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Minnesota House, Senate candidates meet in local forums

House 12A candidates Dave Holman, Scott Dutcher and Jay McNamar4 / 5
Senate District 12 candidates Torrey Westrom and John Schultz.5 / 5

MORRIS - Candidates for the Minnesota House and Senate have debated in two forums in Morris this month, the first at the University of Minnesota, Morris on Oct. 2 and the second at the American Legion on Oct. 11.

Both forums featured Senate candidates John Schultz (DFL) and Torrey Westrom (R) for District 12 and House candidates Jay McNamar (DFL) and Scott Dutcher (R) in District 12A. Independence Party candidate for District 12A Dave Holman also attended the forum at the Legion.

The UMM forum addressed a variety of topics, from education funding to job creation to the marriage amendment, while the forum at the Legion focused more specifically on issues important to rural communities, including property taxes, the state budget, and economic development.

The following is a brief look at some topics addressed at these forums.

Support for higher education

Question: What are your thoughts on state funding for higher education and tuition increases to University of Minnesota students? Do you support an increase in funding to prevent higher tuition in the future?

Dutcher said that the investment in higher education should come from a mix of funding sources. The state is not in a position to give a massive increase to higher education funding, but Dutcher said we should focus on making inexpensive loan programs available for students.

McNamar noted that investing in higher education would improve job prospects for Minnesota students in the future, but did not offer specifics on funding options.

Westrom said that higher education is a priority, but it competes with other concerns like K-12 education and senior care - "State government can't be everything to everybody." In tough economic times, Westrom said it is important to focus on programs that will help students who need more assistance like student grants, work-study programs and childcare programs. Westrom also expressed support for online learning and a four-year tuition lock so students will know their cost.

Schultz disagreed with Westrom's stance on online learning, noting that learning at a residential liberal arts college like UMM cannot be replaced with online classes. Schultz also encouraged the audience - made up primarily of UMM students - to join organization that will put pressure on the legislature to do more to invest in students.

Job creation

Question: How will you work to build jobs across the state of Minnesota, and especially in west central Minnesota? What is government's role, if any, in creating these jobs?

Both House candidates outlined ideas for job development, but encouraged audience members to share their ideas too.

McNamar outlined three plans for developing rural jobs - investment in renewing infrastructure for communities of 6,000 people or less, incentives to private companies for creating new jobs, and forgiveness for companies that creates jobs overseas by offering a 20 percent tax credit for bringing those jobs back to the United States.

Dutcher said the way to get the state economy back on track is by supporting small businesses, and agreed with McNamar's plan for incentives for small businesses. Dutcher said Minnesota needs to look at commercial property tax breaks for small businesses and taking advantage of Tax Increment Financing for small community development.

Schultz called job creation a "competitive sport" between communities and criticized people from "Republican persuasions" who don't want help from the government that also advocate for tax advantages that benefit them.

Westrom said that government was not the solution for lowering unemployment; instead, government can make a regulation and tax environment that works as an incentive for people to work and innovate. Westrom cited legislation he co-authored last session to streamline permitting and offer a competitive difference in Minnesota.

Marriage amendment

Question: What should be the legal status of same sex relationships in the state of Minnesota?

Two of the candidates were strongly in favor of the marriage amendment. Both Dutcher and Westrom said they would be voting yes and expressed support for a traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman.

"I do think a marriage between one man and one woman is the most ideal way to raise children, and that's the long-standing tradition and purpose of marriage," said Westrom.

Schultz responded that he didn't care about what Westrom thought about an ideal marriage.

"I don't believe that he or anybody else should decide what my ideal or your ideal is," said Schultz. "This amendment is about limiting what you can do. The state should not be in the marriage business. ... I believe that people of any sexual orientation should be able to marry."

McNamar did not directly address the question of the marriage amendment, but said that the Constitution's right to the pursuit of happiness did not give citizens the right to marry who they choose.

"Our first step in deciding what rights we have is to vote on the marriage amendment," he said. "All I can say is this - don't let somebody else decide for you by not showing up to the polls."

Local Government Aid

Question: Cities have a wide disparity in their ability to raise revenue from their property tax base and they also have different levels of need for services. The LGA program, which is designed to address these issues, has been cut substantially in the last decade. Do you support the concept of LGA? Would you support increasing LGA by at least $100 million, which is still less than the level of funding in 2002?

All five candidates at the forum at the American Legion supported the concept of LGA and said they would advocate for returning more LGA money to small, rural communities.

McNamar, who has cited cuts to LGA as one of his primary motivations for running for the House, said he supported reinstating LGA to at least the levels available in 2008.

Dutcher noted that LGA was designed to allow small communities to offer more services to citizens. Of the $400 million in the program, over $100 million goes to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Dutcher said he would support increasing the greater Minnesota share of LGA by taking back the $100 million that goes to the Twin Cities.

"Frankly, they don't need it and we do," said Dutcher.

Holman said that he supported LGA to provide more services to rural communities.

Schultz noted that the average household income in District 12 is about 80 percent of the state average.

"It's up to us to decide what kind of people do we want to be," said Schultz. "Do we want rural communities to have equipment for their volunteer firemen and police? Do we want them to have good libraries? Do we want their streets and bridges to work? ... It's a question we have to decide."

Westrom said he has been an "ardent voice" for rural communities, and classified it as a rural/metro issues rather than a Democrat/Republican issue. Over the last two years, Westrom said LGA has been maintained despite budget deficits.

Westrom also criticized the metro areas for taking a bigger share of LGA - "We don't need to subsidize cities that have full-time fire departments when we work on volunteers. They could go to volunteers and find lots of savings."

Later, Schultz called Westrom's idea for volunteer fire departments in some places absurd, noting that they get hundreds of calls each day compared to the few calls a year for some rural communities.

Property tax relief

Question: There are many ways to provide property tax relief - increasing LGA or the homeowner property tax refund, restoring the Market Value Credit, or cutting or eliminating the statewide business property tax. What is your preferred method of providing property tax relief?

Dutcher said he didn't have a preferred method and would take an "all of the above approach" and would look for ways to provide tax relief to homeowners, commercial, industrial and agricultural properties.

"We need to not pit one group against another like, frankly, this question does," said Dutcher. "Frankly, what we need to be looking at is growing the economy."

Holman also said he wanted to use an approach to try and do everything, but there would be compromises during the slow, methodical process.

Schultz said that every one of these programs would cost money, which would mean there will be less property tax revenue for the state. Schultz called for making changes that are doable and can be explained to voters.

"Whichever one we adopt, just to stay even, we have to find another source of revenue to cover it or we have to cut our expenditures," said Schultz. "There are no fairy tales in the budgeting problem. ... There are holes [in the state budget] we don't want to fill."

Westrom praised the property tax rebate program, but said too much goes to the metro area. Westrom said he would lower the threshold for a property tax rebate from $100,000 to $57,000 (the state median income) to save money and shift it to other property tax relief programs.

McNamar advocated for restoring the Homestead Market Value Credit and reinvesting in LGA to help lower property taxes.