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MN House candidates answer local questions

State Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B) and challenger Patricia Mueller (R) took to the airwaves on Wednesday to answer questions on issues affecting Minnesota House District 27B during a candidate forum on KAUS 1480 AM. The forum was sponsored by the Austin Area Chamber of Commerce.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B)

Patrica Mueller

The candidates were first asked about how they would support local businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Mueller said she made efforts to visit affected businesses after the pandemic began.

“The one thing I kept hearing over and over again was, ‘I don’t understand why I’m being asked to follow the same rules when we have hardly as many cases as the metro does.’” she said. “[…] The best way we can get our small businesses back to work is to let them get back to work. It’s really important for them to innovate and create the way that they can work in this new normal that we have. No business wants their customers to get hurt and no business wants their employees to get hurt. As we give them guidelines, I think it’s really important to allow them to look at how they can work their business the best and get these mandates off their back so that they’re able to get back to work and use their business the way they’re supposed to.”

“We in Minnesota can’t make money and we can’t do what the federal government can, so we’re certainly seeking money from the feds in order to be able to help support our businesses, our farmers, our industries,” Poppe said. “One thing I do think is important is to recognize it’s a public health crisis and we have to continue to identify it as such and we have to continue to help people make good decisions for themselves and for their community. Being able to encourage people to wear masks was an important aspect early on and then the governor made the decision to make it an equitable decision across the state that everybody would be required to wear a mask if they are going to go into a public facility. I think that’s something that businesses might not have been willing to do on their own, but having an equitable standard allows them to be able to all be treated the same.”

Poppe stated that she has sought flexibility when it came to allowing local businesses to reopen.

“I would have liked to see that happen sooner, but I know that the governor is looking out for the public health of everybody throughout the state,” she said. “I will continue to seek opportunities for how we can spend CARES Act dollars and how we can get more CARES Act dollars here in the state so that we can help support our businesses. I appreciate what the (Austin Area) Chamber (of Commerce) has done to support that as well.”

Poppe and Mueller were then asked how they would help prepare for a projected $5 billion shortfall in the state’s budget. Poppe pointed out that Minnesota had healthy reserves, but said the Legislature would have to prioritize.

“What we will have to do is we’re going to have to look at each budget in each department and each agency is going to have to come forward and be able to talk about what their priorities are,’ she said. “I know that they are already being asked to consider where they can cut, where they can reduce spending, where they can realign where the spending might be. We’re going to be looking at this and I don’t want to see us borrowing again from the schools, which is something we did after the 2008 recession. To not go down that path, we’re going to have to look at how we can reassess where money is going.”

Mueller acknowledged the state had healthy reserves, but also pointed out that Minnesota is the fifth highest taxed state in the nation.

“Now is not the time to be asking for more money from our families as they are struggling to make ends meet from the COVID crisis,” she said. “We cannot continue to raise taxes, we can’t print more money and have to have a balanced budget. What we need to do is go back and look at what the function of government is. We need to examine and audit each of our programs and make sure they align to the essential function of government and that there is no corruption, there is no wasteful spending, and that there is no fraud because we know that there have been accounts of that and that is not a good way that we spend our tax money. We are not accountable to the taxpayers when we are using their money inappropriately. There are millions of dollars that have been wasted in previous years and we need to make sure that is stopped and that we are able to go back to what we’re supposed to be doing as a government and our core functions so that we can govern effectively without raising taxes.”

The candidates were then asked about the district’s infrastructure needs and the need for a bonding bill.

“Infrastructure is one of the core functions of government,” Mueller said. “Roads, bridges and broadband – these are things that people need in order to access education, to access employment, to have commerce continue. And yet, we know there still seems to be some sort of funding imbalance because we have crumbling streets in areas in our district that are not being addressed despite the fact that the metro area seems to get more light rail and bike lanes. These are things that are not appropriate uses for people down here. We’re funding them, but we’re not getting the benefits from any of them, and they’re still being subsidized by the government even after they’re being used up in the Cities. If I’m elected, I want to be able to stand up and say, ‘Listen, we don’t need to be funding these things that are just draining dollars from taxpayers in 27B who have no benefit from this.’ I want to be able to stand up and say that we need to have more fair balanced funding and make tough choices to say we might not spend money here, but that’s because we need essential repairs down in 27B.”

