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Election debates: District 10A candidates argue their cases

Moderator Ray Gildow (left) and candidates for District 10A -- State Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and DFL challenger Dale Menk -- participate in a televised debate Friday, Oct. 5, at the Lakeland PBS studio in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch1 / 2
Candidates for District 10A -- State Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and DFL challenger Dale Menk -- participate in a televised debate Friday, Oct. 5, at the Lakeland PBS studio in Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

It's time to put faces and policies to the name on the ballot.

With five weeks to go until Election Day, residents of the Brainerd lakes area saw their candidates make their case before a televised audience.

Vying for the Minnesota House of Representatives, District 10A candidates talked abortion rights, legalizing cannabis, maintaining environmental health for area water bodies and more during a televised debate, Friday, Oct. 5 on Lakeland PBS.

Incumbent Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and DFL challenger Dale Menk fielded questions from a panel of local media figures, including Dennis Weimann of Lakeland PBS, Heidi Holton of KAXE-Northern Community Radio and Gabriel Lagarde of the Brainerd Dispatch.

Running for a third term, Heintzeman, 40, is the co-owner with wife Keri of Up Country Log, a family-run business producing handcrafted logs for building and home accent work. He said he will continue to support Second Amendment gun rights, free-market solutions and legislation geared to lower health costs, small business growth and tax relief for the middle class.

Drawing on a background in building construction, Menk, 40, is making his first run for public office. He has said he will look to foster an environment in the lakes area in which people can reach their goals and improve their quality of life—exemplified by, he noted, improved public education, affordable post-secondary education and health care access, as well as environmentally sustainable practices for future generations.

District 10A covers the central and western portions of Crow Wing County.

Funding public school education

Labeling himself a strong advocate for public schools—he has six children, three in school and three graduated—Menk said more can be done to ensure schools are properly funded, comprehensive and inclusive education environments preparing students for the workforce.

Heintzeman pointed to legislative pushes led by Republicans to increase funding for schools by $2.8 billion since 2015—tangible results, he said, to improve the prospects of students in the classroom by 2 percent every biennium of the state Legislature. The measure increased funding by more than $1,000 per student in that time frame.

Candidates differed on how teachers should be licensed in the state.

Heintzeman said there were many meaningful changes to enable educators to be licensed and maintain their licenses.

Menk refuted this, saying he was aware, on a personal basis, of many teachers and students pursuing education as a profession who were confused and stymied by the current system in place. In addition, Menk characterized the system as expedient, one rushing teachers through too quickly and inevitably misplacing them.

"The licensure system, it seem to be somewhat confusing them," Menk said. "They don't know where they land anymore. The old system, while it may have been cumbersome, it made sure our teachers were ready when they got there."

Higher education options

Citing his experience in the construction industry, Menk said it's difficult to find solid candidates to fit a company's needs. This can be addressed through incentivizing education in the trades, STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—professions, computer science and renewable energy-related fields.

Both candidates agreed with restructuring education for students in high school or even before, so they're on an expedient track by the time they're pursuing a post-secondary certification, can meet industry needs and drive down costs at the same time.

"The key is to get kids involved earlier on and to get them involved in the trades," said Heintzeman, who also advocated for assessments to determine aptitude and interests among students for future careers.

However, whatever form this education takes, Menk said, it's difficult to springboard oneself into the workforce because of the high costs, especially coupled with other life stressors.

"That's one of the main obstacles for young people—having to find work, having to work their way through college, (having to) find time to work and go to school, if they have kids, find child care and go to school," Menk said. "I just think it would help a lot if we made it more affordable."

Child care

Candidates were asked how to address economic barriers for people willing to work but unable to due to inaccessible day care, housing or lack of transportation.

Both Menk and Heintzeman said overbearing regulations are forcing day cares out of business across the state and they would look to scale back these restrictions to increase the number of viable care providers in the area.

"While we want to protect kids, we've made a bunch of rules that makes it difficult for child care providers to come in and provide those services," Heintzeman said.

In general, Heintzeman said he's in support of a safety net when it pertains to these issues—lauding government programs citizens can access to temporarily meet their housing, child care or transportation needs—but, he cautioned, "the sofa can get comfortable." He said it would be a point of focus going into the future to create a framework within which services are accessible and viable for people working to improve their circumstances.

Menk characterized the issue of inaccessible day care, unaffordable housing and lack of transportation as one in which people don't have the skills necessary for good-paying jobs to support these costs of living.

"Yeah, there are jobs out there," Menk said. "A lot of them aren't good paying if you don't have skills."

Kavanaugh and Roe v. Wade

With the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, future rulings could dictate the issue of abortion rights is taken out of federal hands and returned to the states, where state lawmakers—such as Heintzeman or Menk, if elected—would be in the position to outlaw or maintain abortion protections across the state.

Citing his record as a staunch advocate for anti-abortion causes, Heintzeman described himself as "100 percent pro-life."

