Candidates for Minnesota House Districts 2A and 2B gathered Tuesday for a Q&A forum, hosted by League of Women Voters (LWV) Park Rapids Area.
Questions were screened in advance to consolidate duplicate questions and to filter out anything personal, hostile, inappropriate or unclear. Topics ranged from the environment, tourism and climate change to health insurance, education and support for the arts. Each candidate was given one minute to respond to questions. Terry Kalil, LWV Minnesota president, served as moderator.
Roughly 70 people attended the event.
Incumbent District 2A State Rep. Matt Grossell, a Republican from Bagley, is challenged by Michael Northbird of Cass Lake, the DFL candidate.
Grossell served in the Armed Forces and law enforcement prior to becoming a state representative. "2016 was the first time I ran for any political office ever," he said.
Northbird is an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and also has Red Lake lineage. He has worked an environmental program manager for the past nine years. He lives on Midge Lake in Farden Township in northeastern Hubbard County.
Karen Branden of Rochert is the DFL candidate running against against incumbent District 2B State Rep. Steve Green, a Republican from Fosston.
Green was elected in 2012. A lifelong resident of northern Minnesota, he and his wife of 40 years have six children.
Branden is a sociology professor at Moorhead State University and also teaches the Ojibwe language at White Earth Community College.
Omnibus bills have broad subjects, like education and transportation, Kalil said, and can be 1,000-page bundles. She asked candidates what can be done about that and if they support the single-subject clause in the state constitution.
"I've never liked omnibus bills. Right now, we are stuck with them until we can make some changes," Green said. "I would support bills going through on their own."
Grossell said he'd like to see omnibus bills trimmed down to handle the necessities, the state assets - roads and bridges, infrastructure, schools. There's plenty of funds available for other projects that aren't what we'd consider necessities for our state."
Northbird said the simple answer is for the legislature to follow the constitution.
Branden agreed. "Omnibus bills are used for sneaky politics and extreme party politics, and I think we should slim it down to what the constitution says."
A host of questions focused on the environment.
"Our natural environment is very important to voters in these districts. What are your plans for prioritizing in the environment and how can we get various groups, like farmers, industry, etc., to work together?" Kalil asked.
Grossell said industries, like pipelines, electricity and coal, "have met and exceeded the regulations put on them to make sure the environment is clean." Additional mandates are unnecessary, he continued, and would only mean costs are passed on to customers.
As an environmental program manager, Northbird said he works under federal grants from the Environmental Protection Agency. On a daily basis, he said he operates under local, tribal, state and federal laws.
"Minnesota is a non-oil producing state," he added, "so when people talk about importing an oil company - a foreign oil company at that - I have no problem putting mandates on them to ensure our state is going to be there for our children."
Branden said she lives in a sustainable home with solar panels, super insulation and geothermal heating. "I walk the walk when it comes to protecting the environment because I think it's our responsibility to do so for our future generations," she said. Branden said her "good, solid plans" include alternative and renewable energy resources.
Green said the question implies that people aren't working together. "That's simply not true," he said. "We asked farmers to cut back on nitrogen, and they did, and received the benefits of it. We asked industry to make certain changes in the way they do business, and they have."
The Red River is "cleaner than it has been in 40 years," he added. "The policies that are in place are working."
"Clean water is essential to the economy, environment and our hearth. What proposals can be enforced or enacted to keep our water clean and safe?" Kalil asked.
Northbird said, "First of all, We need to enforce the laws that have been on the books for decades and that has tried to be circumvented recently."
Regarding the cleanliness of the Red River, Northbird said, "I wonder if that has to do with the development of our environmental laws."
Green noted that water is being monitored all the time and water permits can be cancelled if a problem develops. "Things aren't as bad as you say," he said.
"The Mississippi in Minnesota has got the cleanest waters in the nation, the most pristine," Grossell said. "That's because the state, the environmentalist, industries, farmers are working together."
The next question: "Do you accept the reality of human-caused global climate change that we see in Minnesota with record-breaking rains and storms? What can be done in the Legislature to mitigate these effects?"
"Yes, I do," replied Branden, "like 99 percent of scientists who study it and the Pentagon and the Security Council." She recommended looking at transitioning to other energy sources.
Green said global warming is a scare tactic.
"The amount that humans contribute to global warming is minute," he said. "I'm hearing the globe is actually cooling since about 1995, and it does go up and down. You can get more pollution from one volcano than what humans have put out since walking the earth."
Grossell said, "You can't control what God is going to do with His green earth."
Northbird said he does accept that global climate change is real. "Yes, the world heats and cools naturally on its own, but one of the things we're seeing with our scientific data by hundreds of thousands of people around the world is that it's being exacerbated at levels unseen before on this planet."
