By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Tom Larson (R-Colfax) has decided to run again for the position of representative for the state’s 67th Assembly district.
Larson — who recently sold his business, Bear Valley Electric, to his sons — will be running against Democratic challenger Deb Bieging of Chippewa Falls in the November 6 election.
“I’m willing to do it all over again … I’ve got my feet wet now,” Larson said during a visit to the Colfax Messenger office October 15.
“It takes a year or longer to learn how the process all works,” he said.
Regarding Larson’s first term as representative, “I think we really got some good things accomplished. It’s been a huge learning curve,” he said.
Passing Act 10, the law that essentially ended collective bargaining for most public employees, except police and firefighters, also was a difficult process.
“It was tough for some folks. I understand that. I think it would have been tougher if we had done nothing. We were headed down the wrong path. We had to turn it around,” Larson said.
“I wanted to balance the budget. I wanted to get a handle on taxes and develop employment. Things are going in the right direction. Maybe not as fast as we’d like it to, but it’s moving in the right direction. That’s what I promised, and that’s how I voted,” he said.
Wisconsin is ranked last in creating jobs among the states in the Midwest and when asked what people can look forward to in terms of positive developments for jobs, Larson reiterated that “we are moving in the right direction.”
“We developed nearly 40,000 jobs in the last two years, according to federal statistics. While that isn’t anywhere close to what we want, it is going in the right direction,” Larson said, noting that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate of 7.5 percent is lower than Michigan and Illinois.
Wisconsin created jobs last year at a rate that is half the national average. Wisconsin created 0.7 percent new jobs last year. The national average is 1.4 percent.
A total of 44,000 jobs are now listed with the Wisconsin Jobs Center (www.wisconsinjobscenter.com), Larson said.
“They are all good paying, family supporting jobs. They are there for people looking for work. It’s a good sign there are that many jobs available,” Larson said.
By the same token, many employers have said they cannot find workers with the right skills to fill the jobs they have available.
“It’s a serious problem that people don’t have the skills for the jobs that are out there right now. (The skills gap) is something we have to look at,” Larson said.
Larson did not elaborate on what the state Legislature could do to address the skills gap, but he was confident Act 10 did not contribute to the skills gap.
“The reforms we put into place have been in place for only one year, and there’s no way any law can create a skills gap in one year. This has been coming on for a long time … I remember reading about the shortage of skilled help in my trade magazines clear back in the ‘90s. They knew about it back then. I think it’s something we have to work on. I recognize it’s a problem,” he said.
“One bill I authored was the Rural Jobs Act. It was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor into law and created new enterprise zones to free up money for new businesses that want to open in Wisconsin or expand here,” Larson said, noting that the original legislation passed in 2004 had 12 zones but now there are 20 enterprise zones.
“Education is a big topic. That’s what blew up the whole thing. Act 10. (The protests at the state Capital in Madison). (Act 10) was in effect for over a year. And now one lone judge says we can’t do that. I think we’ll be fine. I think it will come back into law again. It was already tested in the courts once,” Larson said.
According to a recent court ruling, Act 10 violates the constitutional rights of free speech, free association and equal representation under the law by limiting the raises of union workers but not the raises of those who do not belong to unions. The ruling also declared the law unconstitutional because it creates separate classes of people by exempting police and firefighters, who kept all of their rights to collective bargaining.
A previous ruling by the state Supreme Court said that the process of adopting Act 10 did not violate the state’s Open Meetings law because the state Legislature does not have to abide by state law. The Supreme Court ruling was not related to the constitutionality of the law.
“Act 10 put reforms into place that helped all across Wisconsin. Not all schools have benefited. Across Wisconsin it has saved about a billion dollars. It’s not just about schools. It’s about all government employees. Unfortunately, the focus became about school teachers. And that’s unfortunate because they are an extremely important group of people,” Larson said.
According to news reports, about two-thirds of Wisconsin’s school districts are experiencing a reduction in state aid again this year.
“There were a lot of other people affected by (Act 10), all the way up the line, all the way to the governor. We were all asked to contribute the same amount. The unions said they were willing to concede to that. But the unions can’t say that without a vote (of their members). And it never got to that point,” Larson said.
