Legislature candidates meet for Worthington forum
WORTHINGTON -- With less than two weeks to go before voters go to the polls to cast their ballots, District 22 Senate candidates and District 22B House candidates faced off in Worthington Wednesday night for a general forum that included questions across the board, from state permitting processes to education funding, tobacco taxes and the ability to compromise.
What came out of the evening was a realization that candidate stances on certain issues really aren't that different.
For instance, a question posed about the disparities in rates for nursing homes based on their location in the state -- metro, rural and deep rural -- had all four of the candidates agreeing that nursing homes in deep rural areas like southwest Minnesota aren't getting adequate funding.
Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the only incumbent in the forum, said for the first time in decades, legislators this year decreased the funding disparity between rural and metro nursing homes.
"We did the same thing for small schools," Hamilton said. "This has been a big priority."
Cheryl Avenel-Navara, DFL-Worthington, seeking to take the District 22B seat away from Hamilton, said she would like to see more legislators work together --particularly those from other rural areas of the state -- to see that deep rural communities aren't short-changed.
"If we can reach across the aisle, perhaps we can do better," she said. "Perhaps the rural areas need to be more bipartisan so we can all get along."
Potential for reform of the prevailing wage law brought agreement from the two Senate candidates, Alan Oberloh, DFL-Worthington, and Bill Weber, R-Luverne. Both want to see the prevailing wage law eliminated because it has cost local taxpayers additional dollars to fund projects. The law requires contractors pay the prevailing wage on government construction projects, but when contractors don't release information on what they pay their employees, the information sometimes is taken from another part of the state, where the pay may be higher.
Hamilton agreed reform was needed as well, saying some businesses were not built in southwest Minnesota because of the prevailing wage law.
This was one area where Avenel-Navara disagreed, saying, "I think the prevailing wage needs to be maintained -- in a way that compels, not by law but by thoughtfulness, that contractors respond. By not cooperating, you're only harming yourself."
A question regarding the candidates' level of support to protect and defend Minnesota's Freedom to Breathe legislation was also raised, with both Oberloh and Avenel-Navara coming out as strong supporters of keeping the legislation in place and offering "complete" support for steps to keep tobacco out of the hands of young people.
"When my first wife was dealing with cancer issues ... it annoyed me that she was dying and people hooked up to IVs were standing on hospital property and smoking," Oberloh said. "If we can do anything to get the message out to young people to not start smoking -- it's a terrible habit."
Oberloh's opponent, Weber, said he has no intention of revisiting the legislation, although he wasn't sure about a request to increase the tax on cigarettes by $1.50.
"I'm not a smoker so it doesn't affect me, but people at lower income levels who maybe do smoke, (it) would be more of a hurt to that segment of the population," Weber said.
Avenel-Navara, who has been a strong supporter of smoke-free legislation, lobbying for the Freedom to Breathe act, for the tax increase on little cigars and for the prevention of tobacco products being given to children, said she will not sign a "No New Tax" pledge specifically because she wants to see the taxes increased on little cigars and tobacco products. She said her opponent, Hamilton, did not vote to fix the tax loophole regarding little cigars in the last session because he supported the no new tax pledge.
"I've never supported a 'No New Tax' pledge and I won't," Hamilton replied. He did, however, admit to voting against the Freedom to Breathe legislation when it was first introduced, but now that it is in place he is a supporter of it.
A question posed about last year's state government shutdown brought agreement from the candidates, as they referred to it as unnecessary, disgusting and showing a lack of compromise. Avenel-Navara said it was because of the state shutdown that she decided to campaign for a seat in the House.
Another question pertained to the candidates' positions on establishing a health insurance exchange. This question perhaps brought about the starkest contrast between candidates.
Hamilton said what is proposed doesn't give Minnesotans a choice, and he encouraged the more than 55 people in attendance to read the legislation and understand it.
Avenel-Navara, on the other hand, said she supports the health insurance exchange because it will ensure preventive measures, from children getting their immunizations to women getting mammograms.
"The affordable care act is going to help us," she said. "You'll be able to get coverage for a pre-existing condition, you'll get to choose your doctors, you'll get to have a conversation about end-of-life care."
"Do you want social medicine or don't you?" responded Hamilton. "Think of that when you go to the polls."
Oberloh said he was "not the least bit interested in socialized medicine," adding that Minnesota has been a model for health care.
"The dollar amount we're looking at, the state cannot afford it at this time and I'm not sure they can afford it in 10 years," he said.
Weber was concerned that the proposal would result in the state getting to a one-provider system, which he said "we just cannot allow ... to happen. Basically, what we're doing is putting government in charge of our health care. That really is not very comforting to me, nor is it comforting to my 89-year-old mother."
For Weber and Oberloh, both businessmen in their communities and both either serving or having served as mayor, a question regarding potential for increased or reformed Local Government Aid (LGA) brought a similar response.
Oberloh called LGA an "unstable source" of funding, but its loss would mean communities like Worthington and Luverne would see their tax rates double.
"Without it, it's going to be very tough," Oberloh said.
"Having been in local government for 16 years, you can't be against Local Government Aid," Weber said. "We cannot allow it to disappear. We have to recognize that we can't rely on it forever and ever because it has been unstable. That comes back to making sure we have jobs and healthy communities."
With the campaign season coming to a close, each candidate was allowed Wednesday night to provide some closing comments. Hamilton went first, saying that he's tried to do the best he could during his tenure, including going against his party to support a transportation bill that meant the completion of the Minnesota 60 four-lane expansion project in Nobles County.
"I hope that I've been able to represent this area honorably and respectfully," he said.
Avenel-Navara called her first foray into politics "an adventure."
"Everything I've done since I started was a new experience," she said. "I'm new at this, I'm not polished. I do this from the heart. I do this because every person I've met has been important to me."
Oberloh said it's been an honor to participate, and he's encouraged young people along the campaign to do something they enjoy and something they believe in.
"There are some differences between Bill Weber and myself, but I do believe we agree on a lot of things," he said. "I grew up in an independent household, and I am not representing the metro."
Weber talked about the varying endorsements he has received during the campaign season and said he would do his best to serve his constituents.
"There's no rubber stamp here," Weber said. "I am going to represent the people of Senate District 22."
The forum was sponsored by the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee and the Daily Globe.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.