Going to the candidates’ debate

There were some performances put on at the North Branch High School auditorium Oct. 9, but none of them were by high school students.

The Chisago County League of Women Voters hosted a candidates’ forum that night for District 32 State Senate candidates, District 32B State Representative candidates, and those vying for seats on the Chisago County Board and North Branch Area Public Schools School Board.

Candidates made introductory and closing statements and answered a list of questions presented to them by a moderator.

Candidates were asked to answer most questions in one to two minutes apiece.

Editor’s note: due to space constraints, not all of the questions asked to candidates during the forum are detailed in this article.

State House and Senate 

Incumbent Republican State Rep. Bob Barrett and incumbent Republican State Senator Sean Nienow faced off against DFL challengers Rick Olseen and Yeske Noordergraaf.

Question No. 1: What specific economic policies would you support to create and maintain jobs that pay well and keep the economy strong in our county?

Sean Nienow
Sean Nienow

Nienow: He said he was a proponent of JOBZ, a program that provides local and state tax exemptions to qualified companies that expand or relocate into targeted regions outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

“We implemented that the first time I was in office. That provision passed by one vote. If I had not been in the Senate, Polaris would not be here today and you would not have Andersen Windows.”

Jeske Noordergraaf
Jeske Noordergraaf

Noordergraaf: She said she has been a successful business owner, and would implement some of what she’s learned running a business to help in job creation.

She added, “I think taxes could be a source of revenue. Internet sales aren’t taxed at this point, and I think that could help.”

Barrett: He said he wants to see lower taxes, better permitting and smaller government.

“I want to provide tax relief to businesses coming into our county and eliminate the commercial industrial tax.”

Olseen: He also said he’s in favor of programs like JOBZ and was on the Chisago County Board when Andersen Windows was built.

Question No. 2: What strategies do you recommend for a balanced budget? Be specific. If it’s to raise taxes, which ones? If it’s to add fees, to which programs? If it’s to cut spending, what areas and how much?

Noordergraaf: “On this one I’m at a disadvantage because I’m the only one who hasn’t been elected to the House or Senate. I think to know fully, I’d have to sit down and look at the budget. I have not seen the entire budget. I think we need to look at how much money is coming in and how much is going out. Do I have a specific plan? No. But I plan to keep doing my research.”

Nienow: He noted when he was first elected the state had a large budget deficit and he worked on reforms to reduce the deficit.

“We’re projected to get $1.7 billion more than we’re getting today,” he said. “We could take today’s budget, put it in place, pile on top of that and spend $1.7 billion more than we are today and the budget balances. It’s just a matter of where we’re going to spend that money. We have more money to spend, but the autopilot budget is on track to spend $1 billion more than we have coming in.”

Rick Olseen
Rick Olseen

Olseen: “You can make a number say just about anything. A $1.2 billion surplus doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a $1.2 billion surplus if you borrow most of the money to get there. I think (it was a mistake) when the Legislature borrowed almost $737 million in future tobacco settlement money … in the year 2032 we’ll still be paying for the operations of our state from 2012 (because of that decision). I don’t think that’s open and honest budgeting. I want to look at where we’re at with our budget.”

Bob Barrett
Bob Barrett

Barrett: “One thing I will do is not make promises to people that I can’t keep with money I don’t have. That’s what has been happening the last four to five years. The issue wasn’t the money. It was because we made promises we couldn’t keep with money we didn’t have.”

Question No. 3: If elected, what specific actions would you take to address the inequity in funding faced by the North Branch Area Public Schools during this term?

Barrett: He said he’s already taken action on that issue by drafting a bill that will get North Branch closer to average when it comes to the allocation of state education dollars.

“Right now, North Branch gets about $8,000 per child. I created a bill that creates a floor. If you’re below that floor, you would get raised up. Right now we’re about 80 percent of average, and we’d be moved up to 87 percent. That would give North Branch schools $700,000 to $800,000 more than they have now.”