Governor Scott Walker refused to negotiate with the employee unions, so there was never an opportunity for union members to vote on a proposal.
“We felt that if we didn’t limit negotiation, the good this bill brought about would only last until the next contract, and then they would negotiate it out. We don’t want to get back into this situation again. We tried to put some permanence into the situation. The same with the raiding of the transportation fund and the patients’ compensation fund being raided in the past. We are trying to address them by making constitutional changes so we don’t get into that situation, no matter who is in power,” Larson said.
Act 10 not only required state, county, school district and municipal employees to pay more for their healthcare and retirement, it also eliminated the right to collectively bargain for working conditions and limited bargaining for salaries only to cost-of-living increases.
“The legislators did fight for education. We got $118 million put in the budget that was more than the governor was suggesting,” he said.
The state Legislature also diverted $158 million to the private school voucher program for Milwaukee and Racine. School district administrators and school boards in this area are concerned about the ramifications of taxpayer money being diverted to private schools and the effect that may have on public schools.
“I’m proud to have worked on the bill ‘to pay the bills’ to pay school aids early. Warren Petryk and I were co-authors. It pays the schools earlier. We also paid off the patients’ compensation fund — we paid money back to the federal government early. With the interest savings and matching funds from the federal government, we saved between $70 million and $100 million in one bill,” Larson said.
As for healthcare and access to healthcare for Wisconsin residents, Larson believes we already have enough programs.
“One of the things my opponent is concerned about is healthcare. It’s a noble thing to be concerned about. We are all concerned about healthcare. Education too. Healthcare and education — 50 percent of the state’s budget is spent (on those two items). All the rest of the things, roads, bridges, Welfare, interest, get paid for on 50 percent of the budget. To spend more money on healthcare and education is fine, but we really have to be careful how we do that,” Larson said.
“I believe Wisconsin should control its own healthcare. We have got four different programs that are part of our healthcare system. We’ve got Badger Care, which covers kids from birth to 18 years old. We’ve got Badger Care Plus that covers from 19 to 64 years old, and that includes farmers and the self employed, and we’ve got Medicaid and Family Care that covers people over 65 and those blind and disabled. We’ve got programs that cover people from birth to the very elderly and those with special needs. I don’t believe that we need more programs to make sure more people get healthcare,” he said.
“We need to find ways to reduce the cost of healthcare. If we can do that, then the programs should reflect that savings. Those premiums should go down. If we can then get people back to work, they should be able to afford their own healthcare. And I think that’s the direction we need to go, rather than add more programs,” Larson said.
“We need people to be independent of as many programs as possible. Then you’ll increase their self-esteem by having them support themselves rather than relying on someone else. It’s been going bad for a long time,” he said.
Larson did not talk about what people should do about healthcare between now and the time when enough jobs are created and until the time when health insurance premiums come down enough to allow everyone to pay for their own health insurance.
Larson says he is concerned about the divided political nature of the state.
“I’d like to work with the Democrats. I’d like to find the common ground and focus on the things we can get done. We have to start the healing process. It’s going to take a while, but I think it can be done. It’s not going to be easy, but I think we can do it,” he said.
“The divide in politics gets wider every year, to the point where it’s hard to even talk to someone. I spent a lot of time thinking about this over the summer. I’d like to go back (to Madison) and visit the other offices and say, ‘What can we agree on? What can we get done?’ … We need to find areas where we can talk and agree on and start the healing process,” Larson said.
“I’ve been disappointed before when I thought people didn’t make the tough decisions. But now I know how hard it is to make the tough decisions,” he said.
“It’s not just been Democrats. It’s been Democrats and Republicans. They’ve spent too much time being concerned about being re-elected instead of spending time doing the right thing for the people. We are part of a big picture. Everything that happens in the rest of the country affects us too,” he said.
Larson says he would like to see the Assembly go to a four-year term so that half of the Assembly members are elected in one cycle and the other half in the other cycle.
“I spent one year figuring out what was going on. Now I’ve spent the next year campaigning again,” he said.