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Tuesday night's forum included, from left, moderator Don Davis, 30th District Assembly candidates challenger Sarah Bruch (Democrat) and incumbent Sheila Harsdorf (Republican) ; 10th District State Senate candidates challenger Alison Page (Democrat) and incumbent Sheila Harsdorf (Republican) ; and 29th District Assembly candidates challenger Chris Buckel (Democrat) and incumbent John Murtha (Republican).

Candidates address health care, job creation, social issues, more

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Clear differences in their approaches to health care, job creation and social issues were voiced by the candidates for three state legislative seats who took part in an Oct. 18 voters forum at the River Falls Public Library.

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Republican incumbents Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, Rep. Kitty Rhoades and Rep. John Murtha took written questions from the audience, along with Democratic challengers Alison Page, Sarah Bruch and Chris Buckel.

Harsdorf and Page are vying to represent the 10th District in the state Senate. Rhoades and Bruch are seeking the 30th Assembly District seat, and Murtha and Buckel are contending for the 29th Assembly District seat.

The 29th District includes most of St. Croix County, except the Hudson area.

Murtha and Buckel, who had been at an earlier event in Menomonie, arrived about 20 minutes into the program. They missed the one-minute introductions given by the other candidates and the first three questions on job creation, a statewide smoking ban and their top environmental concerns.

The forum was sponsored by RiverTown Newspaper Group and the River Falls branch of the American Association of University Women. Don Davis, a Hudson resident and chief of Forum Communications' Minnesota Capitol Bureau, moderated the program.

The format was simple, Davis said at the start. He would read written questions from the audience of about 120 people, and each candidate would have two minutes to respond.

Health care

The Republican candidates all argued for mainly private-sector solutions to rising health care and insurance costs.

"There is no silver bullet," said Rhoades. "We need to understand that Wisconsin has stepped up to the plate with BadgerCare Plus."

She said 98% of children in the state have health insurance coverage because of the state-run program that provides coverage for children who otherwise wouldn't have access to it.

"What we don't need is government-run health care," Rhoades said.

Harsdorf pointed to health care cooperatives as a market-based solution to making health insurance affordable.

She said she helped pass a state law that gave the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives the ability to form five health care cooperatives that will negotiate and contract with insurers to provide coverage for the co-op members.

The first health care co-op has been operating for a year and a half, Harsdorf said, and is a model being emulated in other states.

Murtha said he likes health savings accounts and putting people in control of their health care choices. He said competition is the way to bring down costs, not government control.

The Democratic candidates said state government hasn't gone far enough to make affordable health care available to all Wisconsinites.

"I won't stare at this issue. It is time to get it (solved)," said Bruch.

She said 500,000 Wisconsinites don't have health insurance coverage and another 500,000 or more are underinsured.

"We're paying more and getting less," Bruch said, claiming that one in five bankruptcies and many home foreclosures are the result of people not being able to pay medical bills.

Health insurance premiums have doubled in the past seven years, she said.

Page, who left her position as a hospital administrator to run for the state Senate, said the health care issue is one of the top reasons she got into the race.

She said there needs to be a change in philosophy from health care being a privilege of employment to being a basic human right.

In fact, federal law already makes it a right, Page said, because hospitals can't turn people away for financial reasons. The costs of treating the uninsured are added up and divided among the people who do have insurance, she said.

Page said government needs to focus on providing people access to health care, bringing down costs, preventative care and improving the quality of service.

"We need to get the people (involved in providing health care) around the table and get it solved," she said.

Buckel said he favors a multi-faceted approach to reducing health care costs and making insurance affordable. Providing consumers with more information about their choices, a focus on wellness, health care cooperatives, health savings accounts and government-sponsored programs like BadgerCare Plus are all part of the solution, he said.

Job creation

Regarding job creation, Democrats Page and Bruch advocated for state investment in programs to encourage the development of renewable energy businesses.

"We can be a leader in this area," said Page, calling for the state to provide an additional $8 million in renewable energy loans and grants.

"We need to get people to work now," Page added, repeating her support for a job growth package that she announced a week earlier.

The plan she announced with state Sen. Pat Kreitlow, D-Chippewa Falls, is to close corporate tax loopholes and use the money to provide, among other things, an additional $50 million for state highway rehabilitation.

Investing in highways would immediately create 2,500 good-paying jobs, Page said.

Bruch said that investing in renewable energy could bring 20,000 green jobs to the state over the next decade.

She also called for tax fairness. Wisconsin ranks third-lowest in the nation in the collection of corporate taxes, she said, and is 43rd in job creation.

"If we're third lowest in corporate taxes you would think we would be third-highest in new job growth," Bruch said. "We simply have a failed infrastructure when we have huge corporations that are using our services and not paying for them."

The question from the audience asked how the candidates would position Wisconsin to be competitive and attract jobs "...when we continue to be one of the highest-taxed states in the U.S.?"

