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67th Assembly District candidates: Larson and Stene face off on WPR

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  Tom Larson, the incumbent Republican representative for the state’s 67th Assembly District, and Democratic challenger Gary Stene, talked about their political views on Wisconsin Public Radio’s The West Side August 18.

Larson and Stene are both from Colfax.

Larson, a master electrician and the former owner of Bear Valley Electric, was first elected as state representative in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012.

Stene currently serves as a supervisor on the Dunn County Board. In the past, he has served on the Colfax Village Board as village president, on the Colfax Board of Education, has been a ten-year member of the Dunn County Economic Development Corporation, and served on the county board previously.

Stene said he became a candidate for representative of the 67th Assembly District “because I don’t like the direction we are going.”

Larson said he is running for re-election because the Republicans have done many things for Wisconsin that have been “great for the state and for the people who live here.”

“We want to continue on with what we’ve started,” Larson said.

Larson and Stene responded to a variety of questions from Rich Kremer, the host of WPR’s The West Side, and from listeners who called in with questions.

The 67th Assembly District covers large portions of Dunn County and Chippewa County.

Larson and Stene will be on the ballot in the general election November 4.

Transportation

Chippewa County is considering a wheel tax to raise revenue for the county highway department, Kremer noted, and asked for each candidate’s opinion on a wheel tax.

Transportation funding is a complicated issue, and as is true of all budgets, there is never enough money to go around, Larson said.

Multiple sources of revenue will be needed to increase the funding for the transportation budget, Larson said.

Ideas for increasing transportation revenue include raising the gasoline tax by five cents per gallon; implementing a mileage-based registration fee; increasing the cost of a driver’s license by $20; and removing the sales tax exemption for trade-in vehicles, he said.

All levels of government are experiencing difficulties with providing services and controlling costs, Stene said.

The state’s reduction in state-shared revenue to municipalities has not helped the problem, and transportation funding will require a many-pronged approach, he said.

“If I had the magic answer, I would give it to you,” Stene said.

Kremer wondered about the candidates’ opinions on raising taxes and fees.

Raising fees is avoiding the issue because whether the money comes from taxes or fees, the cost of government must be met somehow, Stene said, noting that either way, whether it is through increased taxes or increased fees, the taxpayers will pay.

Republicans are resistant to raising taxes, Larson said.

A combination of increasing revenues along with doing things more cheaply and more efficiently will allow the state to “make do” with the money available, he said.

Kremer mentioned the zoo interchange in Milwaukee and wondered if the state Legislature had plans to scale back on certain projects.

The zoo interchange is necessary because of the amount of traffic, Larson said.

If a house roof leaks, the homeowner can fix it and get by for a few years, he said.

“I’m a fan of not wasting money when we are struggling,” Larson said.

Legislators from the Milwaukee and Madison area seem to forget that the 67th Assembly District is part of the state and tend to send more money to Milwaukee and Madison, Stene said.

Stene said that in his experience, people serving at all levels of local government — village, township, county, school district — try to be frugal and mindful of the taxpayers.

Sometimes patching a roof might not always be cost-effective in the long run, Stene said.

During the Great Recession, an investment in infrastructure would have put people to work, and when the projects were done, “we would have had something to show for it,” he said.

Frac sand mines

During the last legislative session, bills were introduced to eliminate local control of sand mines, Kremer said.

“I am a strong proponent of local control,” Larson said.

For the last four years, Larson said he has been telling local units of government that the sand mines are coming and local officials and residents should educate themselves.

People in Madison do not know what it is like to live in the Town of Howard or the Town of Cooks Valley and cannot make good decisions for local people, he said, noting that the state is the proper regulatory authority for air and water but that local people should make decisions on other aspects of sand mining.

“I am 100 percent for local control,” Stene said.

Madison should not be telling the townships how to handle the sand mines, he said.

There are pros and cons to sand mining, and the local people need to get the facts and then make decisions based on facts, Stene said.

“People in Madison should not be over-riding local control of government,” he said.

Sand mine companies are “well monied” and are way ahead of local officials; the local officials need to educate themselves, Stene said.

