Senate Dist. 4, House Dist. 4B issues raised

Senate Dist. 4 and House Dist. 4B candidates responded to audience questions at the last of a series of candidates forums, sponsored by the League of Women Voters Park Rapids, last week in Akeley.

Senate Dist. 4 and House Dist. 4B candidates responded to audience questions at the last of a series of candidates forums, sponsored by the League of Women Voters Park Rapids, last week in Akeley.

Participating were Sen. Carrie Ruud (R-Breezy Point) and her DFL challenger, Mary Olson of Bemidji, and Rep. Larry Howes (R-Walker) and his DFL challenger, Ron Berry, also of Walker.

The last question that had been asked of the Dist. 2 candidates was the first asked Thursday night. On the Dist. 2 side, all six had said they would oppose the measure. The Dist. 4 candidates all said they would support it.

Howes, who is seeking a fifth term in the House, said the amendment could be better written and he knows some people are nervous about that, but added he is confident the legislature will handle the money correctly. "I don't see legislators doing that (giving more than 40 percent of the motor vehicle tax dollars) and being able to face people who drive on the highways."

Berry said he, too, will support the amendment because not enough money is being spent to create safe highways to northern Minnesota towns. The downside, he said, is the money will have to come from some place (in the general fund) and legislators will have to make sure to make up the difference.


Olson said she has done a lot of research, talking to the president of the Minnesota Asphalt Association and highway department staff. "Everyone tells me highways have been under funded and this won't be the answer," Olson said. Still, she said, it is one step, "not a very good one," but she will vote for it and, as senator would work hard to get some funding into roads and bridges.

Ruud, who is seeking a second term in the Senate, said she thinks the amendment is a good idea. Although she's heard the concerns about the big hole in the state's budget, diverting the funding from the general fund would create, Ruud said, the funding is phased in and the hole won't be a big one, especially since state revenues are growing.

"The amendment doesn't solve everything, but it is a really good start. I urge you all to vote for it," Ruud said.

Sharon Rezac Andersen of Park Rapids served as moderator for the Akeley forum Thursday night, posing more questions to the candidates, who were allowed one-minute answers.

Question: What recommendations do you have to counteract global warming?

"We need to look at it as the crisis that it is," said Olson, who said she has a lot of ideas, but first, the state needs to pay to enforce the regulations that are already in place. Both the state and federal government are putting little money into the agencies that are responsible for protecting the environment and "letting corporations slide," Olson said.

The candidate also said Minnesota needs to get into developing alternative energy sources.

Global warming, said Howes, "is way out of my league." But, he said while funding for the Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency may be "slightly lower than three years ago, it is higher than it was eight years ago." Howes also said funding for both agencies comes from licenses and other fees and "is steady. It is a misnomer that they're under funded," Howes said.


Berry also said he isn't up to speed on the science, but knows global warming is an issue to address and it "will be an interesting process for me to learn" more about. One solution is in promoting renewable resources, he said.

"I believe climate change is cyclical," Ruud said, "but addressing the issues is important." Ruud said she has supported both the mercury reduction bill and legislation taking phosphorus out of fertilizer. "We are working hard on our environment.

"I think the issue (global warming) will be one always for scientists to argue over," Ruud said.

Question: What can be done to see that adequate dollars are available to our public schools?

"There haven't been adequate dollars for quite a few years," said Berry, who just retired as a school teacher at the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Berry said schools had five years of "flat funding" and that created some real problems. Funding policies need to be revised, so, for example, there aren't 36 kids in a classroom as there are in Pine River.

Berry also advocated promoting all-day kindergarten and early childhood programs "so kids can develop good learning habits early."

"I'm a strong believer in adequately funding schools," said Howes, adding he also believes there needs to be some change in how schools are funded. With declining enrollment, he said, one way would be to look at specific dollar amounts rather than a per pupil basis.


But, Howes also said, education has gotten a lot of money, $800 million more in the last budget (for 2006-08).

Olson pointed out it is still necessary for local schools too pass referendums to get some of the money they used to get from the state. "When Sen. Ruud talks about balancing the budget (when the state was facing a deficit in 2003), it was done partially on the backs of our school systems.

"We need to get back to the 'Minnesota miracle' so every community in the state has the same opportunity for their children to have a quality education," Olson said.

Ruud said she also is an advocate for equity in school funding. "It doesn't cost less to educate a student here than in the suburbs," she said.

"What we need to do is look at accountability," Ruud added, citing Q Comp for teachers (a merit pay plan) and state aid for college level courses as progress.

