BELOIT - Around 70 residents filled the Beloit City Hall Forum on Wednesday night to hear from competing candidates for Wisconsin State Assembly Districts 31 and 45, less than a month before the Nov. 6 general election.
Candidates for the 45th District, incumbent Democrat Mark Spreitzer and Libertarian challenger Reese Wood, along with District 31 incumbent Republican Amy Loudenbeck and Democratic challenger Brittany Keyes, handled questions ranging from healthcare availability, education funding, immigration, state criminal justice reforms, transportation borrowing and economic growth in Rock County.
Wednesday's event saw no major confrontations between candidates, with all involved staying mostly along party lines spanning the range of issues covered. Keyes criticized Loudenbeck for her past voting record on various state budgets and votes along partisan lines.
Both Loudenbeck and Spreitzer leaned heavily on their experience serving in Madison to highlight their past achievements, while Keyes and Wood sought to portray themselves as alternatives and outside candidates for voters.
Keyes, a Beloit Health System physical therapist is seeking to unseat Loudenbeck, a veteran Assembly member vying for her fifth term in Madison. Wood, who works in construction and podcasting, said he wanted to give voters an independent choice outside of the two major parties. Spreitzer, who first won office in 2014 after time with the Beloit City Council, said he wanted to expand on policy victories made since then.
Both Spreitzer and Keyes said they would support changing the state policy of not accepting federal Medicaid dollars to increase access for uninsured residents. Wood said he would support legalization of hemp and removing prohibitions against cannabis as a way to boost health care funding across the state. Loudenbeck said she wanted to focus on improving low-cost options including free clinic expansion. All candidates said they supported boosting initiatives like telemedicine for rural areas of the state.
The current K-12 funding model was discussed at length Wednesday, with all candidates suggesting varying forms of reform to the current system that's polarized the state. Keyes and Spreitzer said they wanted to see greater re-investment into the state school system through Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tony Evers' funding model, and restore funding lost by the UW-Wisconsin System since 2015. Loudenbeck said the state's current plan was flawed but pointed to reinvestments made since 2010. Loudenbeck highlighted per-pupil investment, advocating for open enrollment and supporting reimbursement rate increases for rural school districts struggling outside of going to ballot referendums. Wood said more emphasis needed to be put on understanding student achievement gaps and support common core curriculum mandates across the state, while incentivizing open enrollment.
Keyes, Spreitzer and Wood said they supported creating an identification system to allow undocumented workers access to a drivers licenses with the clear notice on the ID to prevent voting. All highlighted the need for workers in industries across the state to have access to operating a vehicle legally. Loudenbeck didn't say whether she would support such a plan, but said the state needed to watch the federal discussion around a guest worker permit program to be year-round to cover non-seasonal industries, a plan discussed by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-WI.
Issues surrounding mass incarceration, and racial and economic status disparities in rates of those jailed or imprisoned led to discussions of ways to improve the state criminal justice system. All candidates said there were problems with the state and county systems, but came to different solutions on how to change.
Wood said he supported diverting revenue from legalized hemp and cannabis sales to boost state funding, while re-evaluating terms and conditions of release for those convicted of cannabis-related crimes. Spreitzer said he supported a new look at probation changes to provide independent review to make informed parole recommendations for non-violent offenders, while Keyes said she supported increasing diversion program options to help residents navigate the system. Loudenbeck said she supported the construction of a geriatric prison in Allouez; increasing substance abuse and mental health treatment for those incarcerated; while looking at pre-trial detention issues from the state's cash bond system.
With thousands of new jobs being created in Rock County since 2010, candidates were asked the question of how to ensure employees received a living wage. Keyes and Spreitzer said the state needed to increase the state minimum wage, with Spreitzer saying the state should tie the minimum wage to the inflation rate to account for wage stagnation. Loudenbeck said the state needed to focus on the increase of workforce development options through Wisconsin Fast Forward, a worker training program that awards grants across the state to employers, and the increase of programs for unemployed individuals to restart career options as ways to boost individual employee growth.
At the end of Wednesday's event, Greater Beloit Chamber Director Aimee Thurner implored residents to familiarize themselves with the two advisory referendum questions being posed to Rock County voters. They include a question regarding potential support or opposition to the future legalization of cannabis to be used for specific funding sources including education, and a question regarding whether or not the state should move to close a perceived tax loophole that allows large corporations to receive lower property tax assessments.
The event was hosted by the Wisconsin Beloit NAACP Chapter 3251, Leagues of Women Voters of Beloit and Janesville, the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, Justice Overcoming Borders and Forward Janesville.
Voters will head to the polls on Nov. 6.