House district candidates spar on spending
City Hall forum focuses on Greater Minnesota issues
By Cathy Hay
While the candidates for Minnesota House District 27A agreed on many issues at their debate Tuesday, they differed on how the Legislature should spend money and how to build the local economy.
About 30 people attended the debate at the Albert Lea City Council chambers. Sponsored by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, most of the questions focused on differences between the Twin Cities and outstate areas. District 27A covers all of Freeborn County and parts of Dodge, Faribault, Mower and Steele counties.
From the opening question, incumbent Shannon Savick, a Democrat from Wells, emphasized state spending as necessary investments while challenger Peggy Bennett, a Republican from Albert Lea, stressed the need to cut taxes.
Savick said she worked for a high-tech industry that cared more about finding qualified employees than taxes or the cost of living when deciding where to locate its facilities. Investing in educating people is the key to filling jobs and building the economy, she said.
Bennett cited cutting taxes as a main way to raise the local economy and make Minnesota more competitive with Iowa when attracting businesses.
Asked about budget priorities, Bennett said, “I’m not for raising more taxes or raising the budget.” She suggested keeping state funding the same for now with setting education, long-term care, and roads and bridges as priorities.
Savick listed continued funding of education, tax cuts for middle-income families, and transportation as priorities.
The most-heated exchange came over the new Senate office building approved by the 2013 Legislature. The $90 million building was a want, not a need, Bennett said.
Savick pointed out that the building cost is $77 million with the additional $13 million for a parking ramp. Adding public access, bathrooms and governor office space to the Capitol forced out Senate offices, she said. Renting space for state senators would cost more in the long run. “So it is a need, not a want,” Savick said, adding that pitching tents on the Capitol grounds for senators was not an option.
While Bennett insisted that Savick had voted for the new building, Savick said the criticism was the Republican way of avoiding the real issues. Savick voted for a 2013 tax bill that authorized the building but played no role in the building’s details, which were hashed out by legislative committees in 2014.
On the issue of returning local government aid to its 2002 level by increasing its funding, Savick said she would support the increase. This aid is designed to keep property taxes lower in areas outside the Twin Cities, which have higher property values and thus higher tax capacity. Cities in Greater Minnesota need that aid to fund police and fire protection, snow removal and other items without increasing property taxes, according to Savick. In her opening statement, she had talked about her experience as mayor of Wells and the harmful impact of aid cuts to the small town.
Bennett said she would consider increasing local government aid, but not by increasing taxes. “We don’t need to raise taxes,” she said. “We can find money by making priorities.” She cited the need to build up the local economy and make Minnesota more competitive with neighboring states for business.
Both candidates agreed that high-speed broadband infrastructure is important for Greater Minnesota but disagreed how the state should bring it to areas outside the Twin Cities.
“Let’s find a way to fund broadband … but not with taxes,” Bennett said. Internet infrastructure is just as important as roads and bridges, she said, adding that greater Minnesota needs it to be more competitive.
Savick also supports funding for a broadband program, saying it adds value to areas with too little population to attract Internet services. “It’s not competition we need, it’s customers,” she said.
On the question of funding the state Business Development Public Infrastructure grant program, Bennett said, “If we see it as a need, how do we pay for it?” The community needs to raise up its economy so it can pay for that infrastructure itself.
Savick said she saw the program work in Blooming Prairie, where the community received a 50 percent matching grant from the state to provide water, sewer and road services to a new plant for Minimizer, a company that produces plastic parts for the heavy truck industry. Grants are part of how communities build up their economies, she said.
Bennett responded by saying she supports the state enticing businesses to Minnesota, but the state needs to find a way to pay for that without increasing taxes.
Asked about funding mass transit and high speed rail in the metro area, Bennett said those transportation issues are not priorities for state spending. Savick said she would see benefit to those services if they came to Albert Lea or even the edge of the metro area so local residents could take advantage of them.
Given a past example of foreign language disparity between Edina (nine languages offered) and Albert Lea (only one), both candidates want more equality among Minnesota’s public schools. Savick said her political party wants every student funded at the same level, whether the funding comes from local taxes or state grants. Bennett said the state needs to loosen unfunded mandates on schools to free up more money. She also suggested using technology and partnering with community colleges to offer more classes.
Both candidates agreed:
That education, health care issues and infrastructure are top priorities.
That the Legislature should have no limits on local levies, both advocating for local control.
On supporting a job training program to help fill the shortage of qualified job candidates in greater Minnesota.
That scientific review outside the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is needed for new water quality standards.
That local government aid should increase with inflation.
Savick and Bennett will debate at 7 p.m. today at The Flame Theater in Wells and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Riverland Community College.
Savick is seeking her second term in the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is retired from the high-tech computer industry. She holds a degree in math and physics from Minnesota State University-Minnesota and a Master of Business Administration from Clark University in Massachusetts. Her previous political experience includes serving on the Wells City Council with two years as mayor. She defeated incumbent Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, in a tight race in 2012.
Bennett is a first-grade teacher at Sibley Elementary School and is on a leave of absence this school year. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in education and Master of Arts degree in special education. She was the 2011 Teacher of the Year for Albert Lea Area Schools.
The local House race is one key to which party will control the state government for the next two years. The Republicans need to flip seven seats for a Minnesota House majority.