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In the Aug. 14 primary, 21st state Senate District, incumbent Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine) is challenged by Bristol resident Lori Hawkins, the lone Democrat seeking the office. The 21st District covers most of Racine County and a large part of Kenosha County. It includes the emerging Foxconn Technology Group development campus.
While both are assured a spot on the ballot in November, the Aug. 14 primary provides the candidates a chance to work out their rhetorical muscles by answering questions that will no doubt arise in the months ahead.
Racine County Eye asked both candidates about Foxconn, education funding, environmental concerns, and rail transportation. Here are their responses.
Employment: Yoga instructor and small business owner
Family: One daughter, 15; one son, 12
How long have you lived in the district? My husband Rob and I moved to Kenosha County 12 years ago.
Political involvement: Like many people, I stepped up my political involvement following the 2016 election. I have served on the Board of Forward Kenosha and Congregations United to Serve Humanity. In 2017, I was also fortunate enough to travel to Washington D.C. to meet with my representatives and advocate for access to affordable healthcare.
Work: Retired police officer and small business owner
Family: Two adult children (42, 39); three granddaughters
How long have you lived in the district? Most of my life, and all my adult life.
Political involvement: County Board 2002-2011, State Senate 2011-12, 2015-present.
Should the state of Wisconsin and its agencies assert more control of the Foxconn Technology Group project? Please explain the rationale behind your answer.
Hawkins: I think it is crucial for our leaders to be active watchdogs and not just rubber stamps regarding the Foxconn project. This deal has the potential to bring hundreds of jobs to our community, but it is also important to note that this is a company with a history of backing out of deals like these. We expect our leaders to do their due diligence when making decisions, and whereas it usually takes many months for the Wisconsin State Legislature to address issues with a large fiscal impact, it only took a month for legislators to sign over billions of taxpayer dollars and enormous regulation carve-outs for this company. I pledge to monitor Foxconn and make sure they are being a good neighbor to all of us in southeast Wisconsin.
Wanggaard: I am unsure of what you mean by having the state “assert more control.” Foxconn is a private company, and employees are Foxconn employees, not government employees. The state should ensure that the contract requirements between itself and Foxconn are met. The agreement between the state and Foxconn is a pay-as-you-grow agreement. Therefore, we need to monitor that Foxconn is living up to its end of the agreement. I believe they will. The state must ensure that it verifies that number of jobs created, and that the average salary is $53,000 per year. Those numbers are the critical benchmarks of the deal. Beyond that, the state must ensure that Foxconn is complying with all environmental regulations, including the 2-to-1 wetland mitigation and the return of clean water to Lake Michigan. Foxconn is aware that there is tremendous scrutiny, and that it will be monitored closely, both by state government and the public at large.
What grade would you give the state on preparing a workforce for the future? Why?
Hawkins: Our state has failed to fully prepare our workforce for the future as technology continues to advance and our employment needs continue to evolve. This is largely due to the fact that our leaders have abdicated their responsibility to create paths for young people following high school. Our state should be investing in technical colleges, high school STEM programs, and apprenticeships to meet the demands of 21st-century jobs. Foxconn will potentially bring hundreds of technology jobs to southeast Wisconsin. However, Governor Walker would rather recruit workers from Illinois to fill those jobs than invest in workforce development here in Wisconsin.
Wanggaard: I would give us a B, but I would also caution that there is room for improvement. Wisconsin workers are in a good situation right now. Unemployment is at or near historic lows. More people are working than ever before. These are good things, but there is more work to do.
