Candidates for area state offices tackle issues in chamber forum

Published 8:55 pm Friday, October 21, 2022

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Candidates vying for local legislative seats shared their opinions on topics such as the state surplus, school funding and omnibus bills on Monday in a candidate forum at Albert Lea City Hall. 

Facing off first were District 27 Sen. Gene Dornink, R-Brownsdale, and challenger Brandon Lawhead, DFL-Austin, who are running for the new District 23 Senate seat. 

Dornink said it has been an honor to serve the last two years and spoke about his background growing up on a dairy farm, a career in carpentry and then starting his own business after a layoff in 2009.  

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Lawhead said he was born in Austin and lived there his whole life and has been an attorney for the last 25 years. He said his slogan is “Let’s meet in the middle” and said while he is Democrat-endorsed, he is running to represent the middle. 

“I’m running because I fundamentally want to change politics in America,” he said. 

Lawhead said he was motivated to run by the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the riots that took place in Minneapolis. 

“We have big problems here,” he said. 

Dornink said he is running for office because he has been given so much and wants to give back. He said he likes to get out and talk to the people and that oftentimes it is the people who have the answers to problems. 

When asked how they would spend the state surplus, Dornink said he has heard over and over to give the money back. He referenced the Senate passing a large tax relief package that included getting rid of the Social Security tax for seniors and giving a tax break to the middle class. He said there were also other areas that could use money in areas of crisis, such as for long-term care and group homes that are suffering greatly because of the pandemic. He also referenced a cross subsidy to school dstricts for special education service for children with disabilities. 

Lawhead claimed the Senate Republicans “walked away” from an agreement and that because nothing was ultimately passed, Austin Public Schools are having to conduct a referendum. 

He said the top issue he is hearing from constituents is that legislators need to stop the game-playing. He said he recently had a teacher who spoke with him with the Austin district who is afraid her job will get cut. 

Legislators are there to represent the people, and he talked about how people’s lives are on the line. 

Dornink said the top issues he has heard depend on the doors he is knocking, but include issues such as tax relief, public safety and mental illness. 

He said the Senate did not walk away from the tax bill, as the House is required to pass a bill before the Senate can vote on it. 

Referencing special sessions and how the government can do a better job of avoiding government shutdowns, Dornink said he sees omnibus bills as being one of the big issues. 

He said he and District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett have tried to address that with a “one bill, one vote” bill.

Lawhead said the real solution is that people need to sit down and talk and come up with solutions. 

Dornink said he thought the biggest issues facing the Albert Lea area were getting bonding funds for the dredging of Fountain Lake and for the upgrades at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. He also noted that the state has agencies that he thinks are too powerful and that if they are going to regulate strict rules that make things more expensive for cities, they need to help the cities pay for them. 

Other big issues included taxes, mental health, housing and the workforce. 

Lawhead said there was a dredging allocation in the bill, but in the end the deal didn’t get passed. 

“Not getting the deals done … that’s not getting the work of the people done,” he said.

He talked about what an asset the lake is to the community and the importance of making communities better. 

District 27 Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, and opponent Mary Hinnenkamp, DFL-Albert Lea, finished up the night in discussions about their goals if elected representative of the newly formed District 23A. 

Bennett spoke of her time as a teacher and how she loves serving in the role as representative because she is able to serve people. 

Hinnenkamp said she is running because of several issues, including education funding and bonding funding for Albert Lea that did not get passed in the last session. 

When asked if Greater Minnesota receives its fair share of funding when it comes to housing, Hinnenkamp said she knows the state could do better job of bringing home that money if legislators worked across the aisle. 

Bennett said housing is an important issue throughout the state, especially rural areas. She said while the state can create incentives for developers, they also need to look at regulations. She cited the cost of building the same home in Minnesota and Wisconsin as being 30% more in Wisconsin. 

Regarding the Legislature working with school districts to address bullying, Bennett said she believed the issue needed to be handled on a local level, with teachers, who are professionals, and school boards elected to handle the very issue. She said needs are different here from districts in the Twin Cities. 

Hinnenkamp said as the mother of a Black child, she knows children can sometimes get singled out and also referenced children who may be gay or have special needs. She said those children need to know there will be people to look out to make sure they are protected. 

When asked about how to address the mental health crisis in the district, Hinnenkamp referenced her time working for the Area Learning Center and the students who were there because of issues involving mental health and drug use. 

She said the area needs more services for youth and noted many of the services that have been lost in the last five to 10 years. 

Bennett said speaking with providers, school staff and therapists, the biggest issue is access to services. She also talked about looking at regulatory relief. 

Bennett and Hinnenkamp were asked about omnibus bills at the Legislature. 

Bennett said omnibus bills, large bills that are made up of many smaller bills, are one of the actors that are stopping legislators from getting things done. She said things are not voted on as they should be and instead bills are laid over to be included in larger omnibus bills. 

“We need to get closer to one bill, one vote,” Bennett said, noting this will help votes be transparent.

Hinnenkamp said the omnibus bills can sometimes force compromise. She referenced funding that wasn’t passed including funding for students who have struggled since the pandemic, second-graders who haven’t learned how to read and one year of free community college for eligible students. 

She said there was so much in it that would have helped the people in the district that she would have voted for it even if there were pieces she did not like. 

When asked what they would do to bring down property taxes, Bennett said she has tried for a number of years and will continue to try to get rid of tax on Social Security income. 

She also said with the surplus, which was essentially an overpayment by the taxpayers, that money should be sent back in the form of tax relief, including possible reduction in income tax, Social Security tax. She said the state needs to stop playing games of taking money out of one pocket and putting it into another. 

Hinnenkamp said with the $9 billion surplus the state could give it back or it could invest that money, such as investing in schools for programs for children who really suffered in the  pandemic. 

Bennett said her work in the House is not done, as there are many major issues remaining, such as government reform, inflation, crime and education. She said while she may not always agree with people on everything, she will always listen and care about what they say. 

Hinnenkamp said since she started doorknocking May 1, she has knocked on 15,000 doors. She said she thinks she has the skills and hard work to solve problems.