VIROQUA - The Viroqua Women’s Alliance (VWA) and WVRQ Radio held a forum for citizens to hear the two candidates vying for the 96th Assembly District seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly. Those two candidates are Republican Loren Oldenburg and Democrat Paul Buhr.
Questions were posted to the candidates by the VWA and by Tim Hundt of WVRQ radio. No questions or comments were taken from the audience.
The election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 6, and early voting is open now. Anyone with questions related to obtaining an ID to vote should call DMV’s Voter ID hotline at (844) 588-1069. Any questions regarding voter eligibility, poll locations, voter registration information or other election information, should be directed to the Wisconsin Elections Commission at https://elections.wi.gov/
Water and farming
The candidates were asked about their views on the impact that agricultural runoff has on ground and surface water quality. He noted that other areas like Kewaunee County are handing out bottled water to citizens to ensure that they have safe drinking water. WVRQ’s Hundt asked if they thought the size of farms in the state should be limited to give family-scale farms a chance, and noted that both candidates had expressed at a candidate forum held in Prairie du Chien that “the days of small farms in Wisconsin are over.”
At that forum, according to an article in the Courier Press, the candidates answered the question “Is there a future for small, diversified farms?” as follows:
Buhr: “It’s simply impossible to see a future where small farms can compete with factory farms. I think there is but you have to find new products. You promote, you explain why they should pay for it.”
Oldenburg: “It’s a struggle to see where this has come. Our government should be a partner, not a barrier to farmers. I think we can bring in more diversified organic.”
Oldenburg responded that implementation of the 590 Nutrient Management Plan [a USDA nutrient management strategy that emphasizes the “Four R’s’] is a good program that helps to protect groundwater, and “we should keep doing it.”
“Farmers need to follow the rules, no matter what size they are,” Oldenburg said. “We also need to employ contour strips and no-till land management.”
Buhr said, “As farmers, we never want to pollute the water.” He emphasized that this is a basic value that farmers hold in common, but said that the state needs to monitor and enforce the rules to ensure that there are no ‘bad actors.’
“The state has got to monitor and enforce the standards for large dairies,” Buhr said. “For farms that receive federal dollars, we need to ensure that they are in compliance with no-till and rotations, and keep our water clean for drinking and trout fishing.”
Neither candidate addressed the fact that large dairy farmers in Kewaunee County followed the rules, but given the area’s karst geology, were unable to prevent their part in contamination of the groundwater, which resulted in undrinkable well water.
Neither candidate acknowledged that almost their entire district has a karst geology like that of the 11 Eastern Wisconsin counties that have received the ‘Sensitive Areas’ designation requiring special nutrient management in areas with shallow soil overlaying a fractured karst geology bedrock.
Neither candidate acknowledged the report released recently by the LaCrosse County Nitrate Task Force, which studied the source of nitrate contamination of well water in Holmen and Onalaska Townships. In that area aquifers are very shallow, and overlain by a sand and gravel layer of soil. Growing of row crops was cited as a likely major contributor to unsafe nitrate levels in groundwater, along with manure spreading and private septic systems.
Further, neither candidate acknowledged that no-till management has resulted in less soil erosion, but has not increased soil water infiltration to reduce the amount of water running off in the increasingly large rain events their district has experienced in recent years. This increased runoff has contributed to dam failures and recent historic flooding levels.
Last, neither candidate backed off their statements made at the Prairie du Chien forum, characterized by Hundt of WVRQ Radio as, “The days of small farms in Wisconsin are over.”
On the topic of the high levels of farm bankruptcies in their district and what the future of agricultural land in the district is, both candidates expressed their views.
“This is a touchy personal spot for me,” Oldenburg said. “I know lots of farmers that are suffering with low prices for agricultural commodities now, and I think we need to focus on niche agriculture like organic to continue to utilize the small farm infrastructure, and focus on some other value-added crops.”
Buhr expressed that one thing he has always counted on as a farmer is that people will continue to need to eat.
“Our land is fertile and arable, and we can grow food for ourselves right here,” Buhr said. “We need to find ways to give young people access to land ownership, and we can’t give investor-owned corporate landowners the same tax breaks that farmers get. Young people can’t compete with investors, and those investors don’t care about our local schools, bridges, roads and dams. We need to look at value-added or new farming techniques.”
The two candidates were asked questions about our public schools. Topics included school funding formulas, Act 10, and school safety.
Buhr stated that the school funding formula is unfair to rural schools.
“It used to be that the local community supported their school, which is the heart of the community,” Buhr observed. “Now we send our money off to the state and they send it back as they see fit. I would change this almost immediately. Every community deserves to have a well-funded public school, regardless of their zip code.”
Oldenburg expressed that school funding should be put back more under local control.
“I would work to bring decisions back to the local school board level, because the school is the backbone of a local community,” Oldenburg said.
Act 10 and teachers
The candidates were asked about their views on the impact of passing Act 10 on teacher morale and teacher recruitment in the state.
“I wasn’t there when Act 10 was passed, but I think I would have voted against it like Lee Nerison did,” Oldenburg said. “I don’t think the litigation against it went on long enough. It has saved school districts some money, but it also resulted in them losing some teachers.”
Buhr stated that Act 10 had “changed the atmosphere in our public schools.”