According to the Tax Foundation, a non-partisan research organization based in Washington, D.C., Wisconsin's per capita state and local taxes ranked ninth-highest in the nation in 2008. On a per capita basis, state residents paid 10.2% of their income in state and local taxes, the foundation reported, compared to the national average of 9.7%.

Wisconsin residents paid a lower dollar amount ($4,194) compared to the national average ($4,292), however, because their per capita income was lower.

Republicans Rhoades and Harsdorf said raising taxes isn't the way to grow the economy and create jobs. They both called for holding the line on business taxes, streamlining the business-licensing process and encouraging investment in start-up companies through the Wisconsin Angel Network, a state program launched in 2005.

Rhoades said economic development was one of the issues she worked on in her previous job as president of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau.

"One of the things I learned during that process is that we need to get rid of the obstacles that stop businesses from coming into our area," she said.

Rhoades added: "Gov. Doyle actually agreed with us this year that this is not the time to increase the tax on businesses. This is the time that we give incentives for people to bring their research and development dollars into our town, into our community. This is the time that we give (tax) credit for retraining our existing workers."

Harsdorf reiterated Rhoades' views on job creation and added that affordable health care can be a recruiting tool.

"We're making progress on that," she said, referring to her role in the creation of health care cooperatives.

"Raising taxes on business is not the answer to growing the economy," Harsdorf said, agreeing with Rhoades.

Page said later in the forum that she isn't calling for an increase in business taxes, but closing loopholes so big and small businesses alike pay the same rate.

Buckel and Murtha hadn't arrived at the forum when the question on job creation was asked.

Abortion

Of the 13 questions the candidates fielded, more than half dealt with social issues.

One about abortion put the candidates on the spot, in particular. They were asked to respond yes or no to, "Do you believe all unborn people have human rights?" Answer yes or no.

Harsdorf and Rhoades answered, "Yes."

Murtha said no, but it was obvious from his follow-up comments that he meant yes. He said he has been endorsed by the Wisconsin Right to Life organization.

"I am pro-life," Buckel replied, and said that he, too, had the endorsement of the pro-life organization.

Page and Bruch answered "No."

Page said she is pro-life, but abortion rights need to be protected.

"I trust women to make the right choices," Page said.

"This is a tough question -- a really tough question," said Bruch. "I personally would never choose one for myself, but I believe it's a question to be answered between a woman and her physician."

Other of the 13 questions the candidates fielded dealt with a proposed statewide smoking ban in all public places, environmental concerns, UW-River Falls faculty pay, lowering the drinking age, capital punishment, sex education, employee benefits for same-sex couples, voter photo IDs, the tone of political campaigns and allowing 8-year-olds to hunt.

No one asked how the Legislature should respond to what Gov. Doyle has warned could result in a $3-billion budget shortfall in 2009-11 as a result of the economic downturn.

Also left unaddressed were the issues of transportation, whether the 2% limit on municipal and county tax levy increases should be continued, state aid to local governments and K-12 school funding.

Drinking age

@t:On the question of whether the age at which people can legally drink alcoholic beverages should be lowered, Bruch and Murtha said they could support allowing 19-year-olds to drink.

Buckel said that he would lower the age to 18 for those who have graduated from high school.

"These are the individuals that defend the country and can be held culpable in an adult court, so I think we should be consistent," Buckel said.

Rhoades called attention to the period when Wisconsin had a lower drinking age than Minnesota, and the problems that created for Hudson.

"I will never vote to lower the drinking age below what it is in neighboring states," she said.

Page and Harsdorf agreed that Wisconsin shouldn't have a lower drinking age than its neighbor to the west. Both were non-committal on what the age should be.

Page said she would need to study the issue before making that determination.

Harsdorf said binge drinking is a serious problem. She used the question to call attention to her sponsorship of a state law that cracked down on meth production.

She said meth users are often introduced to the drug at drinking parties.

The candidates were asked to reply yes or no to three questions in what Davis termed a "lightning round."

Lightning round

@t:Asked whether they supported capital punishment, Rhoades and Murtha said yes, provided that voters approve of it in a statewide referendum.

Bruch, Harsdorf and Page said no.

Democrats Bruch, Page and Buckel said they favored allowing insurance benefits to be extended to partners in same-sex unions. Murtha opposed it.

Rhoades said businesses can decide for themselves if they want to extend benefits to the partners of their gay employees. Harsdorf agreed.

Harsdorf and Page refused to give a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether they supported comprehensive sex education in schools.

"What does it mean?" Harsdorf asked, in refusing to reply. Page said she agreed with her opponent.

The question wasn't put to Rhoades and Bruch.

Murtha had already said he opposed comprehensive sex education, and Buckel, a history teacher at St. Croix Central High School, said he supported it.

Cable TV subscribers can watch this candidates forum on RFC-TV16, the local cable access channel. Go to this link for a schedule of programs: www.rfcity.org/rfctv/schedule.html.

The hour-and-a-half-long forum also can be streamed from the Web site at any time.

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