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Thanks to redistricting, St. Croix County is now represented in the Wisconsin Legislature by more assembly members and senators. Five of them participated in the fourth annual Legislative Update, sponsored by the St. Croix County Economic Development Corp. Pictured (left to right) are assembly members Dean Knudson (R-30th District), Stephen Smith (D-75th District), John Murtha (R-29th District) and Warren Petryk (93rd District). State Senator Sheila Harsdorf is pictured at the right. <i>Jeff Holmquist p...

For the first time in its four-year history, the St. Croix County Economic Development Corp.'s annual Legislative Update at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College in New Richmond included some political diversity.

Until this year, St. Croix County was represented by three State Assembly members and one State Senate member, and they've all been Republicans for quite some time.

This year, thanks to a redrawing of legislative district boundaries, the county has some different faces representing it at the state capital in Madison. Two of those local elected officials are Democrats.

One of those new faces, Stephen Smith of Rice Lake, attended last week's event along with four Republicans -- Assembly members Dean Knudson of Hudson, John Murtha of Baldwin and Warren Petryk or Elva and state Senator Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls.

The legislators opened the event with a few introductory statements, and then fielded questions from the audience.

Smith, a businessman, was elected to his first term in the November elections.

"I'm the oldest new kid on the block in Madison," he joked.

Smith said he's looking forward to being a part of the legislative process, and he struck an optimistic tone.

"I'm probably idealistic, but I know, working together, we can get a lot accomplished," he said.

Petryk, a musician who has performed with The Memories for many years, was re-elected to a second term in November. He said one of his legislative priorities for the 2013 session will be addressing the "skills gap" facing workers and employers in the state.

Murtha, who is starting his fourth term, said the state is in good fiscal shape, thanks to recent legislative efforts. Now, the focus will be on job creation, he told the crowd.

Knudson, who will begin his second term, said job creation and regulatory reform will be important topics in 2013. "We've got to get our economy going in Wisconsin," he said.

Harsdorf agreed, noting that Republican efforts over the past two years have set Wisconsin on the right path for future prosperity. Still, she said, too many people are out of work.

"We absolutely have to increase the job opportunities in our communities," she said.

In the question-and-answer section of the gathering, several questions focused on expanded mining opportunities in the state.

A proposal allowing expanded iron ore mining in the state failed to gain approval last session. Petryk said the expected mining operation would have resulted in a $2.5 billion investment in the state and would have added 3,000 jobs in northern Wisconsin.

"It was the biggest disappointment of my two years," Petryk said of the bill's lack of passage. "It would have been the opportunity of the century."

He said he hopes the bill will gain new consideration in 2013 and the business will still consider operating in the state.

Knudson said Minnesota benefits a great deal from iron ore mining, and Wisconsin should get its share of the industry.

"It's probably the single most important economic development thing we can do, and it's in our neck of the woods," he told the crowd.

Legislators also addressed the controversy surrounding frac sand mining, which is going on throughout the region.

Murtha said he favors local control when sand mines are being considered for approval.

"There's a great opportunity here," he said of the sand mining business. "But we have to do it right."

Responding to a question about unemployment supplemental payments being required of Wisconsin employers, Smith said the state is trying to catch up with money due to the federal government. Because unemployment benefits have continued to be extended, employers are picking up the tab in the end, he said.

"It's a kick in the butt to employers," he said.

A fair amount of time was spent discussing a pending proposal for 41 wind turbines in the town of Forest, in the northeast corner of St. Croix County. Several residents from that area implored the elected officials to do something about current Wisconsin wind farm siting regulations.

Forest resident Doris Schmidt said 80 percent of town residents are against the proposal due to potential health risks and property devaluation.

Resident Brenda Salseg said the wind farm issue is a matter of property rights, which are being stripped from landowners in Forest. Current rules allow for a wind turbine to be constructed if it's a certain distance from a home. Once a turbine is erected, it could impede an adjoining landowner's ability to build a new structure on their own property, she explained.

Harsdorf said legislators have debated the issue of appropriate setbacks for wind turbine installations. She agreed that setbacks should be measured from property lines rather than residences.

Knudson said he would favor local control when it comes to wind farm siting rules, and not statewide rules which are the case now. He noted that wind energy's growth in the state is being fueled by subsidies and tax credits and not by economics.

New Richmond resident Scotty Ard said elected officials may not be able to do anything to stop the Forest project, but she encouraged future action so other parts of the state don't go through the same thing.

The legislators encouraged Forest residents to provide them with information about the situation and they would follow up.

Other questions and comments to the legislators included topics such as state economic development efforts, health care, the federal "fiscal cliff" debate and the expired tax reciprocity agreement between Wisconsin and Minnesota.

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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