A program providing free voice mail to the homeless may be completely eliminated if Republican legislators have their way.
Voicemail for the Homeless, financed by the Universal Service Fund program, provides an answering service for the state’s homeless population. USF, created in 1993 and funded by Wisconsin telephone users, wants to give everyone in the state fundamental telecommunications access.
State Rep. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan, is trying to end the $40,000 voice mail service because he believes it is an unnecessary expense.
In a hearing last week before the Joint Committee on Review of Administrative Rules, Leibham said USF’s expenditures are significantly less than the funds provided. The Public Service Commission, for example, was given $8 million during fiscal year 1999-2000 through the program, but its expenses totaled only $2.7 million.
Leibham said his proposal would reduce the money being spent on these programs and save taxpayers over $3.8 million.
“Reducing the funds available will force the PSC to expend the available dollars on a truly worthy and necessary program,” Leibham said.
State Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, is also in favor of eliminating the program because he is concerned the service is a poor use of government money. Grothman, co-chair of the committee, said he is willing to hold a vote on permanently eliminating the program.
“[Voice mail for the homeless] is a stupid idea,” Grothman said. “It’s a good indicator of how much money is being tossed around in Madison,”
Some legislators feel Leibham and Grothman are selling the program short.
Dave Austin, spokesperson for Sen. Judith Robson, D-Beloit, said Robson would oppose cutting funds for any USF program, including the voice mail program.
“Robson is opposed because testimony at the public hearing shows voice mail for the homeless is a valuable tool used for attaining employment,” Austin said.
Last month Gov. Scott McCallum attempted to get rid of Voicemail for the Homeless by executive order. However, since the money goes to the PSC, a private entity, the governor could not directly order the program’s elimination.
In the final budget, McCallum vetoed $40,000 in funding, directed at undercutting the free voice mail program.
State Sen. Bob Welch, R-Redgranite, said although the current commissioner of the PSC has promised to halt spending on the program, legislation is necessary to prevent future funding.
“There will eventually be a new governor and a new PSC commissioner, so if we don’t cut the policy now it could be changed in the future,” Welch said.
Nevertheless, advocates for the homeless contend free voice mail programs are valuable and should be financially supported.
Steven Schooler, executive director of Madison Transitional Housing, said Voicemail for the Homeless is a valuable aid the underprivileged can use in finding employment.
“The program provides a means of alleviating a significant barrier that keeps people homeless,” Schooler said. “We’re not satisfied with keeping them in the shelter. Our goal is to get them out of the shelter.”
The average person using the program, he said, has the mailbox for only three months. This, he said, is proof of the program’s effectiveness in aiding the homeless in employment opportunities.
“One person found a $15-per-hour construction job as a result of this voicemail program,” Schooler said.