BEMIDJI – A week before the election, local legislative candidates faced off in a forum at Bemidji City Hall Tuesday evening.
The forum was hosted by Citizens for an Informed Electorate and featured candidates from Senate Districts 2 and 5, as well as House races from Districts 2A and 5A.
District 2 Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, will face Republican challenger Dennis Moser of Clearbrook in next week’s election, while Rep. David Hancock, R-Bemidji, will face DFLer Roger Erickson of Baudette for the House District 2A seat.
Hancock currently represents House District 2B, but during February’s redistricting process, his district was extended north, including Baudette. Skoe, who has been in the Senate for 10 years, defeated Moser in the 2010 election.
From the outset, the forum Tuesday revolved around the economy. All four candidates, in one form or another, pointed to Minnesota’s fiscal outlook as the biggest issue facing the state in the next two years.
Hancock advocated for prioritizing spending based on projected revenues in order to balance the budget.
“I propose that we budget like most households and businesses do; you budget from revenue rather than desired expenditures,” Hancock said.
Skoe pointed out that there is some disagreement over whether the state will be facing a surplus or deficit in the coming months.
“Nobody thinks that February number will be a $1 billion surplus,” Skoe said of the state’s financial forecast.
The candidates were split along party lines on the two constitutional amendments that will be on the ballot this year, as most Republicans and DFLers are.
Skoe said many questions remain unanswered about the voter ID amendment, which would require voters to produce photo identification to vote. Erickson also questioned how much it was going to cost local governments to implement the amendment.
“It’s a solution looking for a problem,” Skoe said.
Meanwhile, Moser said any time a fraudulent vote is counted, it could cancel out another’s vote.
“I think that any time that there’s one fraudulent vote, I think it’s serious,” Moser said.
On the marriage amendment, Erickson said he doesn’t “see why we’re putting this kind of discriminatory language into our constitution.” Hancock, meanwhile, said he believes the issue should be decided by voters, and that marriage should be between one man and one woman.
Skoe pointed out that the state already has a law recognizing marriage as between a man and a woman.
The second forum of the night featured four incumbents battling for two spots.
Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, and Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, will be up for the Senate District 5 seat. Meanwhile, Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, will battle for the House District 5A seat.
The incumbents were paired with each other thanks to the redistricting process in February.
Both Persell and Howes pointed to improving sewer and water infrastructure across the region as priorities in the upcoming session. Persell also pointed to completing work on a veterans home in northwestern Minnesota as a priority, and Howes said he wanted to take care of the money that was shifted away from the schools to balance the budget.
Saxhaug said getting rid of the deficit, “which has been the ball that’s been tied around our ankle for so long,” will be a priority for him. He said that will require a mix of cuts, efficiencies and raising revenue. Carlson said the state “desperately” needs tax reform, a suggestion Saxhaug agreed with.
There was somewhat of a lukewarm response to a question about whether the legislators would support a proposed hospitality tax for Bemidji to help support the Sanford Center. The tax would need legislative approval.
Carlson said he wasn’t sure if there was an “appetite” at the Legislature for it and Persell said he was “iffy” about the tax. Howes and Saxhaug suggested that they’d bring it forth if it was asked of them.
“It’s not something I’d stonewall if that’s something the city thinks it needs,” Saxhaug said.
Persell said the elimination of the Market Value Homestead Credit was a mistake because it raised property taxes on many Minnesotans, an argument many Democrats have raised. Howes countered that cities and counties came forward and asked for the change because they wanted a more stable source of revenue.