Jobs, education and the economy remained at the forefront during a Wednesday forum among District 51 legislative candidates.
A crowd of residents and business owners filled the Rasmussen College classroom to standing-room only on Sept. 26 to hear from the six contenders.
The forum, hosted by the Dakota County Regional Chamber of Commerce, included Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan, Jim Carlson, District 51 DFL candidate, Rep. Doug Wardlow, R-Eagan, Laurie Halverson, District 51B DFL candidate, Rep. Diane Anderson, R-Eagan, and Sandra Masin, District 51A DFL candidate.
Although every candidate called for civility among the two parties, not everyone refrained from trading barbs.
Describing the past session as dysfunctional and scandalous, Democrats pointed to the state shut down and recent “sex scandal” involving Republican Sen. Amy Koch and staffer Michael Brodkorb as Republican failings.
“The Legislature is on the wrong track. … Republicans have focused on social issues instead of their own failings,” Carlson said.
Republicans returned the blows by claiming Democratic support for “ObamaCare” will hurt small businesses.
The two sides were split on whether they support insurance exchanges created by the Federal Health Care Act.
Daley said he doesn’t support the exchanges and suggested the state should wait until after the November election to create a plan to comply with the federal law.
Halverson said she believes the state must create a plan immediately to tailor the program to Minnesota’s needs.
“If we don’t take action, we will get a one size fits all plan,” she said.
Wardlow concurred with Daley adding that “ObamaCare” is nothing more than a tax on employers.
“We will stop taxing small business owners if the exchange is overturned,” he said.
Masin agreed with Halverson, adding that Minnesota can build upon its existing health care systems by tailoring a plan early.
Anderson argued that exchanges under the federal act would infringe upon private health decisions.
“We need to make sure we have quality care at an affordable cost,” she said, reading word for word from a prepared statement. “We need to keep health care private. This will bring government into health care and they will make the decisions.”
Carlson argued that the exchanges will allow people to consider cost and quality of insurance plans.
He said he believes the Legislature should focus more on Medicare fraud and misappropriated UCare funds, programs aimed at providing insurance for the elderly and low-income Minnesotans.
Carlson also pointed to the exchanges and similar measures as ways the Legislature can help create jobs.
“Small businesses are often tied up in health care,” Carlson said. “In other countries, this isn’t a problem.”
He added that bonding bill is another key way to create jobs in Minnesota.
Masin and Halverson agreed pointing to the 2012 bonding bill and Vikings stadium as examples of ways the Legislature will create thousands of jobs over the next few years.
All three added that adequately funding education in the state is another essential way to grow jobs.
Anderson agreed that education is a key component to growing jobs.
“We must support K-12 education to ensure the state has a trained workforce,” she said, adding that reducing regulation and taxes are just as essential.
Daley and Wardlow agreed.
“We need to lead by getting out of the way,” Daley said.
Wardlow added that he believes government has gotten too big and is “getting in the way of entrepreneurship.”
All six candidates placed education among their top priorities but had very different ways to address the issue.
Democrats and Republicans pointed fingers at one another when addressing the funding shifts imposed on school districts over the past several years.
“We are living on $2.7 billion owed to schools in the state,” Carlson said.
According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the state owed Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District $78.7 million, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage $28.2 million and West St. Paul-Mendota-Eagan $12.7 million as of June 2012.
The Democrats agree that these shifts cause property taxes to rise as school districts look to recoup their loses from borrowing and tax levy referendums. All three said that if elected, they would find a way to balance the state’s budget without borrowing from school districts.
Republicans disagreed with the Democrat’s depiction.
Daley said he supports funding K-12 education, adding that he believes education is funded better today than under previous legislatures.
Wardlow and Anderson agreed, noting that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed a Republican proposal to reinstate education funding using the state’s surplus.
Republicans and Democrats also disagreed on whether teacher performance assessments should be used to determine layoffs and pay increases.
Wardlow said he believes these assessments will allow districts to retain strong teachers.
“Most teachers are very good but some are not,” he said. “We need to reward teacher excellence.”
Anderson concurred saying that she strives “to make it easier for districts to ensure it has the best teachers.”
Although Daley supports implementing a teacher performance system, he stressed that parents must also be involved to have successful schools.
Carlson noted the Legislature must address a multitude of issues, in addition to teacher performance, when trying to address student achievement.
Pointing to Minnesota’s achievement gap between white students and minorities, Carlson said: “The teachers are the same for all these students and yet we have the same results.”
Carlson said he believes poverty, hunger and early childhood education must be addressed first.
Halverson said she too is leery of a performance-based system because she believes its effectiveness needs further research.
Masin accused proponents of the system of “dwelling on the wrong issue.”
“We need to focus on funding education and on the size of classrooms,” she said. “When we’re talking a classroom of 38 kids, how much time can a teacher spend with each kid without a para?”