2011 Legislative session will be painful, candidates say
A partisan crowd listened to a Minnesota District 2/2B senate and house forum Tuesday evening, cheering and heckling the candidates.
The fair-haired candidate, judging from the applause, was District 2B GOP challenger Dave Hancock, a one-time schoolteacher and a business owner in Bemidji.
The not-so-fair haired candidates, by the same measure, were DFL Sen. Rod Skoe of Clearbrook and DFL Rep. Brita Sailer of Park Rapids, who was heckled at one point during the League of Women Voter's forum.
That prompted moderator Al Judson to admonish the crowd, reminding them they were attending an informational forum, not a political rally.
Candidates were asked first about taxes, specifically the tax plan unveiled last week by DFL gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton. The plan that would include a $1.9 billion tax hike, a casino at the Mall of America, increased taxes on homes worth more than $1 million and a crackdown on tax evaders by closing loopholes that allow people to live elsewhere.
n Hancock, owner of a tire dealership, brought applause when he said "I do not support (Mark) Dayton's tax plan. Please, I do not need more taxes. I need you to control spending. We need to trim our delivery system; fund programs in an effective and sustainable way."
When an audience member, via a handwritten card, asked about mandatory photo IDs for voters, Hancock supported it.
"You have to have a photo ID to get a Blockbuster card," he said. "If it prevents one person from voting fraudulently," it should be implemented.
Hancock said one way to close a projected $6 billion budget deficit is to "repeal Obamacare," the new federal health care legislation. "That's where the loans to pay for post-secondary (education) are."
He also stressed lowering higher education costs by making colleges operate more efficiently.
He said the student loan program as it now is, cedes too much control to the federal government and he urged a return to "Defense loans" that would break that monopolistic grip on financing college.
Hancock, whose wife is an emergency room nurse in Bemidji, said the health care system is not working.
"Access to health care is vital to everyone," he said. "The problem is in the cost."
He urged a cafeteria-style system of health plans where insured persons could pick the amount and type of ailments to be covered.
"There needs to be transparency in the health care industry so we know what it costs," he insisted. Tort reform to limit medical malpractice lawsuits would drive down the cost of insurance by reducing medical malpractice premiums doctors and facilities pay.
Hancock also said the state's budgeting practices need revamping.
"We need to budget to control costs, not control or reduce the costs," he said.
With school funding, he said shifting school funds "has been done 16 or 17 times already. You budget from your income. You don't spend what you'd like to have."
The exodus to home schooling or private schools indicates Minnesotans are unhappy with the way education is being run.
"We need local control," he said. "We need to get the (U.S.) Department of Education out of education. We need to trust our locals to make the best decisions for our child's education."
That is roughly the same position he takes on environmental issues, ceding more control to local agencies, thereby simplifying the regulatory morass at the state level.
n Skoe, seeking a third senate term, previously held two terms in the house and was a Clearwater County commissioner and is a potato farmer.
He said the state "missed the opportunity (years ago) to get its fiscal house in order."
He said while the Dayton tax plan "brings fairness back" to taxing, Minnesotans' income taxes have been declining since 1992.
"In 1992 the highest earners were taxed 16 percent; 11 percent after deductions," he maintained.
"Today we're at 7.85 percent with an effective rate of 5.85 percent."
And Skoe said the state is "required to balance its budget" so there's little choice but to "raise revenue or cut spending" to get its financial house in order.
Skoe is not in favor of voter ID cards.
"In the recent (Coleman-Franken Senate) recount there were hardly questionable ballots at all," he said to guffaws. "This is a solution looking for a problem."
Skoe said a critical issue is educating Minnesota's adults. "Students are graduating with increasing debt loads," he said. "Not furthering your educational opportunities (due to the cost) is short-sighted." Skoe urged an expanded Pell grant program that would help fund poor students.
And he said it is equally short-sighted to think education cuts will bail out the state's money woes.
"Our education budget is $4.2 billion," he said. "We could eliminate it all and it still won't erase the $6 billion deficit."
He urged restraint in spending the one-time funds such as tobacco settlement money and the school shift monies captured in the Jesse Ventura years to plug a budget gap.
He said strapped school districts have no choice but to raise funds through property taxes when "income tax is much more fair."
He urged a retreat from No Child Left Behind legislation, which has resulted in school districts spending billions more to meet expensive testing requirements while enrollments decline and better cheaper testing methods are available.
"I don't buy into this doom and gloom in Minnesota," Skoe said, pointing out the state has "more Fortune 500 companies" than any other state.
"We can do this," he said about turning around the economy. "It's the Minnesota way."
n Sailer, too, partially supports the Dayton tax plan, but she said striking a balance is necessary when cutting spending.
"Cuts across the board are not fair and raising taxes are not an option," she said. "To just cut would be immoral. We've been cutting the last four years. The last two years it has not been easy to do."
The federal recession is partly to blame for the state's financial pickle, she said,
Sailer does not favor voter ID cards. "It creates inequities," she said, potentially cutting off the voting rights of elderly voters.
"There's no documented problem in Minnesota of voter fraud," she said to hecklers.
Sailer believes the state should support green technology and stimulus programs such as weatherization efforts to make homes more energy independent.
Manufacturing products such as solar panels and wind turbines would not only stimulate the state's economy and put people back to work, it would also make the region more energy efficient, she said.
"These programs have an excellent track record," she said.
The region needs to invest in broadband technology that would enable entrepreneurs to work from home and enable long distance learning, she suggested.
"I do support" full access to health care, she said.
On a recent tour of health care facilities, she said most facilities are worrying about continuing to provide uncompensated care to indigent patients.
The state's General Assistance Medical Care program is in flux and not working for outstate Minnesotans, she said.
And Minnesota missed the boat when it passed on an opportunity to early enroll in the new federal Medicare program, she said.
The budget cuts, which are necessary, will be painful, she admitted.
But she's reluctant to start paring back education spending, she said.
Rural districts are seeing an exodus of students to more affluent districts that have more opportunities, she said.
"Part of education spending is inflation," she said. High transportation costs for rural districts would only be compounded through consolidating schools.
If anything, the state should spend more.
"We need classroom teachers and paraprofessionals in the early grades," she said.
"We will be making cuts, looking at aggressive accounting," she promised.
She believes the state should tap its natural resource base to enhance tourism and industry.
If there was any agreement among the candidates, it was that the upcoming legislative session will be difficult.
GOP candidate Dennis Moser, who is running against Skoe, was unable to attend the forum.