WORTHINGTON - Citizens from Minnesota House District 22B poured into the Worthington High School cafeteria Monday for a candidates’ forum featuring five-term Republican Rep. Rod Hamilton and to DFL challenger Cheryl Avenel-Navara.
Avenel-Navara, who also ran for District 22B representative against Hamilton in 2012, began her opening remarks by saying that she has been a resident of Worthington since 1977, when she started working at Minnesota West as a counselor.
She became involved in the community almost immediately by creating a women’s awareness series, and has always been part of different groups and committees. She became further involved with numerous community groups following her retirement in 2007.
“In the past four months, I’ve been visiting with all the communities in District 22B,” Avenel-Navara said.
“I’ve knocked on over 4,000 doors. ... I’ve heard what you’ve had to say what you want me to do in the community and in the Legislature,” she continued.
Hamilton, of Mountain Lake, commenced his opening statements by reminiscing about his 10 years of service to his district.
“During the stint that I’ve had during my time in the Minnesota House of Representatives, I’ve been the chair in the ag committee and vice chair of the ag committee as well,” he said. “In 2012 I had the third most bipartisan voting record, and this year there’s not a single Democrat that has a more bipartisan voting record than I do.”
The forum’s first question concerned a topic Worthington is all too familiar with - housing. Hamilton said that Worthington’s need for additional housing is not unique, and that encouraging private investors to invest and bonding money could help.
“Looking for the public-private relationship as far as being able to encourage private investors to invest in it as well (is important), but when we’re promoting our businesses around here that are providing good paying jobs and creating wealth, that’s also going to help spur the economy,” Hamilton said. “There’s been some bills that have been passed to put houses right here in Worthington, but also I signed onto the $80 million bonding bill to help with housing.”
Avenel-Navara said that while initiatives have been started to help with housing, assistance in land acquisition is needed.
“Land prices are very high, and something I would look at is how do we help a city developer in a community buy land that is priced at $10,000 an acre?” she said. “The other thing we need to work on is infrastructure. We have to extend roads, sewers and electrical grids and make those adjustments, and work with the communities and try to help them with those kinds of initiatives to help put housing where it belongs.”
Candidates were asked if they supported the position that any future federal funds for the Lewis & Clark Regional Water System be dedicated to laying pipe in the ground before any state advances are repaid. Hamilton responded with a firm “no,” stating that Minnesota is in this situation because the federal government did not fulfill their obligation in order to fund the project.
“We went to fight, and worked with governor and worked with both sides of the equation in order to get the funding for this,” Hamilton said. “We secured $22 million to keep the project going, plus an option that was absolutely unprecedented to give us additional means to get it all the way to the city of Worthington.”
However, Hamilton added, the federal government is now saying since the state is funding the project, it wants to take those federal dollars and put them elsewhere.
“Whether it’s a third or a portion of those dollars ... pay us back locally, because we’ve already paid our share on this thing,” he said.
Avenel-Navara said that while the water project did receive $22 million, more needs to be done to get additional money to help bring water to Worthington.
“There’s some problems with the bill, and there’s always problems with bills when you do them at the last minute and when it’s an 11th-hour bill,” she said.
“We’ve known we needed Lewis and Clark funding for over 10 years, and we’ve known the federal government wasn’t doing this. I’m not quite sure why we waited at the last minute to ask for funding, but we did, so we need to come up with a way to get that money by tweaking the bill.”
With student loans becoming a growing problem in the nation, Avenel-Navara suggested finding a way to keep tuition costs down by going back to the one-third-two-third system - when colleges would pay for two-thirds of tuition. Hamilton said he encourages students to attain four-year degrees if they choose, but more focus on trade schools is needed.
Regarding immigration, Hamilton cited his close work with the Immigration Freedom Network and added that while the federal government should secure the borders, we should aid the immigrants that are already here.
“I was one of the lone Republicans that was in support of the Dream Act, which gives in-state tuition to a child that would finish at least three years in public education so then they can then go on to college,” he said. “That’s because I’ve always said education is always part of the solution.”
Avenel-Navara said she has been actively involved in the Nobles County Integration Collaborative as well as Worthington’s International Festival since its founding 25 years ago. She added that said she strongly supports immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses and support initiatives to do so.
“I’d like to have my neighbors who may or may not have documentation have valid driver’s licenses - driver’s education classes so they know the laws - and I’d like to them to get car insurance,” she said.
The candidates then moved on to the topic of health care, and improving the MNsure system. Hamilton argued that people he has spoken with on this issue has had huge increases in premiums and deductibles, and said that the Affordable Care Act is “not so affordable.”
“There are many good things about the Affordable Care Act, but the way that is was implemented, passed through and running is not working,” he said.
Avenel-Navara said only 4 percent of Minnesotans are now not covered, and that over 300,000 Minnesota residents have been able to get coverage under MNsure.
“I would like to see the next 4 percent get their coverage, so I will do what I can to improve MNsure,” she said.
“Yes, it had a rocky start; yes, it had some bumps. Anyone who is caught up in that - who doesn’t have their insurance because MNsure couldn’t process their application - once that is filled, they will have coverage retroactively.”
Hamilton and Avenel-Navara each spoke on how their experience will help them as the District 22B representative.
Avenel-Navara said that while she is new, she brings a different perspective.
“With a new tenure comes new benefits, and I can look at things differently and find different solutions and compromises to problems,” she said.
“I think with my experience I know how to navigate up at the Capitol, and I’ve built those relationships,” Hamilton said. “I’ve proven that I could work with both sides, and through it all I have never forgotten where I’ve come from.”
Monday’s forum was coordinated by the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee.