It’s that time of year again… The general elections are here and two candidates are on the ballot for the State Assembly’s 96th District seat: Incumbent Republican Lee Nerison and challenger Democrat Tom Johnson.
Who are they and how do they differ?
Well, meet your candidates.
Nerison, a former dairy farmer, has held the Assembly seat since 2004. He and wife Laura are the parents of three and grandparents of two. Nerison is a member of the Coon Valley Lions, a former member of the Board of Directors for the Vernon Co-op Oil and Gas (where he also served as secretary), the Vernon County Board (elected in 1998, chairperson 2002-2006), and his church council (vice-president and treasurer). He is also an alumnus of both the Viroqua and Westby FFA. Born in LaCrosse, Nerison graduated from Viroqua High School and the UW-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course.
Johnson is medically retired from the Air Force after losing a leg during active service in Desert Storm. He was born and raised in DeSoto and is a graduate of DeSoto High School. He is a graduate of UW-Richland and UW-Madison with majors in Political Science and Theater. He also attended and graduated from Wisconsin Technical College after serving in the military. He was a small business manager, managing a family grocery store, as well as a District Manager for a Dairy Queen Franchise. Johnson is currently the President Elect of the Viroqua Rotary Club, and serving on the board of directors for the Viroqua Community Theater. He has also served as a board member of the Westby Housing Authority, is a member of Viroqua Eagles, former President of Professionals in Design, Family and Hospitality, the former Food Club President for Western Technical College, and is an Executive Board Member of the Vernon County Democratic Party.
Mining and farming
“State standards are higher than the local standards were prior to the state creating the laws and rules to regulate CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations),” Nerison said. “We need all the agriculture we have. I didn’t think we would have the amount of cropland we have now twenty years ago. I thought it would always be dairy farms because of the terrain. But it has changed and will continue to do so.”
Nerison supports the state’s current rules on CAFO’s as adequate to protect air and water quality. But he sees oversight of the state’s newest industry, frac sand mining, as primarily a local control issue.
“Towns can negotiate with the mines,” Nerison said. “Local roads aren’t built for this sort of traffic, so they can require the mines to compensate damage.”
“I won’t tell anyone they have to zone, there are very few towns in my district that are zoned,” Nerison said. “I think they may want to really look at this as they decide how to respond.”
Aair quality as it relates to mining is currently a federal issue for Nerison.
“The EPA has greater resources and they have already begun to work on this,” Nerison said. He supports having the state wait to respond to air quality as it pertains to frac sand mining until the Federal Environmental Protection Agency has completed their studies and issue guidelines.
Johnson advocates for both state and local control of issues that can affect the environment.
‘We need state guidelines for consistency,” Johnson said. “But we also need local control to respond to the specific needs of the community. The reality is that spending cuts have greatly reduced the state’s ability to enforce standards. The reality is that we are going to have CAFO’s and sand mines, but we have to make them as environmentally sounds as possible. If you have to live next to one, your quality of life should not be taken away so they can operate.”
Johnson sees a need for greater public involvement to help determine how government responds to controlling industry’s impact on the environment.
“We need to work with local government on zoning,” Johnson said. “Zoning has been a volatile issue, but it’s really about education. We should be educating people so they understand how it can help them preserve and protect the qualities of life they value. It’s not about reaching into their back pocket, raising taxes.”
Johnson also proposes that the state should move forward on air quality tests, rather than wait on the EPA.
“The environment of our district is one of our greatest assets,” Johnson said. “If we don’t protect it now, we’ll end up with higher taxes in the long run as we seek to repair the damage done for short-term profit.”
The economy, jobs, and education
“We need to look to create long-term economic strength for our district,” Johnson said. “Our best investment is education. Cuts to technical education were the wrong way to go. We need to be able to offer skilled workers, and we need to offer incentives for the creation of jobs that pay a living wage.”
“Trickle down economics doesn’t work,” Johnson said. “We need to give the tax breaks to the middle class, not the wealthy. Study after study shows that the middle class, when they have the money, will spend it in a way that stimulates the economy.”
Johnson sited the failure to link tax credits to actual job creation and a failure to invest in maintaining the public infrastructure as poor economic moves that have helped keep Wisconsin’s economy stagnant while the rest of the country sees improvement. He also pointed to the Wisconsin Republican Platform adopted in May. One of the goals stated within the platform “urges the dismantling of the following federal departments and agencies: Education, HUD, Energy, Health and Human Services, Labor, Agriculture, and urges the de-funding of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Public Broadcasting System” as both dangerous to the public good and overly expensive.”
“Anything can be privatized,’ Johnson said. “That doesn’t mean it should be. There are things government does better.”
He sited the recent decision along party lines that will require the state to use private contractors to do roadwork, even when it can be shown to save money by having their governmental counterpart do the work.
Nerison had less to say about a future approach to job creation, conceding recent efforts have yet to produce the fruits of labor. He noted four bills he had signed tying tax credits to job bills, noting they passed with strong bipartisan margins.
“The cuts we’ve had to education are hard for everyone,” Nerison said. “It hurts. But you can’t spend money on education when there aren’t jobs when they get out of school. A lot of college students are graduating to find there are no jobs for them.”
“We need our education,” Nerison continued. “That’s why it’s 49-percent of our state budget. We need to work closer with educators, get more into technical education. If we can make the jobs, it will allow us to broaden or tax base and invest more in education.”
Nerison sited legislative efforts such as working to bring broadband to rural communities as a positive direction.
“If schools have this, they can share resources and participate in remote learning,” Nerison said. “We also need to continue to work the issue of high-land value, low school population.”
Healthcare, sex education, reproductive rights, and women
Nerison sees a fair amount of success in Wisconsin’s past efforts to address healthcare, and sees the priority in continuing to make sure those least able to care for themselves, the elderly and very young, have access to healthcare.
“At one time we had only four-percent of the people in our state without health insurance,” Nerison said. “We need to find a way to help the four or five percent who still are uncovered. But the Affordable Care Act is not the way to do this. It’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to drive up taxes.”
The federal ACA legislation would require more people to purchase health insurance. It offers exceptions for some religious groups and the lower income citizens, and subsidizes insurance premiums for those below 400-percent of the federal poverty level.
Nerison pointed to his efforts to create a healthcare cooperative in which farmers could pool their collective resources to broker better insurance rates for the whole. While acknowledging that the power of collective numbers to bargain for better coverage, Nerison is cautious about taking a stance on how we should proceed.
“It’s a can of worms,” Nerison said. Right now, I won’t stick my neck out.”
Nerison also chose to not make a statement on reproductive rights, but he defended he recent vote amending sexual education guidelines in Wisconsin. The new guidelines include the addition of adoption, neonatal care, and postnatal support to the curriculum along with the discussion on the “positive connection” between marriage and parenting, and change the definition of abstinence from the “most reliable” form of pregnancy and sexual disease prevention to the “only reliable” method.
The new guidelines also remove the provision that sexual education provides information on contraceptives and the skills needed to make “responsible decisions” about sexuality and sexual behavior.
‘The state is not going to mandate what the course teaches,’ Nerison said. “We are returning control to the district to make that decision.”
Johnson sees the sexual education debate as representative of a conflict between ideology and practice.
“Forcing teaching abstinence by mandate while making contraception and prevention optional is a conflict of the claim of local control,” Johnson said. “I have no problem with supporting women. Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land. We need to protect the right of a woman to control her own reproduction. A woman is not free unless the choice of reproduction is her choice, and her choice alone.”
“And it’s not just women’s reproductive rights that need to be protected,’ Johnson said. “I will continue to advocate for equal pay for women as well.”
Both candidates see themselves as working for bipartisanship.
According to Johnson, the best solution for improving cooperation is “new blood”.
“We need people who haven’t participated in the polarized legislation of recent history,” Johnson said. “We need to work on meeting with people across the isle, and to focus on one big issue, something like funding disparity in schools. We need people who will stand up to their party, if need be.”
“Lee has a record of voting 98.5-percent along party lines,” Johnson continued. “That’s not bipartisanship. And he has talked for eight years about funding disparities in education, but he hasn’t actually done anything about it.”
Nerison would say he does meet with people across the isle.
“I think it’s important to meet people outside the building,” Nerison said. “Get to know the other representatives and their staff as people.’
“You won’t always agree,” Nerison said. “But it’s easier to work with them if you know them. You try to work out what you can off the floor. There are some Republican bills I haven’t voted for. And there are a few Democratic bills I have voted for.”
“To get bills passed really comes down to working with the leadership,” Nerison said. “Just because a committee has worked on a bill, doesn’t mean it will pass. Committee chairs have a lot of control on what moves forwards. And Leadership decides what gets scheduled for a vote.”