BLUE EARTH - Four local candidates for state office sat down Saturday morning in Blue Earth to discuss key issues for southern Minnesota, revealing varying opinions and a few similarities.
Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, faces opposition from Paul Marquardt of Eagle Lake, while her fellow incumbent Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, is running against Kevin Labenz of Welcome.
Throughout the 90-minute forum, the discussion usually came back to creating jobs and bringing and keeping younger families in the area.
Rep. Bob Gunther, from left, and Sen. Julie Rosen debate challengers Kevin Labenz and Paul Marquardt in Blue Earth Saturday morning.
"My long-term goal would be to repopulate the area by 18 percent," Gunther said. "We need more and better paying jobs."
Gunther went on to say he has played a major role in JOBZ - a program aimed at recruiting companies to rural areas and strengthening existing businesses - along with the IGNITE economic development program in Martin County.
Rosen said her priorities have not changed since she was first elected 10 years ago.
"My senate district is getting larger, I serve on several committees and have chaired these committees. Out of 86 bills I've authored, 48 have passed," she said.
Challengers Labenz and Marquardt laid out the reasons they are running and what they see as important issues.
No. 1 on Labenz' list of priorities is jobs.
"We need young people, and they are leaving the area," he said. "No. 2 is the ag industry and No. 3 is education. The schools are owed $2.4 billion because the state balanced the budget on their backs so they could say they didn't raise taxes. If this money is not paid back to the schools, they can't run; this is real pain they're feeling."
Marquardt also expressed concern about education.
"There is an 18-percent dropout rate, and you can't apply for a GED until you're 19," he said. "Education is the only way out of poverty, and we have people that are falling through the cracks. What are these people going to do for a year?"
Property taxes and local government aid were other hot-button topics. Like the public school districts, out-state cities and counties have also seen a drop in state aid.
"LGA is huge for communities," Marquardt said. "There's only so much that can be cut from city government."
"It's important because these rural towns do not have the same tax base as the Cities," Labenz agreed. "We see property taxes increase, and that hurts the middle class, especially when these increases get pushed off onto the cities and counties."
"LGA was introduced for areas without the tax base to supply essential needs, yet a majority of it is going to the Cities," she said. "We've since frozen it to the 2010 levels. I also don't believe in levy limits; I think that's something that needs to be handled at the local levels."
Gunther described LGA as a supplement to cities and also said that the 2010 levels will take effect again in 2014.
All four candidates believe in the need for tax reform, but they all approach the idea differently.
"We need to do something because it has doubled in the last 10 years, and even more for ag property," Labenz said. "But the state keeps shifting the burden onto the local levels. They're passing the buck so they can say they didn't raise taxes. What we need is relief, and we're not seeing it."
There was also talk of the fourth tier, or a higher tax rate for millionaires and billionaires. Rosen stated she did not believe in the fourth tier.
"I'm all for tax reform, but not for tax increases," she said.
"I'm all for lowering taxes and [increasing] local control," Marquardt said. "And I do believe in the fourth tier for millionaires and billionaires to have a shared sacrifice. I believe in having local control, but the state needs to fund these mandates they pass."
The constitutional amendments for voter ID and allowing gay marriage were also touched on.
"My main job is to balance and to be a voice," Rosen said on the marriage amendment. "Because people said they wanted to have a voice on it is why I voted to put it on the ballot.
Marquardt, on the other hand, said the government should not be involved in social issues.
"This doesn't amount to a hill of beans," Labenz said. "Whether the marriage amendment passes or fails, it won't make anything different on Nov. 7. It's all a distraction from the real issues, such as not being able to pass a budget and causing one of the longest state government shutdowns in history."
Gunther said he voted for the marriage amendment to be on the bill because it should be decided by the people.
"I don't want activist judges to decide it like in Iowa," Gunther said.
Whether voter fraud was a problem also varied among the candidates.
According to Gunther, there were 260 cases of convicted felons voting when they were not allowed.
"If we prevent one case of voter fraud, then it's worth it," Gunther said.
But Labenz pointed out the Voter ID law would not have stopped those type of fraudulent votes.
"Felons trying to vote won't be deterred by this law," Labenz said. "What would be the motive to be bringing in people from out of state to illegally vote? ... Voting is our fundamental right and this undue hindrance is wrong."
"I don't believe there is a voter fraud problem," Marquardt agreed. "The amount of money needed to spend on this could be better spent on tax relief and schools."
"I believe it is a right and a privilege to vote," Rosen said. "I feel everyone here would be proud to show an ID to vote."
In their conclusions, both Gunther and Rosen cited their experience and tenure, while Labenz and Marquardt spoke of how they would benefit the area.
"I'm the second-most senior Republican House member," Gunther said. "I've eliminated red tape and regulations. ... But the disparity between the metro and rural is growing all the time."
"I feel I've been truly blessed to serve the area," Rosen said. "You grow attached to the district you represent. With 48 bills passed, I think it shows that government does work, and that you can work across the aisle. It's the purest form of government working and how we should get along."
"We do have differences in opinion, but there are also things we agree on," Labenz said. "But things can be better, and we need young people down here, because without young people, there is no future. Ask yourself what we will look like in 30 years if we continue down the same path."
"I'm fortunate in that I've been able to live the American dream," Marquardt said. "I have nothing bad to say about Sen. Rosen or anyone else running, but just like any other job, there's a time for fresh ideas."
The four candidates will meet for another debate again 7 p.m. Thursday at Fairmont City Hall.