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Compromise stressed, but consensus and some details missing in south Washington County legislative forum

Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said during a League of Women Voters that she was able to work with others and find compromise even as a member of the minority party. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente1 / 6
Republican Janis Quinlan of St. Paul Park, who is challenging Katie Sieben, said her job in real estate requires that she be able to work with others and find common ground. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 6
Derrick Lehrke of Cottage Grove, a Republican House 54A candidate, said all areas of state spending should be considered for cuts to make up for more than $2 billion owed to public schools. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente3 / 6
Democrat Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park, who is running for House District 54A, said he would favor raising income tax rates on top earners and creating a flat income tax rate, in order to collect new revenue to pay off more than $2 billion in state borrowing from schools. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente4 / 6
The candidates for House District 54A include (from left) Derrick Lehrke, Ron Lischeid and Dan Schoen. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente5 / 6
Democratic challenger Joanna Bayers listens to Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, during a Tuesday League of Women Voters forum. Bayers said McNamara does not stand up to his own party, but he said there are times when he has done that.6 / 6

South Washington County-area legislative candidates used their final televised election forum to tout their ability to compromise but showed little agreement on some major issues.

For the first time in the 2012 campaign, all seven candidates running for Senate District 54 and the House District 54A and 54B seats participated in a forum, gathering Tuesday in Cottage Grove to take questions from the League of Women Voters.

The candidates stressed the need for a less-partisan Legislature but did not find much common ground on key issues. They were split over how to address a state IOU to public schools in excess of $2 billion, whether the state budget is in a surplus or deficit and on a question about a proposal to curtail union power.

School shift divides

Debate over the state's $2 billion-plus shift of funds from schools to plug a state budget deficit revealed different fiscal views.

Sen. Katie Sieben, a Cottage Grove Democrat seeking re-election, said she supports taxing overseas corporate income as a way of raising money to pay off public schools.

Her opponent, Republican Janis Quinlan of St. Paul Park, said she favored state budget cuts to cover the cost of the school shift.

"I guess I would just look at the budget, see where we can make some cuts across the board and a little at a time pay them pack," she said.

Three candidates are competing for the open seat in House District 54A, which includes part of Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park, Newport, Grey Cloud Island and a portion of South St. Paul.

Democrat Dan Schoen said paying back schools and maybe even creating a "school lockbox"-like approach to prevent similar accounting shifts in the future should be part of a larger examination of school funding. He did not offer a specific way to pay back the school shift during the forum. When pressed in an interview afterward, Schoen said he would support raising the income tax rate on the wealthiest Minnesotans to generate revenue and in the process set one income tax rate for all earners.

Schoen's Republican opponent, Derrick Lehrke of Cottage Grove, said schools should be paid back but also did not provide a detailed answer during the forum, which was televised by the South Washington County Telecommunications Commission. Afterward, Lehrke said in an interview that school funding is a priority so spending reductions should be considered for all other state funding.

"Everything is on the table to cut," he said.

Ron Lischeid, a District 54A Independence Party candidate, said the borrowed school funds should be repaid, but he said the amount owed is too much to be paid off in one year.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who is seeking re-election in District 54B, said he supported a plan to repay part of the shift, but it was rejected by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. Paying back schools should continue to be a priority, he said, but didn't specify how it should be done.

Joanna Bayers, a Hastings Democrat challenging McNamara, criticized him for supporting a school payback plan that used state reserve funds. "That was irresponsible," she said.

Bayers said job growth will generate new income tax revenue, which could be used to pay back schools. Larger public works construction bills would be one way to put more people to work, she said.

The candidates were asked to provide examples of past experiences in which they have worked with others to get things done in the spirit of compromise.

Quinlan said she her real estate business requires negotiating and the ability to bring together buyers and sellers with competing interests.

"You make sure that everybody feels like they won something," she said. Quinlan said she also has learned to negotiate in her position as a high school swimming coach.

Sieben said she successfully sponsored and passed legislation even as her party was in the minority the past two years. She claimed successes on teacher evaluation legislation, funding for a state program that gives financial breaks to certain small businesses that add jobs and on a synthetic marijuana ban.

Bayers said she used to work at a juvenile treatment facility.

"We did a lot of compromising to get them to go to school everyday," she said.

Bayers also said she was the first girl to play on the high school boy's hockey team in her native Ely, in northeastern Minnesota.

"If you know what it's like on the Iron Range, you know that wasn't easy to do," she said.

McNamara said he demonstrated an ability to work with others as he was chairman of a House environment and energy committee the past two years. He said he worked with Democrat Dayton's administration on business permit changes and outdoors issues.

Schoen said he has demonstrated an ability to compromise by working on civic and volunteer projects as a St. Paul park-Newport Lions Club member. Also, Schoen said his work as a Cottage Grove police officer and crisis and hostage negotiator for the county SWAT team requires an ability to negotiate. He also pointed to his work with Sieben and retiring GOP Rep. John Kriesel on the synthetic marijuana ban that became law last year.

Lehrke, a Cottage Grove City Council member, said lawmakers "can't compromise by banging on the table more." They need to find consensus.

Lehrke did not provide examples of working together with others, but said Republicans and Democrats approach issues with different views and that "we need to actually find the middle of the road."

"A true compromise generally means that both sides are left upset," he also noted.

Lischeid said he can work with people of diverse backgrounds and said he volunteers 400 to 500 hours annually and works with various nonprofit and veteran organizations.

Photo ID amendment

The candidates generally fell along traditional party lines when asked whether they support the proposed constitutional amendment requiring photo identification to vote.

Quinlan said she supports the amendment.

"I fear for the ability of convicted felons to vote," she said.

Sieben, Schoen and Bayers all oppose the measure, saying that it doesn't solve supporters' concerns about felon voting, will be costly to administer and does not guarantee all legal voters will be able to get documents needed to obtain a valid photo ID.

Lehrke said he supports requiring photo ID to vote. People need ID to complete many other transactions, he said, from buying cigarettes to receiving safety net state programs administered by counties.

"The right to vote is even more important than that and if all these other things have requirements for IDs, doesn't it just make sense?" Lehrke said.

McNamara said when he has surveyed his constituents, on average more than 80 percent of respondents supported it. However, McNamara did not say during the forum whether he supports requiring photo ID to vote. In an interview afterward, he declined to say how he will vote on the amendment Nov. 6 but noted his constituents' support and said "you can put two and two together from that."

"I never have told people how I vote when I got to the polls," McNamara said.

'Right to work'

There is less support among the candidates for proposed legislation making it more difficult for unions to enlist members.

Sieben, Schoen and Bayers opposed the so-called "right to work" legislation. Quinlan supports it.

McNamara has split with many Republicans by saying he opposes the legislation.

"I will not vote for 'right to work,'" he said. "It's the wrong thing to do in Minnesota."

Lehrke said he would not have supported "right to work" legislation considered this past legislative session or efforts to put it on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.

However, he added, workers should have the right to say they do not want to belong to a union.

"If you don't feel that they're serving your best interests, then shouldn't you have the ability to say I don't' want to be part of your group?" Lehrke said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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