“There were problems with escalating insurance rates for the school districts, but I think those could have been negotiated without throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Buhr said. “We now have a 54 percent shortage of math and science teachers in our public schools. Governor Walker has money for Foxconn, but not for our schools. I personally am proud to stand with working people, and would choose them over corporations.”
The candidates both responded to a question of “what should the state’s role in ensuring school safety be?”
“I was lucky to have raised my kids at a time when they were safe at their school,” Buhr said. “Our schools are underfunded, and they have to do more with less. I think that the real problem is that we don’t prevent mentally ill people from obtaining firearms, and I’ve taken fire from gun groups over this issue. I think we need universal background checks, and other common sense solutions.”
Loren Oldenburg responded that violent attacks at our schools are “a problem we have to solve.”
“We need to expand on the money that the state legislature has budgeted for this year,” Oldenburg said. “When I went to school, I never had to think about school safety. We need all levels of government involved in this – local, state and national.”
Ensuring the health and fairness of the American democratic process was the subject of several questions in the debate. Those questions touched on the subject of gerrymandered districts, money in politics, voter suppression, and money from outside the state being spent on state elections.
The candidates were asked if they would support the redrawing of fair maps like was done in Iowa by a nonpartisan commission.
“I understand the Iowa system, but it comes down to the state legislature to vote on it,” Lorenburg said. “I believe we have a good system, and I think we should keep it the way it is.”
Buhr disagreed sharply with Oldenburg on the issue. “I want to live in a state where the people choose their representatives, rather than the representatives choosing their people,” Buhr said.
Money in politics
Both candidates seemed concerned about the influence of big money in politics.
“When you get involved in a political race, everyone wants to pull your strings,” Oldenburg said. “Money influences lots of decisions and voters minds. It’s there – we have to deal with it.”
Buhr stated that the question had “touched a raw nerve.”
“Every time you turn on the TV or go to your mailbox you can see the influence of big money in our political system,” Buhr said. “My opponent’s campaign is the beneficiary of big money donations, and what this results in is letting some billionaire who wants to privatize everything make decisions about our district. My campaign is, in part, about getting our democracy back.”
The candidates were asked to share their views on how to make voting more accessible to citizens.
“There has been too much emphasis on voter identification, and this is resulting in citizens being disenfranchised,” Buhr said. “The whole thing is a waste of money, with a goal to block people from voting, and it has got to stop.”
Oldenburg stated, “everyone who is legal should be able to vote. There’s nothing wrong with requiring a photo ID, and voters have lots of time between elections to get any issues they may have squared away.”
A question was posed to the candidates about big money from outside the state being spent on our elections. They were specifically asked if any of the campaign materials paid for by these groups from outside the state had said anything about either candidate’s opponent that the candidate would like them to retract.
“There is no outside money in my campaign,” Buhr stated. “This is not the case with my opponent, and I am distressed about the lies that are being told about me. Free speech belongs to human beings, not to corporations.”
Oldenburg denied any responsibility for what campaign materials paid for by money from outside the state said about his opponent.
“I have never been contacted by any outside group, and I don’t know where they get their information from,” Oldenburg said.
Both candidates responded to the question about how healthcare should be reformed.
“As a farmer, I’ve been on the open market for healthcare my whole life,” Oldenburg said. “While sitting on the Westby Co-op Creamery board, I saw rates go up 15-20 percent, and then again when the pre-existing conditions law was passed. We need to make sure that businesses can afford to offer health insurance. Pre-existing conditions are important to me personally, so I will work to protect that part of the law. We need more competition to drive down prices.”
Buhr stated that in his view, affordable healthcare is the biggest impediment to starting a business or a family.
“In the last eight years, our state has refused one billion dollars to expand Badgercare,” Buhr observed. “This has cost our district and citizens money, and it has cost some people their lives. Everyone must have access to healthcare, and I support a sliding fee scale for Badgercare.”
The questions posed to the candidates about what they would do for younger voters in the district were general, and specific on the topic of broadband expansion.
Generally, Buhr emphasized, “We have to believe in our future.”
“The great thing about the United States is the ability of our citizens to define who we will be in the future,” Buhr said. “In our district we have great natural resources, great beauty, and we need to count our blessings. I’m reminded of a quote from the play ‘Hamilton,’ which says “How lucky we are to be alive at a time like this.”
Oldenburg observed that “I grew up in the Coulee Region, and it is a great place to live, grow, and raise a family. We need to get kids the education they need, and we need to work on apprenticeships in our high schools. We have great tourism and great craft beer. We just need to get our roads fixed so the tourists will want to come here.”
The question around broadband expansion focused on the news, shared by Rod Olson of Vernon Telephone Co-op, that there are four large, national companies that are ready to come in and lay cable to ensure broadband access for all of the district’s citizens.
The question was, “do you think those companies should be allowed to come into our district and compete with local providers like Vernon Telephone Co-op or the Richland Grant Telephone Co-op?”
Buhr observed that in the past, when the state had given the broadband expansion money to the private companies, they had failed to provide the service.
“We’ve got great co-ops in our district, and the private companies haven’t performed here,” Buhr said. “Crawford County has been particularly harmed by this, and if we don’t get broadband expanded, people won’t want to live there. This is an urgent issue.”
Oldenburg seemed concerned that the four big companies could “push out the little guys. I don’t support that. This is a local control issue – I support letting the Richland Grant Cooperative provide service to all of Crawford County.”