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Paynesville Press - October 18, 2006

Senate and House candidates debate

By Michael Jacobson

The four candidates to represent Paynesville in the Minnesota Senate and House debated last week in front of the Cold Spring Chamber of Commerce. Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) faced her challenger, Paul Stacke (DFL-Sartell), for the Minnesota Senate in District 14, and Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph) debated with his challenger, Nate Stang (R-Cold Spring).

The hour-long program - sponsored by the Cold Spring Chamber of Commerce - featured a half hour of questions and answers with the House candidates followed by a half hour of similar questions and answers with the Senate candidates.

Fischbach, a former city council member in Paynesville, has served District 14 in St. Paul for 10 years. Stacke, who has been the political reporter for WJON radio for 30 years, said he knows many members at the legislature and knows how the legislature works.

Hosch, a two-term mayor of St. Joseph who was elected to the House of Representatives in 2004, is a graduate of St. John's University majoring in social work and is a licensed contractor. Stang described himself as a lifelong Stearns County resident and who attended St. Cloud State University for a year before pursuing business interests, including obtaining his realtor license and working as the bar manager at the Great Blue Heron in Cold Spring, where the debate was held last week.

Variations of the following questions were asked at the debate and answered by each candidate (with up to three minutes per answer).

K-12 Education

Hosch: K-12 education should be the most important aspect of state government. Along with transportation, it is one of two functions specifically listed for the state government in the constitution.

The current funding formula for school districts creates winners and losers. Eden Prairie can afford artificial turf on its football field, while districts in central Minnesota are trying to keep class sizes reasonable. There is no "silver bullet," such as the governor's proposal to dedicate 70 percent of school funding in the classroom. Would social workers, school lunches, media centers, etc., count towards that 70 percent, even though Hosch views them as important to education?

"We need to make sure our schools are funded equally," he said. Stang: Spending millions for K-12 education is one of the "best investments we can make." However, school funding is so complex that no one in the room could explain it, and there are large disparities in funding, said Stang. There's no reason why suburban schools should get better funding, he added, calling for fair and equitable funding.

Local school districts - Albany, Eden Valley-Watkins, Paynesville, and Rocori - already have good test results, and these would be better if rural schools were funded like their metro counterparts.

Fischbach: The entire K-12 education formula needs to be addressed because it is very complicated and no one understands it. The state spends enormous sums of money on education, but because the formula is so complicated no one really knows how it's spent and where it's going.

A committee is looking at overhauling state funding, and not all of it will happen overnight, nor should it because so much is at stake.

Districts also need to be accountable, said Fischbach, who cited the goal of bettering youth as the ultimate goal of education and her own two children in public school as a reason for her personal interest.

Stacke: The state should take a greater role in education funding. When state funding was kept stagnant for two years, the effect was a cut because costs for schools rose.

Since the funding formula is so complicated - requiring a master's degree to figure out - a closer look at school funding should be taken, but school boards are already held accountable to the voting public for education decisions, he said.

Welfare Reform

Stacke: The current program is not working as intended, with most people getting off welfare only for a minimum-wage job, which leads to recidivism, he said.

Fischbach: There's value in welfare to work, in getting folks back to work. The state has other programs to help people - childcare, housing, and food stamps - and welfare should not just be a handout. "I think getting folks to work is a good goal of the welfare system," she said.

Stang: The current program is working. It's good to see people working and to encourage work and getting back to the workforce.

Hosch: While the welfare reform of getting people back to work was a great goal, one problem with it is the number of welfare recipients who end up working $5 or $6 per hour jobs, which leads to recidivism, their returning to welfare.

The program should give credit for education and the goal of launching careers for welfare recipients, not just remedial work that might cause them to need welfare again.

Water Quality

Fischbach: The Clean Water Legacy Act is a good improvement, as is the Richmond sewer expansion. Dealing with wastewater is an expensive prospect for smaller cities.

The goal should be not to create more problems in the future.

Stacke: "Clean water is vital to the economic activity in central Minnesota and the entire state."

We need to stop blaming farmers and homeowners and work together to clean up.

Hosch: Water quality is an important investment and key to the habitat that Stearns County's sportsmen and women want to enjoy, but Hosch advocated streamlining the bureaucracy with a number of local and state agencies being responsible for water quality.

Fixing the state waterways, he added, was important not only for the environment but also to allow expansion of city sewer systems, which often discharge into rivers but cannot if the waterway is protected due to pollution.

Stang: The state doesn't do enough for water quality, and it should support cities and farmers to work on clean water and waterways. Farmers should not be overregulated, and the state should assist to fund clean-up for them.

City sewer treatment systems, such as in Richmond, are important. The state should dedicate money to conservation but has too many programs covering the same things.

Health Care

Stang: The two most important things about health care are quality and cost. With the Paynesville Area Hospital and the St. Cloud Hospital, District 14B has quality care.

Minnesota is the healthiest state in the nation, and 90 percent of its residents have insurance. The state needs to work to get the other 10 percent insured.

In six months of door knocking in the district, health insurance costs were the greatest concern residents raised with Stang. Businesses should be allowed to pool insurance costs, and medical savings accounts should be utilized. Quality, affordable health care is a top concern.

Hosch: Partisanship at the capital has led to ineffective state programs on health care. "We all talk about it," Hosch said. "Why don't we do anything about it?"

It's a complex problem with complex solutions, but there needs to be honest debate at the capital. When the St. Cloud Hospital needs 11 coders for Blue Cross/Blue Shield and only six for Medicare, the current system, including private insurance, is very inefficient.