Sand mining is a big industry, it is a brand new industry, and it has been “a huge learning process,” Larson said.

If the state can help to educate local officials on what their responsibilities are and what they can do, the state should help, he said.

But the state should not be over-riding local units of government, and “we have to make sure it’s fair,” Larson said.

Equal Pay

One caller asked the candidates’ opinions on the state’s repeal of the equal pay enforcement act.

The 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act was meant to act as a deterrent for employers to discriminate against certain groups of people and allowed workers to file lawsuits in circuit court, which is not as expensive and is more accessible than filing complaints in federal court.

In 2012, Governor Scott Walker signed SB202 into law that repealed the provision allowing workers to file equal pay lawsuits in circuit court.

The bill was labeled as equal rights for women but did not include anything about pay, Larson said.

Stene said that he would pursue efforts to support equal pay for equal work.

Voter ID

The same caller who asked about the repeal of the equal pay enforcement act also asked about election observers being allowed to photograph people trying to vote from 36 inches away and noted that someone standing so close to a voter might make it more difficult to vote.

Society should be making it easier for people to vote and not more difficult, Stene said.

People should not be intimidated while trying to vote, but “there is voter fraud — significant voter fraud,” Larson said.

Kremer asked the candidates’ opinions on voter identification for elections and whether requiring an ID might disenfranchise some voters.

“I don’t think it will disenfranchise anyone, or very few,” Larson said, noting that identification is required to rent a movie or check out a book.

Identification cards are free at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and people only have to say they want a free ID, Larson said.

In 2011, after the voter identification requirement was signed into law, a state official sent out a memo to DMV employees saying that they could not tell people the state-issued identification cards for voting were free, and that instead, people had to ask for them.

People can also vote by absentee ballots, so “I don’t think this is a big issue,” Larson said.

Larson did not address the issue of how people with no driver’s license would get to the DMV, particularly in areas with no public transportation.

“If there is voter fraud, let’s find it and prosecute it,” Stene said, noting that it was not necessary to change the whole state for a few isolated incidents and that it was not necessary to make it more difficult for people to vote.

Phosphorus

Another issue that Kremer asked about was phosphorus in the Red Cedar River Watershed and the blue-green algae in Lake Menomin and Tainter Lake.

The groundwater in this area is naturally high in phosphorus, Stene said.

It is important to obtain scientific information from research and then determine strategies for dealing with excess phosphorus, Stene said.

Phosphorus discharge is an issue for the Village of Colfax and was an issue at the time Stene served as village president.

Phosphorus and excess algae are a state-wide problem and not just in Menomin and Tainter, Larson said.

Since the Red Cedar River Watershed covers a large area, maybe the state needs to help with phosphorus reduction, he said.

Larson noted that the first budget when he was first elected as state Representative included a provision to reduce phosphorus control in the state.

Larson said he could not support reducing phosphorus control.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has listed Lake Menomin and Tainter Lake as impaired waters.

The EPA is requiring states to put phosphorus standards in place, and has approved the state Department of Natural Resources’ Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which is a plan for reducing phosphorus in the Red Cedar River Watershed.

If the state had not established standards and a plan for dealing with phosphorus, the EPA would have stepped in to set standards.

Taxes

Another caller noted that taxes are the fees paid by the general public for safe roads, good schools, police protection and fire fighters.

Saving the cost of a pizza on taxes while the infrastructure and school systems are crumbling is “ludicrous,” the caller said.

“Taxes are a necessary evil to deliver the services that people need,” Stene said.

The state legislature needs to “control the evil,” Larson said.

Kremer asked about tax breaks for businesses.

Tax breaks for businesses create jobs, Larson said.

The state should require that businesses show what has been done with the tax breaks so that taxpayers can see “something for the money,” Stene said.

Reductions in state funding have caused all levels of local government to either reduce the amount of services provided to residents or to raise taxes, Stene said.

Forcing all levels of government to reduce services or raise taxes “to make the state budget look better is wrong,” he said.

In Madison, state legislators “are always looking for ways to solve problems. There’s not enough money to go around,” Larson said.