Senate Seat Struggle

Local senate recall candidates weigh in on state budget issues affecting Wisconsin’s business climate

Forward by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B Publisher

The events that transpired in Madison and across Wisconsin in the wake of the passage of the state 

budget repair bill in March ignited much of the electorate, regardless of where one stood on the political spectrum.

In a historically unprecedented episode, Democrats who felt their elected officials didn’t listen to their concerns before voting on Act 10 recalled six of their Republican senators across the state. At the same time, Republican constituents irate that their representation in the capitol crossed the border to Illinois and skipped out on work for three weeks without a doctor’s excuse recalled three of their Democratic senators.

Of those nine state senate seat recalls, four affect districts within the New North B2B magazine readership area. One of those races has already been determined, as Sen. Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) held on to his 30th Senate District seat, winning the July 19 special election.

The fate of three other seats will be determined when voters in various areas of northeast Wisconsin go to the polls Aug. 9 to either reinstate or recall Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) in the 2nd Senate District, Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) in the 14th Senate District and Sen. Randy Hopper (R-Fond du Lac) in the 18th Senate District.

Because of how polarized the electorate has become during the last six months – as well as the nature of the recalls – the issues are seemingly more simple than in regular general elections: position on the budget repair bill and position on the recently enacted biennial state budget for 2011 to 2013, as well as how to bridge the divide in Madison moving forward.

As we have every two years since October 2002, New North B2B asked candidates in our area Wisconsin Senate recall elections to respond to three questions about the aforementioned topics affecting the business climate in the state, providing our readers with a greater understanding of their perspective.

One candidate, Rep. Fred Clark (D-Baraboo), who is challenging Sen. Olsen, declined to participate in the forum.

What follows are the unabridged, unedited responses from participating candidates. You may also find their responses online at www.newnorthb2b.com.

 

Recall Election 2011 Questions asked of the candidates

1. All 2011 recall elections in Wisconsin were prompted in one fashion or another by Act 10, the budget repair bill, either as a response to votes in favor of the measure or in response to the actions of senators who left the state to avoid voting on the bill. If you’re a sitting senator, please defend your vote for Act 10 or defend your decision to leave the state. If you’re a challenger, please discuss whether you would have supported or opposed Act 10 and explain why.

2. The recently enacted state budget bill for the 2011-13 biennium also appeared to polarize sitting senators and their challengers in the upcoming recall election. As a sitting senator, please defend your vote for or against the current budget in place for Wisconsin. If you’re a challenger, please discuss what you would have supported or opposed in the current budget and explain why.

3. The status of Wisconsin’s state legislative politics is arguably as disjointed as it’s been since the mid-1980s. Moving forward, what plans would you have for bringing citizens, special interests, political parties and legislators closer together to work on a more bi-partisan agenda for advancing Wisconsin’s interests? Or, do you favor the divisiveness and hope to accomplish as much as possible during periods in which your respective political party holds a legislative majority.

 

2nd Senate District

Includes portions of Green Bay, Ashwaubenon, Hobart, Oneida, Kaukauna and northern Outagamie County

Question #1

Cowles - The budget-repair bill was a critical first-step to achieving my long-term goal of a truly-balanced budget. Quite simply, in order to cope with reductions in state aid, we needed to give local governments the necessary tools to balance their books.

As reported by several media outlets, the collective bargaining reforms included in the budget-repair bill are already working for several school districts. Perhaps the best example is with the Kaukauna School District, which is located in the southern portion of my district. There, because of the reforms we implemented at the state level, the Kaukauna School District is turning a $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million budget surplus. Even better, the school district is using this money the right way – shrinking class sizes and instituting a merit pay plan that helps reward the best and brightest teachers.

More recently, contrary to the doomsday scenarios predicted by some, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that most school districts are avoiding large layoffs and drastic cuts this fall, thanks largely to the changes instituted by the budget-repair bill. Among other things, the bill requires most public employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pension and pay 12.6 percent of their healthcare premiums. Compared to benefits available in the private sector, these are modest reforms.

 

Nusbaum - Everyone understands that we all must share in the sacrifice to get Wisconsin’s fiscal house in order and balance the budget. Working folks have agreed to do their part when they agreed to increased pension and health care contributions – that was the right thing to do.

