Senate candidates differ on key issues
Voters searching for differences between Minnesota Senate candidates in Districts 8 and 12 found plenty to mull over Monday night.
The office seekers clashed over the environment, renewable energy, the state budget, health care reform, the effectiveness of the last legislative session and more.
The exchanges took place at a legislative candidate forum at the Alexandria Technical and Community College that was sponsored by the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission and the Alexandria Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.
About 110 people attended the forum, including the candidates: Republican Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria and DFLer Dan Skogen of Hewitt in District 8, and Republican Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake and DFLer John Schultz of Correll in District 12.
Here's a summary of what happened:
Ingebrigtsen: He outlined his background as a former Douglas County sheriff who grew up in Alexandria. In his six years in the Senate, he served four years as a member of the minority party before voters gave Republicans control of the Senate two years ago. He serves on several Senate committees, including those dealing with the environment, judiciary, public safety, finance and ethics.
Skogen: A lifelong resident of Otter Tail County, he grew up in the Phelps Mill area and had a non-political background, 33 years in the radio industry in Wadena, when he decided to run for the Senate in 2006. He defeated a 20-year incumbent and served one term before he was voted out of office in 2010.
Schultz: Born in Wisconsin, he had extensive experience in the commercial banking industry before he had a "mental seizure" and decided to venture into farming in Big Stone County. He said he decided to seek office to help a broken legislative system work again.
Westrom: He grew up on a dairy farm, obtained a law degree and runs a small business with his wife in Elbow Lake. He was elected to the Minnesota House in 1996 and recently served as chair of civil law and energy committees.
Ingebrigtsen: He worked with the Dayton administration to cut red tape for businesses. He supported a bipartisan bill to help businesses move more quickly through the environmental permitting process, which he said has made it more attractive for businesses to move to Minnesota, adding thousands of jobs.
Skogen: Minnesota businesses need an educated workforce yet the Legislature has disinvested in higher education, cutting funding back to 2001 levels. Alexandria has nearly 100 job openings for highly-skilled workers. The ATCC could fill those jobs if it had the funding to make the training more affordable. The Legislature should support the Minnesota Investment Fund, which provides low-interest and forgivable loans to businesses that provide new jobs.
Schultz: The key to job growth is putting more dollars into the hands of consumers and increasing the bonding bill. Lower taxes do not impact businesses in a positive way. The state and nation also need to address repaying their debt.
Westrom: There is no "silver bullet" that can suddenly create new jobs but he was open to hearing ideas. He mentioned one from the Minnesota Telephone Association: Cities that meet criteria for having high-speed, broadband Internet capabilities would be designated as Internet friendly on their city signs, similar to the Minnesota Star City program.
Ingebrigtsen: He learned the importance of working with the other political party when his party was in the minority for four years. He worked with DFL Governor Dayton in cutting red tape for businesses and also with legislation aimed at aquatic invasive species. There are some things Ingebrigtsen will not give in to, such as higher taxes and government growth. He wasn't sent to the Legislature to get along 100 percent of the time with other senators.
Skogen: He served four years on a Senate conference committee where legislators would sit down and work out differences in their bills. He also worked on a bipartisan bonding bill that got things done, such as building a waste-to-energy plant in Perham.
Schultz: His 15 years as a personal financial advisor taught him the value of listening to what others want done. He said he's a better listener than a talker. When he does talk, he said he does so straight-forwardly and with honesty. He said he also understands the importance of compromise and getting things done.
Westrom: He would work with both sides of the political aisle if it was an idea worth pursuing. He's taken part in the cajoling that goes on at the caucus level over bonding, taxes and education. His constituents don't want him to "roll over" just to reach an agreement.
Ingebrigtsen: He supports broad-based tax relief for businesses, which in turn would create jobs, boost spending and produce more revenue for the state. He said that the Legislature was faced with a horrible $6 billion deficit two years ago but under Republican leadership, it made the tough decisions to turn the deficit into a surplus without raising taxes. He said he also supports more privatization of government functions.
Skogen: The Legislature, by not paying back education shifts and cutting reimbursements to nursing homes, is "walking toward another cliff." He added that Minnesota is not a bad place to do business, noting recent expansions such as 3M in St. Paul and the Geringhoff farm machinery plant in St. Cloud. The Legislature should work at closing corporate tax loopholes and have circuit breakers that click on when the state needs more revenue.
