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Politicians, business people get together

Business and legislative leaders from St. Croix County got to know each other a little better last week.

The St. Croix Economic Development Corporation sponsored its first ever Legislative Networking Event at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College-New Richmond on Nov. 10.

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls), State Rep. John Murtha (R-Baldwin) and State Rep. Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson) were on hand to meet business people and WITC students and to answer questions from attendees. State Rep. Ann Hraychuck was invited to the event but was unable to attend due to a family matter.

The first 30 minutes of the event were devoted to informal networking. The question-and-answer session followed.

Responding to a question about the top issues constituents ask about today, all three legislators said jobs and the economy are foremost on people's minds today.

"There is a tremendous amount of concern about our economy," Harsdorf said.

She said it's important for state officials to work with business leaders to help companies stay open and provide jobs.

"St. Croix County's robust economy has often protected the region from feeling downturns in the past," Harsdorf said. "Now, for the first time ever, this county's unemployment rate is higher than the state's overall rate.

"It's new for our area to be feeling the economic downturn the way we are. We have some unique challenges."

Murtha said his constituents have voiced their frustration over the direction of the economy, and they want to know how long the crisis will continue.

"They're concerned," Murtha said. "They're scared."

Legislators said local voters are also worried about the apparent end to the tax reciprocity program between Wisconsin and Minnesota. A previous agreement between the states allowed residents to pay state income taxes in their home state, even if they worked across the border.

"I don't go any place now without two or three people asking about that," Harsdorf said.

Harsdorf said the prospects for bringing back the agreement are fading.

"It might not be dead," she said. "But it's maybe on life support right now."

Rhoades said it's hard to know what impact the tax change will have on people, but it's clear that the approximately 80,000 people who live in one state and work in another will be inconvenienced by the shift. She added legislators are doing what they can to get it re-instated.

"If these 80,000 people lived in Milwaukee, it would get solved," Rhoades said, alluding to the Legislature's inability to understand issues facing residents north of Madison.

Other issues that voters are concerned about include affordable health care, expansion of government's role in society, transportation funding and education funding, the legislators reported.

Murtha called public attention to a new provision which increased the minimum coverage motorists must carry on their insurance policies.

He said motorists could see a significant increase in their insurance premiums as a result.

Hopefully we can reverse this, he told the crowd. There is no reason for this.

An even bigger concern for Wisconsinites, Harsdorf said, is the state's growing budget resulting from federal stimulus monies being pumped into the economy.

"Once the federal money dries up," Harsdorf warned, "it will be difficult to balance Wisconsin's budget without significantly raising taxes."

There are tough choices to make at every single level, she said. Everybody is going to have to bite the bullet.

Rhoades pointed to recent examples of tax hikes that are hidden from the state's residents but have an impact on everyone.

A portion of people's utility bills now goes to support police and fire departments, as well as district attorney offices.

"This is crazy," she said. "We've never had that type of connection."

The Republican legislators vowed to continue to push for an improved business climate in Wisconsin, noting that strong businesses mean more jobs and more tax revenue.

Murtha said the state needs to continue to attract new business, but officials must also work hard to retain the businesses that are already here. That means keeping taxes at a manageable level and providing incentives for expansion, he added.

"It's about creating a positive business environment," Harsdorf added.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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