The budget repair bill was extreme – a needless overreach. The legislation was rammed through with no oversight, transparency or work together. Besides being unfair, the bill fails to offset the deep cuts to education, local aids, health care and transportation that local communities face in this dangerous budget – causing serious budget challenges for local communities that will have fiscal consequences for years as well as real impacts on quality of life. The City of De Pere, where I served as mayor for seven years, will face a budget shortfall of $666,000, on top of the $3.1 million cut to the De Pere School District.

The fact that supporters refused to listen to constituents, refused to talk, is an indication that this was a flawed bill. We go further when we go together. We need to sit down and work together to solve problems. That’s the Wisconsin way, and that’s the way I have always balanced budgets as a mayor and a county executive.

 

Question #2

Nusbaum - This radical budget and its underlying priorities do not reflect our shared Wisconsin values. At a time when we need shared sacrifice to solve our problems, this extreme budget forces middle class and working families to make all the sacrifices, while the wealthy and corporations share in all the benefits. This budget:

• Gave $2.3 billion in tax breaks primarily to the privileged and large corporations while providing nothing for working Wisconsin families.

• Increased taxes on tens of thousands of seniors and low-income working families by $70 million by reducing the Homestead and Earned Income Tax Credits.

• Increased property taxes by $483.8 million on Wisconsin families.

• Cut $1.6 billion for Wisconsin’s K-12 public school children.

• Cut $500 million in health care through Medicaid and other health care programs.

• Reduced public safety through shared revenue cuts that impact local police and fire services.

• Failed to protect the popular, successful SeniorCare prescription drug program from funding raids.

• Pushed $338 million dollars in state debt off into the future – costing us taxpayers an additional $89.9 million in interest.

 

Cowles - I’ve long been a strong advocate for fiscal responsibility in Madison, and I’ve opposed big-spending budgets by both Democrats and Republicans. State government needs to balance its books just like any family has to do.

Last session, Gov. Doyle and his liberal allies in Madison increased taxes and fees by a staggering $4.7 billion. This includes a tax on the sick (hospital tax), an increase in the nursing home bed tax, and a new phone tax. These tax and fee increases squeezed middle-class families at a time when they could least afford it. Job creators felt the pinch as well, with major Wisconsin employers like Briggs & Stratton and Harley-Davidson sending jobs to more business-friendly states.

Despite all these tax increases, the Doyle budget still left us with a large structural imbalance. That’s because instead of making the tough decisions, it relied on one-time federal stimulus money to fulfill ongoing expenses. As a result, Wisconsin was saddled with a $3.6 billion deficit.

As a responsible legislator, I could not support kicking the can down the road any further. Simply stated, to get out of debt we need to reduce spending. That’s exactly what this most recent budget does, and that’s why it had my support. Because this budget does make the tough decisions that Gov. Doyle refused to make, Wisconsin now faces its first budget surplus in more than a decade. That’s good news for job creators, and good news for northeast Wisconsin taxpayers.

 

Question #3

Cowles - I’ve already mentioned how I’ve voted against big-spending budgets authored by both Democrats and Republicans. To me, it’s always been more important to do what’s right than to do what’s right for my party.

To cite another example: I have long touted my strong commitment to the environment. I think that a clean environment is important to helping foster job creation. That’s why I’ve worked across the aisle on issues like the passage of the Great Lakes Compact, which will help protect our beautiful Great Lakes for future generations. More recently, I was one of the leading advocates to oppose the cut of community recycling grants from the state budget, and I’m pleased that these grants were partially restored in the final bill.

It’s because of this commitment to protecting our natural resources that I earned the endorsement this summer of two leading environmental groups: the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters and Clean Wisconsin. Mother Nature knows no party affiliation, and I am the only Republican in the summer elections to receive the endorsement of either group.

Despite these environmental successes, there remains a great deal of work to be done in Wisconsin, especially in regards to job creation. As co-chair of the Legislative Audit Committee, I stand ready to work with anyone, regardless of political affiliation, who shares my vision of creating jobs by cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse in government. The taxpayers of northeast Wisconsin deserve nothing less.

 

Nusbaum - We go further when we go together. We need to sit down and work together to solve problems. That’s the Wisconsin way and the way I’ve always approached balancing budgets. We need to move away from the hyper-partisanship that has gripped our state, while standing up for real Wisconsin values.

I’ll never stop fighting for what I believe is right, but I’ll never let rigid adherence to ideology stand in the way of working across the aisle to get things done for the people of Wisconsin.