Ruud said per pupil funding has gone up almost $600 per student for the coming year.

With an opportunity for rebuttal, Howes said the Minnesota miracle provided 70 percent funding of schools from the state and now funding is at 83 percent so schools are doing better than they were. He also pointed out that property taxes are lower today than they were in 2001.

"Everyone here knows there was no increase in school funding in 2003-04 and there's finally a small increase for next year, but we're still not up to the level we were," said Olson. In addition, she said there have been cuts to other programs schools are required to fund.


"I don't think we need to convince anyone here that our schools are hurting or that property taxes have gone up," Olson said.

"Administrators are saying it's crazy the numbers are being reported as they are," said Berry. "Schools are not getting the monies they need, they haven't caught up and it's not working."

Ruud acknowledged that to solve the state's budget deficit, schools were "held harmless." They didn't get a raise but funding wasn't cut either, Ruud said.

Question: Where do you stand on the issue of universal health care and what is your solution to increased premiums for health care?

Olson, a Bemidji attorney, said she has a plan for improving access to health care. A first step would be to form a pool anyone could join.

"Administration costs are at as much as 40 percent and the $1.6 billion that went to one CEO (at UnitedHealth Group) could have paid for every uninsured person in the state for many years to come," Olson said.

Saying she would love to compare her plan with Ruud's, Olson added the state could provide people with an affordable option that would not be paid for with taxpayers' dollars.

"Universal health care is socialized medicine," said Ruud.


Ruud said she's for promoting health savings accounts and getting rid of Minnesota's mandates. "The state has over 60. Most states have 30," Ruud said. She also believes there is need for tort reform and streamlining the state's commerce department. According to Ruud, businesses have insurance packages they can't offer in Minnesota because there are too many rules and it takes the Department of Commerce so long to review them.

Olson called Ruud's positions on health care "a wish list for the insurance industry."

"It's what they are asking for and promoting," Olson said.

She said mandates on health insurance include things like allowing new moms to stay two days in the hospital after they have a baby.

Olson said mandates and the commerce department protect consumers.

"The insurance industry wants to steam roll those things (Ruud mentioned) through," said Olson.

Ruud responded that she and her husband own a small business and went to health savings accounts. "It is a good program," she said. "And when you retire and have money in it, you can use it for long-term care. It makes people responsible for their own health insurance and gives them an incentive to live better because they benefit if they live a healthier life."

Howes said he was chief author of a proposal for a constitutional amendment for a right to health care. The measure didn't get on the ballot, but Howes said, its time for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, unions, business people and others to talk.


According to Howes, Minnesota is the highest in the nation in the number of people who have health care coverage. But, he claimed, 66 percent of those who don't have health insurance are eligible but don't take it through their employers.

"I think we do have to go after HMOs," said Howes. "They're getting all the money.

"When good people sit down to find a solution, we always find that solution."

"As I meet people in the district, it is one of the things I hear quite often," said Berry. "We have to work at providing better plans and make it workable for the people of Minnesota."

Berry said he would like to see universal health care and it's a priority for him to make sure the state provides health care for all infants to a certain age.

Question: Do you support raising the minimum wage?

"The minimum wage is a federal issue and that is where it should be raised," said Ruud, explaining wage differences among states could put Minnesota at a competitive disadvantage with other states.

"I also think the minimum wage is really unnecessary," Ruud said. "The market provides the wage we see provided."

She said employees start out at $7 an hour at an ice cream shop she and her husband own. Few are making less unless they're 16 years old and popping corn at a theater, she said.

Olson said Ruud voted against the last minimum wage increases in Minnesota and the bill did pass. "Her argument is no one in the district is making minimum wage anyway. At least in this part of the district, we know that's not true. Often, people have had no raise in many years.

"If she really believes that, she really doesn't know and understand the district and a lot of the problems of families who live here."

Howes said in 2005, he was instrumental in the bill that increased the minimum wage, but agreed with Ruud "there is no one in the district making it anyway."

Howes said he worked on the legislation to be sure it was "tweaked" to help small business. "I had been opposed to it, but felt it was time to do that, and it hasn't hurt our economy. It's not that much of a factor, not when you can work at Hardee's for $9 an hour," Howes said.

Berry said businesses can raise the price of a hamburger, but "the wage factor is pretty stagnant." He said he would like to see opportunities for those who have lower income jobs.

Ruud added she stands by her vote against the minimum wage increase. "One of the biggest supporters was the unions," said Ruud. "It is more important to them than anyone else, because their contracts are based on what the wage is. It increases their bargaining power, so it has more to do with that than really connecting with the people who work."

