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Dental project money makes lawmaker grit teeth

By Paul Snyder

A proposal to kick $10 million in state money toward a nonprofit company’s building project is taking hits as a last-minute rush job that sidesteps legislative protocol.

“Why didn’t this come to the Building Commission?” said state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, a commission member.

State Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, and state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, introduced companion bills that would let the state bond up to $10 million for the construction of a new dental education outreach building for the Marshfield Clinic in northern Wisconsin.

But, according to the bills, the project first must be approved by the state Building Commission by July 2015, and Marshfield Clinic must match the $10 million.

Handing out $10 million now gives Marshfield Clinic more leverage for when the project reaches the commission, Kaufert said.

“It makes it easier to potentially support the project if it’s contingent on them doing a certain amount of fundraising,” he said.

Former commission member state Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, said the commission generally gets first crack at private projects that would use state money, but initial commission approval is not always sought.

“The Legislature is the final word,” he said, “and they control the Building Commission.”

Karl Ulrich, Marshfield Clinic’s president and CEO, said the project needs state help. But, he said, such project specifics as size, design and cost only will be determined if the Legislature approves the bill.

If the bill is not approved, Ulrich said, Marshfield Clinic will try to get the project into the 2011-13 state budget or revive the proposal as a stand-alone bill.

The project is needed, Ulrich said, because rural northern Wisconsin has a shortage of dentists.
But that contradicts a memo given to lawmakers Friday in which the Wisconsin Dental Association reports there is no shortage of dentists in Wisconsin.

“If the dental association is not clamoring for this project, it makes me wonder,” Kaufert said. “Had it come to the Building Commission, we would have had the chance to learn more about the need in northern Wisconsin.

“But, given the budget concerns we have out there, I think it’s premature to commit $10 million to this.”

The state in its last budget gave money to such private projects as the Myrick Hixon EcoPark in La Crosse and the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, but those projects were vetted by the Building Commission.

“I understand this helps their fundraising efforts if they get a bill that says the state will put in $10 million, and I understand we’ve all had earmarks in the past,” Kaufert said. “But the problem is: Once you start doing it, it’s hard to stop doing it.”

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