Dist. 2 candidates agree school funding needs fix

Whether Republican or DFLer, legislative candidates, participating in a Meet the Candidates forum this week, appeared to agree school funding needs an overhaul.

Whether Republican or DFLer, legislative candidates, participating in a Meet the Candidates forum this week, appeared to agree school funding needs an overhaul.

On other issues, the candidates' distanced themselves from one another although they didn't always follow conventional party-speak.

Wednesday night's forum, sponsored by the Park Rapids League of Women Voters (LWV), included state Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook) and Republican challenger Steve Booth from Gonvick; state Rep. Brita Sailer (DFL-Park Rapids) and Doug Lindgren, Republican candidate from Bagley; and state Rep. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley) and Patricia Crabb, Republican challenger from Osage.

The school finance question was simply: "Is the legislature going to change the way schools are funded?"

Crabb, who is a faux painter and newcomer to politics, said she would need more information but believes, "the bottom line is funding government programs by increasing revenue and not increasing taxes." For example, she said the Legislature might consider how gambling proceeds are allotted.


"If I have anything to do about it, the way schools are funded will change," said Sailer, who is seeking re-election to a second term in Dist. 2B. What's been happening has "torn our school systems apart, most particularly in rural areas," she said. "We have levy referendum after levy referendum which used to be for extra things. Now, it's for the basics. We are getting a two-tiered system and pitting people and districts against each other."

Booth, who ran unsuccessfully against Skoe for the Dist. 2 seat in 2002, said he agrees the Legislature needs to look at whether or not the state takeover of education funding was a good thing to do. If changes haven't been effective, the state should agree to put schools back into local control, he said.

Skoe, who serves as vice chair of the Senate education committee, explained that in 2001 the state took over responsibility for a majority of the base funding for schools, "then backed off from that commitment."

The result, Skoe said, is "now we see reliance on voter approved referendums, creating inequities." Skoe noted statewide a large number of districts have declining enrollment. "We will have to base some funding on operating costs, not totally on student numbers," he said.

"It has to be fixed. It's not working the way it was supposed to work, " said Lindgren, who is seeking to regain the seat he lost to Sailer in 2004. "We do need to fix it because it's not working correctly for those of us living in this area."

"The state needs to take more responsibility so there aren't these growing disparities," said Eken, who serves on both the House education finance and house policy and reform committees. Rural areas can't make up for inequities because they don't have the property tax base or population base, he added.

"We're the ones who pay the price," added Eken, who is seeking election to a third term in Dist. 2A. The state is throwing more of the burdens and responsibilities on local units of government and that's not the direction we want to move in as a state."

Given a second chance to respond, Sailer said the state also needs to put more money into early childhood. "It's where we get the biggest bang for our buck." Booth said he believes the Legislature needs to take a nonpartisan look at school funding and also look at "nonessential spending like special education."


Skoe said voters are hearing there is a need to put 70 percent of education funding into classrooms. "While that is a laudable goal," he said, "it would be very difficult to achieve and would mean no media center, no guidance counselors and other changes. We need to look at this broadly and allow schools to spend money where they think it is the wisest."

"We can't just keep throwing money at an entity," said Lindgren. "We need to make education more accountable and make our money work better for what we're getting out of it."

"We're not throwing money away on our schools. It has been a marvelous investment," said Eken, an educator. "We have our quality of life due to education.

"The debate over 70 percent misleads because it implies the rest goes to administration," Eken said. "It doesn't. It goes for heat and electricity and more."

Moderator Marilyn Heltzer of Bemidji guided candidates through questions from the audience. The League format allowed a one-minute answer with opportunity for a one-minute rebuttal.

Question: What can the state do to control health care costs and insure small businesses can continue to provide health care benefits to their employees?

Eken said an attempt was made in the last session to cover small businesses through MinnesotaCare. Two-thirds of the funding for that program does go to rural Minnesota, according to Eken.

Generally speaking, he said, the national government has to do things to contain health care costs, but Eken said he believes more can be done to promote prevention and developing new technologies through the University of Minnesota.


"The only way to control costs is to get the government out of health care," said Lindgren, who said the private sector can always do things more efficiently, open things up to competitive bidding and provide incentives for businesses to provide insurance for their employees.

"You will not see a government entity that's efficiently run. Get government out of it," said Lindgren.

Skoe said reducing costs requires a look at where the money is spent. Now 30 percent of health care costs are in administration and billing, he said. Streamlining criteria for coverage could reduce those costs. "Now there are multiple ways to get at different amounts," he said.

"The government should let you have more of what you earn," said Booth. "It's not an incentive raising a business owner's taxes. They're not going to increase the workforce or give employees raises."

