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Gary Stene: candidate for representative of the 67th Assembly District

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  Gary Stene of Colfax will be the Democratic candidate on the November 4 ballot for representative of the state’s 67th Assembly District.

Stene is a resident of Colfax and currently works as a special education aide for the Colfax school district, a position that he has held for 17 years.

Stene has served two terms on the Colfax Board of Education and has served five terms as the Colfax village president. He is currently serving his fourth term on the Dunn County Board.

Stene has served on the board of the Dunn County Economic Development Corporation for about ten years.

He recently visited the Colfax Messenger officer to answer questions about his position on several issues.

Here are the questions and Gary Stene’s answers.

1. What do you see as the biggest issues facing the 67th Assembly District? What do you hope to accomplish regarding those issues?

The issue of local control, particularly as it relates to the mining issue. Local levels of government — townships and counties — should be making the decisions regarding mining in their area, and not somebody in Madison. I think that’s an important issue.

The funding of local governments is an issue, because in effect, when they are under funded, it chips away at local control to deliver the services. Look at Chippewa County. They went to the wheel tax. One of the supervisors said, “It’s our least worst option.”  Perhaps if they had gotten the correct amount of money from the state, maybe they wouldn’t have had to do that. I think that’s an issue at all levels. State reimbursement or state participation in funding local government [through state-shared revenue] is vital for small levels of government, townships, villages and counties, to deliver the services that they are elected to do.

There are revenue limits and spending caps that should perhaps be looked at. That again relates to local control. If you have revenue limits and spending caps, do you really have local control. I think that’s something that should be looked at. Either doing away with the caps or adjusting them. [Revenue limits were put into place in 1993.] The way things currently are, we are cannibalizing our local government, unless you want to go to referendum. I don’t think you should have to go to referendum for ongoing maintenance. You should be able to pay your bills and do common sense maintenance. We can’t cut our way to solving our problems. It would have been nice if the revenue limits would have applied to something like the cost of health insurance. But the limits didn’t apply to that. There are no easy answers, but I think we can make some headway. You have to look for more revenue streams and ongoing revenue streams. Not raising the gas tax for all these years. All of these things sound good. Giving money back to people — who can argue with that? But in the end, that $840 million, if I’d have had a say, I would have sent it to the schools or sent it to transportation and roads. We certainly need that. It will be up to the people to decide what direction they want to go.

2. People living in the Town of Howard and the Town of Cooks Valley and beyond are concerned about the sand mines and their impact on neighbors and the environment. What is your opinion of the petition to the Natural Resources Board asking for a strategic analysis of the effects of sand mines on the environment?

I think most of our local officials are regular people like I am. They are not DNR experts, and they are not water experts. I really think there is a place for the DNR where they could and should help the local officials get the information they need so the local officials can make informed and intelligent decisions regarding sand mines in their communities. With the cut-back in the DNR’s budget and cut-back in manpower, that doesn’t lend itself to helping these people out.

Local control — the local people should make the decisions but on a state-wide level, the DNR is responsible for everything, and I don’t know why they can’t provide the expertise for the people here. I think there are some policy issues there. You hire good people in the DNR. You hire people with degrees. Let them do their jobs. This whole sand mine thing needs to get as much light shed on it and as much information as possible so that everybody can make an informed and intelligent decision based on facts, not on rumor, not on innuendo, not on stories we hear.

I do know that, in my time serving in elected positions, I always worried about Wisconsin’s water. I think every official should worry about Wisconsin’s water. The DNR is one of our guardians of the water. The court case over by Plover. The high capacity well. The court said the DNR did not take into account the things they should have taken into account. There’s a lesson in that. The DNR has a responsibility. It is part of our constitution that we look after the welfare of our people, and water is one of them.

I read the article the other day. It exposed a big chasm between the upper levels in the DNR and the people doing the work. You have to take politics out of government agencies and let them do their jobs. You have to take the politics out of the funding and for manpower and for direction. I don’t have a degree in science or water. I have a friend who has worked in the DNR for more than 30 years, and he is so disgusted. They put a political appointee to run the DNR with no experience whatsoever. They get told what they can pursue and what they can’t pursue. And when the funding is cut and the manpower is cut, there’s only so much they can do.