 

14th Senate District

Includes Hortonville, Berlin, Ripon and western portions of Fond du Lac County

 Question #1

Olsen - Going into this fiscal year Wisconsin faced a $3.6 billion deficit. Multiple raids of the segregated funds and the spending of one-time stimulus money left Wisconsin in a fiscal crisis. Something needed to be done.

We were faced with a couple options. We could raise taxes or we could stop the out-of-control spending. With businesses and families already paying high taxes, we chose the latter.

Looking at all the pieces of the state budget, it became quite clear that the largest expense to state government was personnel. We could have done what other states all across the country are doing, which is laying off thousands of  public employees. With Wisconsin’s unemployment rate already over 7 percent, we knew that simply was not an option. Instead we asked our valued, public employees to pay a little more towards their pension and health care costs. In doing so we avoided thousands of layoffs. 

 

Question #2

Olsen - For the first time in decades, Wisconsin has a balanced budget. This was done with no accounting gimmicks, cheap tricks or tax increases. This was good honest budgeting.

In a time when businesses and families are doing more with less I believe state government needed to do the same. While cuts were made to almost every aspect of state government, we still prioritized what was important for Wisconsin.

Spending for education remains the number one expenditure with over 40 percent of general purpose revenue going towards education. We protected the most vulnerable like our seniors by making sure we properly fund senior care and other programs that assist the elderly. Lastly, we implemented a state wide property tax freeze.

Last November folks from all across Wisconsin told us they simply can’t afford to pay more taxes. We listened and delivered!

 

Question #3

Olsen - Since my time in the state legislature, I have worked hand in hand with members of both political parties to advance policies that benefit the state of Wisconsin. The interesting thing about politics is that bi-partisan policies rarely get any coverage from the media because there is no controversy.

The overwhelming majority of bills passed through the legislature pass with bi-partisan support. You just won’t hear about it because it doesn’t make for very interesting news.

However, we do have to ask ourselves some very basic questions. Do we want the size of government to increase or decrease? Do we want higher taxes or lower taxes? I believe the majority of the citizens of the 14th Senate District want smaller government and lower taxes. Consequently, on issues such as these I will not waiver.

Fred Clark did not respond to our request for information.

 

18th Senate District

Includes Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, as well as most of southern Winnebago and Fond du Lac counties

Question #1

Hopper - Over the last few years we have witnessed a recession that has devastated Wisconsin’s economy. Over 150,000 people in our great state lost their jobs and our unemployment numbers are not recovering fast enough. In order to move our state forward, I believe state government must change the way we do business.

For over a decade, the Wisconsin budget has faced multi-million dollar, and most recently, multi-billion dollar deficits. One-time stimulus funding, massive tax increases, and reckless spending has done nothing to improve our budget situation. Our citizens have made it very clear; now is the time to take the necessary steps so Wisconsin can be prosperous once again.

I voted for Gov. Scott Walker’s budget adjustment bill because we are at a crossroads in our state. After years out-of-control state spending, we simply cannot afford the wage and benefit packages that are currently provided to government workers.

By asking these dedicated and hardworking employees to pitch in we will avoid tax hikes, immediate layoffs for thousands of workers, furloughs that equated to a 3 percent wage cut, or the elimination of necessary services for 194,000 children, 92,000 adults, and 16,000 blind or disabled persons.

I, along with my Republican colleagues, will prove to the State of Wisconsin that this bill was not an assault on public employees, but rather an investment. An investment to help Wisconsin prosper; an investment I know our children and grandchildren will one day appreciate.

 

King - I believe the state legislature must be transparent and people should have time to review proposed legislation and understand the impact of the legislation. Act 10 was introduced as a 144-page document on a Friday. It was scheduled for a vote the next week. As a local elected official, it was difficult for me to gain information as to how this legislation would impact the City of Oshkosh. While the legislation was called the “Budget Repair Bill,” it contained non-budget provisions. It granted Gov. Walker the ability to add 32 additional political appointments. I believe this additional appointment power to the governor should not have been included as a policy item in Act 10.

As far as the budgetary priorities included in Act 10, everyone understands that we all must share in the sacrifice to get Wisconsin’s fiscal house in order and balance the budget. Working people agreed to do their part when they offered concessions to increase pension and heath care contributions in order to retain their ability to have input in their workplace conditions. The methods used to adopt Act 10 were extreme. There was no input from local officials, the Walker administration attempted to pass the legislation which jeopardized Oshkosh’s federal transit funding, and it was a blatant attack on local decision making.