What the government can do, Booth said, is promote health care savings plans, stop taxing retirement pensions and Social Security so people have more of the money they earn to pay for health care. Government also can reduce costs by imposing less regulation, he said.

"The health care system is clearly broken," said Sailer. "Too many people are having problems with it and we need to look at some new solutions."

Sailer authored the bill Eken had mentioned that would have let small businesses buy into MinnesotaCare. "I still think it's a good idea," she said. "And why can't the state get into a pool to buy prescription drugs as the VA (Veterans Affairs) does now?"

Finally, Sailer countered Lindgren's stance that health care and insurance would all be better off if handled in the private sector, saying much is profit-centered now.


She asked how it's better when the chief executive officer of UnitedHealth Group ended up with stock options valued at $1.6 billion. "Too much money goes into their pockets instead of into health care," Sailer said.

"It's not only a Minnesota problem, it is the No. 1 national problem," said Crabb.

She said she advocates health savings accounts and some kind of control on prescription drug costs. "You can go to five different pharmacies and get five different prices," she said. Crabb said there should be a study on why prices vary so much and also that too much money goes into insurance companies' pockets instead of into health care.

Eken said he has concerns about pharmaceutical companies as well as the cost of prescription drugs. "Enormous profits are being made at the expense of ill people and when they are the most vulnerable," he said. "I'd prefer to keep people healthy rather than keeping profits for the industry."

If there aren't profits, said Lindgren, pharmaceutical companies won't develop more drugs. "We have the best health care in the world in Minnesota," he said. "It's the way it's paid for is what really needs help."

Skoe noted the state has a role in Medicare, Medicaid and MinnesotaCare and none of these programs reimburse providers for the services they're providing. "It's less than 50 cents on the dollar. And that is a problem as rural facilities try to recruit doctors and we try to keep pharmacies open on main street. So access to health care is harder to maintain in rural Minnesota," Skoe said.

Booth, who previously owned a health club, said often people who came there had been given a second chance.

As a county commissioner, Booth said, he was dismayed at the cost of employees' health benefit packages. He said he believes insurance companies can "break plans up" so people pay less if they don't smoke, don't consume alcohol and aren't obese. "Those who make good choices are paying for those who don't."


When MinnesotaCare eligibility requirements were changed in 2003, "it really impacted so many people in our area," said Sailer. "It is going in the wrong direction."

Sailer said she has even talked to people who know if they don't work, they would get health care, but that's not what people want to do. "We should help people. If they don't have health insurance and go to an emergency room, it costs everybody."

"I know people who have a job because it provides them with health care," said Crabb. Costs make it hard for businesses to compete, she added. She said she supports for-profit HMOs and believes "more customized policies" could benefit everyone rather than "a one size fits all" policy, but believes previous illnesses should be exempted.

Question: How can our state government help to improve the economic outlook for job growth and business in northern Minnesota?"

Skoe said the Internet 'is going to revitalize a lot of our rural areas," since it allows many people to work anywhere.

Earlier in the day, Skoe said, he had a conversation about using switch grass to produce ethanol. Switch grass is native here and produces twice as much energy as comes from corn, he said.

"We are going to work to become energy independent in this state and the ag land is available here to raise the crops," said Skoe.

"What brings jobs to this area?" asked Lindgren, answering, "It is money."


"If you increase taxes and requirements on small business, it will chase people away." Lindgren said it is better to give tax cuts and incentives for people to come in. "Don't tax people more and more and expect people to invest here."

Lindgren said President Bush's tax cuts are bringing money into the treasury.

"It this is about who taxes least and who lives best, then Mississippi would be the best place to live in the nation," said Eken.

"But people don't want to move to a community if there aren't good schools and good health care systems. That's what we need to address," Eken said.

"If you let people have more of what they earn, they can spend it better than the government can," said Booth.

Booth added he is a proponent of energy independence and would like to see co-location of biodiesel and ethanol production facilities so farmers could bring their crops to one place. He also suggested transitioning land from the conservation reserve program into growing switch grass could reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Sailer agreed that will be an important component, but broadband "would be crucial" as would cell phone coverage if businesses in rural Minnesota are going to be competitive.

"Energy is one of the positive things we can do for job growth," Sailer said. "There's no reason why in Park Rapids and Bagley, we couldn't be making components for wind generators."

"The more taxes I had to pay, the more difficult it was to provide services to customers," said Crabb, who with her husband owned and operated a lodging business for 22 years before moving to the area.

Crabb said she believes government should be partners in research, tax incentives and economic development, and added, "E85 is like a goldmine for Minnesota."

In his rebuttal, Skoe said there is an abundance of natural resources. "We need to make sure we protect these." He added there is also work to be done to help resorts stay in business. Even after giving smaller resorts "a pretty significant tax break," Skoe said, "the state has to be creative and find a way for small resorts to survive."