Olseen: He noted he has over a decade serving on the North Branch Area School Board, so he has first-hand experience of how school budgets are formulated.

He said legislators should focus on addressing the state school funding formula because he believes it unfairly distributes money across districts.

Nienow: He noted he and Barrett worked on the same school funding bill, and he also detailed a program that he said was a waste of $100 million.

“It’s called ‘Integration.’ It’s for school districts with a higher percentage of minority students. The legislative auditor reviewed it and had nothing good to say about it. The schools that we were giving the money to were less integrated than before we started giving them the money. We got rid of a $100 million program that did nothing.”

Noordergraaf: “I think we need to look at how the state is actually dividing the money. The burden is on the school districts. I think the burden needs to go back on the state so the funding can be divided up equally. It’s a very complicated issue.”

The candidates were then asked where they stand on the voter identification and marriage constitutional amendments.

The candidates were split along party lines, with Noordergraaf and Olseen being against both amendments and Nienow and Barrett in approval of the amendments.

Nienow noted he was the co-author of the marriage amendment bill.

Chisago County Commissioner

Incumbent Commissioners Lora Walker, Mike Robinson and George McMahon were present for the forum, as were Darrel Trulson, Walker’s challenger, and Rick Smisson, Robinson’s opponent. Curt Flug, McMahon’s challenger, did not attend the forum.

Question No. 1: As financial resources are limited, what three areas of spending will be your priority if you’re elected? How will you deal with reductions to budgets?

Smisson: “I would not say that I would focus on any particular area that we need to cut this or that. I don’t know enough about how those areas are funded. (We should) go through every area of the county government and work on making them more efficient and more effective in driving out waste. That’s how businesses do it.”

Robinson: He said what most taxpayers want is for government to provide basic services, such as public works, police and fire.

“The rest of the stuff, we’ll just have to get by with what we’ve got and just hope it all works out.”

Walker: “I’ve already dealt with reductions to budgets every year that I’ve served. The first reduction was in 2003. At that time our budget was cut by $750,000 by the state. We reacted … we took the money out of funding because we had no other choice. I’m not going to begin to say that I have all the answers and that all the problems are easy to solve because they’re not. People demand services. It is a very delicate balance. We need to make sure we have adequate funding without increasing taxes to compensate.”

Trulson: “I think when you look at the budget and the levies and the taxes in the county, you need to see that there’s been a little bit of padding there over the years and that’s been the reason why county commissioners have been able to cut over the last couple of years. We’re glad for that … but I think there’s a lot more that can be done.”

Trulson added he thinks the property-tax levy for next year could be decreased by another 4 to 5 percent.

McMahon: “We have three very important areas that we should continue to fund – roads, public safety, bridges and zoning. The reason I say zoning is because the commercial tax base in this county is very low. We have to increase the commercial tax base to lessen the burden on the residential taxpayer.”

Question No. 2: Do we need a new jail? Yes or no and support your answer.

Walker: “No. Many years ago there was a public campaign to build a facility that would have never been filled. At this time, I don’t think that’s a wise use of our bonding.”

Trulson: “We do not need a new jail at this time, but we need to start looking at this in the future. Our current jail is falling apart. The state is going to come in and force the county to make $5 to $6 million in improvements. Otherwise, Chisago County is going to have to build a new facility.

He added the county doesn’t need a $30 million facility, and could make due with an $18 million facility 10 to 15 years in the future.

McMahon: “Yes, we do need a new jail. Our employees and deputies are in very critical positions because of the way the jail is built, and the way the hallways are aligned. The question is when, what and where? I don’t think those questions have been answered yet.”

He added that he thinks it would be very expensive to send inmates to other jails in the state.

Smisson: “We need one, but not enough to spend the money. There are other options that are available, such as sending prisoners to Pine County. I would like to look into some long-term contracts and get those contracts with those communities. If we want to plan for a jail, we could then wait and save for it.”

Robinson: “We need a new jail. We don’t need to build the Taj Mahal or anything. Sooner or later, the state of Minnesota is going to come and they’re going to shut ours down.

