Governor comes to Hudson to sign law advancing bridge project
Gov. Scott Walker came to Hudson Friday afternoon, June 24, to sign two bills into law.
Before a group of around 100 supporters in the Valley House north of the city, the governor signed a bill freeing the state to spend up to $225 million for construction of a new bridge over the St. Croix River south of Houlton and Stillwater, Minn.
The law eliminates a requirement that Wisconsin receive a federal grant of at least $75 million for the project before going forward with it.
Backers of a new bridge said the law removes one of the last barriers to getting it built.
"It would have been nice if it was dealt with a few years back," Gov. Walker said after signing the law. "We can't go back in time. We've got to get it done. We've got to get it done soon. This is one more step. It's not the last step, but it's an important step."
A law passed by the Wisconsin Legislature in 2009 said federal funds had to be made available for interstate bridge projects before the state could initiate bonding for them.
The law was yet another roadblock to the long-delayed construction of a new Stillwater bridge.
Last October, the National Park Service (in a reversal of an earlier decision) denied permission for the new bridge, saying it would have an adverse impact on the St. Croix. Federal law protects the St. Croix as a wild and scenic river.
Since then, a bipartisan group of representatives and senators from Wisconsin and Minnesota has been working on legislation to grant an exemption to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act that would allow the new bridge to be constructed.
That legislation -- introduced by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., in the House of Representatives and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in the Senate - appears to be progressing toward enactment.
The Wisconsin requirement that federal funds be appropriated prior to the start of construction remained an impediment.
"With Wisconsin's action, both Minnesota and Wisconsin now stand ready to start work on the new bridge, restoration of the Stillwater Lift Bridge, and creation of a park and trail system for the region," the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing posted on its website, www.stcroixcrossing.org, on Friday.
The plan is to restore the existing lift bridge, a protected structure on the National Register of Historic Places, and make it part of a new bicycle and pedestrian loop trail.
Gov. Walker told the audience at the Valley House that it's now up to Congress to act.
"The St. Croix River Crossing Project is vitally important to continue the uninterrupted flow of goods and services to and through Wisconsin," he said.
The governor thanked State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, and state representatives Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, John Murtha, R-Baldwin and Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, for their leadership in making the change in Wisconsin law.
Harsdorf, Knudson and Murtha were present for the signing, along with Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki and other government and business leaders from both sides of the river.
John Soderberg of New Richmond, co-chair of the coalition pushing for construction of the new bridge, said he is hopeful that Congress will approve it by the end of August.
Bill Berndt, a lobbyist for the coalition, said there is no truth to the story that has gone around that Wisconsin hasn't identified funding for its share of the $690 million project.
Berndt said the Wisconsin Legislature earmarked $225 million for the bridge two years ago.
The federal government will fund 80 percent of the project, Berndt said, so what Wisconsin has set aside will easily cover its share of the costs.
Gov. Walker invited a question or two from the audience following his brief remarks.
Hudson-area resident and businessman Mick Howland complimented Walker on his performance as governor and asked him why public employee unions don't understand that his proposals were needed to fix the state budget.
"I think it was money," the governor replied. "You saw about four, five million dollars come on TV ads in the first few weeks of our debate (over collective bargaining and the budget). We didn't view this as a political campaign. We knew it was just as you said. We came in and said there is a crisis. There is an economic and fiscal crisis in the state. We've got to address that."
Walker said that the good news was that the fervor over changes to collective bargaining and the budget are dying down. Even public employees are coming to realize that the changes were needed to avoid layoffs and tax increases, he said.
"In the end, they're seeing that this makes sense," the governor said.
"Most of the people are very proud of you," Howland told Walker, bringing a half-minute of applause from the audience.
On Saturday, Walker signed a $66 billion, two-year state budget at Green Bay. The budget closes a $3 billion deficit by reducing state aid to schools, the state university system and local governments. It also cuts funding for Medicaid and eliminates the earned income and homestead tax credits for the working poor.
Republicans say the requirement for teachers and other public employees to pay more for their pensions and health insurance will make up for the schools' and local governments' loss of state aid.
The budget also prevents local governments from increasing property taxes.
Walker arrived at the Valley House on Hwy. 35 at about 2:45 p.m. A group of signing-carrying supporters waited for him at the front door, but he entered the building through a back door.
A handful of protesters, including one carrying a sign asking the governor to "stop the attack on workers," were also present.
Drug bill signed
From the Valley House, Walker traveled to the St. Croix County Government Center in Hudson. There, he signed a law making synthetic marijuana and other drugs illegal.
Sen. Harsdorf and Rep. Knudson were sponsors of the bill, and were again present for the signing, along with St. Croix County Sheriff John Shilts, Chief Deputy Scott Knudson, Hudson Police Chief Marty Jensen and other law enforcement officials.
A crowd of between 100 and 150 people -- protesters and supporters of the governor -- awaited Walker's arrival at the government center.
The public wasn't allowed inside County Board Room where the bill was signed.
Shilts introduced the governor and talked about the need for the law.
"It's very important legislation not only for law enforcement in St. Croix County, but across the state, which has seen the effects of these synthetic drugs," the sheriff said. "...With the help of our legislators, and now with the help of our governor, we're going to have a tool placed in the toolbox of law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts to continue to fight the war on drugs."
Walker noted that as the father of two high-school-age boys, he appreciates the need to keep dangerous drugs out of the hands of young people.
Also on hand for the bill signing were St. Croix County Board Chairman Daryl Standafer, Register of Deeds Beth Pabst, County Treasurer Laurie Noble and new County Administrator Patrick Thompson.
Shilts said following the brief ceremony that it's a "common occurrence" for the sheriff's department to find someone using synthetic drugs.
He said he was happy that lawmakers listened to the law enforcement community and moved forward with legislation making the drugs illegal.
Asked how he was being received around the state, Gov. Walker said, "Surprisingly well."
"People realize that a lot of the hype was overblown," he said. "In the end, what we're seeing is that we're giving local government the tools to protect jobs, to put people back to work. And I think the biggest thing is (that) property taxes are going to be frozen in the next couple of years. I think that will be a shock -- a positive shock. A pleasant surprise."