A packed Village Hall welcomed U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner back home to Menomonee Falls for a town hall meeting Sunday afternoon.
And while the congressman largely banged his gavel to subdue cheers rather than jeers, emotions were on edge at times when Wisconsin's budget repair bill was discussed.
State Rep. Dan Knodl (R‑Germantown) and Rep. Donald Pridemore (R-Hartford) joined Sensenbrenner Sunday. State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), whose district includes Menomonee Falls, wasn’t present, and Sensenbrenner explained she had a prior engagement.
A small contingent of petitioners was outside Village Hall after the meeting collecting signatures to recall Darling and holding up signs.
As a member of Congress, Sensenbrenner has nothing to do with the budget repair bill signed into law on Friday that severely restricts collective bargaining for many public employees. But, as was the case at a similar meeting in Wauwatosa last week, several of those in attendance aired their views on the controversial measure. This time, however, Sensenbrenner did not end the meeting abruptly.
Jim Trost, a special education teacher in the Horicon School District, was the most vocal in his opposition. He was concerned that cuts to education were removing resources and silencing the voice of children with special needs.
Before Trost spoke, Sensenbrenner had given him two warnings for speaking out during the meeting.
“For you to sit up there and say this isn’t going to affect jobs is ridiculous,” Trost said. “You’re going to take $900 million from education. What about those students?”
Trost continued to speak while Pridemore tried to answer his question. Sensenbrenner repeatedly banged his gavel and demanded that Trost allow Pridemore to speak.
“First of all, you are making predictions based upon little or no information or facts,” Pridemore said. “What we’re are asking teachers to do is take 5 or 10 percent of their paycheck and pay for part of their pension and health care. If this is Draconian, please state that.”
Trost demanded to know if he would be teaching 20 students without funding, and have his caseload double. After a heated exchange, Trost walked out of the meeting visibly frustrated.
“Nobody has the answers for it. They’re just going to cut and nobody has any answers,” Trost said forcefully.
Kevin Fullerton of Menomonee Falls also challenged Knodl and Pridemore to defend the budget repair bill, which he said uses public employees as a scapegoat to address budget woes. He questioned why it was necessary to disenfranchise people’s right to collectively bargain.
Knodl and Pridemore said unions have abused collective bargaining over the past 50 years. They reaffirmed the position held throughout the debate that the bill gives local governments more flexibility to address their deficits.
“There’s no joy in passing a law that leads to people taking home less pay," Knodl said. “The private sector has gone through and made those concessions.”
Federal issues on the front burner
While the state’s budget repair bill sparked a heated exchange, most people in attendance applauded Sensenbrenner’s positions on federal issues like the deficit, health care reform and energy.
In fact, Sensenbrenner repeatedly pounded his gavel after a majority of the crowd cheered in approval as he answered their questions regarding the federal issues.
Sensenbrenner said the House would refuse to fund portions of President Barack Obama’s health care reform, and has passed legislation to repeal the reform. Sensenbrenner also said the measure is unconstitutional.
“Supporters of this legislation, in my opinion, stretched the Commerce Clause by forcing people to buy a product from a private entity whether they wanted to or not,” Sensenbrenner said.
The federal government must also address a deep deficit of $14 trillion, and Sensenbrenner the country is teetering on a financial crisis, with the deficit at 100 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
“Greece’s economy completely fell apart when it hit 115 percent of their GDP and they had to be bailed out by Germany,” Sensenbrenner said. “Well, nobody is going to bail us out, so that means we have to put a brake on spending.”
Sensenbrenner said he will support U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s version of the budget. He said he opposes raising taxes during a recession describing it as a “prescription to disaster.”
Sensenbrenner said he also will work to tighten up enforcement of immigration laws.
“In terms of dealing with immigration, we don’t need a lot of new laws," he said. "We need a lot of new enforcement.”
Sensenbrenner wants to crack down on consequences for employers that hire illegal immigrants, make the E-Verify system for checking Social Security a requirement, step up patrols on the borders and force states to adopt Real ID driver’s license programs.
Energy also was a hot topic at the meeting, and Sensenbrenner said the House needs to pass an “all of the above” energy bill that includes expanded offshore drilling, uncapping wells, speeding up the process of building refineries and nuclear power plants, and a balanced portfolio of conservation and renewable energy.
“Every drop of oil we don’t import means it’s that much less we need to send to OPEC countries,” Sensenbrenner said. “Getting to energy independence means that people with strong opinions on both sides will need to compromise and modify their views.”