by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
About 70 small business owners roamed the state Capitol Monday, meeting with lawmakers and staff members to emphasize their priorities in the next Wisconsin budget.
At the top of their list: bolstering state funding for child care, expanding the state’s Medicaid program according to federal guidelines and creating a state-backed paid family leave program that small firms could participate in.
It was an opportunity “to have those conversations and make those introductions,” said Dylan Alwin, who owns Sawmill Adventure Park, an indoor trampoline and family recreation venue in Wausau.
The day was organized by Main Street Alliance. The organization is a trade group for small businesses and organizers say its agenda sets it apart from other small business groups that mostly emphasize deregulation and lower taxes. Shawn Phetteplace, Main Street Alliance Midwest manager
“We expect our state government to be prioritizing the needs of small business,” said Shawn Phetteplace, Midwest manager for Main Street Alliance. “We need to make sure the state budget reflects our values.”
Since expanding to Wisconsin in 2020, Main Street Alliance has grown to 1,200 members in the state. While the organization has gotten an ear with the office of Gov. Tony Evers and has had representatives testify on legislation important to its members in the last legislative session, Monday’s mobilization day was the first time the group visited individual legislators’ offices.
Some participants also met with Lt. Gov. Sara Rodriguez and with Attorney General Josh Kaul.
Jenny Grieb and Kristina Rubin of Children’s Community Center, a Menomonee Falls nonprofit child care provider, dropped by the office of State Rep. Dan Knodl, whose district includes their center. Knodl was not in, but a staff member met with them and heard their pitch to support proposals to bolster child care assistance by $300 million in the coming state budget.
The money would allow the state’s Child Care Counts program to continue after aid from federal pandemic relief runs out. Child Care Counts has helped providers improve wages and avoid hiking the fees that parents pay. Main Street Alliance has joined a coalition, Raising Wisconsin, to advocate for extending the program.
“It’s definitely a bipartisan issue,” said Rubin, administrator at the center. “This is something that affects small businesses across the state.”
“We have a few employees right now that could easily and want to work more hours,” said DePula, a Main Street Alliance member. “But it just doesn’t make sense, because child care is so expensive, and so prohibitive, that it makes more sense for them to just work part time so they can watch their kids during the week.”
At the Menomonee Falls center, Grieb has taken care of infants for 30 years. “Without this continued funding the child care industry could collapse in 10 years,” she said.
The facility is licensed for 235 children, but because it hasn’t been able to hire enough employees, the operators have had to limit enrollment. “Right now Target and McDonalds are offering more than child care centers can afford to offer,” Grieb said.
She and Rubin also would like to see the state’s BadgerCare program expanded. BadgerCare is the Wisconsin Medicaid program that provides individual and family health care for people with incomes at or below the federal poverty guideline.
“That would be very important and helpful,” Rubin said. “We cannot afford to offer health insurance.”
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), states that expand Medicaid health care to include individuals and families with incomes up to 138% of the poverty guideline would get a federal subsidy for the additional coverage, amounting to an estimated $300 million a year. Evers has several times proposed BadgerCare expansion, but the Legislature’s Republican majority has rejected it each time.
Phetteplace said that for small businesses, profit margins are too low and the pool of employees is too small for health insurance to be affordable, and many have fewer than 50 employees, exempting them from having to provide health coverage under the ACA.
“They want to run the biz in an ethical way and they also want to be able to break even,” he said.
The Main Street Alliance is supporting a proposal that, in addition to expanding BadgerCare in line with the ACA, would create a public option that allows people with incomes higher than the ceiling of 138% of the poverty guideline to be able to buy into BadgerCare.
At Sawmill Adventure Park, a proposed paid family leave program was important to Dylan Alwin, who also took part in Monday’s lawmaker visits.
When a new manager suddenly fell ill, Alwin and his wife, Christina, let the man take his two weeks of vacation time to recuperate, even though he hadn’t yet formally accrued it. But as a small, local enterprise they haven’t been able to afford more generous time off, the couple said.
“Those are hard conversations to have,” Christina said.
Phetteplace said Monday’s agenda “was really led by our members,” who developed the strategies and scheduled the event in planning sessions that led up to the lawmaker visiting day.
As the budget rolls out and the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee takes up Evers’ proposed spending plan, he said the organization plans to follow the process closely, making appearances at the committee’s hearings around the state, particularly in districts represented by lawmakers on the powerful budget committee
While participants met with some legislators Monday who were quite familiar with the Main Street Alliance, other lawmakers and staff told their visitors they hadn’t heard of the organization.
“That might be true now,” Phetteplace said. “But it’s not going to be true for very long.”
This story was written by Erik Gunn, a reporter at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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