3. In September, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals lifted the stay on voter ID for the November elections, and the Government Accountability Board decided to implement the 2011 law. Now municipal clerks and the GAB say there is no money in their budgets to implement the law. Should the state issue emergency funds to the municipalities to implement voter ID? Or should the municipalities cut something else from their budgets to pay for implementing voter ID?

My opinion on the voter ID law is that in 95 percent of state, they never did come up with any proven voter fraud. If it’s not broke, why fix it. Assuming that there are some areas that have issues, they should have fixed those issues there. We have no problem in our rural area with voter fraud. I don’t know why you wouldn’t make it easier to vote. But having lost that argument, now it doesn’t make any sense to change the voting parameters and requirements and not expect that you are going to have an added expense to educate the people. So, yes. The state should allocate some money to get this done.

I will take the Republicans at face value. That it wasn’t done to stunt or shift the vote, but if that is really, truly the case, and you want everybody to vote, you should allocate money so notices can go out and people can do the proper thing. You would think that a change of this magnitude, you would have budgeted an X amount of money to make the first year or two as seamless as possible, to make voting as easy as possible. They didn’t allocate any money. That’s not very good planning.

4. Economists say that people having money to spend is what helps the economy improve and ultimately creates jobs. What is your opinion about increasing the minimum wage?

I would be in favor of increasing the minimum wage. It would benefit the overall economy. There would be more money for people. I don’t think you can live on the minimum wage now. What final figure we come to is all open to discussion. But yes, philosophically, we should raise the minimum wage. There was an interesting article about the CEO of an insurance company. In the 60s, he was homeless. He worked different jobs. If he took the minimum wage paid then and projected it up to (today), it would be about $10.50. It hasn’t done that. Here is a man, who has a GED and is the head of a company, who says it makes sense to raise the minimum wage. The purchasing power has been so hollowed out.

5. The Legislative Fiscal Bureau is projecting a $1.8 billion budget deficit over the next two years. The Department of Health Services has asked for $760 million over the next two years to pay for Medicaid. Taxpayers would have saved $206 million under the current state budget if the federal Medicaid money had been accepted, according to the LFB.  If Medicaid in Wisconsin were expanded under the Affordable Care Act, taxpayers would save $261 to $315 million in 2015-2017, according the LFB. What is your opinion of accepting federal money for expanding Medicaid?

My opinion on accepting the Medicaid expansion money from the federal government so we can expand BadgerCare is a no-brainer. Not taking the money cannot be defended on any fiscal ground whatsoever. The money has been paid by taxpayers. It’s in Washington. My understanding of it is that if we would take the money, new people on BadgerCare would be 100 percent funded until 2020, then it drops to 90 percent.

Currently, BadgerCare is funded 60 percent by the federal government and 40 percent by the state. Because of the decisions being made by the government and legislature, we have to ask for the extra money. We’re paying 60/40 when we could get it for 100 percent, and after 2020, 90/10. That just doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t think that’s good representation for the people of the 67th. Why would I pass up putting approximately 500 people in Dunn County and a little over a thousand people in Chippewa County, giving them the access to BadgerCare, why would I not do that? Over three or four biennium, it’s $31 million in Chippewa and $18 million in Dunn County, which is $49 million. (A total of) $49 million rippling through our economy and the health industry, plus you would have people, more than the size of the Village of Colfax, who would have insurance. I don’t know why we’re not doing that. I don’t think it can be defended on any logical, fiscal grounds at all. My answer is not partisan. This is not a partisan issue. This is dollars and cents, common sense. Why aren’t we doing that? Our representatives are elected to make fiscal decisions for their electorate, not to make policy statements.

Their argument was that they wanted people to take care of themselves. And there’s some validity to that. They don’t think the federal government would be able to keep up their end of the bargain. We take tons of money from the federal government for education and transportation. Their argument does not hold water. By that way of thinking, we should be turning down federal highway funds.

Editor’s Note: This paper sent an e-mail to Representative Tom Larson’s office on September 22, and after waiting a day or two for a reply, called Representative Larson’s Madison office to leave a message that he should contact this paper about doing an interview for a candidate profile article. As of press time, Representative Larson has not yet contacted this paper.