The six local legislative candidates shared their positions on many other topics, too, including climate change and if they would consider voting to legalize sports betting and marijuana in the state.
Democratic state Sen. Steve Cwodzinski is running against Republican Marla Helseth for the 49th district seat.
Democratic state Rep. Laurie Pryor is running against Republican Ryan Chase for the 49A seat, and Democratic Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn is running against Republican Thomas Knecht for the 49B seat.
At times during the two-hour forum, the Republicans and Democrats did agree.
For instance, they all supported removing the Social Security tax for Minnesota seniors.
All except for Helseth support legalizing sports betting to regulate what is already happening in the state illegally.
“I frankly think it’s inevitable at this point,” Knecht said. “So for that reason, just get it done and have it be regulated.”
“Not only are we not capturing any potential tax dollars from that amount of revenue, but it’s not safe,” Kotyza-Witthuhn said. “People are placing bets with bookies, and no one knows who those folks are.”
Candidates were split on the full legalization of cannabis in the state.
The Democrats and Knecht voiced support for a way to regulate use. Chase said there was too much risk at this point to “opening the door wide open,” and Helseth expressed reservations despite acknowledging its medical benefits.
“If there’s a way it can be used medically without it being just widespread, legally available for anybody and everybody, I would consider that,” Helseth said. “But I would initially vote no to that.”
Czodwinski said his top reason for legalizing it is to get it out of the hands of the “bad guys” who take advantage of the state’s “lax marijuana laws.”
Pryor said there is cannabis use in Minnesota already. Regulation, though, will bring oversight where there is none now. “It will also let adults make adult choices,” she said.
Knecht’s support came with a caveat, noting how local communities are playing catch up on regulating the sale and consumption of food and beverage products containing small amounts of hemp-derived THC after state lawmakers legalized it last session.
“We want to make sure that any legalization that does happen, whether it be sports gambling or cannabis use here, is done so in a manner that the state and cities and towns and communities can actively prepare for and regulate,” Knecht said.
One question focused on how candidates would address the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) need for increased water and erosion management funding in reaction to climate change.
Cwodzinski said that “climate change is real, it’s here.” He trusts the DNR to find solutions. Pryor said she wants to act now on climate change for the future of her grandchildren’s generation. Kotyza-Witthuhn said the state needs to improve how it reacts to climate change, noting that Minnesota is one of the fastest warming states.
“There are urgent considerations, such that we need to be investing in renewable energy sources,” Kotyza-Witthuhn said. “We need to be supporting and educating Minnesotans so they can make responsible and climate-friendly decisions at their homes.”
Helseth said she would agree that funding is needed to help with water and erosion management. Chase said he would like to see where the money goes as a way to make sure that it is “actually fixing the erosion issues.”
Knecht said the state should divert funds from other areas to make sure the DNR has the resources to address the erosion that’s going on in the state.
“We also need to work with the agricultural sector to make sure that they adopt best practices and use modern technology to minimize any runoff and erosion that is happening,” he said.
Family leave program
The three Democrats and Helseth voiced support for the possibility of a state-run paid family and medical leave program. Chase and Knecht oppose a state-run program.
Kotyza-Witthuhn said the number of people who have left the workforce during the pandemic has “disproportionately” been women. “And that is because a lot of caregiving falls on the shoulders of women,” she said.
Helseth said she would support it after talking to Republican Sen. Julia Coleman about the paid family and medical leave bill that the Waconia lawmaker put forward during the last session. According to an MPR story last March, the plan is rooted in private insurance and gives incentives to businesses through tax credits.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Helseth said.
Chase said most “quality” companies already provide these benefits to employees. “They absolutely need to be there, but I don’t believe it should be up to the state to manage it,” he said.
But, Pryor said a state-run program would ensure that all companies, big or small, can provide these benefits. She added that many smaller companies currently can’t afford to offer such benefits.
Knecht suggested much can be done to lower childcare costs in Minnesota. He added that legislation has helped incentivize companies to provide family leave.
“And that’s what we should be looking at first before we expand the size of government and further crowd out the private sector,” he said.
Taxing the 1%
The budget surplus was a primary catalyst for how candidates weighed in on the question of whether they would raise taxes on the top 1% of earners in Minnesota to help fund education and social programs.
The Republicans all pointed to the surplus and what they described as the state’s already high taxes as two reasons against raising taxes on the top 1%.
“We don’t need to continue adding more taxes,” Chase said. “Let’s simplify the tax code. And leave the money in their pockets so that they can spend it where they live here.”
“We can reduce our taxes in a meaningful, fiscally prudent way while still having a fully funded government including education and the rainy day fund,” Knecht said.
Cwodzinski and Pryor said they couldn’t imagine calling for a tax increase when there is a budget surplus. But, Pryor said, this is the kind of progressive taxation that Minnesota has used, taxing the people most able to afford it.
“If there was a need for a tax increase, I can see that would be a proposal that would come forward,” she said. “But right now, we’ve looked at the state budget. We know where we stand now on our economy, and I don’t see a need to increase the tax.”
Kotyza-Witthuhn would support it, though she is not sure of the timing, considering the surplus.
She said the top 1% could afford it. And, she said, there is no guarantee those people will spend their money in Minnesota.
“And that’s their right to do those things,” she said. “But there are people who are struggling in our community every day, who can’t even put food on the table or a roof over their head for their children, and so everyone needs to pay their fair share.”
Republicans and Democrats split on if they would support the popular vote bill, allowing state electors only to cast their electoral college vote for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in the nation.
All three Democrats said yes.
Pryor noted that the country has some low-population states with electoral votes that outweigh more populous districts in other states.
“This is a mechanism where we can correct that and so we go back to this fundamental principle of democracy, which is one person one vote, and right now we don’t have that,” she said.
Helseth and Knecht said no. (Chase said no, too, but added that he needed more time to research the issue.)
Knecht said the country’s founders created the Electoral College to prevent a tyranny of the majority.
“It’s very important that we protect minority rights and viewpoints and the Electoral College is one way of doing that,” Knecht said. “It’s important that presidential candidates appeal to a broad swath of candidates, not only from a population standpoint, but also geographically, and that’s what the Electoral College does.”
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