Poppe said that while the district needs money for Austin’s wastewater treatment plant upgrades and flood mitigation, District 27B is in competition with other districts across the state.

“We all come to the capitol and say this is what we need from our district,” she said. “Everybody has needs, so trying to come up with a bill means you have to try to figure out the geographic balance, the balance based on what the items are and what categories they’re under, and what the total amount is. This year we were hampered; the Senate Republicans wanted a very small bill and since we haven’t been doing one for a while, we have many needs, so we need to have a larger bill.  The House Republicans won’t vote for a bill. It’s something that we have to have a supermajority, so when you’re not in a supermajority and have one caucus, you have to have the other caucus’ support and right now we’re not getting that. We’re at a point in time where it’s very difficult to get a bonding bill. We do have needs and I’d like to see us make that happen.”

Mueller and Poppe were then asked how they would support the local ag industry.

“I’ve been very proud to be able to be the chair of the House Ag and Food Finance and Policy Division,” Poppe said. “We are always looking at what is the greatest need in agriculture and what are the greatest opportunities for us to be able to support our farmers. One thing is Section 179; I was the chief author of that bill. Last year, the House had it in the bill, the governor had it in the tax bill. We were poised to move forward, but the Senate did not want to accept that as the bill moved forward. So having Section 179 make it all the way through would be great.”

Poppe said she has worked to address mental health issues among farmers and supports emerging and beginner farmers.

“We need to make sure that people understand that agriculture is a great industry to get into and there can be many aspects of it; it doesn’t have to be just farming and being in the soil and the land,” she said.

Mueller said that while she did not have the benefit of being the Ag Division chair, her work as a teacher has helped her understand the importance of listening to those doing the work. She said she met with farmers to hear about how to best represent them.

“They were so excited to be able to share about who they were and about the need to have more freedom to farm the way that they want to farm,” she said. “One of the things that came up was health care. They talked about how important it was for them to have health care that was transparent and mobile; that they were able to work with fellow farmers and create co-ops or some sort of area so that they are able to not have health care be all of their monthly budget.

The other area I heard was that there are so many mandates and so many regulations that they have to follow.”

Lastly, the candidates were asked if they believed Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan was an effective response to addressing educational concerns during the coronavirus pandemic. Mueller noted that she is a public school teacher who has first hand knowledge of the situation in the classroom.

“What was disappointing for me was the fact that the governor said we were going to have district decisions, then they said ‘we’re going to make sure you follow what’s in the county,’” she said. “For Mower County, we have to make sure we do a different learning plan for how many active cases there are. That means Austin and Lyle and Grand Meadow and all of these other rural districts have to follow the same plan and they may have hardly any cases in their town. We know that students need to be in the classroom and there are heroic efforts by the teachers, by the administrators and by the students to be flexible and accommodate these changes. But, we need to follow science, we need to make sure we are looking at how important it is that students are with each other, they’re with the educators, that they have multiple avenues to learn and multiple avenues to look at their passions and their desired outcomes in their lives. It’s so important that we are able to provide quality education for them.”

One of the things I struggled with the most, especially as an educator, was the fact that we have to provide distance learning, and the teacher’s are doing an amazing job, but public schools aren’t designed for that,” she added. “By promoting free online options for our students could have been a way for us to provide a quality education in a way that is actually built for online schools.”

Poppe said she felt the plan was “the best response at this time.”

“We don’t know what the future holds and that’s been one of the issues,” she said. As we learn more, we’re able to develop a better strategy. I think the governor gave options. He gave in-person, online or the hybrid. Every school has the opportunity, along with their school board, to be able to determine how they’re best going to be able to address that. Yes, there are some parameters around that, but that’s because we also need to maintain public health. That’s got to be a consideration. Certainly wearing masks in and out of school and when you’re in the community, that’s a must do. We can do what we can to prevent the spread, but there are too many instances where people are disregarding that, so that’s what’s caused this community spread.”

“We want to make sure they feel safe and secure where they are, so I think it’s important to allow for the families to make decisions about whether their children should be in school or not,” she added. “Those teachers also need to be able to determine if they’re able to be present in that classroom or if they can be doing something else in order to be able to educate the kids. I think the governor, as a teacher himself, he’s really concerned about this. As a parent, he wants to make sure he’s making the best decisions, but he also understands that flexibility mattered.”