Minnesota's statutes for legal abortion predate Roe v. Wade, and Heintzeman said he would take the battle to local government to outlaw the practice.

"That's something that's a big concern of mine," Heintzeman said. "Hopefully we have an administration, I hope, that recognizes the value of life from conception to natural death."

Menk noted nobody views abortion as good and views it as a last resort. However, the larger issue, he said, is a lack of readily available birth control and sex education for students—although, he slammed abstinence-only sex education as ineffective. Menk said these methods, despite having been proven to cut down unwanted and teenage pregnancies, are rejected by anti-abortion groups.

Part of the discussion revolved around questionnaires submitted to the candidates by the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life organization, an anti-abortion advocacy group in the state. While he was proud to note his advocacy for anti-abortion principles, Heintzeman said Menk did not respond to the questionnaire.

"In this case we have a pro-life candidate and a pro-choice candidate," Heintzeman said. "Voters are going to have to decide who lines up with their values in District 10A."

Menk didn't shy away, describing his refusal to put an answer down on the questionnaire as an ethical decision.

"I'm a man. I can't get pregnant and have an abortion, I don't think I should be able to tell a woman whether or not she can choose to have one," Menk said. "Another reason is the MCCL is against any form of birth control. If you're not willing to have a conversation about birth control and preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place, abortion isn't a conversation we can really have."

Omnibus bills and log-jam sessions

Criticism has been leveled at the Legislature during the last two sessions by politicos on both sides of the aisle. Significantly, for pushing omnibus bills—enormous documents dealing with a host of issues, which lawmakers often received just minutes before the vote. This has reportedly resulted in chaotic sessions in the final hours, when elected officials met in back rooms to hammer out rushed deals.

On top of that, Gov. Mark Dayton's propensity to veto bills in the backend of his lame-duck term means many bills were killed before they could be ratified—dooming some items, such as the Angel Tax Credit Program, state tax restructuring and comprehensive reforms to combat the opioid epidemic—all which garnered widespread bipartisan support.

Many of the issues come down to a lack of bipartisanship, Menk said, which can be rectified through finding common ground and working together with people across the aisle. The other side of the equation, he said, is to limit bills to be smaller in scope, which in turn can reduce the number of omnibus bills including poison pill items, or unacceptable pieces of legislation nullifying the bill's viability.

"When you put all that stuff in there just to prove a point—I'm not saying the governor was fully justified in putting his foot down, like I said divisive politics—we need to find ways to better work together," Menk said. "Maybe some of the important legislation needs to be in standalone bills. ... The job of the Legislature, in my opinion, is not just to pass legislation, but to pass legislation that can be signed into law."

As a member of the Minnesota House during these sessions, Heintzeman said media scrutiny on what amounts to 5 percent of the legislative work shouldn't discount from the rest of the session, when lawmakers of all walks of life came together to keep the state running effectively—even if the process causes fireworks from time to time.

"The only way you're going to come to the end of a session ever—where there's unity and everybody's singing kumbaya—is if one party controls the entire show," Heintzeman said.

Mental health

Addressing mental health needs is becoming more of a national focus—the stigma is giving way to constructive conversations, but also rates of mental health issues continue to rise.

Citing his own work in the state Legislature, Heintzeman characterized it as a difficult issue the state is facing—"the bottom line," he said, "is delivery on mental health services"—while state agencies are making headway in tackling the sources of mental illness. He noted broadband, or telemedicine expansion, is a paramount issue.

"We are working on this issue, we are making headway on this issue and we will continue to make headway," Heintzeman said. "I look forward to get another opportunity to continue what I've worked on in previous sessions."

Menk noted the lack of available mental health facilities throughout the state—identifying the state hospital that once existed in Brainerd as a example of decreasing services. The result, he said, is jails and prisons are de facto mental health facilities, and funding expected down the legislative pipe hasn't come to fruition.

In addition to more facilities, Menk said it should also be a focus on getting more counselors—for various industries, for the counties, at the public school level—to increase the coverage of mental health caretakers compared to the populace needing them.

Legal recreational marijuana

"No," Heintzeman said. "And that's an easy answer."

While some forms of medical marijuana have been legalized in the state, Heintzeman said he rejects proposals for legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes on the grounds it's difficult to determine what effects this might have on the state. He cited social issues raised in legalized states like Alaska and Colorado and offered the entry drug argument—that hard drug users often used marijuana first.

"I would absolutely support it, unless you can show me evidence that it will cause society to fail," Menk said.

Menk pointed to safety and regulations—such as access to marijuana or reduced potency levels—that can be implemented through legalizing the illicit cannabis trade. By taxing marijuana, a trade representing billions in revenue in other states, these funds can used to prop up other aspects of the state's budget.

Menk also noted addressing prison overcrowding—much of which can be traced to nonviolent drug offenses—would be helped by legalizing the herb. Marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug—equating it to heroin—means it's impossible to study its potential benefits.