RACINE COUNTY — Whatever debate there may be about how its boundaries were configured, state Senate District 21 stands as it is now, encompassing a huge area of both Racine and Kenosha counties.
Democrat Lori Hawkins, a newcomer to politics from Bristol, is challenging incumbent Republican Van Wanggaard, a retired Racine police officer who has served in the Senate since 2014 and from 2010 to 2012 and on the County Board before that.
Following are answers the candidates provided on topical issues in the campaign. To see the candidates’ responses to questions on prison reform and the concentration of power in the governor’s office, click on this story online at journaltimes.com/elections.
Outline your concerns and or ideas for school and university funding
Hawkins: Wisconsin’s education system has not been adequately funded under the current administration. Our public schools have seen record cuts since 2011 leaving our school districts forced to go to referendum in order to pay for repairs or crucial teaching positions. My daughter’s school is a prime example. Earlier this year, Westosha Central High School announced the elimination of seven full-time staff positions, three of which were STEM teachers.
This issue has only been exacerbated by the drastic cuts to the UW System and the high costs for obtaining a technical degree, leaving post-secondary options out of reach for many young people. In a moment when big possibilities are coming here to our corner of the state, we should be working to increase education funding, lower costs for technical colleges, and expand access to job training.
Wanggaard: There are some challenges with the current school aid formula. It punishes low-spending school districts, and doesn’t always reflect the current educational needs to the district. For that reason, we have been providing state money directly to schools based on the number of students rather than going through a formula. A child in Racine Unified should be receiving the same state aid as a child in Union Grove or Burlington. I think we need to evaluate the school aid formula to ensure we are properly funding the education of all students.
We are also ensuring that a student’s success is not driven by their geographic location. Through school choice and public school open enrollment, parents and children have the opportunity to find the best learning environment for them. I think the school choice amount should increase comparable to a public school increase. I am concerned however about the amounts for public school open enrollment. The current structure leaves taxpayers of the accepting school district subsidizing the education of non-residents. I think this structure is untenable in the long-term and should be addressed.
My opponent will argue that the investment over the last six years does not make up for the cut from 2011. However, she neglects to point out that the 2011 cut was accompanied by Act 10 and negotiated savings. She will also claim that the choice program takes money from public schools. But she neglects to mention that school districts can continue to receive local levy dollars for the child, and if a public school child leaves for the choice program, the public school still keeps a portion of the state aid for a period of three years.
With university funding, I am supportive of the tuition freeze, along with additional funding. This includes the Technical College System. We are lucky to have UW-Parkside and Gateway Tech in our area. As our economy evolves, especially in this part of the state, we need to ensure that our higher education system can meet the needs of employers and students. Part of that includes targeted additional funding, so we can have more availability in critical areas. I am also proud to have obtained funding for two expansions at Gateway and Parkside.
Outline your concerns and ideas for roads and transportation funding
Hawkins: Wisconsin desperately needs a sustainable transportation plan. Career politicians have kicked the can down the road for far too long, and we need to elect leaders who are willing to put aside partisanship and create a real plan for our roads.
My opponent likes to point to the work on the I-94 corridor, but what about all of our state highways and county roads that are falling apart? We need to make sure that infrastructure in our local communities also receives proper funding rather than waiting for things to sort themselves out because the solutions may not be politically expedient. There’s no silver bullet to the issue of our roads, but we need new revenue to improve transportation safety, repair our bridges and reduce traffic congestion.
Wanggaard: We can’t put our head in the sand and pretend that this isn’t an issue. The current transportation funding system is unsustainable. Because of higher gas mileage and electric and hybrid vehicles, gas tax revenues are mostly stagnant. However our roads still need regular repair. In addition, as the Interstate system is reaching 50-60 years of age, it needs upgrades and replacement, adding to pressure on the transportation fund. In short, demand for transportation revenue is outpacing supply.
I am glad that we’ve been able to obtain federal money to complete the I-94 North-South corridor, as I promised in my last election. Through reforms and efficiencies, we were able to save money on the North-South and fund the repair or replacement of every bridge identified by local governments as needing repair.
Federal money doesn’t solve the issue, however. There is no silver bullet that will “fix” the funding issue in the short and long term. Whether a 5-10 cent/gallon increase on gas tax, or new registration fees, or tolling, or whole new idea is necessary, I think is worthy of debate. When I asked my voters about this in my spring survey, there was about equal support for each of these options. We need to have an open-eyed, honest and open debate about what do to next.
Outline your concerns and ideas for state prison reform
Hawkins: Our state has faced many issues with our corrections system recently. Between the horrific racial disparities among incarcerated individuals, the evidence of child abuse and neglect at the Lincoln Hills youth facility, and the consistent overcrowding at many of our state prisons, it is abundantly clear that we are in dire need of corrections reform in Wisconsin.
A step in the right direction would be to authorize a study of the issues currently facing the Department of Corrections and how we can work to reduce the prison population and minimize racial disparities. This is something that Republican leaders in states like Tennessee have done to great effect, and it’s an idea that’s long overdue here in Wisconsin.
