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UW-River Falls hosts legislative forum to educate students, community members

October 26, 2016

Local candidates for the Wisconsin 2016 State Legislature gathered last Tuesday, Oct. 18, at UW-River Falls for a forum-style discussion on issues pertaining to the Pierce and St. Croix County areas.

“Both organizations [River Falls Chamber of Commerce/Tourism Bureau and UWRF] are nonpartisan and have organized this forum as an opportunity to inform and educate the community about the issues that may affect our region,” said Tom Pechacek, moderator of the event. About 60 audience members attended, only a handful of whom were university students.

On the stage there were five people, two of whom were competing for the positions of State Senate District 10 Representative: incumbent Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) and Diane Odeen (D-River Falls).

The other three were competing for a place as the State Assembly District 30 Representative: Scott Nelson (D-Hudson), Aaron Taylor (I-River Falls) and Shannon Zimmerman (R-River Falls).

According to Whitehouse.gov, the State Senate and State Assembly are the two halves of a bicameral legislative system. The Senate positions are fewer in number and typically have longer terms (four years in the case of Wisconsin senators).

By contrast, the Assembly positions are more numerous (there are 99 compared to the 33 Senate positions) but have a shorter term length of two years. Together, they create laws pertaining to issues such as taxes, budget and impeachment.

During the forum, the five candidates were questioned on the policies they would support should they be elected to their respective positions. The questions were designed to represent issues that directly affect the St. Croix/Pierce County area, and included subjects such as:

  • Higher education
  • Workforce attraction and retention
  • Voucher schools versus public schools
  • Transportation needs
  • Tourism/recreation
  • Small business growth
  • Supporting presidential candidates

Each candidate responded to the questions from a unique perspective: Zimmerman as a local businessman, Harsdorf as a current senator, Odeen as a heavily involved local community member, Taylor as an independent and as a recent graduate of UWRF and Nelson as an Air Force veteran and the fire chief at River Falls. The contenders were not allowed to debate with one another on the issues that were brought up, and they each had two minutes to convince the audience that their policy ideas were the best.

“I heard similar concerns to what I hear when I knock doors or talk to people across the district,” said Odeen in an interview following the forum. She stressed her focus on supporting higher education, not only by keeping it affordable through state funding but high-quality as well. Harsdorf made similar comments during the forum itself, centering her views around improving the time it takes to graduate and keeping college affordable through the tuition freeze.

Mai See, a junior double majoring in communication and psychology at UWRF, said that she found out about the event through her professor, who offered the event as extra credit for those who attended. The forum, she said, was valuable.

“I’ve never been to this kind of thing before. It was very interesting, and I saw a lot of things I really agreed with and some things I kind of disagreed with,” See said.

See said that she would have liked to hear the candidates’ thoughts on minimum wage, particularly the discrepancy that exists between Minnesota and Wisconsin (Minnesota’s is higher by 50 cents).

“I think that’s a really big concern,” she said. “Especially if you’re losing jobs or if you’re losing people here in Wisconsin.”

The entire forum was broadcast live by the UWRF campus radio station WRFW 88.7, and was video-recorded for later publication on the River Falls community television channel website (Channel 16).

It is important, Odeen said, for people to pay attention to local elections such as these, “because those are the people who are responsible for the day-to-day stuff that you see around you.”