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ELECTION 2016: Candidates spar over health care and more

BEMIDJI—Education, transportation, and health care issues surfaced frequently at a pair of Monday debates between Bemidji-area state legislative candidates.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, sparred with Republican challengers Justin Eichorn and Matt Bliss, respectively, at Lakeland Public Television's studios, where all four offered contrasting visions for early childhood and post-secondary education, the state's infrastructure funding, and MNsure.

Matt Bliss

Bliss said the state's health care marketplace is "broken," echoing Eichorn, who characterized the program as "a mess" that needed to be scrapped so Minnesotans could look for health plans in the federal-level exchange.

"We were in a much better place before MNsure came about," Eichorn said. "There was a few less people insured, but people were insured at a better rate. We had lower costs, we had better coverage."

Both DFLers acknowledged the high, perhaps prohibitive, costs of healthcare, but stopped well short of calling for the system to be dismantled.

"The solution is getting everybody covered at a reasonable rate like the rest of the world does," Saxhaug said. "If that means that everybody has something like medicare, maybe that's the way to go. We do have to come up with a solution, not just, 'Hey, let's scrap everything and start over.'"

Persell said the "big issue" with transportation is that upkeep costs don't stay the same, which means that existing revenue streams—license tab fees and so on— won't support the demand for transportation.

John Persell

"There has to be some new revenue brought to the table," he said, adding that it could be a wheelage or mileage tax, however unpalatable they may be. "Nobody wants to pay more taxes, including me, but we're gonna have some tough decisions on whether or not we're going to maintain our roads and bridges."

Bliss said he would not support another gas tax, as proposed, because it was based on a percentage of gas prices, rather than a fixed number.

Eichorn said a gas tax would hurt low- and middle-income Minnesotans the most, and that the state needs to look at funding transportation issues via a bonding bill.

The 2016 legislative session ended without transportation or bonding agreements. That left a plan to invest billions in infrastructure improvements on the table as well as state funding for the hotly debated Southwest Light Rail Line in the Twin Cities The two Democrat incumbents both said they support Southwest and both Republicans said they opposed it.

"Light rail is a great concept that doesn't work in Minnesota," Bliss said, claiming that existing commuter rail lines are heavily subsidized and sparsely used. He offered bus rapid transit as a more flexible and efficient alternative.

Persell said light rail is a "project for the future" because the Metro Area doesn't have enough available land to support building more roads for cars and trucks. He added that expanded bus service, like light rail, would also be subsidized by taxpayers.

Tom Saxhaug

On education, Saxhaug said a trained, educated workforce is what will ultimately bring and keep jobs in rural Minnesota, and called for continued investment in early childhood education.

Bliss, whose wife teaches first grade, said getting parents engaged in their child's education from the get-go is critical, but that all-day pre-kindergarten is not a good solution.

Justin Eichorn

Eichorn said teachers have "lost control" of their classrooms because of state and federal policies like Common Core curriculum, which he said needs to be gotten rid of.

The other debate Monday night was for Minnesota House District 5B, which covers parts of Itasca and Cass Counties.

In that race, Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, is being challenged by Republican Sandy Layman and Green Party candidate Dennis Barsness.

Debates between Senate District 2 and House District 2A and 2B candidates are scheduled for 7, 8, and 9 tonight in Bemidji.

The Senate District 9 and House District 9A forums will be broadcast out of the Brainerd studio Thursday and Senate District 10 and House District 10A and 10B forums will be Friday in Brainerd.

All of the debates are organized by Lakeland Public Television, the Bemidji Pioneer, the Brainerd Dispatch and KAXE Northern Community Radio.

To view complete replays of the debate series: Audio: Lakeland staff said the replays will be available 24 hours after the debates air live.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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