Phil Hansen vs. Kent Eken -- Distict 4 Legislative matchup
DFLer Kent Eken faced off against Republican Phil Hansen in a Minnesota Senate District 4 candidate forum Thursday at M State, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.
In his opening statement, Hansen said he grew up on a farm and found success on the football field.
He graduated from NDSU (where he played football) with a degree in agricultural economics and a minor in business administration.
He went on to play 11 seasons of professional football with the Buffalo Bills.
After his pro football career, he moved with his wife to Detroit Lakes, where he operates a landscaping and snow removal business. They have three school-age children.
"I've always wanted to serve," he said. "It's everyone's duty to pass the keys on to the next generation in better shape than we had it."
Eken said he and his family live on a fourth-generation family farm near Twin Valley.
In 1884 the Norwegian immigrant pioneer who plowed that land changed his name from Peterson to Eken, which is Norwegian for oak tree.
"He was expressing the hope he was planting a seed that would flourish for generations to come," Eken said. "My wife and I are raising our four kids there."
Eken is a high school social studies teacher and has worked as an adjunct professor at M State and Minnesota State University Moorhead.
"So education is something very near and dear to my heart," he said.
Eken has been elected five times to the Minnesota House, where he is an assistant minority leader.
His specialties are agriculture and rural development, transportation and tax policy.
"I have a lot of experience," he said. "And I also played football -- four seasons with the Twin Valley Tigers."
The candidates were asked what changes at the state level would establish more equivalent funding for rural Minnesota school districts.
Hansen said Minnesota invests heavily in K-12 education, which consumes 41 percent of the state budget.
There are disparities between rural and urban districts, he said.
"All of us are going to be advocates of the districts we come from," he said. "We want to make sure when they get out of college they have good jobs and we want them to be in Minnesota -- we want to keep the state moving forward."
Eken advocates a "fixed-cost revenue" plan for school districts. All districts are hit with costs like heating and transportation, but they weigh on smaller districts disproportionately, he said.
The state funding formula should adjust for that, he said.
"We should weight the first 400 students or so more heavily for funding purposes," he said.
That would also recognize "the intangible benefits many of our schools offer in rural areas."
Eken said that his father, as a state legislator, helped build the "Minnesota Miracle" in the 1970s and that's a policy that's still important.
"It doesn't matter where you live -- you get a quality education at an affordable cost," Eken said.
The candidates were asked what three steps they would take to balance the state budget.
Eken said he would "close down tax havens for foreign corporations. They should pay income taxes like we all do."
The next step is a "fairer tax system," he added. "The wealthy should pay the same percentage as the rest of us pay -- it's known as the Buffet Rule."
The next step is to adjust Social Security tax and income tax policy to provide for seniors and prepare for the retirement of the baby boomer generation and those with disabilities.
Hansen said the popular belief is that the only way to balance the budget is by cutting services or raising taxes. "We forget about growing the economy," he said. "We need to provide incentives for business to start up, expand and hire in Minnesota."
The state can do things to create a more favorable business climate -- like cutting the amount of time it takes for a new business to obtain state permits.
"We've gone from 180 days to 150 days and (Gov. Mark) Dayton says we can do better than that," he said. Hansen said he'd like to work across the aisle with DFLers to make government more efficient.
The candidates were asked how they would work with the governor to implement the federal Affordable Care Act.
Eken noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act.
"Unless it's repealed we are required to set up a healthcare (insurance) exchange," he said. "If Minnesota doesn't do it, the federal government will do it. I support working with Gov. Dayton on setting up the exchange."
The existing healthcare system is strong on treating ailments, but not as strong on preventing illness and injury, he added.
Preventative medicine is "cheaper and leads to a healthier society, but it doesn't make as much (revenue) for healthcare providers."
Hansen said the presidential election is a referendum on whether the Affordable Care Act is going to be implemented or not.
"There are some good things in it and some bad things -- some things that come between doctor and patient. We need more details before a decision can be made."
Minnesota has a good healthcare system, he said.
"Healthcare (insurance) exchanges remain to be seen yet," he said. "It's premature to say anything with any definitive remarks."
Asked whether they support the Voter ID amendment, Hansen said "the good news about Voter ID is you won't have a legislator speak for you -- voters will speak for themselves."
Opponents have said the measure will effectively disenfranchise some voters.
"I don't want to disenfranchise voters either," he said. "I want to make sure their vote isn't canceled out by someone voting illegally."
If the measure passes, the next Legislature will decide what the law looks like, he said.
"Cost is a huge factor -- we don't know what it will be because the Legislature hasn't decided yet."
Provisional ballots will be used for the first time in Minnesota if the constitutional amendment passes, which means the results may not be known for several weeks after a close election.
"Time is not an issue," Hansen said, "Get it right the first time."
Eken says he opposes the Voter ID amendment.
"In all the hours of debate we've had on this, there has not been one example of it (voter ID fraud)," Eken said. "In the 150-year history of the state there has not been one case in which voter ID would have prevented fraud. Question the motives when you see something like this put into place ... I'm not going to tell members of the Greatest Generation that they can't vote."
Asked whether they support reinstating the Homestead Tax Credit, Eken said yes -- the program was in place for 40 years before being replaced by the Republican-led Legislature.
"It's a rural program and it has been fully funded -- the only place it hasn't been is the more-affluent (Twin Cities) suburbs," he said.
"It has worked here and it has worked very well to keep our property taxes down," Eken said. Since its removal, property taxes have gone up eight times faster in rural Minnesota than in urban areas, he added.
Eken said the change treats rural Minnesotans like second-class citizens.
"When something like this is imposed we need to stand up for our rural communities," he said.
Hansen said Local Government Aid and property taxes are "life blood issues" for rural Minnesota. "It's just another example of government over-promising and underperforming on certain issues," he added.
The Homestead Tax Credit was "not fully funded in all areas," Hansen said. "The League of Minnesota Cities called it a shell game."
The Legislature has put $30 million towards middle class property tax relief back into the system, Hansen noted.
In his closing statement, Eken spoke strongly against false Republican Party ads claiming he voted to raise fees 17 percent on nursing home residents -- the so-called Granny Tax.
"I have never, ever voted for a fee increase on nursing home residents -- not ever," he said. "Just today, the Republican Party of Minnesota admitted that the attacks were false, dishonorable and dishonest."
Eken was especially upset about the false claim because of the policies his father championed in the Legislature.
His father, who suffered from dementia later in life, spent six years in a nursing home, where Eken and his family often visited him.
"It's most egregious for me and my father to get hit by this," he said. "I understand what people of this generation are going through."
Hansen said he has been the subject of plenty of attack ads too.
"They wreck your reputation," he said. "And it hurts the chances that good people will want to run (for office)."
If elected, he said, "I'll work hard for you and I'll always be open to conversation."
An office-holder should be able to "see both sides of an argument," he said, "and you have to care about people. I'm taking no PAC or lobbyist money. I'm beholden to the people of District 4, not some faction that wants you to vote some way."