NEW ULM - Three candidates running for House District 16B in the Minnesota Legislature met in New Ulm Tuesday in a League of Women Voters Forum at the New Ulm City Hall.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, the District 21B incumbent, moved from Watonwan County to the Lake Hanska area this year when redistricting left him outside the new District 16B, and facing another incumbent. His opponents include James Kanne, a Franklin area dairy farmer who is the DFL-endorsed candidate, and Jerry "Pike" Pagel who is running as an independent. Pagel said he decided to run because he was tired of Republicans and Democrats fighting in the Legislature and getting nothing done.
Asked about promoting economic development in rural Minnesota, Pagel said overregulation is a problem. There are too many redundant rules, and high corporate taxes are pushing out small business.
Kanne said the rural economy rises and falls with farmers, and farmers need good roads to get their crops in and out. Roads are deteriorating rapidly, he said, and the state could do more with bonding to rebuild roads. Good schools are also needed to attract businesses, and the state's tax system needs to be more fair.
Torkelson said the state has two economic areas, the "Golden Crescent" from St. Cloud through the Twin Cities to Rochester, and the rest of the state. He said Minnesota is the only state with a statewide business tax with automatic inflation adjustments. The Republicans tried to change that, but it was vetoed by Gov. Dayton, he said. Torkelson added that the state has been working on streamlining regulations and permitting, and that nursing homes, which are often the largest employers in some small towns, have been held to minimal increases and are unable to pay their employees as they should.
Candidates differed on using state constitutional amendments to pass laws. Kanne said the difference between laws passed by legislation and amendments is like the difference between going on a date and getting married. You can go on a bad date, he said, and get over it. A marriage is harder to get out of.
Kanne said the rhetoric on the two amendments up for election are based on feelings. He said it is wrong to use amendments to limit peoples rights, either to marriage or the ability to vote. Kanne also said the questions on the ballot this year are there because it is "politically expedient," and it draws attention away from issues like the government shutdown and property tax increases.
Torkelson said that over the past 60 years there have been 60 amendment questions on state ballots. "It is a chance for people to speak to the issue and decide it with their vote," he said. "We will live with the people's decision."
He assured the audience that the amendment questions were not passed for political purposes.
Pagel said the constitution should be something that gives people rights instead of taking them away. These questions were passed because the governor vetoed similar legislation, he said.
Candidates were asked about education taxes, and why senior citizens should have to pay as much as others.
All agreed that education is a very important need for a strong society and the responsibility of everyone. Torkelson pointed to $50 per student increases in the state school funding formula over the next two years as a sign the state is working to support schools.
Pagel said he has never minded paying taxes for schools, but he pointed out that teachers these days are expected to be surrogate parents, and schools are asked to do too much, feeding students breakfast and lunch, and providing translators for students who don't speak English. "We all have to get on the same page," he said.
Kanne said the real question was why schools are being funded more with property taxes than back in the 1970s when the "Minnesota Miracle" was set up for the state to pay most operating costs, and property taxes cover building costs. He said property taxes are the most regressive form of taxes, not based on ability to pay, and the burden falls heavily on seniors with fixed incomes.
Torkelson pointed out that Minnesota has the most complicated property tax system in the country, and he would love to see it simplified.
The candidates agreed on the need to expand pre-K and all-day, every-day kindergarten programs, but Torkelson said it is expensive, and "We don't have the money now."
Asked about a Brown County ditch issue where the EPA expected the ditch water to be "drinking quality," all agreed that the regulation was excessive, though they understood the concern for clean water.
Pagel added that "whoever is polluting the water OUGHT to be made to drink it. That would clean it up pretty quick."
Candidates differed somewhat on the issue of whether government stifles job creation and how to fix it. They agreed that regulations can and should be simplified, but Kanne focused his anti-regulatory concern to small businesses, saying larger corporations need more regulation because of their capacity to create greater problems if unregulated.
All agreed that the state should return money shifted from school funds to balance the state budget. Pagel said it should be done as soon as possible, as soon as practical and as soon as reasonable. He added the state should approach spending questions with three criteria: Can we afford it, is it sustainable, and is it our job to do it?
Kanne said the money should be repaid as soon as possible, and he would raise taxes to do it, going after off-shore revenues of large corporations, taxing the very wealthy, and charging higher property taxes to landowners who live out of state.
Torkelson said plans are in place to repay it as soon as the rainy day fund is restored, and that payments have been made already, at a record pace. Torkelson said that state revenue is expected to increase by six percent, but spending is set to increase nine percent.
"We can go in and balance the budget without raising taxes," he said.