students explore issues of faith and society.

Roads, DNR magazine

Betty Manson, town clerk for Plymouth in Juneau County, said her town doesn’t have money to reconstruct its 45 miles of roads, and instead is seal-coating one mile per year. The treatment is recommended every five to seven years, she said.

“We’re getting pretty bad,” she said, calling for more road funding. “We may have to take some of our roads and turn them back to gravel.”

Jim Stroschein, 54, an online learning producer from Mineral Point, spoke in favor of keeping the DNR magazine, which Walker has proposed eliminating. Walker has said the magazine doesn’t fit with the agency’s core mission and could be provided by the private sector.

“I’m here to ask you not to believe a word of that,” said Stroschein, who described himself as an outdoor enthusiast who has subscribed to the magazine for 20 years. “Every time I look at an issue it reminds me of the diversity of this state. I think a strong public education component has to be a strong part of the mission.”

Additional hearings are scheduled for Wednesday at State Fair Park in West Allis, Friday at Berlin High School, April 18 at Spooner High School, April 19 at Ellsworth High School and April 21 at Marinette High School. The hearings all start at 10 a.m.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.