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Harsdorf: Who controls our government?

State Sen. Sheila Harsdorf (R-River Falls) addresses her colleagues and the public on the Senate floor of the Capitol last Wednesday on a bill that would require regional representation on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. Submitted photo

Sheila Harsdorf was first elected to the state Assembly in 1988. In the late 1990s she farmed for a couple of years before being elected to the state Senate in 2000 where she's served ever since.

In all her years of public service she's never encountered such hostility that's resulted in her being one of nine state lawmakers facing a recall election this July.

That doesn't mean Harsdorf is surprised or intimidated.

"This is the first serious attempt to balance the state budget in more than a decade, and the special interests are fighting to maintain the status quo," Harsdorf said. "In last November's election, the voters spoke loudly on what they expected: Stop tax increases, stop raiding other funds like transportation and the tobacco (settlement) that basically just covered up budget problems with Band-Aid approaches.

"We were elected to bring spending under control, balance the budget, and create a climate for growing jobs. In the process, there are tough choices to be made. I can tell you it's a lot easier to go out and say 'yes' to government spending."

In an interview Friday, Harsdorf summarized her guiding principle: "Create a government that's sustainable by the taxpayers."

Harsdorf downplayed the effects of the public backlash on her personal life.

"I have no physical bruises," she laughed, adding that she hasn't lost sleep or her appetite either. "I was elected to do a job. This is not about me. This is much bigger. This is about the direction our state should be taking."

Harsdorf said opposition to controlling and restructuring the state budget has been financed and channeled by outside interests, particularly unions -- outside the 10th Senate District and even outside Wisconsin.

"The money is coming from New York, L.A., Michigan, Minnesota," she said. "Why are these groups trying to influence what we do in Wisconsin?"

Harsdorf concedes that a sizable number of constituents disagree with her.

"It's a challenging time because people on both sides are passionate," she said. "That's part of the democratic process. There are people unhappy, and I know that I can't please everyone."

Harsdorf, however, stressed that the effort to have her recalled is largely financed by out-of-state groups.

"While I know there are many people who disagree with my positions, what is driving the recall are the special interests," she said. "A third of those who were circulating recall petitions were from outside the 10th Senate District."

While more than 20,000 signed petitions to have her recalled, Harsdorf put that figure in perspective.

"That represents about 12 percent of the constituents in my district" she said, adding that in any election, an even greater number of people will vote against her.

Harsdorf was easily re-elected in fall 2008 with 56 percent in the district voting for her and 44 percent voting against her and for her Senate opponent, Democrat Alison Page.

"While what's happening now is unprecedented, there is going to be a recall election," Harsdorf said. "It's in the voters' hands.

"They will decide who represents them. The recall will be about if we control spending and taxes so that we don't saddle our kids with unmanageable debt."

Harsdorf said she's familiar with her recall opponent, Ellsworth High School teacher Shelly Moore.

"She's had regular contact with my office on numerous issues over the years," Harsdorf said, describing Moore as someone who consistently opposed efforts to impose property tax limits; supported increased government spending; and, in recent years, favored a provision for the state to add a tax on oil company revenues.

Harsdorf said Moore has visited her Madison legislative office in the company of teacher union representatives to talk about education and budget issues.

Responding to criticism that over the last few months she's ignored constituents, Harsdorf said the task was daunting for herself and her staff.

"I have been listening, but that doesn't always mean listening to the loudest voices," she said. "I am listening to the taxpayers."

When the controversy last winter erupted over the budget repair bill -- one that took away some public union rights and asked teachers and other public employees to pay more for their pensions and health insurance -- Harsdorf said there was a two-week period when her office was inundated with 25,000 e-mails.

"My staff of three had to open each one," she said. "Some of those messages were repeated over and over. One person sent the same e-mail message 86 times. Others sent the same one 15-20 times. There were also a lot of phone calls.

"I know it was frustrating for those who were trying to get through. It was a heavy barrage and my staff did all they could to keep up and sort through the various messages.

"I've responded as well as I could. I know we couldn't get back to everyone, but all the messages were heard and seen."

Harsdorf, a member of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, said heavy feedback continues as a final budget bill is being crafted.

She emphasized that she's also listening to everyday, regular folk -- those less visible and vocal than the protesters.

"These are the silent people with very strong feelings about getting our fiscal house in order, who can't leave home to go to Madison to protest," she said. "They've called or talked to me on the street. They also feel they've spoken last November at the ballot box about what needs to be done.

"I think we forget how tough the economy still is right now with the layoffs and many households taking some big cuts in income. That's what this is all about."

Harsdorf admitted that some state budget cuts, while painful, are still preferable to massive layoffs. She used the example of New York state, where 10,000 public employees could be laid off.

"That's what we want to avoid here," she said.

Harsdorf denied "walking in lockstep" with Gov. Walker.

"I don't look at who introduces legislative bills," she said. "What I look at are the merits of each bill."

As examples, Harsdorf said she's working to uphold local recycling funding and mandates and the SeniorCare prescription drug assistance program that Walker wanted to end.

"I'm interested in what is right for the state and western Wisconsin," she said.

Harsdorf said Wisconsin's business climate is already rebounding.

She pointed to the prominent business magazine Chief Executive. The magazine bumped Wisconsin's business ranking among states way upward -- from 41st to 24th place.

The rankings were based on taxation, regulation, workforce quality and living environment.

Harsdorf said Wisconsin's outlook for bond rating has been adjusted upward and 24,000 new jobs have been created in 2011.

"These are all positive signs," she said, adding recent state policy changes are at least partly responsible for the economic gains.

An improving economy has also boosted state tax revenues by $600 million. Harsdorf cautioned that the amount is spread out over the next three years. Only $200 million is available to tap now.

Harsdorf said additional state revenue must be used to help pay for two overdue bills from the Doyle administration -- one to Minnesota for $60 million to cover the final payment from the now defunct income tax reciprocity deal between the two states, and the other to pay back the state's Patients Compensation Fund for what the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled was an illegal transfer of money from that fund to the Medical Assistance Trust Fund.

Harsdorf said these are examples of she stands for -- government that pays its bills and operates like any business.

"When sales drop, you have to make difficult choices to keep your doors open," she said. "You have to scale back spending to what is affordable. You want to create job opportunities and make it so that middle-income taxpayers can afford to live in Wisconsin."