He supports electronic medical records and state-required insurance for children. The state requires every driver to have insurance; like food stamps, which insure a good diet for children, good health care for children would pay in the long run.

Stacke: He supports universal health care as proposed by the Minnesota Medical Association: with a state minimum for each resident and extra coverage offered by private insurance companies.

Right now, the cost of the uninsured to every health insurance policy is $500 per year, he said.

Fischbach: Both state mandates and private health insurance is needed, with inefficiencies streamlined. Health care is labor intensive, with highly trained staff, and expensive equipment, which we all want available when someone in our family needs it. "Do we really want to say we can't spend more money on health care?" she asked.

The state should provide tax incentives or health care insurance.

Sales Tax (Internet)

Fischbach: There are quirks in the current sales tax, but Minnesota is working with a group of states to make it easier, especially considering the challenges of Internet sales. The Internet makes it more challenging to collect, and the state should examine how it is doing that.

Stacke: Sales tax should be applied to Internet purchases, otherwise it puts mainstream businesses at a disadvantage, though he's not sure how to do it. He's opposed to a sales tax increase.

Sales Tax (In Lieu of Income Tax)

Hosch: The current sales tax is so complicated it's "ridiculous" and should be streamlined. There's no reason to increase the sales tax with the current healthy state budget. The state needs a wide range of revenue sources or the impact could be disastrous during a downturn if it becomes too reliant on certain revenue streams.

Hosch said he would like to have a proposal to dedicate funds for conservation put to a state referendum and said that the state needed to be responsible, including putting money in reserve for future economic slow downs.

Stang: The state budget has options and abilities, with options including school funding, health care, and transportation investments. The budget is in good shape now, and taxpayers shouldn't be asked to pay more. "Our taxpayer's pockets are screaming loud, and our business's pockets are screaming even louder," he said.

He would look at ways for the state government to spend less.

Increasing Taxes

Stacke: Unlike business, profit should not be a motivation for government. Government should be efficient, and he would look to cut inefficiencies, as Fischbach has done. But he would be wary of unjustified budget cuts, which could harm the young and cause property tax increases.

Fischbach: With a projected surplus, there's no need for any tax increases now. The state should always look for inefficiencies, and she will continue to look for ways to curtail inefficient spending.

Why They Are Right Person

Stang: "I am this district. I am Stearns County. I've lived here my whole life. It's shaped me."

While 21 years might not be a long time, he said, he was prepared to serve in the House through his Uncle Doug (former state representative Doug Stang) and through his two years in business. "I know what it takes, and I have Stearns County values," he said.

Hosch: Look at results and his record, said Hosch, citing endorsements from the National Federation of Independent Businesses to the National Rifle Association.

Education, transportation, and health care will be his top priorities, said Hosch, who pledged to represent his district first and party second. "I will not play partisan politics," he said. "I will put the interests of my constituents first."

He also said he would listen to the concerns of all constituents, whether they back him in the election or not, if elected again.

Fischbach: Over ten years, she has gotten to know the people in the district and worked with many of them. "I think I've worked hard, and I hope people in the district will think I've worked hard to represent them."

Stacke: In 30 years of covering the legislature, he knows a little how people think in St. Paul and would love to serve the district. He would work for spending increases for education and transportation, and as part of the majority in the Senate, he could do more.

"Do I want your vote? As we say in Minnesota, you betcha!"

Comparing College to Legislature

Stang and Hosch were asked by an audience question to compare college life to the legislature.

Stang: This question is tough to answer because he spent only a year at SCSU. Similarities, he said, were the hard work, long hours, dedication, and perseverance. College life is good, but not for everybody, he said, citing his desire to pursue business interests instead.

Hosch: College students are more mature and respectful of each other than legislators, joked Hosch.

Again, he stressed the need to move forward and get beyond partisan politics. Legislators need to build on the similarities and bridge their differences for the good of the state, and Hosch said he would work for solutions at the legislature.

Negative Campaigning

An audience question asked for Stang and the other candidates to talk about negative campaigning, especially attacks on Hosch by the state Republican Party.

Stang: His intent is to run a clean campaign and not to mislead, but politics is full combat. He wants to run a positive campaign and not use personal attacks.

Hosch: The campaign pieces by the state party misrepresent his record and are false, which is unacceptable, said Hosch. He said he would never go negative and would condemn any attacks like this against his opponent.

He said he supported the best education bill in the legislature and not only did not take any pay during the special session but offered a bill to such effect for all legislators.

Negative campaigning, instead of debating ideas, cheats the public.

Stacke: If the DFL Party attacked Fischbach, like Hosch is being attacked, he would disown them.

Fischbach: They are ugly ads, but independent expenditures are done without the other candidate knowing. She would like to see good, clean campaigning and would condemn anything that's untrue but all you can do is ask the party to stop, which it may or may not do.

Something Nice About Opponent

An audience question asked for the candidates - in the spirit of Minnesota nice - to say something that they liked about their opponent in closing (30 seconds to answer).

Stang: Since he likes good fashion, he said he liked Hosch's suit.

Hosch: Since campaigning and being a legislator is not always fun and can be stressful, Hosch said he likes Stang's enthusiasm and dedication.

Fischbach: After knowing Stacke as a reporter and now as an opponent, Fischbach said she liked his sense of humor, maybe because it was similar to hers, and said they had had fun at various forums.

Stacke: Stacke said he had great respect for Fischbach and hoped he could still consider her a friend even though they do not agree philosophically.

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