Question: How do you or would you balance your representation of cities and smaller towns like Akeley?

"It's when you take votes on the House floor that you think back to specific areas," said Howes, explaining he uses several different aspects to judge how a vote will affect people in the district. He said he thinks of townships, Walker, people he knows and the family who owns one small business in particular. "Will it help or hinder that business?" he asks.

"Most of the district is townships," Howes added.

Berry said he thinks it's important to investigate jobs for small communities and would do "a lot of research and investigation for jobs for all our communities - no matter what size they are."

"One of our most important jobs at the Capitol is working with local units of government," Ruud said. Her approach is to try not to interfere, but to work with them. "When they come to me with a problem, it is my job to facilitate their vision. My interaction with them is to listen and tell them how I can help."

Olson said when she first decided to run, she and her husband got on their snowmobiles and stopped at coffee shops in 21 communities in the district. "One of the very first things you have to do is be there," Olson said.

Olson said she would be "proactive in bringing communities together to talk about their common problems... we're all on the same team. And I would listen to everyone in the district."

Olson also said she supports changing the tax system so taxes are based on the ability to pay rather than relying on property taxes.

Ruud said the property tax system was reformed during the Ventura era. "We're seeing the effects from 2001, and I think it is time to look at restructuring the system and talk about who pays for what," she said.

"Now is a good time. During the last session there were a lot of gimmickry things that came out because we did not have a true and honest solution," Ruud said.

But Olson rebutted, saying Ruud voted against property tax relief and closing tax loopholes for businesses operating offshore. "It's not helping when the burden is shifted onto property taxes and fees," Olson said.

Howes said he agrees the property tax system needs change. "It is a complicated structure and is unfair to cities, like Cass Lake," Howes said, adding he got funds for the city in the last session because Cass Lake's tax base is almost nonexistent.

The bill passed in 2001 put property tax levels at their lowest in history, but they have only increased 7 percent since 2001 so to talk about how high they are is misleading, Howes said. "Many people's taxes are still less than they were in 2001."

Berry said property taxes have increased to the point where they're unaffordable for some people. "It would be fairer to increase income taxes," he said.

Ruud said she also helped put $100,000 into local government aid for Cass Lake.

"People all over the district are struggling and the (property tax relief) bill would have helped everyone in the district," Olson responded.

But Howes said there were different versions of the bill and neither the one in the Senate and House was workable. "To say that property taxes are based on ability to pay is very misleading. I agree the system isn't fair."

Question: How can wetlands be protected?

"We have rules and regulations and have to make sure the enforcement is there," said Berry. "We have many people moving in and they want to be by lakes, in the forests and by rivers and it's important to keep that part of our northern Minnesota environment."

Olson said it is important to have a fair balance. "I know there are needs when we're talking about wetlands in growing communities. When we have a no net loss policy as the federal government has and we try to replace them, it's not the same thing. Wherever possible, we need to enforce preservation of existing wetlands, especially in public areas. And there is no reason why state forest areas should lose wetlands," she said.

One of the biggest problems, Olson added, is protecting wetlands when developers are anxious to encroach on environmentally sensitive areas.

Ruud said local governments need to implement a plan. She introduced the bill to establish Alternative Shoreland Standards "to start a dialogue about development, growth and what we should do with our lakes."

Now, Ruud said, communities need good strong plans and the alternative rules are a good place to start.

"We need to get away from the no net loss phrase," said Howes. "We have come to a point in our state and history where there is pressure to solve some needs. It has gotten out of hand. We have to get away from no net loss.

"Just like we have taught our kids about drugs," Howes added, "if it will endanger a wetland, we need to just say 'no.'"

In rebuttal, Olson said the Alternative Shoreland Standards should be mandatory, not voluntary. "We need uniform standards," she said.

"There is a lot of pressure from developers to make exceptions and I see inconsistent enforcement," Olson added. "If there were uniform standards, it would be much easier for local units of government to say 'no.'"

Question: How did you vote on the Twins ballpark issue? Give your opinion on the retractable roof. If elected, what stadiums would you support being built?

For eight years, Howes said, he said he would vote against a Twins ballpark unless it was built in Walker or unless there were no taxpayer dollars involved.

"The Twins won their division in a dome. Let's keep the dome."

Regarding a retractable roof for a new stadium, Howes said one is needed or else "you need to find a very tall person with a big umbrella."

Ruud said she voted for the stadium because "our seniors love the Twins. They are the generation of the Twins." Further, she said, the new stadium will bring 30,000 jobs in Hennepin County for only 20 cents on $100, which also will go to other endeavors, including libraries.

