Editor's note: The following is a continuation of a District 11 candidates forum that took place in Alexandria on October 6.
State aid to local governments, rising healthcare costs, job growth and transportation needs.
Those were just some of the topics the candidates who want to represent Douglas County in the Minnesota Legislature talked about at a forum last Wednesday.
Sponsored by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the event included District 11B House hopefuls Mary Franson (Republican), Burt Pexsa (Independence) and Amy Hunter (DFL). It also included Senate candidates Bill Ingebrigtsen, the Republican incumbent, and DFL challenger Jim Thoreen.
WOULD THEY MAINTAIN LGA FUNDS?
Hunter said she's a firm believer in Local Government Aid (LGA) because it provides necessary funding for roads, bridges, fire protection and other essential services. The state, she said, needs to strike a balance between rural and metro, property-tax wealthy areas and those relying on LGA.
Franson said that LGA is "extremely important" and she would not cut it like the DFL-controlled Legislature has voted to do. She added that rural governments could also use relief from state mandates.
Pexsa said that LGA is a great program that has run its course but is still vital. He said that aid should be based on needs rather than wants. He said the state needs to bring back agriculture as a job and find ways to encourage businesses to stay here.
Ingebrigtsen agrees with the principle of LGA and said he would maintain its funding. He said that the Senate has been under the DFL control for too long - 40 years - and that it needs to get its priorities in order by preserving LGA for rural communities.
Thoreen said that LGA was part of the "Minnesota Miracle" in the 1970s but that it's showing signs of age and needs change. Instead of giving the issue "sound bites," legislators need to have a thorough and open discussion of the fiscal relationship the state should have with cities. He said that based on the dire financial situation the state is in, LGA funding will likely decrease.
Pexsa said that the state needs to focus more on clinical and preventative care instead of costly emergency care. He said that rural hospitals aren't receiving enough Medicare reimbursement. One way to save costs is to provide more incentives for the elderly to receive care in their own homes instead of institutionalizing them and have the state pick up the tab.
Hunter said the state could take a cue from the excellent healthcare facilities in District 11B, such as the healthcare facility in Staples. She said that partnerships, such as the one between the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic to conduct diabetes research, could save the state millions of dollars.
Franson said that it's a matter of priorities. The DFL-controlled Legislature, she said, keeps voting to keep money in Ramsey County instead of rural Minnesota. She's concerned that "Obamacare" will drive up insurance rates, which has forced companies like 3M to drop workers from its insurance plan.
Thoreen said that healthcare costs are not just a problem in Minnesota but a national dilemma as well. He said that the state should offer incentives for healthcare strategies that work. He said the state could glean ideas from the Lakewood Center in Staples, health facilities in Morris and the Douglas County Hospital, which was named one of the best in the nation.
WHAT ARE BARRIERS TO JOB GROWTH?
Franson said that small businesses are struggling with rising health insurance premiums. Jobs are leaving the state because Minnesota, with its high taxes, is not considered business-friendly, she said.
Pexsa said that Minnesota must reform its tax code, which it hasn't done since 9-11. He said that companies are leaving the state because of it.
Hunter said her idea to raise taxes on those making $250,000 or more a year would not apply to businesses. She said the state needs to encourage more entrepreneurship to get more people on the tax rolls. She said that the recession is not just restricted to Minnesota but is a global issue.
Ingebrigtsen said that environmentalists are responsible for driving businesses out of the state. He said big government is tough on small businesses. He said that the state government's growth, with many departments now having their own buildings, is stifling business.
Thoreen said that a lack of qualified workers is hurting businesses. He said that the state should focus on the businesses that are already here, offering them incentives to expand their workforce. He said the Legislature should develop an effective statewide economic development plan. Increasing Broadband capabilities in rural areas is also key, he said.
TRANSPORTATION NEEDS AND COSTS
Franson said that safe roads should be a priority but a gas tax increase is the wrong way to get funding. She said people in the district are still fuming over DFLer Mary Ellen Otremba's vote to increase the gas tax. She said that under the DFL's leadership, Minnesota is like a "crack addict" by always wanting more.
Pexsa said that jobs are needed to use the roads. He said the state should focus on agriculture and processing jobs.
Hunter said that infrastructure such as safe roads and bridges are needed to grow jobs. She said that the state needs to look at a gas tax increase and alternative biomass fuels.
Ingebrigtsen said he voted against the DFL's bonding bill, which included transportation funding, because it was biggest tax increase in the state's history. He said the state needs to re-examine its spending priorities.
Thoreen said that he would support a gas tax increase with the understanding that it would be only a short-term fix. He said a more long-range approach is needed to make sure rural roads are safe.
THE BONDING BILL
Franson said the $1 billion bonding bill the DFL proposed last year was inappropriate in a recession. She said that the state should only be considering essential services, not things like sculpture gardens.
Hunter said she'd consider voting on a bonding bill next session, one year earlier than it's normally approved. She noted that the trail system is important in rural Minnesota by bringing business into the area. She said that the bonding bill shouldn't be looked at as spending but as an investment in the future.
Pexsa said that only needs, not wants, should be included in a bonding bill.
Ingebrigtsen said if the bonding bill were solely for roads, highways and bridges, he'd support on in 2001. He said he'd oppose it if it included the "same old pork" such as a parking lot for Excel Energy or gorilla museums.
Thoreen said he'd consider a bonding bill next session. He said some projects are already ready to go and would put people to work.