Schultz: The additional money the state was projected to take in through additional sales and building permit revenue is already spent and the state will face another big deficit in February. He supports equalizing tax returns for individuals, making sure large corporations are paying their fair share of taxes, and streamlining government spending and government jobs. He added that the Legislature has been "digging this hole" for 12 years and it will take more than one legislative session to solve it.
Westrom: The state has gotten into financial trouble in the past when the pressure to spend is too great. The state has to live within its means, continue to find ways to reform government and rein in government growth.
This was an area where the candidates shared common ground. They all saw benefits with JOBZ and other economic development tools such as tax increment financing (TIF) and the Angel Investor Tax Credit program, although they did point out some flaws, such as lack of oversight and burdensome red tape.
Schultz noted that any government program is subject to abuse from the capitalist sector. He said the state should address the "screaming need" for infrastructure repairs that could help businesses.
Ingebrigtsen: He voted against the 2007 mandate to have utility companies get at least 25 percent of their power from solar, wind and burned waste by 2025. He thinks the requirement was too much and doesn't support any more regulations. "I don't stand in the way of good, alternative energy," Ingebrigtsen said, "but how much will we have to pay for that?" The 2025 mandate is only "sending clean air to Wisconsin." He supported lifting the ban on nuclear energy, which he said is the cleanest fuel there is, but the governor vetoed it.
Skogen: He voted for the renewable energy standards in 2007. "If it sends clean air to Wisconsin, I see nothing wrong with that," he said. Skogen, who served 10 years on the Todd-Wadena County Electric Board, said that although the standards caused "high anxiety" among the utilities, they were not going to change unless they were told to. Alternative energy has created more jobs and the 2025 requirements should be allowed to play out. It's vital for consumers to reduce their energy consumption.
Schultz: He has concerns about nuclear waste storage. Global warming must be addressed by pursuing renewable energy even if it drives up electrical rates in the future. "I want better, cleaner energy," he said. "We only have one planet."
Westrom: He doesn't believe that humans caused global warming. He said the Earth has been warming for eons. Big strides have been made in cleaning up air, water and smog, and tighter regulations could impede people's ability to invent things. He said he supported the 2007 25 percent requirement because he wanted to do "10 percent right rather than 25 percent wrong." He said that 25 percent requirement should be scaled back. He also supports hydro-energy.
FOR THE ELDERLY
Skogen: The state needs to make reimbursements to nursing homes a priority. Facilities have not had a cost of living increase in five years. Assisted living facilities and home health care saves the state millions of dollars and this type of care should be encouraged. It's time to end equalization rates in nursing homes.
Ingebrigtsen: Nursing homes should have been reimbursed six years ago when the DFL-controlled Legislature had a $2 billion surplus. The federal government has spent $50 billion on green job incentives and suggested that half of that money should have been spent on taking care of the elderly. He agreed with Skogen on ending nursing home equalization rates but Governor Dayton vetoed it.
Schultz: Long-term care is especially important in District 12 because it has so many senior citizens. The state is not doing enough to take care of the elderly. The Legislature needs to make health care for seniors a priority.
Westrom: It's important for seniors to maintain their independent living in their own homes as long as possible. He fought against over-regulating assisted living facilities and said it was time to "super-charge" the tax credits for seniors to obtain long-term care insurance.
Ingebrigtsen: K-12 funding has been a political football. To help balance the budget, the state shifts money from the schools. The Legislature repaid about half of the $725 million it shifted and voted to pay back the rest but Governor Dayton vetoed the bill. The disparities in per-pupil funding make no sense. Alexandria and Fergus Falls should receive the same amount as the metro areas.
Skogen: The Legislature needs to get serious about putting together a plan for education funding. Schools are being forced to constantly levy because they aren't receiving enough funding through the state, such as technology upgrades. The state needs to press the federal government into paying its share of special education funding, which is costing Minnesota millions of dollars every year.
Schultz: The state should return to how it was handling education funding before it was changed in 2001, because the current method isn't working. He's also concerned about the "giant sucking sound" that can be heard in Minnesota every June when graduates flee to other states, taking their intellectual power with them.
Westrom: The state needs to equalize the per-pupil rates to provide more fair funding for rural school districts. When the state puts more money into education, taxes go up. Now, with less funding from the state, property taxes are going up at the local level.
