Initiative aims to help rural Wisconsin towns

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU)-- Wednesday morning, more than a dozen republican legislators announced the Rural Wisconsin Initiative. It’s a series of seven bills lawmakers say are designed to help smaller towns and villages throughout the state grow in the future.

If the seven bills introduced Wednesday pass, they would expand broadband internet access, attract teachers to small schools, and provide grants for science, technology, engineering and math programs for local schools.

Republican Kathy Bernier represents Wisconsin’s 68th Assembly District. She is one of a handful of republicans backing the measures.

“It’s sort of setting the stage for the next biennial budget. For the governor and the legislature to recognize that there are some needs in the rural parts of Wisconsin,” Rep. Bernier explained.

Representative Bernier says part of the initiative is aimed at providing equal opportunities to kids and teachers in smaller schools.

That's something that the Augusta School District administrator says is needed.

“Just because we are rural doesn't mean that we provide any less of a quality education for our kids. Any type of legislation that might continue to support the efforts of rural school districts is always a positive move,” administrator Ryan Nelson explained.

While one part of the Rural Wisconsin Initiative focuses on schools, another part is aimed at increasing access to healthcare in small towns. Lawmakers plan to do that by increasing funding for programs that encourage physicians to take residencies in rural hospitals.

Dr. Joan Hamlin is the program director at Eau Claire Family Medicine. She says there's a need for doctors in the rural part of the state. But she says getting doctors to smaller towns is a lot easier said than done.

“Many people prefer to live in an area that has more opportunity and more options, doctors are no different,” Dr.Hamblin said.

While Dr. Hamblin says the proposal is a step in the right direction, she adds what's being proposed isn't enough. She says in the future, projections show state of Wisconsin expects to need more doctors across the board to care for the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation. She says the added funding from this proposed legislation would need to be higher than the $250,000 being proposed by lawmakers.

“If we want to meet the projections down the road you need more money, at other places than what's being proposed,” Dr. Hamblin added.

If all measures pass through the legislative process, the initiative is expected to cost between $13 million and $15 million dollars.

WEAU 13 News reached out to democratic State Senator Kathleen Vinehout for comment on the proposed initiative. Vinehout says the items proposed in the initiative are ones that democrats have proposed in the past. She says the democrats bills have been struck down by republicans.

“We have been talking about these for five years. If they (republicans) wanted them passed they could have done this a long time ago. Not in the eleventh hour. This is all about winning elections in 2016 and trying to convince the public that they are doing good things when they haven’t been,” Vinehout said in a phone conversation.

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