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Candidates in the 14th Senate District recall race took to the airwaves Thursday night, just hours before squaring off in their final debate in Ripon.

Wisconsin Public Radio host Ben Merens interviewed incumbent state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, who is defending his seat against challenger Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, in the upcoming election. The election will take place Aug. 9.

The two Wisconsin Senate candidates disagreed on one of the most fundamental questions. Why is the Aug. 9 recall election — which now is less than two weeks away — happening in the first place?

Olsen: Unions to blame

Olsen said the answer was that big unions — and many out-of-state influences — were upset with Republicans’ support for Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial bill that eliminated almost all collective bargaining for public workers.

"They want to try to show the rest of the country if you try to do this we will do the same thing to you that they’re doing to us," Olsen said.

Walker’s bill eliminated the ability of public employees — such as social workers and teachers — to bargain as groups with their employers for anything but wages up to the rate of inflation.

The bill also forced public workers to pay a minimum percentage toward their health insurance premiums and retirement plans.

Those changes were needed, Olsen said, because the state needed to cut aid to local governments in order to balance the budget. The collective bargaining changes provided local governments the tools they needed to deal with those cuts, he said.

Despite dire predictions from Democrats that a Republican budget that cut more than $800 million from public education would harm schools, Olsen said, the sky isn’t falling. Teachers are not getting laid off and class sizes aren’t increasing, he said.

The Baraboo School Board Monday night approved a $12. 8 million property tax levy, an 8.5 percent decrease from the year before that largely was possible because of the Republican policies. However, some at the meeting objected to the fact that the savings to taxpayers came from the pockets of school employees.

Olsen was asked if it is too early to know the long-term effects of a state budget that is only a month old.

"We can see the trend," Olsen said. "I’ve talked to a number of school superintendents who have said it wasn’t nearly as bad as (they) expected it to be."

Clark: System not working

Clark, on the other hand, said the recalls were taking place because more than 22,000 citizens in Olsen’s district signed a petition, exercising their right to hold their representative accountable for his actions.

While the changes to collective bargaining law triggered that action, Clark said, other Republican measures such as tax breaks for big corporations and education policies that cut money for public schools while increasing funding for private schools have continued to drive recall supporters.

He said Republicans are hurting the middle class and working class people while giving handouts to big businesses. Clark, the owner of a small sustainable forestry business who is in his second term as an Assemblyman, said the Wisconsin Legislature isn’t functioning properly.

"Individual legislators are unable or unwilling to act as independent representatives for the at people at home," he said. "There’s not much point in 99 representatives or 33 senators going to work every day if all the votes fall in line with their party leadership. If that’s all you’re going to do, we wouldn’t need to run a Legislature to do that."

Although interest groups clearly are playing a role in the election, Clark said it’s happening on both sides. He said the interest groups attacking him seem to be focused more on personal attacks than the issues that concern voters.

"They’re doing that because they simply can’t defend the policies that are being put into place right now," Clark said. "It’s an age-old ploy in politics. If you can’t win on the issues, you attack somebody personally."

Two callers to the radio program took issue with Olsen’s statements that outside interests — rather than a concerned electorate — were responsible for the recall election.

"I live in your district and I’m not an outside influence," said one caller who asked Olsen about an ethics complaint filed against him. "I’m a retired person who likes to watch where my money goes."

Olsen said he expects the complaint — which alleges that he authored legislation to financially benefit his wife — will be swiftly dismissed by the state’s Government Accountability Board.