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Senate 4 candidates clash over health care

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Candidates for Senate 4 clashed over health care and how to fix the state budget in a debate aired Thursday night over public television.

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Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Republican challenger John Carlson of Bemidji tackled a number of questions posed by a media panel in a debate taped for later airing Tuesday by Lakeland Public Television.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty was wrong to veto legislation to allow Minnesota to participate an early Medicaid program for the poor, gaining $1.4 billion in federal funds, and to order state agencies not to participate in any federal health care grant programs.

Carlson, however, said the latter program would cost Minnesota too much and that Minnesota already has a health care program that should be a model for the nation.

"Our hospital happens to be located in a perfect storm sort of world," Olson said, noting that with the federal aid, North Country Regional Hospital would have gained $5 million, erasing the $2 million in uncompensated care it will have this year and put it on good footing for next year.

"We're very dependent on programs that provide government-paid health care that pays for low-income people and for older people -- Medicaid and Medicare," Olson said. Terming the program as "Obamacare" and walking away from it like Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer did is wrong, she added., especially since Minnesota receives only 75 cents of every $1 it sends to Washington. D.C.

"This would have helped us get more of our share back," she said.

Carlson said that efforts are mounting among the states to have the courts find the federal health care reform act as unconstitutional under the state's rights 10th Amendment, so the program might not even be around in 2014 when the federal government pays 100 percent of Medicaid costs.

For now, the state would have to match Medicaid dollars, money the state doesn't have, said Carlson, an insurance firm owner.

"There's no guarantee after 2014 that the government will still be there to match that money," Carlson said. "Right now the federal government is borrowing from their MasterCard to pay the Visa card, and it's out of control."

Minnesota has one of the best health care systems in the United States, he said. "We're really a model right here in Minnesota. We take care of people who can't get health insurance through our Minnesota Comprehensive Health Care Association. ... People are not being denied health care. We have a great MinnesotaCare program for people who don't have enough money to afford regular health care."

With such a good system, Carlson said, "We don't need to start borrowing money from the federal government, taking money from the federal government that they don't have."

He also alluded he didn't have an issue with Minnesota receiving less back from taxes sent to the federal government than other states.

That Minnesota has a good health care system is a reason why the state was invited to participate in the early Medicaid program, Olson said.

Olson argued that Pawlenty's decision was playing politics, a charge Carlson denied.

"Perhaps we should get Rep. Emmer up here because you keep referring to him," Carlson said.

"No, it's just that the things that you are saying are the same things he's saying," Olson returned during an interactive rebuttal. "And he's not saying things that are accurate."

The two also clashed over the budget, Olson saying new revenues will be needed for a "balanced" approach to solving a $6 billion budget deficit, while Carlson called for a government redesign, starting with zero-based budgeting.

In zero-based budgeting, state departments and programs would start with no budget and then build it from the start with programs that fit stated outcomes.

With the state expecting $33.5 million in revenues in the next biennium, Carlson proposed freezing state spending at this biennium's spending of $30 billion, a proposal offered earlier by Pawlenty in the form of a constitutional ballot question.

"The overall emphasis needs to be on redesigning government services, and you're not going to be able to do that in three months," Carlson said.

Olson said the proposal is the same as one offered also by Emmer, "which has already been debunked. The idea that somehow we have a $3.5 billion surplus instead of a $6 billion deficit isn't what the Office of Budget and Management says or journalists."

She said the $30 billion includes $2 billion in federal stimulus funds that won't be there again and that $1.9 billion was borrowed from state schools.

"There isn't the extra money around that you're talking about," she said.

"When you have a business that is running a revenue shortfall from the spending, you don't keep spending," Carlson said. "You have to find a way to cut the spending. And we cannot continue to raise taxes, especially on our business community, because all it's doing is chasing them out of the state."

Olson countered that budget cutting suggested by Carlson in other debates "don't even add up to 1 percent of the problem that we're facing."

Carlson said the cornerstone of his campaign is not accepting any funds from special interests and holding his contributions to $100 per person only from the Senate 4 district. He accused Olson of being beholden to unions and other special interests that are donating to her.

Olson said her campaign is transparent, that the public can see exactly who is contributing to her campaign. "I don't feel I owe anyone who is a special interest."

But she charged Carlson with not being transparent, that at a $100 contribution level, names of donators do not need to be released. Carlson offered to give Olson a list of contributors by ZIP Code but no names, to show that they come from the district.

Carlson said it is possible for 100 insurance agents to contribute, which would be the same as a major donation from an insurance lobby group.

Also, Carlson at first refused to take public financing but now will take it.

Olson said she considers her job as a legislator full time, and has made the commitment to attend interim committee meetings and meet often in all cities of the district, which goes from Bemidji to nearly Brainerd.

Carlson said the State Constitution intended only a part-time Legislature, and alluded that he wouldn't attend interim committee meetings in order to keep up his business. He would commit to the Legislature for the three to five months it meets every year.

"The longer we have people down there in committee meetings, the more regulations we're throwing out there on businesses, the harder and harder it is to operate a business in this state," he said.

Media panelists included Dennis Weimann, news director for Lakeland News; Brad Swenson, political editor of the Bemidji Pioneer; and, Scott Hall, news director of KAXE Community Radio.

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