I first ran for public office when I saw that the Sturgeon Bay School District had lost the support of the community and was facing serious financial difficulties. I have always passionately believed that education is the key to allowing every member of our society to reach his or her full potential. I viewed this challenge as an opportunity to repay the community that has been so great to my family and me.
We had to make difficult decisions, but through sound financial management, we were able to regain the trust of the community. I served on the board for 15 years, 13 of those as president. My time on the board was invaluable in helping me to understand the challenges our schools face, as well as the complexities of school funding.
In the Assembly, education continues to be a top priority for me. I serve as vice-chairman of the Education Committee and I served as co-chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission on School Funding, where we made strides in addressing the inequities in funding across our state. Our children in rural school districts deserve the same opportunities as those in wealthy suburban districts.
I have authored numerous pieces of education legislation, including a bill that allows children to receive mental health counseling within the school setting. This session, I authored a bill that puts a score for course offerings and participation in the arts on the state’s annual school report card. I have been an advocate for partnerships between businesses and schools to expose our students to the many exciting opportunities in the technical fields.
Tourism is one of the pillars of the economy in all of Wisconsin, but particularly in the 1st Assembly District. This industry has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic but had shown very strong growth throughout the decade prior to that. As fear of the virus subsides, we will undoubtedly see a tremendous rebound.
Tourism promotion shows a tremendous return on investment and it is important that Wisconsin keeps pace with surrounding states. We have increased our tourism promotion in Chicago and the Twin Cities with great results, but there is more to be done. As a member of the Assembly Tourism Committee, I will continue to be a strong advocate for the tourism industry.
While tourism has shown steady growth in Door County, Kewaunee County is now beginning to realize its underappreciated potential as a tourism destination. One of my proudest accomplishments during my first term was my role in securing the $4.2 million grant to rebuild the Kewaunee harbor area. I wrote the amendment that put this into the budget and fought hard for its inclusion. This project will revitalize one of the most beautiful harbors on the Great Lakes and energize the tourism economy of Kewaunee and the entire county.
Jobs and the Economy
Helping the private sector create and maintain jobs in our area will always be a high priority for me. Our businesses must view government as an ally in helping them overcome their challenges, not as a roadblock to their growth. I have worked extensively with our local governments and economic development agencies to achieve this goal.
I am very proud that over the past 10 years, Wisconsin has gone from being consistently ranked in the bottom 10 states for business climate to being in the top half. A year ago, we had the lowest unemployment rate in our state’s history.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive setback for our economy and our job market, the pieces remain in place for a rapid recovery. Our next budget will be very challenging, but we must keep taxes as low as possible and remain true to the pro-growth principles that led to our robust pre-pandemic economy.
We must continue to address the lack of skilled workers in preparation for our recovery. This skills gap is not unique to our area and it is one of our most urgent challenges. I have supported the Fast Track program to provide grants for training workers and I authored legislation to provide better career counseling to our students.
Protecting our Natural Resources
In perhaps no other area of Wisconsin are environmental issues more important than in the 1st Assembly District. Our economy, our health and our way of life are dependent on clean water. I serve as chairman of the Environment Committee, as well as chairman of the Nitrate Work Group. This session, I also served on the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality.
My approach has always been to bring all sides together to work collaboratively toward addressing our groundwater issues. I led the effort to finally implement new rules for manure management that are specific to the karst region, where our shallow soils and cracked bedrock make us particularly susceptible to contamination.
At the same time, I have had success in advocating for increased grants for producer-led watershed groups, like Peninsula Pride. The progressive farmers in these groups are committed to implementing cutting edge practices to reduce groundwater contamination. The Pollution Prevention Partnership bill I authored with Sen. Cowles this session will facilitate collaborations between business and agriculture in reducing runoff into our streams.
The Total Maximum Daily Load study that I initiated last session will soon yield results that will help us pinpoint and address the areas of runoff in the tributaries into Lake Michigan in Door, Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Sheboygan counties. These were once thriving trout streams but they are now on the endangered waterway list. Our goal is to return them to their glorious past.
I also led a coalition that fought successfully to restore funding to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program and I continue to advocate for this important initiative. It has been a mainstay of Wisconsin’s efforts to preserve natural areas and has been used extensively in our area. Because of my work in this area, I was named Policymaker of the Year by Gathering Waters, the statewide organization of land trusts.
Additionally, I authored a bill that banned the manufacture and sale of plastic microbeads in Wisconsin and successfully advocated for increased funding for our county conservationists. This session, I wrote a bill that banned coal tar-based sealants for driveways and parking lots. It passed the Assembly but, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it has not yet received a vote in the Senate.
For my conservation efforts, I have consistently been one of the few Republican legislators to be endorsed by conservation groups like the Wisconsin Conservation Voters and Clean Wisconsin, as well as agricultural groups like the Farm Bureau. I was named the 2018 Conservation Champion for Policymakers by the Lake Michigan Stakeholders.
While I am proud of these past successes, there is much work yet to do and I look forward to continuing to expand these efforts.
Paid for by Joel Kitchens for Assembly