State legislators from Districts 2 and 4 fielded a wide range of questions at town halls held in Detroit Lakes and Frazee this past week.

For a little over an hour, District 4 Senator Kent Eken of Twin Valley and District 4B Representative Paul Marquart of Dilworth, both Democrats, fielded questions from an audience of about 40 area residents on Tuesday night at the Detroit Lakes City Hall.

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Then on Thursday night, District 2 Senator Paul Utke, a Republican from Park Rapids, and District 2B Representative Steve Green, a Republican from Fosston, took their turn answering questions from about 30-40 constituents that gathered inside the Frazee Fire Hall for a similar event.

At Tuesday's town hall, which was facilitated by the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters, topics included conservation, medical assistance, jobs, child care, affordable housing and law enforcement. (Both Green and Utke had been invited to participate in the Detroit Lakes event, but declined.)

One of the first questions came from local resident Kyle Meacham, who asked the lawmakers about a piece of legislation being proposed in St. Paul, by Republican Senator Mark Johnson of East Grand Forks, which would require anyone receiving medical assistance to hold a job.

Meacham asked if there were any specific efforts at the state level to support employment services that assist people with mental health issues to get a job and cope with working in a typical job environment.

"I don't think anyone here disagrees that if you're able-bodied, you should be working, looking for work or going to school, or whatever," said Rep. Marquart.

"My concern," he added, "is the folks who can't be fully, gainfully employed ... I don't want them losing their health care."

Marquart referred specifically to veterans, stating, "we have a lot of veterans, a lot of homeless veterans, and they're homeless because of either a physical or mental disability that (they) incurred because of their service to our nation."

Eken, meanwhile, said that the current workforce shortage in outstate Minnesota "is just going to continue to grow."

"We need every available hand out there to help fill the void that's coming," he added, referring specifically to the fact that the so-called "Baby Boomer" generation is aging out of the workforce, and there aren't enough young people coming into the workforce to bridge the gap.

Another gap that was discussed at Tuesday's meeting was the achievement gap that exists between young children who grow up in affluent, or middle class homes and those who grow up in lower income, disadvantaged families.

White Earth area resident Barb Fabre began the discussion, stating, "All the research in the last 25 years shows that for every child, 80 percent of their brains develop from (age) 0 to 3."

She cited published research from Dr. Todd Risley, "Meaningful Differences in the Language Learning Environments of Young Children," which "shows that children from middle to high income families arrive at kindergarten with a 20,000 word vocabulary," while "children from low income (families), and especially children of color, are arriving with a 3,000 to 4,000 word vocabulary."

She stated that early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs aren't available to a considerable number of poor and minority groups in the state, and that "Minnesota is one of the states with the worst achievement gaps," then asked the legislators if they supported early learning scholarships and/or "universal pre-K," a program supported by Governor Mark Dayton that would bring pre-kindergarten programming into the public schools.

"I support universal, voluntary pre-K," said Marquart, "but I also believe in a mixed system and giving parents a choice. It may not all be in a school setting. It could be Head Start, it could be family daycare, it could be a church daycare... a mixed delivery system that allows parents to decide."

He also noted, however, that "sometimes the gains made in pre-K don't follow through into the third grade. But what they have seen is that if you have a consistent curriculum all the way through the third grade, then you see the gains."

Eken said he also supported early learning scholarships and pre-K programs, but he was also concerned about the fact that these pre-K learning programs may not be starting early enough.

"When you're talking about students' vocabulary when they're starting school, at that point you're already placing these students at a great disadvantage, so we need to reach them even earlier, and make sure they're starting at the same starting line."

Fabre also posed the same question to Utke and Green at Thursday night's forum in Frazee.

"I've supported early learning scholarships, but not universal pre-K," Green said.

Utke agreed, stating that the Legislature had actually invested about $50 million in the Minnesota Department of Education's early learning scholarship program, but he felt that universal pre-K "would mess up our childcare system even more," by taking even more preschool-age kids out of home-based childcare programs.

Another major topic at Thursday night's forum in Frazee was gun control. Neither Utke nor Green support current reform measures targeted at universal gun registration or the so-called "red flag law," which would allow police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are threatening to harm themselves or others - without a warrant or judge's authorization.

Despite vocal disagreement from some members of the audience, Utke said, "taking guns away doesn't reduce crime."

"Guns are not the problem - mental health is the problem," he added. "Mental health is the real issue we have to address... and it's not a quick fix."

When the topic of the need for more affordable housing came up, Green said he had tried to author just such a bill three years ago but "was pretty much laughed at."

He added, "I'm still working on it," noting that he is currently working on legislation that would offer a tax break to businesses that buy land for housing, then sell it to their employees "for what they put into it." He is also trying to find ways to use manufactured homes as a more affordable form of housing for lower-income families.