Hubbard and Becker counties have higher than average unemployment rates, Kalil said. What can be done to recruit, develop and retain a workforce?
All agreed it's important to establish more partnerships between high schools and local trades for on-the-job training or apprenticeships.
Grossell said welfare should be a short-time solution, "not a career."
Northbird noted that Minnesota Workforce Centers ensure that people have an opportunity to retrain or find jobs. Both counties may need to establish a workforce centers within their borders, he suggested.
Green said he talks to employers who are willing to train, but can't find people willing to work and pass the drug test. Midwesterners have a reputation as hard workers, Green said, adding that should be instilled in youth.
"I don't see employability as an issue of welfare. I haven't seen anything that suggests our jobs aren't filled because people are sitting on welfare, so I wouldn't make that assumption. Everybody I meet that has been on welfare wants to work. They don't want charity. They usually have children that they need to take care of and they need help."
In his closing remarks, Northbird noted that the largest recipients of welfare are corporations.
Surveys show that the arts impact the local economy, Kalil said. "What would you do to support the arts?"
Green said the arts in this area supports itself. "I watch the Legacy funds very closely and there's a lot of money spent that I consider wasted," he said. While there are good Legacy projects, he said some grants are for personal laptops or Caribbean trips.
Grossell agreed that the state dollars should be used for more deserving projects.
If misappropriation is occurring, Branden said, that is wrong and should be corrected. "But the idea of 'waste' is subjective." She noted that, according to the Minnesota Historical Society, for every dollar of Legacy funding spent, there is a $2 return on the investment.
Candidates were asked how they would increase housing for low-income and homeless people.
Northbird suggested block grants for housing issues. "On top of that, I think we need to provide better incentives for developers as well as reducing the cost of home construction and home ownership," he said.
According to Branden, the housing problem is two-fold: affordability and availability.
"We need to take a serious look at what is a livable wage," she said, adding that jobs may be available, but don't pay enough for someone to build or buy a home.
There should be a smoother process for building homes, she added, because construction creates jobs.
Green agreed that the legislature should ease up on building regulations.
"I think the key to anything is getting people to work," he said, adding there have been welfare-to-work proposals so it doesn't make it profitable for people to be on welfare.
Grossell also supports deregulation and increasing trade/technical jobs.
"People want to buy houses? We've got to get them working," Grossell said. "If they're not working, how can we expect them to afford anything?"
In speaking with White Earth Indian Reservation elders, Branden said they all urge her to secure "health care for all."
"We would never say only some people get protection by the police or firefighters," she said. "It's a right, and that's what we're going to fight for it all the way."
Green said that 2017 legislative reforms have proven to help reduce or hold flat individual market health insurance rates after years of double-digit increases following the implementation of Obamacare in Minnesota.
Universal healthcare is not doable, he said. "There's not enough money in Minnesota to tax that much."
Grossell said, in his district, a family of four will save almost $6,400 per year, thanks to the recent reforms. "The stuff we implemented is already working. It's bringing costs down," he said.
Northbird said he supports single-payer health care "for a pretty simple fact" that if, say, all four candidates broke a leg, they would "all pay the same amount" to have it fixed.
"I do believe health care for all Minnesotans is an important issue," he concluded.
Working for Minnesota
Candidates were asked how they planned to bridge divides (rural versus urban, Democrat versus Republican, etc.) to find solutions for Minnesotans.
Grossell said he's always willing to listen and work with anybody.
Green said Minnesota legislators work across the aisle all the time, but it doesn't make the news.
In this time of toxic "extreme party politics," Branden said, "We need to be voting in more people who are middle ground - people who understand that we're more alike than different. People who understand that it's the middle ground that pulls us forward, not the extreme party politics. . . There's not one issue where we don't have common ground."
House District 2A includes parts of Hubbard, Beltrami and Clearwater counties and all of Lake of the Woods County. Cities include Akeley, Bagley, Baudette, Blackduck, Clearbrook, Funkley, Gonvick, Kelliher, Laporte, Leonard, Red Lake, Roosevelt, Shevlin, Solway, Tenstrike, Turtle River, Warroad, Williams, Wilton and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa reservation.
House District 2B includes parts of Hubbard, Becker, Wadena, Clearwater and Otter Tail counties and all of Mahnomen County. Cities include Audubon, Bejou, Callaway, Detroit Lakes, Frazee, Lake Park, Mahnomen, Menahga, Nevis, Ogema, Park Rapids, Waubun, Wolf Lake and the White Earth Band of Chippewa Reservation.
Not sure which district you live in? Visit " target="_blank">myballotmn.sos.state.mn.us.