We must also increase funding for the Treatment Alternatives and Diversion Program to help rehabilitate offenders and treat the underlying mental health and drug addiction issues that lead individuals to commit crimes.
Wanggaard: I was proud to be one of the lead voices on the bipartisan juvenile corrections reform. The situation at Lincoln Hills was unacceptable, and I believe that regional model that we are developing right now will pay long-term and short-term dividends. As a member of the Juvenile Corrections Study Committee, we should have recommendations in place as soon as next month.
The issues surrounding adult corrections are different. Contrary to the belief of some, people are not in prison because of mere drug use or on technicalities. The vast majority of people in prison are there for violent crimes. The rest aren’t boy scouts. They are incarcerated for a variety of crimes from car theft, burglary, gun crimes and drug distribution. The solution is not to lower penalties, let people out early, or be more forgiving. These people belong in prison.
The solution is two-fold. First, we must break the poverty-to-crime cycle. There is no reason why a person today should choose crime as a way out of poverty. Jobs are available, and if you show up for work and stay clean of drugs, you can quickly advance. Stopping people from wanting to break the law will lead to reform and decreased prison population by itself.
But we also must end the prison-to-crime cycle. Too many people in prison are repeat offenders. Putting people back into the same environment with the same skills will not produce a different result. We need to make sure that the people released from prison have the skills and ability to succeed. For those that will be released and can be rehabilitated, we need to make sure that prison is a place to improve the whole person. That means teaching them a marketable skill. It may mean mental health or alcohol or drug treatment. The state needs to do its best to put these people on a path to good decisions to be productive members of society.
Do you favor providing state funding to corporations as incentive to draw those to the state or to retain them?
Hawkins: Over the last seven years, Republicans have handed over billions of our tax dollars to out-of-state corporations, outsourcers, and other unreliable groups. These billions of dollars given away by the Wisconsin Economic Development Council haven’t helped the working people living right here in southeast Wisconsin. Instead corporate executives have lined their pockets and defaulted on their loans without being held accountable.
It has repeatedly been shown that this kind of corporate greed does little to spur job creation. A study from the Heritage Foundation found that the bulk of jobs created in America are from new, small businesses, and that’s what we should be investing in. As a small business owner, I know how hard it is to get off the ground and get started. We should be working to create a fair tax system in our state that puts young entrepreneurs and hard working people first. As state senator, I will fight for everyday, working people throughout my district.
Wanggaard: Direct state funding to a corporation is generally not a good thing, however tax incentives and loans, grants, etc. are different. Wisconsin has a lot going for it economically — a great education system, a strong work ethic and product, and, after our efforts of the last eight years, a competitive tax and regulatory environment. But we also need to recognize Wisconsin is competing nationally and globally for jobs and investment. Wisconsin’s incentives need to measure up to the incentives other states are offering.
The Foxconn deal does not provide direct funding. It is a pay-as-you-grow incentive. As Foxconn invests and hires in Wisconsin, the state will provide refundable tax credits to Foxconn. Everything the state is doing with Foxconn is based on Foxconn doing something first. And Foxconn isn’t just any corporation. They are bringing a whole eco-system to our area and thousands of jobs directly to our area of the state. And it doesn’t stop there. The secondary companies and investment to supply Foxconn will add thousands of additional jobs and millions in additional investment.
The Kimberly Clark proposal is a different scenario. As I understand it, Kimberly Clark is not seeking to add jobs, but to retain them. While there may be additional investment by Kimberly Clark, it is not to the scale of Foxconn, and it is less certain. I look forward learning more about the package and the impact on Wisconsin’s economy and workers over the next couple of weeks.
Do you think power has become too concentrated in the governor’s office?
Hawkins: Yes. Republican policies have effectively funneled power away from the local level and concentrated it in the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. Through placing levy and referendum limits, Republicans have prevented our local communities from being able to self-govern. My goal as state senator, is to be a legislator who listens to the concerns of everybody. The best ideas in Wisconsin come from the ground-up, and stopping our local leaders from finding solutions only hurts our citizens.
Wanggaard: I think for many, the answer to this question would depend on who is occupying the governor’s office at any given time. I think the balance is about right currently.
For too long (and long before Gov. Walker), I think the Legislature has been too willing to cede some of its power to the governor’s administration. This is especially true in the area of administrative rules, and where you’ve seen the legislature take back some power. Administrative rules have the power of law, but are not passed by the legislature.
Last session, we passed the REINS Act, which provided greater oversight to the administrative rule process. Rules must now go through a thorough review, and rules with a large fiscal impact must pass as separate legislation. Just this month, the legislature stopped a rule that would have prohibited transporting a deer across county lines. This action eliminated an unnecessary burden on hunters that would have otherwise gone into effect this year. This is just one example of the legislature taking back some of the power it has ceded to the executive branch.
I also think it is important for legislators to advocate for their district no matter who the governor is. For example, when the Department of Transportation advocated starting a new project on I-94 in Milwaukee before completing the work on I-94 in Racine and Kenosha counties, you saw me vocally announce my opposition and fight to get our project back on track. Through my efforts, along with many in the 21st District, we were able to get I-94 North/South restarted, and I’m happy it will be completed by the end of 2020.