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Lawmaker drills dental project request (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

Republican lawmakers insist a proposal for the state to kick in $10 million for construction of a nonprofit dental school is a pet project when Wisconsin can least afford it.

“We are clearly seeing the politics of pork coming to the front of the debate,” said state Rep. Robin Vos, R-Caledonia. “It’s lawmakers saying, ‘Look, I brought this $10 million earmark to this part of the state,’ in the hope of getting re-elected.”

The bill, which would let the state bond up to $10 million for construction of a dental education outreach building for the Marshfield Clinic in northern Wisconsin, is headed for votes in the state Assembly and Senate after clearing the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance on Wednesday.

If the bill becomes law, the state would bond up to $10 million for the project, provided the Marshfield Clinic raises $10 million in private donations. The state Building Commission would need to approve the project by July 2015.

Project supporters argue it is needed to increase access to dentists in northern Wisconsin. State Rep. Robert Jauch, D-Poplar, said many people in northern Wisconsin travel to Milwaukee to see dentists because there are not enough in the northern part of the state. If the state can help the Marshfield Clinic educate and graduate dentists in the area, he said, the problem can be solved.

“This isn’t a political thing to me,” Jauch said. “Normally, this kind of thing would come down from the governor and go to the Building Commission and then come to us. We really only took a slight shortcut because this is important enough to move forward.”

Jauch said most health education and research facilities are built near Milwaukee or Madison, and the state should direct more money to northern Wisconsin. He said the private nature of the dental project is beside the point.

“This is demonstrated on merits,” he said. “It’s worth the investment.”

Vos said it would be different if the project had state ties or was an extension of an existing program such as Marquette University’s dental school. But he said he’s not convinced the project will solve the dentist access problem or that the state can afford to get involved.

“It’s about power politics,” Vos said.

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