State legislative candidates face off in friendly debateLocal state legislative candidates faced each other Monday at Cloquet City Hall in a much calmer venue than their federal counterparts have been experiencing lately.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Local state legislative candidates faced each other Monday at Cloquet City Hall in a much calmer venue than their federal counterparts have been experiencing lately. Audience members numbered about a dozen as Mark Ames and Bill Hilty (candidates for Minnesota House District 8A) answered campaign questions along with Michael Cummins and Tony Lourey (candidates for Minnesota Senate District 8). Hilty and Lourey are both DFL incumbents, while both Ames and Cummins are Republican challengers.
It was the moderator who gave them the most challenge, as Cloquet’s Barry Bergquist fired off a barrage of questions for nearly 90 minutes, each requiring either a one- or two-minute maximum response time.
Education and business topics dominated the forum, but other questions also included candidates’ views on state funding for a new Vikings stadium, legalizing marijuana, gay marriage, the need for change in the way Minnesota elects its judges and the proposed North Star train between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
Here’s where the candidates stood on some of the key issues:
On the state’s predicted $6 to $8 billion deficit in the next biennium:
• Hilty noted the state needs to watch every dollar and find as many efficiencies as possible. In particular, he authored a bill that would eliminate a lot of the redundancies in state and local government. He added that the state needs to look at totally restructuring its revenue system, and the tax system in particular. “Our system has become more and more regressive over the years,” he said.
• Ames said the reason the projected deficit is so high is because of how much the legislature wants to spend. He pointed out that some of the items in this year’s bonding bill, while worthy, could have been delayed. He also said he’d like to see the state move its employees off a defined benefit package. He also disagreed that the tax structure needs to be reworked.
• Lourey agreed that it’s time for a total restructuring of the tax structure and noted that Gov. Pawlenty’s 21st Century Tax Commission had come up with some good ideas before it was disbanded by the governor. Lourey said there will need to be both cuts in spending and raised revenue (which would likely include new or higher taxes).
• Cummins said he’d “look at the low hanging fruit” right away and noted that Minnesota food stamps are being spent in nearly every state in the country. He would also look at combining departments such as the MPCA and DNR, which he said do a similar job as far as water as concerned. Bonding projects need to be better scrutinized, he said, wondering if the state should be doing some of the projects or whether they are “political payback.”
On extending the sales tax to include more items:
• Ames said no. “We don’t have a taxing problem, we have a spending problem,” he said, noting that the state is losing sight of its constitutional obligations.
• Lourey said an increased sales tax should be on the table, but legislators need to look at the issue of fairness as well as stability. “We have a tax system that’s subject to wide swings, which makes it very difficult to craft a budget,” he said.
• Cummins doesn’t favor extending the sales tax because he said it basically turns into a value-added tax. He thought the state should practice delayed gratification instead.
• Hilty said it needs to be on the table because 48 percent of the state’s current tax revenues come from personal income taxes and 26-27 percent comes from sales tax. If the sales tax were extended, he said he’d like to see tax rates adjusted in other areas.
On education in Minnesota, what the state is doing right and wrong:
• Cummins, who said he sent his kids to private schools for many years until they said they wanted to go to public school and participate in sports, said he thinks the state’s schools are getting away from the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.
• Hilty said education is 50 percent of the state’s General Fund budget and the role of the legislature is to deal with the budget and not to interfere too much in education. He said the state needs to establish more stability in the system, to help schools and universities plan better.
• Ames said the schools get lots of money, on the bright side, but the state needs to return control to the local school districts. He’d like to see tuition credits [for private schools] made available to the students in the lowest performing schools.
• Lourey said the state has dedicated teachers, superintendents and school boards. However, he noted that the drive for accountability and transparency – which he applauded – has brought on too many tests and the state needs to figure out how to address accountability without having teachers teach to the tests.
In other items:
• Only Ames thought the state should consider eliminating Local Government Aid. He noted that some cities don’t spend it in the intended manner, on core services, and cited the city of Duluth’s recent purchase of the NorShor Theater as an example of poor spending.
• On the federal No Child Left Behind Act, all four agreed the ideal scenario would be to get rid of NCLB altogether, although Lourey advocated for working more with the state’s federal delegation to have the act modified so the state wouldn’t lose all the federal funds that come with it.
Editor’s note: Read more about these candidates in the Voters’ Guide in Section C of today’s Pine Journal. The debate was broadcast live on CAT-7, WKLK and WMOZ. It will be rebroadcast on CAT-7 several times before Tuesday’s vote.