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11A candidates put bite into Legion forum

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The House District 11A candidates had a half-hour drive between a TV debate in Appleton to a candidate forum in Morris Thursday night.

The down time didn't dull their political knives.

DFL candidate Bruce Campbell took after incumbent Republican Torrey Westrom, and Westrom responded in kind. Independence Party candidate Dave Holman didn't always stay on point, but injected some levity into the half-hour session at the Morris American Legion.

The District 11A debate was one of four between candidates for the Stevens County Board of Commissioners, the Morris City Council and the Morris Area School Board at a "Meet the Candidates" forum sponsored by the VFW, Legion and AmVets auxiliaries and the League of Women Voters Stevens County.

See the Oct. 15 Sun Tribune and the paper's Web site in the afternoon on Tuesday, Oct. 14, for reports on the city and school board discussions.

In his introduction, Westrom praised City of Morris officials for allocating a portion of increased state aid received this year to reduce city property taxes in its proposed 2009 budget.

Campbell introduced himself by criticizing Westrom for bashing Democrats, telling the Legion audience that "Republicans haven't done the job for you."

He said Westrom let state residents down by not supporting a controversial gas tax that ultimately passed, for not supporting an amendment on this year's ballot designating funds for clean water, parks and the arts, and for not supporting an increased minimum wage.

Campbell said some people are working two or three jobs to make ends meet and Republicans don't want to help, noting later that Westrom also voted against an increased income tax on corporations.

"What the heck is that about?" Campbell said.

"It's not realistic to think we're working our way out of this deficit," he said.

Westrom said Campbell was incorrect on the corporate income tax issue in that he voted to reduce some taxes but not eliminate them. He also stated that he voted against the gas tax because it did not contain adequate measures to ensure reform in the transportation department and perpetuated the "same old inefficiencies."

"He's for it," Westrom said of Campbell. "I'm not."

Taxpayers also will receive relief in the form of a 3.9 percent cap on tax levies, although some local government officials in the state criticize it, Westrom said.

Westrom suggested streamlining the complicated task of contesting property value assessments as a way of helping property owners reduce their tax burden.

"When values go up the tax goes up fast, and when it goes down (the tax) should go down just as fast," Westrom said.

When the subject of the amendment calling for a 3/8ths of a percent sales tax increase for clean water and arts was broached again, Campbell said he supported it but that it didn't provide enough money to clean up increasingly polluted waters, and he wasn't thrilled that the state would have discretion on how a large portion of the money raised is spent.

To that, Westrom accused Campbell of "talking out of both sides of your mouth."

"You can't say you support it, and then three questions later say it was a bad bill," Westrom said, adding that he believed other bills introduced over the last 10 years were better but that they died in committees.

Programs to clean up the environment are critical, Westrom said, but it can't be at the expense of rural areas. He noted the JOBZ program, which he claimed was in the crosshairs for elimination by metro legislators until he and other rural lawmakers said "enough" and fought to save it.

Holman said he has a simple solution to ensuring the amendment money would be spent properly: "Hire honest people."

"Somebody has to be put in charge and they have to know what they're doing."

When the candidates were asked what voters should remember about them, Holman got serious for a moment. He had the audience, as well as Westrom and Campbell, laughing several times with some off-topic jokes, but he mentioned several times the need for more state help for schools. He closed by saying that he would be remembered by insisting that "all requirements made by the state will be funded by the state."

Campbell called himself "an education kind of guy," and that it was vital for Minnesota youth to compete in a growing global marketplace.

Westrom hinted that he would push for education funding reform.

"We have to change the formula," he said.