Mary Felzkowski
Mary Felzkowski
Soliciting input and field­ing questions from North Woods constituents, 12th District State Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) and 34th Assembly District State Rep. Rob Swearingen (R-Rhine­lan­der) held an hour-long Vilas County listening session Oct. 8 at the Boulder Junction Community Center.

Issues voiced ranged from election integrity, redistricting and COVID-19 testing mandates for state employees to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issues and state-level impacts on local school curriculum.

“We’re here to listen, we’re here to talk about any of the concerns that you have,” Felzkowski told the assembled constituents. “We want to discuss the pressing issues that you have and the things you really want us to concentrate on.”

Around 50 people were in attendance, with Swear­ingen and Felzkowski retaining about a third of the audience that packed a preceding one-hour listening session with Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

“Fortunately for us, Sen. Johnson kind of kept the crowd here,” Swearingen said. “We were happy to have the senator warm up the crowd for us. We kind of had a drawing card.”

Felzkowski called turn­out at the Boulder Junction legislative listening session amazing, saying Johnson deserved a measure of credit for getting people to the event.

A member of the Committee on Finance and the state budget-writing Joint Committee on Finance, Felzkowski serves as chairwoman of the Committee on Insurance, Licensing and Forestry, and vice chairwoman of the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy and the Committee on Government Operations, Legal Review and Consumer Protection.

Swearingen chairs the Committee on State Affairs and is vice chairman of the Committee on Tourism, in addition to serving on the Committee on Forestry, Parks and Outdoor Recreation, Committee on Rules, Committee on Small Business Development and the Joint Survey Committee on Tax Exemptions.

For Swearingen and Felz­kowski, the joint listening session was the third and final session of the day, following a session in Hiles in Forest County and an Oneida County session in Lake Tomahawk.

Felzkowski held joint listening sessions in the 35th Assembly District with state Rep. Calvin Callahan (R-Tomahawk) the day prior in Tomahawk (Lincoln County), Elcho (Langlade County) and Aniwa (Shaw­ano County). Joint listening sessions in the 36th Assembly District with state. Rep. Jeffrey Mursau (R-Crivitz) are expected to be announced shortly.

Swearingen said the tradition of twice-yearly “show on the road” joint listening sessions in the 12th Senate District — which encompasses most of Vilas County, all of Oneida, Forest, Florence, Langlade, Lincoln and Menominee counties, and parts of Marinette, Oconto and Shawano counties — was started by Felzkowski’s predecessor, Tom Tiffany, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020. 

The first session is typically held in the late winter or early spring around budget time, and the second is held in conjunction with the Legislature’s fall session at the state capitol.

Swearingen was pleased with the conversations at all three joint listening sessions in the 34th Assembly District, with the Vilas County turnout the big­gest of the day.

While there were some common threads running through all three listening sessions, Swearingen said a diverse range of local concerns was raised in Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties, including local roads, wolves and broadband internet in Hiles. 

In Boulder Junction, local concerns included the need for getting adequate levels of Veterans Service and Aging and Disability Resource Center services from Vilas County to the western end of the county, particularly in remote Winchester and Presque Isle.

“The whole day’s been good,” Swearingen said. “It’s good to hear from the people. It’s called a listening session for a reason. We take to heart what they’re saying. I applaud Sen. Felzkowski for keeping this tradition up. I take what I learn from these sessions back to our caucus. 

“I’ll talk to the other 62 Republicans we have in the Assembly and we’ll all compare notes about what our districts are thinking, keeping in mind that what’s popular in the North Woods may not be what’s being talked about in southeastern Wisconsin. That’s how these bills, that legislation, gets formed.”

But while many of the issues raised may be the same, like election integrity, Felzkowski said the feelings behind the common issues differ from session to session, community to community.

“The issues are the same,” she explained. “The opinions around the issues differ. Yesterday, people were very upset about the (election integrity) audits. They think it’s a waste of money, they don’t think it’s necessary.”

In Boulder Junction on Friday, the election integrity issue found a largely supportive if questioning audience.

For Swearingen and other northern Wisconsin legislators, a large part of their job at the state capitol in Madison is educating their more urban and suburban southern Wisconsin colleagues on both sides of the political aisle about rural North Woods concerns.

“Whether they’re Republican or Democrat doesn’t make any difference,” he noted. “We have to convince our colleagues in Madison that there is life north of Highway 64.”

Access to services

Addressing Felzkowski and Swearingen, concerns were raised about adequate provision of services for seniors, the disabled and veterans residing in the North Lakeland area in northwestern Vilas County.

