Time to vote
BY EILEEN PERSIKE
The Star Journal participated in a recent candidate forum hosted by WXPR radio in Rhinelander. The candidates for the 12th Senate District, Sen. Tom Tiffany and challenger, Bryan Van Stippen, answered questions from a panel of local media, as did 34th Assembly District candidates, incumbent Rep. Rob Swearingen and democrat Matthew Michelson.
12th Senate District
Tiffany defended shoreland zoning changes he championed in 2015, known as NR 115, saying there was initially agreement between legislators and the Department of Natural Resources to limit local control over what property owners can and cannot do with their lake property.
“It’s all about maintenance and repair of non-conforming structures,” Tiffany said. “People were being denied the ability to repair and maintain their homes. I reject that.”
The concern,Van Stippen said, is not about fixing a dilapidated boathouse, but that lakes will become crowded because properties are now allowed to be subdivided.
“I believe that with the different kinds of lakes we have in the Northwoods, we should allow lake association members to be able to communicate with county boards to enforce more stringent standards, if that’s what they desire.”
If that is a concern, Tiffany responded, people can use the free enterprise system. “If they don’t want lots to be divided on their lake, buy them up,” he said. “They have the ability to do that.”
When the subject turned to the DNR and the environment, Tiffany was asked about the recent cuts to the Bureau of Science Services. Tiffany said the environment gets “cleaner year after year,” and regarding the scientists, “Some of them were going off and doing projects that didn’t fit within the discipline,” he stated. “They messed up the deer herd in Northern Wisconsin – all you have to do is talk to hunters about that.”
“Sen. Tiffany ran on decimating the DNR and recently in one of his advertisements he stated, ‘I’ve taken on the DNR and won,’” Van Stippen said. “I don’t know what that necessarily means but I don’t believe that the decimation of the DNR and removal of research scientists have been beneficial for the Northwoods.”
The two candidates agreed the school funding formula does not benefit Northwoods schools. Tiffany said it is working the way it was developed, and it is difficult putting together a coalition to change it.
“So I’ve focused on categorical aids,” Tiffany said. “And getting more money into high-cost transportation areas and sparcity aid so rural schools can get more money.”
Van Stippen said Northwoods taxpayers’ dollars should stay in the Northwoods, and that he sees a problem with the rural transportation aids.
“My concern is that Stevens Point School District was given a large chunk of change in transportation aids simply because they did not have sidewalks in front of the school,” said Van Stippen. “And Rhinelander didn’t receive any transportation funds. We need to work on getting more funds back into district 12.”
Wisconsin’s 34th Assembly District
One of the first issues that Swearingen said he had to deal with when he was first elected was the divisive school referendums back home. Bringing District of Rhinelander superintendent Kelli Jacobi and others to Madison for a discussion led to the Rural Schools Task Force.
“The school funding formula does work overwhelmingly for the majority of the districts in the state,” Swearingen said. “The rub is, no legislator is going to take the money out of their district and shuffle it around.”
So that, he added, leaves relying on categorical aids, like transportation.
His challenger, Lakeland Union High School teacher Matthew Michalsen sees the need for additional spending for special education.
“At LUHS, one in four students in the next five years will need an IEP (Individualized Education Program) and there is a need on the autism spectrum as well,” said Michalsen. “Rural schools are losing when it comes to the school funding formula.”
Rep. Swearingen, he added, has voted to send tax money from the Northwoods to voucher programs down south.
“No one could ever say I like school vouchers, but I will say they are here to stay,” Swearingen said. “And will keep focusing on categorical aids to make sure we get our fair shake.”
Broadband, youth workforce development and tourism are key issues facing the 34th District, according to Rep. Swearingen.
“We need to keep our youth in the district,” he said. “We want them to graduate, find a job locally, make sure the job is family-sustaining so they can raise their family here and hopefully their kids can enter the workforce here as well.”
Broadband, Swearingen said, has come a long way in the Northwoods with grants from the Public Service Commission and public-private partnerships, but there is still a long way to go.
“Unfortunately, the state of Wisconsin is lagging behind the nation in terms of download speeds,” he conceded. “That’s probably the biggest need. We know it affects rural schools, the economy, entrepreneurship and businesses in the Northwoods.”
Democrat Michalsen said revitalizing the economy and an aging population are two big issues for him.
“We need good, professional good-paying jobs and those just aren’t here,” he said. “So many hardworking families have a hard time paying the bills. We need to make the Northwoods attractive to young professionals, and offer low interest small business loans.”
Increasing broadband access in the district is needed for the economy, he said.
“People say they would stay here longer, move up here,” Michalsen said, if only broadband was more readily available.
Listen to the forum in its entirety on wxpr.org.