Ingebrigtsten: Graduation rates in Douglas and Pope counties lag behind neighboring counties, which is something to pay attention to. Evaluations make sense. They're done in the private sector. He thinks they could level the playing field.
Skogen: He had some concerns about evaluations, even though he's heard most teachers are not opposed to the idea. Some teachers are brilliant with special needs students but they would be harder to evaluate. He said the state should be considering all the students and trying to get the most out of every one of them.
Schultz: He posed some questions: If Johnny can run faster, does that mean his coach is better? If Suzy gets higher test scores, does that mean her teacher is better? He said it was silly to try to reduce things that can't be measured. There are ways to evaluate teaching success but assigning a numerical score isn't the answer.
Westrom: He supports education reforms as long as local school boards and parents have a say in it. Teacher evaluations should also be done at the local level.
IMPACT IN MN
Ingebrigtsen: Obamacare, passed at the federal level, does not address increasing costs of health care and will result in higher taxes. Minnesota takes care of people who need health care. He supports allowing people to obtain health insurance through the free market system. Abuse of the system should be eliminated, such as people going to the emergency room to obtain routine care.
Skogen: He's glad a president finally pulled the trigger on trying to give everyone health insurance. It may not drive down costs but it will at least provide people with insurance. Obamacare should move forward as long as there is local control.
Schultz: Obamacare is a start, providing insurance to 50 million more people. Everyone in the U.S. should have health care.
Westrom: Obamacare was wrongly declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Government health care plans in other countries, such as Canada, are flawed. In Canada, people with the common cold go to the emergency room while others are waiting eight hours or more to see a doctor. Minnesota's system should be reformed to allow people to get insurance from the private sector.
AND 'CLEAN COAL'
Ingebrigtsten: Coal isn't clean but the country is doing a better job in making it cleaner. The state's ban on nuclear power plants should not be a partisan issue and should be lifted. Natural gas is also a good alternative.
Skogen: Coal is not clean and saying it is clean is like saying there is no global warming. Technology is making coal cleaner but mining techniques are once again getting ahead of the technology. Renewable energy can create good jobs.
Schultz: Burning coal is harmful to the environment by producing carbon dioxide. Right now, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is at historic high levels. You can take some of the impurities out of coal but not the carbon dioxide.
Westrom: Technology has led to cleaner coal and that should be explored more. He's heard of a method that turns coal into a gas and it's then burned. Renewable energy should stay in the state and keep energy costs at reasonable levels.
WHAT ARE YOUR
Ingebrigtsen: Moral values and transparency by not hiding anything from constituents. He's dedicated his whole life to public service and gets back to people when they contact him.
Skogen: He's a man of faith who is honest and humble. "I say what I mean and I mean what I say," he said. He's compassionate "to a fault," and has been blessed with good health, healthy children and a strong marriage.
Westrom: Rural, family values, small-town roots, independence and a can-do attitude. He also knows how to listen. "My eyes aren't so good," said Westrom, who lost his eyesight in a car accident in 1987. "But my ears are."
Schultz: Quoting Garrison Keillor, Schultz said he was strong and above average. He mentioned his farming background and his passion of taking care of the environment. He gives straight answers. He quoted what someone once said about him: "If you don't want to know what Schultz thinks, don't ask him."
Ingebrigtsen: He wants to be part of the solution to the state's problems. He said that the Legislature was able to turn a $6 billion deficit into a $2 billion surplus without raising taxes. Government has been on auto-pilot for too long.
Skogen: Led by Republicans for the last two years, the Legislature has been managing from one crisis to another and it's time to stop. In the last two years, there has been a 21-day government shutdown; a $300 million increase in property taxes; cuts to local government aid; and the use of public tax dollars to defend the indiscretions of colleagues. "This election is not about me," he said. "It's about you."
Schultz: As a "recovering farmer" in Big Stone, he has a "universe of experience in the private sector" that his opponent doesn't have. He understands that global warming is here. The economy is driven by agriculture and small business. The state needs to balance its budget through fair taxation and government efficiency.
Westrom: The state has had some ups and downs but to dig out of a hole, you shouldn't just raise taxes. You should make government work better. "The government that works best is closest to the people," he said. Online learning can help cut costs in public education and should be embraced.