“Vilas County is noticeably divided in the use of governmental resources,” one woman said, noting the round-trip driving distance and commute time to county seat Eagle River from the four-town North Lakeland area, inclusive of Boulder Junction, Manitowish Waters, Presque Isle and Winchester. 

“The northwest corner of Vilas County is more rural and less populated and more scattered. People in need are more easily hidden and have adapted to the lack of resources. It doesn’t mean that governmental resources are unnecessary. They are still needed by many. 

“We feel resources available in more populated areas are not available to us. The people that need the help the most aren’t able to get to the resources because they’re either homebound or they can’t drive anymore or they’re by themselves. How can you help our needy population become more visible and have more access to programs such as Meals on Wheels and transportation?” she asked.

Felzkowski referred the questioner to her staff for assistance.

“I think the resources are there,” she said. “The programs exist. We just need to make sure you get connected to them.”

Meanwhile, Swearingen shared the news of a major victory legislatively on dementia care in Wisconsin.

“Dementia care specialists were something that we were majorly lacking in,” he said. “The Joint Finance Committee was able to get that done in the last budget so that all counties in the state now have one. Unfortunately, Vilas was one of the last, but we have one now, which is a good thing.”

Election integrity

A number of constituents in attendance expressed concerns about election integrity in Wisconsin in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

“Next is our midterm elections,” said a man from Woodruff. “What are the chances or hopes of restoring integrity to the elections? It seems as though the media is ignoring the whole problem which has been established that there was.”

Felzkowski said some 15 to 17 bills around tightening up elections and election integrity, passed by both the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly, were vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, with Republicans not having a veto override majority. 

She added that the non-partisan Legislative Audit Bureau is currently performing a statewide full forensic audit of the November 2020 election, the results of which will be reported back to the full Legislature. 

“We’re a very diverse community in the state of Wisconsin and we have people in every single camp on what they believe around election integrity,” Felz­kow­ski said. “Everybody takes this seriously. Our goal with this is no matter what camp you’re in, that when this is done, and what comes out of it, we can do things or put pressure on others, so that when you vote, you feel confidence in your vote. There has to be confidence. I agree with everybody here. Election integrity has got to be No. 1. I’m putting my faith in this audit bureau.”

Swearingen added that former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman was allocated just short of $700,000 for an investigation into the 2020 election in Wisconsin.

“I’ve had people say, ‘What a waste of money, put that into roads or whatever,’ ” Swearingen said. “I will defend that $700,000. If something went wrong, we need to know what went wrong. I think that’s what Michael Gableman is going to get at. I defend that money because the vote is sacred. If you can’t trust your vote to be counted and counted properly, we have a breakdown. Clearly there were some problems and we need to fix them before the next election.”

Other issues raised

A number of additional issues were raised by constituents at last Friday’s listening session, including:

— Lac du Flambeau resident Kay Hoff’s hopes for nonpartisan legislative redistricting in Wisconsin based on the “Iowa Model” in the wake of the 2020 U.S. Census;

— One man’s opposition to Gov. Evers’ “just bad wrong” and “onerous” new COVID-19 testing requirement for state employees who aren’t fully vaccinated or haven’t reported vaccination status;

— One constituent’s concerns about state-level impacts on local school curriculum; and

— Former Boulder Junction town chairman Charlie Spencer’s concerns about the impact and burden of DNR bureaucratic red tape on grassroots fights by lakes associations like the Gresham Lake Association and other groups in their battle against aquatic invasive species like Eurasian water milfoil.

Sporting Freedom

In a post-session interview, Felzkowski said she had received largely favorable feedback from constituents to two bills she introduced Oct. 6, along with several legislative colleagues, as part of the 13-bill Sporting Freedom Package. 

In a press release, Felzkowski said the first bill, “Constitutional Carry,” if passed, would allow law-abiding citizens to carry a concealed firearm without a license, reflecting the constitutional right to carry a weapon in self-defense. 

She said the proposal would also allow sportsmen and -women to carry a firearm, bow or crossbow while engaging in activities such as operating an ATV or UTV or shining wildlife.

The other bill authored by Felzkowski, if passed, would require the DNR to authorize the well-regulated hunting of currently protected sandhill cranes. 

In her press release, she said the sandhill crane has been a protected species in the state for more than a century and that the population has seen a great deal of growth over the years. She said increasing numbers have caused farmers throughout the state to incur thousands of dollars worth of damage to their crops caused by sandhill cranes.

Felzkowski also said the long overdue bill, if passed, would keep the state’s sandhill crane population in check and ensure that the livelihood of farmers is not negatively impacted by these birds.

On Friday, Felzkowski said both her proposed bills had met with widespread support among constituents, particularly “Constitutional Carry.”

“In my district, I’ve gotten extremely positive response,” she said.