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District 12B candidates square off

Ken Howell of Alexandria (left) moderates a House District 12B candidate forum between Republican Paul Anderson (middle) and DFLer Ben Schirmers. (Al Edenloff / Echo Press)

Candidates running for House District 12B shared their thoughts on partisan gridlock, women’s rights, the gas tax, climate change and more Tuesday, Oct. 2.

Incumbent Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, and DFL challenger Ben Schirmers of Sauk Centre squared off during a 75-minute candidate forum hosted by the Alexandria Area League of Women Voters and the Alexandria chapter of the American Association of University Women at Alexandria Technical & Community College.

Introductions

Anderson: Served five terms in the Minnesota House. Committee assignments: chairman of Ag Policy, Agricultural Finance, Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance, Property Tax and Local Government Finance. Former county commissioner, township officer, school board member. Farms on the south side of Lake Minnewaska. Agriculture is his passion and forte, also energy, taxes, job climate, veterans and the elderly. It’s trying times right now with a divided government. Legislators must go toward the middle to get things done.

Schirmers: Lives south of Sauk Centre, worked on his brother’s dairy farm. Has a long-held interest in large systems and politics. Admired former Rep. Sylvester Uphus of Sauk Centre, who had deep agricultural background. Schirmer’s areas of interest: agriculture; veterans (he helped at the Eagle’s Healing Nest in Sauk Centre); and reforming government. Is a millennial, a 2000 high school graduate. Will not take any PAC or union money. Money has too much influence on decision making.

Gridlock

Anderson: One problem that slows the process is when the Legislature sets the budget every two years it doesn’t receive the state’s economic forecast until the first part of March. As a result, bills are rushed through at the end. Supports putting a deadline for major bills to be completed three weeks before the session ends.

Schirmers: The “kerfuffle” at the end of the session should be avoided. It amounts to a high-stakes game between the heads of the party and the governor. Key issues such as the opioid crisis and agricultural bills get thrown out. Single-subject bills, required under the state’s constitution, should work.

Rebuttal: Anderson said the single-issue bill requirement is in the constitution but the common thread with omnibus bills is that they all deal with funding so they’re permissible. He added it’s human nature to wait until deadline but it can still work – as shown by the recent $1.4 trillion trade agreement reached between the U.S. and Canada.

Tax surplus

Schirmers: There should not be a tax surplus because the numbers should match up, but if there is it should go to help small farmers.

Anderson: There will be a $1 billion surplus this year, which indicates Minnesota is overtaxing people. By law, one third of the surplus must go to reserves, leaving $660 million. This should go back in the hands of the people who paid the taxes.

Rebuttal: Schirmers said that good things could be done with the surplus such as addressing understaffing in prisons.

Reaching out to the other party

Anderson: As a member of the Ag Policy Committee, listens to both Republicans and DFLers and tries to work across the aisle. Agriculture is non-partisan and all committee members are treated with respect.

Schirmers: Played in a bar band for 10-15 years, playing cover songs throughout District 12B. This allowed him to talk to a lot of people and see things at ground level, such as opioid dependency and alcoholism.

Women’s rights

Schirmers: Women’s rights are very important and women should have the right to choose what to do with their person. Due process has to happen for those who are accused of crimes against women.

Anderson: Supports equal rights and women’s ability to earn a fair wage. Claims of harassment and abuse need to be fully investigated but should be done in confidence.

Climate change

Anderson: Temperatures have clearly warmed up in the last 10 years, but the political rub is what is causing it. Solving the problem through lower carbon emissions, unless it is on a large, national scale, wouldn’t do much.

Schirmers: Climate change is happening and it is human-caused. This could be biggest issue humans face. Renewable fuels has to be the answer. Enacting a carbon tax is a never-ending fight with businesses.

Rebuttal: Anderson said he doesn’t believe climate change is caused entirely by human activity. He said it occurs in cycles and can be caused by other factors such as volcanic eruptions.

Health care costs

Schirmers: Providing Medicare for all is not fiscally sustainable. A doctor in the area told him end-of-life care costs can be very high and there are situations when tests and procedures are ordered for those in their 80s and 90s. If new laws were pursued to change this, people would say the state was calling for death panels. Doctors could be sued for not doing enough.

Anderson: Good news – individual insurance market rates are going down from 7.7-27 percent for the five companies offering plans in 2019. Is proud Republicans made it happen.

Education funding

Schirmers: Kindergarten through 12th grade funding represents 40 percent of the state’s budget. Minnesota does a good job with education, except on the margins and the achievement gap. The Legislature must keep working to fully fund education so it keeps up with inflation. “Our kids are our future.” Favors a slight increase in higher education funding to help “grease the wheels” to lower tuitions. Not everyone wants to seek four-year degrees.

Anderson: K-12 education is like “mom and apple pie” at the Legislature – everyone supports it. Spending more money on education is not the only solution, however. Giving more money to metro areas won’t solve all their problems, like the achievement gap. Doesn’t support two years of free tuition for higher education. Students need to have some “skin in the game.” Budgeting more money for higher education is tougher than K-12 funding. Universities should keep tuition down by tightening their own budgets and not provide $600,000 golden parachutes for retiring presidents. Students can also use work study and part-time jobs to pay for college without accumulating as much debt.

Gas tax increase?

Schirmers: Supports a gas tax increase as long as it is used for roads, not mass transit. Trains are much more expensive per mile than other transportation costs.

Anderson: With the state having a $1 billion surplus, it isn’t in the cards to increase the gas tax. About 40 percent of the sales tax on auto repairs goes to transportation. Last session, there was an effort to put a question on the ballot that would constitutionally dedicate 100 percent of that sales tax to roads and bridges, but it wasn’t approved in the Senate.

Urban/rural divide

Anderson: Rural and urban areas should stop looking at each other as adversaries. Gov. Mark Dayton failed by not working with farmers on his buffer initiative. Farming practices have changed a great deal. Thanks to technology improvements, farmers are measuring the chemicals they use on their fields by the ounces, not pounds.

Schirmers: Anderson is right – things have changed in farming. There are more corporate farms than ever and their nitrates are getting into the water. Although many farms didn’t like setting aside land for buffers, it’s good for the environment.

Rebuttal: Anderson said he was confused by Schirmers’ answer. He asked if Schirmers was saying that farmers shouldn’t be compensated for providing buffers. Schirmers said farmers should be compensated, agreed that the buffer initiative was heavy-handed but said the net outcome will be good.

Political mentors and heroes

Anderson: Growing up, Willie Mays was his sports hero. He listed others, including: his wife’s father, a pastor; Ronald Reagan, “a tremendous president”; and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Schirmers: Former Gov. Arne Carlson, former Gov. Jesse Ventura; Sylvester Uphaus; and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.

Final statements

Schirmers: Looking at the cap on his pen, noted there were holes in it and asked if anyone knew why. Explained that government required companies to put holes in every pen cap so a person could breathe if the cap was accidentally swallowed. That’s an example that government can do good things.

Anderson: The Legislature’s first priority next session should be to pass a tax bill that conforms with new federal changes that should make filing less complicated. With a projected budget surplus, the Legislature should also be able to address big issues such as school safety and tax relief.

Al Edenloff

Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  

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