"I will leave the retractable roof to the experts," Ruud said.

"It all comes down to priorities," said Olson. "When you're using other people's money to support something people like to watch, it's a different story." Olson said she would oppose stadiums unless the taxpayers who have to pay for them are given a chance to vote on the question.

Berry said he grew up with baseball, loves the sport and agrees with Ruud, it is something senor citizens love to watch.

"In my heart, I support the stadiums, but I have a tough time with the concept of taxpayers supporting it. Big business needs to take responsibility."

Regarding a retractable roof, Berry said, "We live in Minnesota. It would have to have a retractable roof."

Question: Ah-Gwah-Ching is to be closed and group residential facilities provided for patients. Compare the daily costs of Ah-Gwah-Ching and smaller, private facilities.

Howes clarified the facilities built for patients coming out of Ah-Gwah-Ching are group homes run by the state.

Ah-Gwah-Ching is scheduled to close in June 2007 and it is a result of a Supreme Court ruling that said the federal government won't pay unless facilities have 16 beds or less.

To make the best of it, Howes said he made sure the new facilities were built in the Walker-Akeley area to protect some of the jobs.

Olson said what happened with Ah-Gwah-Ching points out the problems local nursing homes are facing with low reimbursement rates. "It is becoming increasingly difficult for many of them to keep their doors open," Olson said.

Olson added that her plan for an insurance pool would even out reimbursement rats so rural nursing homes have fair funding compared to those in metro areas.

Berry said he believes the Ah-Gwah-Ching facility has potential for a range of other uses that would keep jobs in the district.

Ruud reiterated what Howes said about the federal government pulling funding for Ah-Gwah-Ching, forcing the state to bear the total cost. She said smaller group homes are eligible for federal funding so ultimately the cost to the state will be less.

"Ah-Gwah-Ching is such a great facility and we fought to keep it open, but without federal funding, that was pretty much impossible." Now, Ruud said, it is open for other new opportunities.

Olson said closing Ah-Gwah-Ching is part of a broader topic. Many years ago, people were moved out of mental health institutions into community-based facilities and now money is being pulled out of mental health care so people no longer have anywhere to go.

"The beds are not there and neither is the funding," said Olson. "With good quality mental health care, people can function." Without it, she said, they can end up costing society more "as well as it being a moral issue."

Howes blamed attorneys bringing lawsuits for the demise of institutions such as Ah-Gwah-Ching.

But, like Ruud and Berry, he said many ideas have come from the reuse study for Ah-Gwah-Ching. The facility was marketed nationally with no takers, but Howes said, he is optimistic that Ah-Gwah-Ching has a great future.

In her wrap-up, Ruud said Dist. 4 covers 4,300 square miles. "It is a diverse district with higher education institutions on both ends," she said. Forestry, tourism and raising cattle provide most of the jobs.

"The common thing is having a healthy Minnesota economy. When people have jobs and companies are doing well, we can plan for a bright future. We need to provide a strong business climate."

Ruud also mentioned that she is pro-life and endorsed by the National Rifle Association and asked for residents' votes "to keep Minnesota going in the right direction."

"The district is 4,300 square miles of people with problems who deserve solutions," said Olson. "They are moving away to find jobs with benefits. Seniors are choosing between prescriptions and food. And there are struggles in the education system as a direct result of the legislative agenda the past four years.

"In the next 20 years, our senior population will double and if there's not money going into education, we're not giving young people the opportunity to fulfill their obligations. The tuition at Bemidji State University has doubled in the last five years, kids are graduating with debts four times as large and we can't expect them to support us when we give them that kind of a start."

Olson said if she is elected, she will represent the interests of the people who live here "and give our children and grandchildren the same opportunities we had."

"You can see the cup half full or half-empty," said Howes. "I think Minnesota is the greatest state in the nation. We have the longest life expectancy, second only to Hawaii. We have some of the richest properties and some of the poorest, but mostly they are at median.

"People don't want government hounding them. They want government to do what it's supposed to do and do it well."

Howes said serving as a legislator is an interesting job. "It is exciting to help people solve problems. I think everyone should serve in government sometime," Howes said.

Berry said he has always been involved with people, in education, contract negotiations for teachers and in business. "I have been involved in getting things done."

Now that he's retired, Berry said he wants to keep on getting things done. The needs are there, the concerns are there and I'm ready to serve. I'm willing to take a chance."

Overall, Berry said, he would carry out the theme of his campaign and "discover a new direction."

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