For too long, there was too much emphasis on 4-year university degrees in liberal arts, and not on agricultural, job-based or technical education. This left Wisconsin critically short in those areas. Thankfully, we have begun to see more focus on future careers in high schools which can prepare students to enter the workforce prepared at an earlier age, and steering students towards education and training for those careers. I am encouraged that we are already seeing changes related to training for the Foxconn workforce. I was instrumental in obtaining $5 million for a Gateway Technical College expansion to help with the advanced robotics training needed for Foxconn. Gateway and other schools, including UW-Parkside, Marquette, MSOE and the rest of the UW are working with Foxconn to ensure that they are providing the skills and workers that Foxconn needs. But the biggest concern I hear from employers is not that the kids aren’t getting the training or education they need. It’s that the soft skills are missing. Workers who can’t pass a drug test, or who don’t show up to work on time, or not at all. Fixing that will solve a lot of the workforce shortage issue.
True or false: The State of Wisconsin is doing a good job funding education needs? Why?
Hawkins: False. While my opponent likes to point to the latest increase in education funding in the 2018-19 state budget, the reality is far different. Since 2010, our state has seen a reduction of 9 percent in total education funding. With schools facing this large divestment, it has become harder for districts to perform necessary maintenance on buildings or maintain crucial teaching positions. As a result, communities and their taxpaying citizens have shouldered more of the financial burden to fund our schools. In 2016 alone, voters approved $1.35 billion for school funding through local referendums to make up for budget cuts. The facts are clear that local school districts are barely scraping by, and that we need to seriously re-invest in public education.
Wanggaard: True. Wisconsin is investing a record $13.6 billion into K-12 education more money than ever before. In this last budget alone, the state put an additional $800 million into the classroom. Starting in September, every school will have over $600 more per student to spend than they did in 2016. That is in addition to the $400 increase in spending per student in the 2015-17 budget. The claim that we are cutting K-12 education is false. In addition, we are also ensuring that parents can choose the best learning environment for their child. Whether it is open enrollment, which many families use to choose a different public school, or school choice, which low-income families can use to choose a private school, we are making sure every child can learn in the most appropriate environment. We’re also seeing performance-model funding for our technical colleges. The job of the tech schools (is) to create career-ready graduates. Those that do a better job of that receive more funding. To make tech schools more accessible, we have frozen tuition for the last six years, and also encouraged more K-12/Tech College partnership programs. Finally, after years of skyrocketing tuition and a billion-dollar slush fund at the UW System, we have frozen tuition at UW for the last six years as well. At the same time, we have funded innovative new programs at UW, as well as their building and infrastructure needs, especially at UW-Parkside.
Do you consider the loss of reasonably priced health insurance coverage for many more citizens a crisis in Wisconsin?
Hawkins: The skyrocketing costs of healthcare are absolutely causing a crisis among Wisconsin’s residents. When Governor Walker refused to expand BadgerCare, the cost Wisconsin taxpayers over $1 billion. Between this and the repeated Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, we have seen many insurance providers leave our state out of uncertainty. Instead of limiting access to affordable health care, we should be working to expand it. Community health clinics must remain open, especially in our rural areas where the availability of healthcare options tend to be limited. Lowering prescription drug costs for seniors and adopting more natural medicinal practices are other ways to support healthier communities. Healthcare access is a right, not a privilege. Healthy communities can only exist if we treat access to health care as such.
Wanggaard: I don’t know if it’s a crisis, but it’s definitely a problem. The promised benefits of Obamacare haven’t come true. Healthcare costs across the country, not just in Wisconsin, have skyrocketed. That’s the opposite of what was promised. We were told healthcare costs would decrease under Obamacare, instead, they’ve increased.
That is why I supported the Wisconsin Healthcare Stability Plan (WIHSP). Under the WIHSP, we have established a $200 million fund to smooth increases for both citizens and health care providers. This is largely accomplished through a reinsurance plan. In addition to stabilizing or reducing health care premium costs to consumers, the WIHSP also attempts to increase the number of health care providers participating in the individual marketplace, and access to those providers. For example, the health care coverage of people in the 21st District isn’t improved by adding more providers in Madison. We need more options here, and those options have to be affordable. Prior to Obamacare, Wisconsin had one the best health care coverage ratios in the country. Under Republican leadership, we’ve take steps to ensure that remains the case. Everyone below 200% of poverty has access to government assistance for health care. If an individual or family is below the poverty line, they are eligible for Badgercare. Between 100-200% of poverty, an individual has access to Obamacare subsidies to pay for their insurance. I believe Wisconsin is the only state that offers coverage to this many people.
