House candidates debate disability issuesCandidates vying for a seat in the state Legislature next year squared off in front of a small crowd Monday in a joint forum on disability issues.
By: Mike Enright, Alexandria Echo Press
Candidates vying for a seat in the state Legislature next year squared off in front of a small crowd Monday in a joint forum on disability issues.
Participating in the discussion were Minnesota House of Representatives District 11B incumbent Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, and her Republican challenger, David Kircher, as well as District 11A incumbent Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, and Independence challenger David Holman, of Morris.
Westrom, however, would spend most of the evening debating himself. Holman had to leave early, and another challenger Bruce Campbell, DFL-Alexandria, did not participate.
The event was held at the Broadway Ballroom in Alexandria, and was hosted by the Minnesota chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Joel Ulland, the group’s vice president of public affairs and debate moderator, said in putting on the forum, NMSS hoped to shed light on some important issues that often get lost in the political shuffle.
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t have a full understanding of the programs people with disabilities need,” he said. “It’s not something candidates at either the federal or the state level are going to spend their first 10 seconds talking about, but the reality is that we are a major budget driver.
“The decisions that legislators make have huge impacts and make a difference if a person can stay in their home, or if they are going to have to move into a nursing home because they can’t get access to services,” Ulland added.
For some of the candidates at Monday’s debate, disability issues are personal.
Westrom lost his eyesight in a farm-related car accident in 1987.
For 22 years, Otremba and her husband cared for her handicapped brother-in-law.
Both incumbents said their experiences have pushed them to fight hard to protect programs and services for disabled Minnesotans.
Otremba said she has tried for years to get proper reimbursement from the state for businesses and individuals who drive handicapped persons in rural Minnesota to things like a doctor’s appointment.
Paying for that costs much less than the alternative of transporting people by ambulance, she said.
Westrom said he helped make it easier for people with disabilities to get around the Twin Cities by reallocating state money that was paying for a slow and inefficient handicap bus service and putting it toward paid taxi vouchers.
Programs like that are more cost-effective and consumer-oriented, which is very important when Minnesota is facing a budget deficit next year of $2 billion to $3 billion, Westrom said.
All the candidates agreed that both the country and the state are in bad shape economically. They differed in how to solve the problem.
District 11A candidate Kircher said Minnesota needs to prioritize its spending, starting with areas like education, heath care and energy.
“I’ve always said that government needs to learn to live within its means, just like families do,” he said. “We can’t be taxing everybody; I think everybody’s had enough of that.”
Otremba said all options should be considered in trying to balance the state deficit, and she would try to find savings by trimming down some state agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources, while maintaining funding for education and health care.
Holman said the state has two options to deal with the economic downturn: it can either raise taxes or sell its assets.
With the economy struggling, Westrom said it’s more important than ever for the Legislature to fund quality disability programs, such as medical assistance for employed disabled persons.
“Programs like that have to remain priorities in the state because it is things like that that allow people to keep their independence,” he said. “Without those types of programs that allow people to get up and go to work but keep those benefits, we go backward rather than forward.”
Westrom suggested increased privatization of the state’s prison system as a potential cost-saving measure.
With Minnesota’s unemployment rate rising and as many as two-thirds of the state’s disabled population not working, the candidates proposed plans to help bring jobs back – for all residents.
Keeping programs like medical assistance in place will help, Westrom said, but there also needs to be a concerted effort by the government to “raise expectations” about how much disabled persons can contribute to the workforce.
He said area workforce centers, which help people find jobs, also need to be more user-friendly for people with disabilities.
Kircher said the job market is tough right now.
“People with disabilities – I hate to say this – but it’s probably twice as hard for them to find employment opportunities,” he said.
Kircher said the state needs to offer more training and education for disabled workers, employers and the public.
Otremba said Minnesota needs to reinvest in local manufacturing and agricultural businesses, which will create more jobs for everyone, including disabled persons.
“That is key,” she said.
Alexandria residents Jay and Gail Kulp attended Monday’s debate. They said they were very disappointed by the event’s turnout.
“I’m sorry there was not more input from more citizens,” Jay Kulp said. “Disabilities are a touchy subject for a lot of people.”
He said there should be more funding for programs and services, but it’s tough, especially in deficit years, because so many people don’t know anyone who is disabled and therefore prioritize other issues.
The Kulps have a 30-year-old son who suffered serious brain damage when he was born, and as a result he is severely disabled.
Though not possible for their son, they said it is vital that the state provide the necessary support through measures such as employer incentives and job coaching to help handicapped persons succeed in the workplace.
“He’ll never work, but that doesn’t mean he can’t contribute,” Gail Kulp said of her son. “He’s taught us a ton.
“I guess part of our job is coming to things like this and making our voices heard.”