FAIRMONT - Minnesota is doing much better than the rest of the nation when it comes to jobs.
The state reported Thursday that Minnesota added 5,900, dropping the unemployment rate to 5.8 percent. Nationwide, it's 7.8 percent.
Seeking re-election to the Minnesota House, state Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, points to the numbers as a measure of successful policies he has helped implement at the state level. He made that case Thursday at a candidates forum held at Fairmont City Hall.
But Gunther is wary. He notes that Minnesota has the highest business property taxes in the nation, and is ranked among the highest for income taxes. And, meanwhile, officials in places like Iowa are eager to pick off Minnesota businesses with enticing incentives.
"Our schools and work ethic is good [in Minnesota], but it's not enough," Gunther warns.
His opponent in District 23A is Kevin Labenz of Welcome. He too says his main focus is on jobs and economic development. Labenz promotes a well-educated workforce, a fair tax rate (higher taxes on the wealthy) and Minnesota's well-known quality of life, which comes with a cost for government. Labenz says the state must do more when it comes to early childhood education as well as bonding for infrastructure projects.
Both men agree that Minnesota should streamline regulations on businesses. Gunther noted that a major mining project involving copper and nickel in northern Minnesota has been trying for six years to move forward. The project is tied to more funding for Minnesota schools. Labenz said the state should reform its regulatory structure, although he noted that everyone also wants to protect the air and water.
Generating more jobs will give state tax collections a boost, the candidates agreed. That could be important if the state faces another budget deficit. But Gunther says the state is now saying that revenue collections are increasing, and dire warnings about another deficit may be inaccurate.
He added an objection to the notion of increasing taxes on millionaires and billionaires, pointing out that raising taxes on people who can easily relocate will not result in the revenue some people estimate.
Labenz says 41 percent of the state budget goes to education, with another 33 percent spent on health and human services. What that leaves is not a whole to cut elsewhere, he argued. He noted that a major driving factor of state costs is health care, which must be tackled. He said the state must be more involved in negotiating prices to reduce the burden on the state budget.
Labenz made clear that he objects to budget "gimmicks" used by lawmakers, including Gunther. He said shifts in school funding and other measures simply move the taxation from the state level to the local level, hurting farmers, small businesses and others who are hard-pressed to pay.
Senate District 23
Republican incumbent Julie Rosen of Fairmont and Democrat Paul Marquardt of Eagle Lake likewise are touting job creation this election season. The duo debated the issues alongside Gunther and Labenz on Thursday.
Marquardt, who worked for many years in the plumbing trade, said the permitting process in Minnesota is a "nightmare" for contractors. And he said some environmental groups work to obstruct some projects from moving forward in order to prevent them from ever happening.
While Marquardt believes that growing jobs will boost state revenues, he also believes lawmakers made a mistake by not raising taxes on the very wealthy last session. Failing to do so has hurt local units of government, which have raised property taxes or had to cut services, he argues. Marquardt noted that on the federal level, the Bush-era tax cuts gave the very rich some healthy breaks. He says those in Minnesota earning more than $1 million per year should be able to pay an extra 2 percent of their income to help in the "shared sacrifice." He added that he believes the very wealthy are ready and willing to pay.
Rosen expressed doubts. She argued that 70 percent of the small businesses in Minnesota file their income taxes as individuals, meaning higher taxes hurt small businesses, which create the jobs everyone wants to see.
Rosen noted that in the next two-year state budget, lawmakers will see an increase in revenue of $2 billion. She argued that prudent prioritizing is needed to draft a budget, while tax hikes are unnecessary.
Rosen did concur with Marquardt on issues of state regulations, as well as workforce training. However, she noted that despite bipartisan efforts between the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, state agencies are not meeting standards set to move permits and applications forward, and this is hurting business startups and job creation.
In a Minnesota-nice moment, Marquardt praised Rosen for the good work she has done, but also said voters have a clear choice in the race.
"I'll work hard too," he said.
Rosen, meanwhile, said she has been an effective lawmaker, getting many bills passed and working across the partisan divide.
"That's what it's all about," she said.