Are environmental protections taking a back seat to business growth?
Hawkins: You don’t need to look much further than the last legislative session to find an answer to this. Republican leaders repealed a number of key laws that protect our precious water resources, and I am incredibly worried about the long-term impact these changes will have on our state. For example, it’s been just over a year since the devastating flooding in Burlington. This disaster affected thousands of people and cost the community a lot of time and money. Without protections for our wetlands, we would see an increase in tragic flooding like we saw in Burlington. Protecting our environment isn’t just the right thing to do, but it also helps protect the economic interests of our citizens and businesses. I do not believe that the choice between protecting our resources and supporting progress and development needs to be an either/or decision, and we need to elect people who see the importance of both.
Wanggaard: Of course not. As our state continues to grow, we need to maintain a balance between environmental protection and growth – both population and economy. For years, Wisconsin’s environmental laws and the threat of environmental lawsuits served as an effective deterrent to economic growth. This is especially true in the northern part of Wisconsin. What we’ve seen recently is a return to a more even balance between environmental protection and growth.
There is a lot of hyperbole out there about the environmental changes that have been made. They claim we’ve gutted this or destroyed that. It’s just not true. With the mining bills, we haven’t changed any environmental runoff or pollution laws, we’ve changed the paperwork. With high capacity wells, we aren’t plunging wells every hundred yards, we’re allowing existing wells to be repaired, replaced or moved. With wetlands, we still require mitigation, and in the case of Foxconn, we require more mitigation than we do usually – a ratio (of) 2-to-1. One of the bills I was working on at the end of session last year would actually allow more wetlands to be built. Our current system of mitigation credits and banks is difficult to use and release those credits. As a result, companies are paying to create wetlands, but no wetlands are being created. We need to streamline that process so that we are truly mitigating wetlands and protecting our environment. My bill would require wetlands be created in the same area. I plan on reintroducing that bill next year.
Has the state abandoned rail as a human transportation solution? Please explain your answer.
Hawkins: I was among the many people who were gravely disappointed in Governor Walker’s abandonment of the high-speed rail plan following his election in 2010. The rail would have connected Chicago, Milwaukee, and Madison, with plans to eventually connect to the Twin Cities. In southeast Wisconsin, we are very fortunate to have access to the Amtrak Hiawatha which runs from Milwaukee to Chicago. However, Wisconsin would greatly benefit from a rail system that would connect more corners of our state together. Communities across Wisconsin would see increases in tourism, and our citizens would have access to cheaper, more efficient travel options. I still believe that Wisconsin could embrace a high-speed rail, but I doubt that it will happen under our current leadership.
Wanggaard: No, but the market and future technology are also telling us not to focus on rail. With autonomous vehicles and ridesharing services, like Uber and Lyft, we are seeing consumers want more flexibility in transportation, not less. By definition rail is inflexible. Rail runs on fixed routes, to fixed locations, at set times. It is the exact opposite of where the future is going. While the Hiawatha train is one of the busiest trains in the country, it also operates at a loss. The state continues to subsidize the Hiawatha, so that it can be a viable transportation option, and not prohibitively expensive.
We have a pressing problem in our transportation fund. Our roads are in need to repair, rehabilitation and expansion. This is as true in southeastern Wisconsin as in the rest of the state. Increasing gas mileage, electric vehicles have slowed the growth in the transportation fund to a point where it is unable to keep up with maintenance needs. That is why I am open to all options when it comes to funding our transportation system. It makes no sense – logical or fiscal – for the state to invest in a new rail system when it is struggling to maintain its existing transportation infrastructure. Like I said earlier, even one of the most popular rail routes in the country operates at a loss. We cannot afford to invest hundreds of millions in a transportation system that history and future trends are telling us is the wrong way to go.