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Local state rep candidates spar over partisan lines in CLC forum

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The subject of a forum at CLC's Chalberg Theatre, candidates for Minnesota House of Representatives included DFLer Alex Hering (left) and Republican John Poston for District 9A, Republican Josh Heintzeman and DFLer Dale Menk for District 10A, Republican Dale Lueck and DFLer Phil Yetzer for District 10B. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch.2 / 2

With all six local candidates in one room, the forum Monday, Oct. 29, in Central Lakes College's Chalberg Theatre took on a different quality—not just debates between men with different interpretations of government's role, but a showdown between ideologies in central Minnesota.

It was three Republican incumbents of the Minnesota House of Representatives alongside three DFL challengers—John Poston, R-Lake Shore, and DFLer Alex Hering for District 9A; Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, and DFLer Dale Menk for District 10A; as well as Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, and DFLer Phil Yetzer for District 10B.

As a forum, candidates typically grouped together along party lines—echoing each other's statements as DFLers or Republicans on everything from tax reform to health care to gun regulation.

Not so for Yetzer, who challenged Lueck early, directly and often throughout the course of the forum—a series of tense exchanges during which the two-term incumbent from Aitkin responded in kind, often revealing deep divisions in an otherwise congenial and civil discussion.

Taxes

Candidates were asked to present their areas of priorities when it came to the subject of taxes.

The Republicans took aim at obsolete and overbearing tax structures.

Poston noted the state's current surplus—sitting anywhere between $900 million to $1 billion—is an indication the state government is taking too much revenue that far outweighs its expenditures.

"A surplus is a nice way of saying people have been taxed too much," Poston said.

As such, tax reform and, more importantly, tax conformity to new federal standards is paramount. Lueck and Heintzeman noted they would work to continue dismantling the state's tax on Social Security benefits. Minnesota is one of only six states to tax these benefits.

The DFLers agreed taxes need to be fair, but should not be cut as a matter of absolute principle often espoused by Republicans—a stance, all three noted, ensuring vital sectors like infrastructure, education and broadband expansion are properly funded.

Yetzer, in particular, took aim at the Republican position that a surplus is synonymous with over-taxation—noting these issues remain in flux, and while cuts might be affordable one year, it could lead to deficits and underfunded programs the next. Ultimately, that hurts Minnesotans, he said.

"I think when we cut local government aid we just push it to property taxes," Yetzer said.

Health care

Using Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a line in the sand, the candidates largely followed Republican and Democratic staples on the subject—the GOP incumbents said they would look to scale back Obamacare to return to a free-market system, while DFLers said they would push to replace Obamacare with a single-payer system.

Both sides affirmed they would look to retain protections for individuals with pre-existing conditions.

Poston said the state should return to its free-market system it enjoyed as recently as the mid-2000s—a system, he said, ranking high in the nation in terms of care and insurance coverage, that wouldn't increase budget costs by $18 billion per year and wouldn't put 40,000 people out of work.

Heintzeman noted Republican efforts to reduce costs—efforts driven, in part, by their work to reduce cases of fraud.

"Well, if everybody's covered there can't be any fraud," said Menk, who noted the previous system didn't protect people in the 2008 crash and said it's still difficult to find suitable coverage, despite Republican platitudes on free-market systems. "You aren't wasting that money because everyone is covered."

Yetzer, for his part, took aim at the Republican notion that citizens are leaving government-based systems like Medicare or the Veterans Administration in droves for the individual market.

"It was worthless insurance before the ACA. It didn't cover pre-existing conditions, they didn't cover your children up to 26, they had caps," Yetzer said. "The individual market was broken, that's why the ACA came around in the first place."

Hering said the free-market system doesn't work when prices aren't transparent and the state is subsidizing private out-of-state insurers like Blue Cross-Blue Shield to the tune of millions.

Environmentalism

Speaking as candidates for districts in water-rich, tourism-dependent areas of the state, all the candidates agreed protecting these resources was paramount—whether it was Heintzeman's emphasis on combating invasive species, or Menk's push for greater investment in green and renewable forms of energy. People's livelihoods, well-being and futures are tied up with these concerns, they noted.

Yetzer took the issue and looked at it from a larger scope—climate change, he said, poses as an overarching issue and it should be the responsibility of the state Legislature to back the state's efforts to challenge President Donald Trump's anti-environmental policies.

Education and workforce shortages

Both sides agreed workforce shortages in the area can be mitigated, in part, by investing in tech schools, community colleges, trade apprenticeships and other forms of certification outside four-year degrees.

Too much emphasis has been placed on four-year degrees, Lueck said, and it's causing a shortage in vital fields like welding, farming and carpentry, among others. Both sides noted these programs would also reduce education costs—though, while Republicans emphasized a cultural preference for college degrees that doesn't fit the economy, DFLers pointed to reductions in state funding and ballooning interest rates as catalysts in the issue.

Heintzeman and Menk noted restructuring public education and creating opportunities with "bridge" programs can fast-track students into needed and rewarding fields.

Yetzer pointed to health care—noting, if businesses were able to provide livable wages instead of earmarking so much for exorbitant benefit costs, it would facilitate a more competitive job market in the area.

Furthermore, Yetzer said, Lueck's notions it was a "cultural change" that led to the loss of shop classes and bridge programs is incorrect.

"Those were part of budget cuts forced down the throats of education years ago," Yetzer said. "I know that my party wasn't on the side of doing that. I think it's a little disingenuous to say we miss them now when there was a full discussion, over multiple sessions, while budgets got cut and cut over years and years."

Stepping back a bit, Heintzeman pointed to policies being discussed in the Twin Cities—namely, issues of preemption, or allowing each city to set a policy that dictates how its businesses compensate workers.

"That could very easily—if we don't deal with it soon—cripple our economy across the entire state," Heintzeman said. "If you have a patchwork across the entire state ... you're going to see a huge problem develop."

Additional notes

• On the topic of gun regulation, both sides agreed Second Amendment rights to bear arms are vital for personal and social protection. While they haggled over finer points, such as bump stock bans or background checks, in a state with what candidates described as good gun laws, Heintzeman said guns aren't the problem, our culture is.

He pointed to video games, Hollywood action films and other forms of media as evidence of a cultural obsession with violence that manifests in real-life gun violence.

• On the topic of minorities and welcoming them in the region, candidates largely agreed that empathy and support for minorities is important. Poston pointed to the need for a common language and cultural values to unify diverse populations. Yetzer said he agreed welcoming minorities is key—though the state Legislature has often failed Native Americans, he noted, actions that speak louder than calls for empathy.