Thursday, October 26, 2006

TwinWest Chamber of Commerce forum

About 30 audience members attended Tuesday's lunch hour Minnesota Senate candidate forum at the Minnetonka Sheraton, sponsored by the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce. The smallish room was packed pretty full, with four round tables set for lunch, a head table for the candidates, a coat rack, and a row of chairs along the back wall for the cheapskates not having lunch (me included).

Candidates on the forum panel were:

Senate District 32: Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove)

Senate District 33: Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista), Margaret Davis (DFL), Tim Carlson (Independence).

Senate District 42: Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie)

Senate District 43: Sen. Terri Bonoff (R-Minnetonka), Judy Johnson (R-Plymouth)

Bonoff and Johnson had their campaign lit at the registration table outside the banquet room. Bonoff had her recent four-page "Uniting the Middle" piece there, with a photo of her with Wayzata High School graduate Amy Klobuchar, DFL candidate for U.S. Senate, and a list of her endorsements from numerous unions, special interest groups, and two important business groups: Minnesota Chamber of Commerce Leadership Fund and the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce PAC.

Johnson displayed her latest "Modern Voter" lit piece, her earlier four-page "Time for a New Voice" piece with issue policy statements and endorsements from U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, former governor Al Quie, and local leaders Greg Rye, Ellie Bathe, and former Plymouth Police Chief Craig Gerdes. Also at the table were two white papers on education and Johnson's extensive public service resume.

Following candidate statements were a few questions from TwinWest, followed by a few written questions from the audience, and then closing statements. The program wrapped by 1:00 pm so everyone could get back to work.

TwinWest Question 1: (Paraphrase from my notes) With state tax revenues growing thanks to a strong economy, do you think that current revenues are sufficient to meet state needs? Do you plan to keep a lid on taxes?

In addition to the obvious right answer (Yes-Yes), the candidates added a few unique tidbits to their responses:

Johnson pointed out that she is not endorsed by special interest groups that are advocating for new expensive government programs.

Bonoff cited her innovative idea of dedicating automobile lease taxes to transportation, which was carried in the House by former Republican HD 43B Rep. Ron Abrams. She said that she is not making any pledges, but does not favor any new taxes (except a 30-year, $1.1 billion Hennepin County sales tax to help fund a new Minnesota Twins baseball stadium, but that's not a state tax).

Sen. Hann favors resisting the temptation to continually add to what government is already doing, thus putting pressure on increasing the budget and raising taxes to fund it.

Davis asserted that reductions in local government aid (LGA) leads to property tax increases.

Carlson made a speech about renewable energy.

Sen. Limmer explained that former Gov. Ventura's "Big Plan" to buy down property taxes actually took away an important hedge against inflation from the state. Now the state's fortunes are closely tied to the economy via income and sales taxes. In a good economy, revenues go up. In a downturn, revenues go down.

TwinWest Question 2: What are your top three priorities for the state budget, and how would you spend smarter in each of these areas?

Sen. Olson: 1. Education; 2. Transportation; 3. Environmental protection; 4. Health care reforms.

Davis: 1. Education, including early childhood family education; 2. Health care; 3. Energy: nuclear, wind, solar, automobiles with better fuel economy.

Sen. Hann: 1. Education, with an emphasis on better results through initiatives such as QComp, charter schools, more school choice, a "competitive dynamic." 2. Health care, again with consumer choice and competition to rein in costs. 3. Transportation.

Carlson: 1. Education (the candidate, a current teacher at Wayzata High School, used his entire allotted alloted time to speak on this point).

Sen. Bonoff: 1. Transportation, including a vision of lots of trains as in other metro areas (there's that vi$ion thing again). 2. Health care, driving costs out of the system. 3. Education.

Sen. Limmer: 1. Transportation, we need a long-range plan that includes third-ring suburbs. 2. Education, recognizing Minnesota's global competition; 3. Budget management, with zero-based budgeting, wherein budget items must be rejustified every biennium.

Johnson: 1. Education, recognizing declining enrollments and thinking differently about funding. 2. Transportation. 3. Health care, containing costs with private, consumer-driven health care, tort reform, etc., not government health care.

Audience Question 1: Are you in favor of the MVST amendment?

This constitutional amendment would dedicate the entire state motor vehicle sales tax to transporation, but the wording is problematic for some: "at least" 40% of the total would be dedicated to mass transit, and "no more than" 60% for highways. If the candidates did no more prep for this forum than look at the TwinWest home page on the Internet, they would see that TwinWest is a big supporter of this question. It was no surprise that the candidates were unanimous on this one.

Audience Question 2: (paraphrase from my notes) What is the best way to ensure adequate and stable state funding for transportation?

Most of the candidates support dedicating the MVST to transportation in statute if the voters do not approve the constitutional amendment. (Statute is where this sort of thing belongs, not in the constitution, which the Legislature knows.) Most of the candidates also said that in either case, the smartest way to use the additional money would be for bonding, as opposed to the pay-as-you-go approach, due to the cost savings.

Johnson said that the transportation funding formula needs to be revisited, and funding for local roads needs to be considered. She opposes a metrowide tax, but would be open to a gas tax increase, which would tax and benefit the entire state.

Sen. Bonoff said that dedicating the MVST to transportation would bring federal dollars to the state for mass transit.

Sen. Hann urged caution in moving toward rail transit, favoring maintenance and expansion of roads first, noting that the buses can't run unless the roads are working.

Davis favors light rail for the 394 corridor, toll roads, and better bus systems.

Carlson would not support toll roads, but sees MVST as a way to attract federal funding for rail.

Closing statements

The most interesting comments came during the candidates’ closing statements.

Carlson announced that universal single-payer health care is “inevitable, so we best get on with moving in that direction.”

Sen. Olson said that if reelected, with her seniority she may consider re-joining the Senate Education Committee, but would hold open the possibility of giving up her seat to a promising freshman Republican as she has done in the past. On hearing this, Johnson’s face lit up, as if to say, “Would you have anyone in particular in mind?”

Sen. Hann said that demographics point to fewer people in the workforce, which in turn will result in lower tax revenues, so the state must determine how it will function in this environment.

Sen. Bonoff informed the audience that since the DFL will retain the majority in the Senate, the west metro needs her, a Democrat, on the Senate Taxes Committee to represent a pro-business point of view – presumably versus committee chairman Sen. Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis). Bonoff said that she is seen as having leadership potential, so her viewpoints are respected in the leadership of the DFL Senate Caucus.

Johnson, supported by nonverbal cues from the three other incumbent senators and others in the audience, took issue with Sen. Bonoff's prediction of a certain DFL Senate majority this fall. She pointed to her strong record of leadership, in government but also running a moving and storage business with her husband, and being a Realtor in her own right ("Running a business is different from just being in business," Johnson said). She cited her twelve years of working with TwinWest, sharing and promoting its agenda as a member, Plymouth City Councilmember, and mayor.

Johnson was the last candidate to leave, touching base with various members of TwinWest, then off to other campaign events and a city council meeting in the evening. Johnson is clearly energized by the campaign, meeting people, and in her element debating the nitty gritty policy points, even at this late stage and sometimes to the amazement of her campaign. One volunteer told me that she was still going strong during a recent late night meeting, when everyone else was ready to go home.

| | |

No comments: