It could be the toughest election of his tenure for Lee Nerison, the five-term Wisconsin State Assemblyman from the 96th District.
There are lots of similarities in the backgrounds of Nerison, a Republican, and his Democratic Party opponent in this election, Pete Flesch, the current Crawford County Board Chairperson. Ten years ago, Nerison ran for his first term to replace the retiring State Representative DuWayne Johnsrud (R-Eastman).
Nerison was the elected Chairperson of the Vernon County Board at the time of that first election. Now, Flesch, the elected Chairperson of the Crawford County Board, is challenging him. However, the similarities don’t stop there.
Both men were lifelong dairy farmers. Nerison retired from farming upon his election to the state assembly in 2004. He currently rents out the land on the farm in Esofia, where he still makes his residence. Flesch retired from dairy farming this spring and sold his herd. He continues to raise beef cattle on his farm near Rolling Ground.
Nerison is 62 years old and married for 40 years to his wife Laura. The Nersions have three adult daughters Thea, Seri and Erin and three grandchildren. His voting address is S 3035 County Road B, Westby.
Nerison graduated from Viroqua High School in 1970. He took the UW-Madison short course in agriculture in 1971.
The 57-year-old Flesch is single and lives on the farm he bought from his grandparents. His address is 42554 State Highway 171, Soldiers Grove.
Both men share a passion for politics that becomes obvious quickly in conversations with them.
Nerison said he is running because there remains “a lot to be done yet,” in his opinion. The incumbent state representative stated he was proud to represent the 96th Wisconsin State Assembly District.
“I still get a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I go into the state capitol,” Nerison said. “It tells me I need to be there, because there is still more to be done. When that feeling stops, it will be time to step down.”
It’s a similar passion, but a very different view of politics that is driving Flesch to run for the 96th Wisconsin State Assembly District seat.
“I’m running for the same reason that I ran for the town board,” Flesch explained. “Everyone serves the community in some way. Being an elected official is my way of making a positive difference in the community.
“I have observed things for the last four years in Madison and rather than sit at home and complain, I decided to do something positive and make a difference for my community at the state level, like I have at the town and county level.”
Flesch went on to say that having lived in the area all of his life he felt he had “skin in the game.” He stated his goal was to make the local area a prosperous place to live, work and raise a family.
When Nerison looks at his work in Madison, he points first to his position as Chairperson of the Wisconsin State Assembly Agriculture Committee. The local state representative is quick to point out the growth in the economic value of agriculture in the state. He noted what was a $59 billion ag industry five years ago in Wisconsin is now an $88 billion industry. That’s an increase of 49 percent.
Nerison said that he has been working closely with Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel and others to assure all sizes of agricultural operations can be economically successful and allow people to make a good living.
Although there are sometimes conflicts between the different-sized operations, everyone has their own opinion on how to farm and in the long run can get beyond differences, according to Nerison.
Like his opponent, Flesch has a very practical approach to creating economic opportunity. He worked hard to help create the Crawford County Economic Development Corporation to oversee growth and opportunity in the area. Flesch proudly points to some of its early successes in increasing jobs and retaining businesses.
It’s when it comes to the issues facing the state that the two candidates see things a bit differently.
For Nerison, one of the most important issues facing the state is rebuilding infrastructure like roads and bridges.
The state representative believes a steady revenue flow must be restored to the transportation fund to assure infrastructure improvement. Nerison blamed the administration of Governor Jim Doyle for removing $1.3 billion from the transportation fund and using it for other purposes. He also acknowledged that all governors are prone to take funds from a pot of money in a segregated account to use it for other purposes.
Tax increase per gallon
Nerison said a gas tax that is no longer indexed and has remained flat since 2005, along with vehicles that use less fuel, has limited revenue for the fund. He believes raising revenues through indexing the tax per gallon would be helpful in replenishing the transportation fund. Currently, the state legislature authorized borrowing money at low interest rates to fund transportation improvements. However, Nerison does not see that as sustainable.
“Right now, everything from gas taxes to creating toll roads is on the table,” Nerison said.
Flesch put the blame for the depleted transportation fund, short some $700 million, at the feet of the current administration of Governor Scott Walker, along with the projected $1.8 billion structural deficit.
To Flesch the biggest issue facing the state currently is support for local schools, especially for the smaller school districts. He noted that people from larger metropolitan areas do not realize how passionate small towns are about local schools. He said people from the larger urban areas don’t realize how important a school is too a small community.
Flesch directly took issue with Nerison on his stand on school funding and voucher schools. Flesch described the current situation in Hillsboro where the community is proposing a referendum to exceed the revenue cap so the school district can meet operating costs.
Flesch believes people in the state have a hard time understanding having two separate school systems, public schools and private schools, funded by taxes.
“Lee Nerison expressed that he was not in favor of expanding the voucher schools statewide,” Flesch said, “Yet, he voted for a budget that did just that. Some Republicans did not vote for the budget for that reason.”
Flesch said if elected he would vote to repeal the school voucher system, which funds students attending private voucher schools. He believes Wisconsin, as a state, should remain committed to supporting public education.
As might be expected, Nerison’s take on the school situation is a bit different.
The state representative acknowledged that rural districts were struggling in some areas and that transportation costs were an extra burden these days that the state legislature addressed in the last budget by providing money for rural grants for transportation.
“Schools are always a top issue and funding is a big part of it,” Nerison said.
However, the state representative noted some school districts including Westby and LaCrosse were doing better than others and were beginning to look at lowering the school portion of the property tax. However, he was just as quick to acknowledge that transportation costs and declining enrollments were major problems for small rural school districts.
While Nerison said he wants to have the voucher school funding removed from the budget and debated separately, that’s not what happened in the last budget.
The state representative said voting for the budget with voucher funding in it was part of the budget process and that there were always things in the budget that you might prefer weren’t included.
“In every budget, you’ve got to hold your nose on something in it, when you vote for it,” Nerison said. He noted that in his five terms he has voted to approve every budget except one.
Public schools can compete
Nerison feels the local public schools are more than able to compete with any proposed voucher school. He also said that there probably has to be more regulation of the voucher schools like there is of the public schools.
Another point of disagreement between the candidates is whether it was wise to reject $200 million dollars in extra Medicaid funding from the federal government. Nerison noted it was the governor’s decision and it never came before the legislature.
Nerison indicated he tended to agree with the decision based on the idea that the federal government could not be relied upon in the future to continue the funding.
For his part, Flesch did not understand the logic behind the decision and said the decision resulted in the inability of the state to provide coverage for 70,000 people who needed it.
“Why pay more and get less,” Flesch asked.
Nerison explained the state government was trying to get care for people through the Affordable Care Act.
Flesch noted that many well-known Republican governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich accepted the Medicaid funding for use in their states.
Other issues of importance to the candidates covered a wide spectrum.
Nerison cited his work in turning back a proposed law that would have allowed foreign individuals, corporations and governments the right to own more than 640 acres of property in the state. He noted that he got 25 Republicans to join him and Democrats in rejecting the proposal to drop the 640-acre restriction.
The state representative believes allowing foreign control of land in the state would hurt the agricultural integrity the state has spent many years in building.
A major issue Flesch feels was under-reported in the past year is a bill passed in the state legislature with Republican support, including Nerison’s vote, that limits compensation for people who have been exposed to asbestos. The candidate noted the bill to place limits on compensation for victims of asbestos exposure was opposed by every veteran’s group.
Flesch also cited the lack of progress on increasing the minimum wage as failure of the Republican controlled state legislature. He noted that even a modest 35-cent per hour proposal died in committee without being brought before the legislature.
Nerison said that opposing a bill that would further limit local control of such things as frac sand mining sites was a major issue facing the state. He expected to see renewed efforts at taking control away from local governments by replacing it with statewide standards.
While both candidates acknowledge there is a revenue shortfall, which is resulting in large deficits in the state budget, they differ as to their opinion of the causes and solutions.
Nerison said that while tax money was not returned to taxpayers with recently passed tax cuts that the taxes not taken going forward shows up as an expense in the budget helping to create a deficit.
“The economy has not come back in the way we were hoping it would,” the state representative said at one point in explaining his take on the current budget problems.
Nerison included some blame for Democrats in the current situation, even though Republicans have controlled both houses in the state legislature and the governor’s office for the past four years. The state representative noted the state had a $3.6 billion deficit, when the Doyle administration left office and despite the current growing deficit, the state has increased the amount of money in the ‘rainy day fund.’ Nerison went so far as to blame the Affordable Care Act for inhibiting employers from going beyond 49 employees and incurring more responsibility for their health insurance. This inhibits economic growth, according to Nerison.
Serious budget issues created
For his part, Flesch sees the $1.8 billion state budget deficit, combined with $700 million shortfall in the transportation fund and the $100 million Medicaid shortfall, as a problem with its root in miscalculating state tax revenues—thinking a surplus was about to occur and passing a tax cut bill reducing revenues further.
“We’re facing some pretty serious problems,” Flesch noted. “They’ve dug us a brand new hole.”
Nerison who has spent the last 15 years-plus immersed in electoral politics had a parting message for voters.
“Hopefully, you’ll go out and vote for me, but even if you don’t vote for me, go vote. It bothers me to see the small turnout in some of these elections.”
Flesch had a parting message of his own for voters.
“I think I have a proven track record as a public official,” Flesch said. “The first thing I did as county board chairman was to work at creating the county economic development corporation. We need to do things to help ourselves and help our economy. I think I have a record of results. I also believe my values better reflect the values of this district.
“When I get to the state assembly one of my biggest priorities will be getting together with other rural lawmakers of either party to take action on issues affecting rural Wisconsin,” Flesch said.