"Resorts are dying because the taxes are so high," said Lindgren. "Raising taxes kills business."

"I think property taxes are devastating. They are increasing at an astronomical rate," said Eken, "because of cuts at the state level that have placed a greater tax burden on businesses. So the state needs to provide relief so businesses are not unduly hurt."

Booth said it is important to elect people who are not going to levy unfunded mandates on local units of government. "It's not good legislation if there's no means to pay for it."

Booth also said he thinks it's wrong for counties and townships to pay sales tax to the state. "That doesn't sound like America to me," he said.

"We also need to look at education as part of improving job opportunities," Sailer said, adding she also has been thinking about Ainsworth (the shutdown of a line and subsequent lay-offs at the plant in northern Hubbard County in late August followed by plant closings in Grand Rapids and Cook). She said she hopes there is something the state can do to help the situation.

"I know children have to have a good education to compete, but I believe it's the basic job of schools to give young people the ability to compete by teaching reading, writing, math and languages," said Crabb.

She said it's more important to keep taxes down to support the local economy, and suggested that to boost tourism, the state needs to expand its marketing efforts.

Question: Do you support the transportation amendment and if it's approved, how is the state going to support programs after the $300 million annual transfer from the general fund?"

"It's a complicated issue," said Eken, explaining that although the state has a great need for transportation funding, approving the amendment is not the best way to provide it. "If it passes, the Legislature will have to decide where to make up the difference."

Lindgren said there is a surplus that could be used to fill the gap, but another way is to give tax breaks to promote business. "The federal government did it by cutting taxes," he said.

Skoe said the amendment is the result of the governor's failure to sign a bipartisan transportation bill. One problem, he said, is the language of the amendment is confusing and he tried to fix it in the last session, but it's still the same. "I'm not supporting the amendment," Skoe said. "I don't think it's necessary. It's the Legislature's responsibility."

"I'm not going to support this amendment either," said Booth. "It would be interesting to find out if any legislator who drafted it is still around." Like Lindgren, he said he expects the surplus can be used to fill the gap if it does pass.

On the other hand, Sailer said she is not only concerned about "the hole it would create" in money taken away from the general fund, but she is concerned about the surplus as well. "I will wait until after the election to see how much of a surplus there is. It would be nice if we could use it to fill the hole, but I'm not sure how real it is," Sailer said.

"It is a positive note that we do have a surplus at all," said Crabb. She said she thinks the state should operate on a "pay as you go" basis and isn't sure she would support the amendment as the best way to fund road maintenance and expansion.

In her wrap-up, Crabb said while she doesn't have a political background, she has experience as a working person. She said she knows how having to pay taxes impacts families and businesses and that she would bring a common sense approach to the job.

"There has been talk about some tough decisions that were made (when Lindgren was in office and the state was facing a budget deficit)," Sailer said. "I think some false decisions were made. The buck was passed to the counties, city councils and school boards. They didn't just make a hard decision; they made a false decision. We need to make it so we address things in a more fair way throughout our state."

"It's refreshing to see people who want to be informed," said Booth of the filled courthouse downstairs meeting room.

While campaigning, Booth said people are saying, "we're being taxed to death, our family values are being attacked and we have problems with health care. We need to send someone to St. Paul with a clear set of priorities and an undying resolve to stick to their word.

"I signed a pledge not to raise your taxes and that I don't think killing unborn babies is okay and I think people want the Marriage Rights Amendment on the ballot," said Booth, adding he would do "everything in my power to make sure it gets there.

"And people don't want more superfluous gun regulations. Gun ownership is the biggest fear of a communist government there is."

Skoe observed the forum had produced a fair amount of discussion about taxes. "The question is 'Is it fair?'" he said. "Passing costs onto property taxes isn't fair," Skoe said. "Offering relief to higher income Minnesotans and pushing the cost onto property taxes isn't fair, either."

"We as taxpayers are putting a lot of money into the Red Lake Reservation," said Lindgren, criticizing Sailer for supporting a provision in last year's bonding bill that would have given $75 million for a new school.

"The Supreme Court has said the reservation is the federal government's responsibility," said Lindgren. "My pledge is I will watch over your money," adding his main interest is to clarify what the state's role is

"to people on the reservation and to you."

Eken said he believes tax fairness is the issue and what's been happening in St. Paul results in taxes that are less fair "and harm the working people of rural Minnesota the most.

"The issue isn't taxes or no taxes. We need roads and bridges and hospitals and nursing homes. The question is what is the fairest way to do it."

Eken added former Republican governors are "very critical of the direction we've been moving in the state. We need to continue the bipartisan tradition," he said.

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