As a former local elected official, I recognize the importance of local control because local elected officials are more accessible to the public, and the public can hold them to a higher level of accountability.

 

Question #2

King - I have always believed the budget document must have a relationship to a community’s vision, values and priorities. Wisconsin has been a leader in the nation because of our strong commitment to sound physical infrastructure, quality public educational opportunities, healthy community environment and large skilled workforce.

This budget had different priorities. It gave $2.3 billion in tax breaks to corporations, which creates an unfair advantage for small and local business which do not receive similar treatment. The budget increased property taxes by $483.8 million for Wisconsin families, directly impacting fixed income seniors and single parent households. It cut $1.6 billion for Wisconsin’s K-12 public school children. The University of Wisconsin system’s budget was cut $250 million, which will force campuses to raise tuition making higher education less accessible for our children. The same is true for the technical college system as its budget was also reduced by 30 percent.

Additionally, the budget reduced public safety through shared revenue cuts that impact local police and fire service. The budget does not protect SeniorCare, a prescription drug program, from future segregated fund attacks. In the end, this biennium budget actually continues to increase spending over a billion dollars over the next biennium, but it’s unclear what benefits will be derived from the increase in spending.

 

Hopper - This budget is about responsible budgeting. Finally, Wisconsin is NOT spending more than it takes in. In fact, this budget takes a $3.6 billion deficit and turns it into a $300 million surplus, and it does so without raising taxes.

At the beginning of this session, Republicans vowed to focus on getting Wisconsin citizens back to work, and passing this budget is a major step towards creating 250,000 private sector jobs. The budget makes great strides in generating a job-creator friendly environment in Wisconsin. The creation of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation – a public-private partnership, whose main focus is private-sector job creation – a permanent property tax freeze; reforms in capital gains taxes, including a deferral for capital gains re-invested in Wisconsin businesses; and no tax increase, all help to change the economic climate in Wisconsin.

And we have accomplished all of this while still providing for our vulnerable citizens. We preserved SeniorCare, we provided $10 million for emergency placements for Family Care. We also gave $5 million to shore up the Veterans Trust Fund and fulfill the promises we made to those who risked their lives to protect our freedom.

I am proud to have voted for a budget that will put Wisconsin in the best fiscal shape in 15 years.

 

Question #3

Hopper - I will continue to work in a bipartisan fashion when it comes to non-partisan issues like getting our economy back on track. Here are just a few examples of where I have reached across the aisle during my tenure as state senator:

• 2011 Wisconsin Act 12 creates an exception from the usual submission deadline that applies to creation of a tax incremental financing (TIF) district for a TIF district in the City of Milwaukee known as the Bishop’s Creek Redevelopment. If the bill wasn’t passed, $1.2 million in borrowing would have had to be repaid from Milwaukee’s general fund. A bill authored by a Democrat, I – as chair of the committee – scheduled a vote even though Democrats had left the state during the budget repair bill debate. The bill passed 19-0 on floor of the senate.

• 2011 Wisconsin Act 26 authorizes the state Department of Commerce to increase the number of enterprise zones to no more than 20. The bill passed 26-7, and I voted “yes.”

• 2011 Assembly Bill 13 creates a development opportunity zone in the City of Beloit effective for 60 months. The bill was authored by Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), and Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) was later added as the lead senate co-sponsor. The bill passed 33-0, and I voted to support it.

I will continue to reach across the aisle and work with all of my colleagues to create a positive economic environment here in Wisconsin.

 

King - State senators should advocate on behalf of their districts in order to sustain and grow the economy. We need to work in a collaborative fashion with local elected officials to ensure that communities are enabled to prosper.

During my two terms on the Oshkosh Common Council I worked hard to increase transparency, so that citizens had a clear understanding of Oshkosh’s Strategic Plan. As a member of the Common Council, I encouraged efforts to engage community stakeholders to develop shared priorities for successful growth. As your state senator, I will work with local elected officials to enact good public policy that reflects Wisconsin values. As a local elected official I worked with stakeholders regardless of their partisan affiliation to achieve results that were in line with Oshkosh’s strategic plan, and I would continue to maintain this practice as a state senator.