Robinson, like McMahon, said he believes sending Chisago County inmates elsewhere would prove to be costly.

The candidates were then asked if they thought sharing resources between cities and counties was viable, and all agreed that it was an idea that should be pursued.

North Branch Area Public Schools School Board

Three seats are open on the school board, and six candidates are vying for those posts. Incumbent Kim Salo is seeking one of those seats, as are Robert Bernier, Aaron Gibbons, Linda Heidelberger, Tim MacMillan and Kevin Orf.

Question No. 1: What strategies would you use to create greater community support of our schools?

Gibbons: “I think it’s very important, especially as a school board member, to be an ambassador or liaison between the school district and the community. I think that’s probably how I would do it … putting myself out there in the community and trying to educate people why decisions are being made.”

Heidelberger: “I think it’s very important to be at school functions … be a great listener and bring the concerns of the community back to the school board.”

MacMillan: “I think coming up with some strategies to build a stronger school representative of the people who vote and who go to school in the district is important. I think we need to do more open forums for parents and students, too. Students are just as important as parents. I also think it’s important to hear from community members, small businesses and even our local representatives.”

Salo: “I think we’ve been stuck in the negative mode for so long and we’ve forgotten to talk about the great things in North Branch. There are many, many great things happening all over our school district.”

She added that school board members should “spread the red.”

Bernier: “I think the most important thing that we could do is give the people something to be proud of. You can’t just tell people to be proud, you have to provide something first.”

Question No. 2: How are you an advocate for North Branch Area public schools?

Heidelberger: I’m an advocate because I attend sporting events, and I support the kids. I try to speak positive about the school district.”

MacMillan: “I think I’m an advocate with experiences that I’ve experienced through my children going to school here. My children have had great experiences in first and third grade. Since we’ve come into the district, the teachers have been great, the education piece has been great … everything has been really good.”

Orf: “I’m an advocate for the schools because I’ve been out there in the community talking about the great experience my son has had. I’m out there, all the time, in the community trying to talk about the positive teachers that I know and how much they care.”

Salo: “I’ve been an advocate for 17 years. I came to this district with a good vibe about the school district, and I’ve had good vibes ever since. My children had a great education at these schools. We have to keep talking positive, spreading the red, and being Viking ambassadors.”

Bernier: “I’m an advocate for North Branch schools mainly by having my daughter go here. There is pressure throughout the community to have your kids go elsewhere with the idea that they’re going to get a better education. I don’t necessarily believe that’s the case. We have a good opportunity here.”

Gibbons: “My son is 13 years old and he’s in seventh grade. He’s been in the school district since second grade. I tell my neighbors, ‘I can’t believe the quality of education North Branch schools have provided for him.’”

Question No. 3: The school district is facing a significant deficit on top of cutting millions of dollars since 2003. What are your top priorities as you consider developing a budget for the 2013-2014 school year?

MacMillan: “I think money is always going to be an issue, no matter what. We need to work with our local representatives. We need to get bills passed and make funding across our educational system in Minnesota fair for those districts that don’t have the economic base. Otherwise, our kids will suffer.”

Orf: “The budget is always going to be an issue until we get that funding worked out with the state. The key is to work hard with the state representatives to get that worked out. There’s not a whole lot that we can do to get more money. I’m not a big fan of raising more taxes to pay for the budget.”

Salo: “We’ve always had a priority to protect the classroom. We keep students first and foremost in mind when we decide what we need to cut. Cuts are a fact. You need to balance a budget every year.”

Bernier: “If we’re going to focus on one thing it’s going to be test scores and basic education. As far as where further cuts can go, we’ll have to look at that.

I live eight houses down from Aaron and the bus stops three times. It seems like that’s a waste.”

Gibbons: “The budget is complicated. There are cuts year after year. My priority would be to focus on keeping children and the education first.”

Heidelberger: “The budget question is a really tough question and I hope it gets better for the state. I hate to see cuts. I saw a good teacher get cut last year.”

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