Candidates share views at OTC COLA meeting

Published 6:47am Monday, September 27, 2010

The candidates for MN Senate District 10 and House Districts 10A and 10B were invited to share their views at Saturday’s Otter Tail County Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA) meeting.

Attending were DFL candidates Richard Kagen, a retired professor from Dent, running for state representative for District 10A; Pete Phillips, a self employed painting contractor from Wadena, running for state representative for District 10B; and DFL Senator Dan Skogen, a Wadena radio broadcaster, who is seeking his second term in Senate District 10.

Although they were not present, Republican candidates Rep. Bud Nornes, a Fergus Falls broadcaster and radio station owner, who is seeking his 8th term for House of Representatives for District 10A; and Rep. Mark Murdock, a hardware store owner, who is seeking his second term for House of Representatives for District 10B, offered their written responses which were read by COLA members Le Boyer and Bob Deutschmann.  Republican candidate Gretchen Hoffman, who is running for Senate District 10, was not present and did not offer written responses.

Marian Bender, the Executive Director for Minnesota Waters, conducted the candidates’ forum.  Each candidate was given the same amount of time to respond to the same written questions.

Among the views expressed by the candidates:

DNR Rules Revisions:

Nornes, through a written response, agrees with the Governor’s decision to require the Legislature take another look at the revisions.  He stated “There is a general feeling among my constituents that government and its rules and regulations are encroaching on their freedoms.”

Kagan researched the DNR rule revisions and understands that it was not handled well.  He noted that the DNR held public meetings and had a lot of science on this and a lot of background and the criticism was primarily that the local landowners can do better without any of the scientific knowledge.  He stated, “In my door knocking, I have found that there are government officials who are against the idea of the DNR science; they feel that it should not be done until the economy gets up more.”

Murdock, through a written response, noted that the proposed shoreland rules revision was 87 pages long and unlike an omnibus appropriations bill, the Governor cannot remove objectionable items via a line-item veto.  He has to either accept or reject the package as a whole.  Murdock noted “From the standpoint that the Governor viewed the proposed rules as too intrusive on property rights, too rigid to be applied statewide and too controlling of local units of government, he made the right call.”

Phillips did not believe the governor should have rejected the rule revisions, noting that “these are old rules and a lot of things have changed.”  What was more concerning to Phillips was that “these rules were prepared under the governor’s personally appointed commissioner and a lot of thought has been put into this.”  He further noted, “This has cost the state a lot of money by not moving forward with this.  We’ve had the time, we’ve had a lot of input and we need to do it.”

Skogen expressed disappointment with the governor’s decision, noting that “Each individual development was not detrimental to the lake, but it is cumulative over time; and now we have variances in development that have occurred and it was time for an update.”  Skogen noted that “the rules that were proposed were not any one entity’s decision, it was compromises that went on over the last couple of years; it was well thought out and I am hoping that the next administration will try to salvage some of this and will bring it forward again.”  Skogen believed that the group did a nice job and wished the governor would have accepted it.

Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS):

Skogen, who serves as the Vice Chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, responded “In this state where we have so much water and so much water that flows, as far as invasive species, we are going to spend millions of dollars chasing this thing.  The cow and the horses are out of the barn already, so the best attack is to put money into eradication and education.”

Nornes, through a written response, said “I’m in 100% support of any legislation that can address this critical issue.  I have had constituents contact me with a variety of ideas.  Attention needs to be paid to all lakes, not just those already identified.  It would seem a portion of the Heritage Funds could be committed to this purpose.”

Kagan told the audience that he agreed totally with both his colleagues and that he knows of boat lift operators that have absolutely no idea at all about the problems of zebra mussels.  Kagan noted that it has to be education brought into the schools and community colleges “we need to teach people about the economics of the lakes and the environment.”

Murdock, through a written response, said “As budget difficulties continue, future funding will depend on whether we continue to make aquatic invasive species control a priority.  If it can be determined that a lake is at greater risk for infestation, based on number of public accesses compared to lake size, or number of non-lakeshore boaters, the DNR should step up education efforts and enforcement on those lakes.”

Phillips cut to the chase, noting that “yes, we absolutely need to spend as much time and effort that is needed to control AIS.  I do not think that it is a big deal to have to empty your live wells and clean your boats.”  Phillips noted that his son took the boat test and there was information about AIS, but he did not feel that there was enough.

Property Tax Relief:

Murdock, through a written response, said “The state currently has a property tax deferral program for seniors and two versions of a property tax refund for people of low to moderate incomes.  However, these programs are not linked with conservation measures.”

Phillips noted that he “generally is not in favor of overall property tax measures where if someone pays less, then the aggregate pays more.”  However, he believes that “we could look at the property tax refund program that is already available and augment it for those lakeshore people who do conservation measures that are acceptable, maybe they get an additional for that.”

Skogen noted that there is a green acres program for farmers who do not want to see their ag land developed; they can enroll their land and get tax discounts.  Skogen said “I don’t think that it is unreasonable in a state that boasts 12,000 lakes or more, that we have a lakes acres program.  If you are willing to do things that help make it a healthier lake, if we don’t cap your taxes, then we should be able to give you a reduction of some kind.  We have never run that one up the flag pole at the capital but I think that we are moving towards a tipping point where that may be something that we want to look at and give some property tax relief to people who live on our natural resources.”

Nornes, through a written response, said “It seems any kind of tax relief is hard to find these days.  Rep. Marquart was given the task of chairing a new Property Tax Committee in the House and, in my opinion, has done very little to address this issue.  Many hours of hearing without any meaningful results.  I honestly can tell you, I do not have a simple solution to address property tax relief….but one thing that everyone can do is to put pressure on your elected officials…townships, city, county and school board.  Make sure they are treating you fairly and spending their tax dollars wisely.  If not, elect new replacements who will.”

Kagan agreed with the nature of what had been said, but noted “whenever you give a credit or a refund, you are increasing the deficit; you cannot just keep increasing the deficit.  I agree that you don’t want property taxes to go up, but we had a change in the non-homestead tax some time ago under Jesse Ventura in which the money from that tax does not go to education.  It placed a burden on the homestead tax folks.  Everything is related to each other.  The only way we can give refunds or credits would add to that burden.  We have to deal with how to raise revenues and then deal with these types of reductions.”

Agency Oversight:

Skogen recognized that people who live on lakes may have been disappointed in him the last session “In the Senate, I carried the legislation for the two year extension to get our sewer treatment rules in place.  I did it, because, the counties were being asked to sign up for MPCA rules that were not even completely written yet and they were changing on the fly and they were reluctant to move forward on new sewer treatment rules until they knew what they were dealing with.  I thought it could be costly and ineffective to hit a moving target, so we got a two year extension.  After the first year, the MPCA has to give us an update on how they are doing on the rules and they are supposed to be meeting with local units of government to make certain that these rules are going to be workable.”  Skogen noted that he has had bureaucrats in his office say that they are not going to change how they do things because they are going to be there a lot longer than he is.  “When you see that kind of mentality on things, you just have to keep hammering away and I am willing to do that.”

“Like Dan said,” responded Phillips, “you have to put feet to the fire; you have to get them to keep moving along.  But more so than that, you have to do so with cooperation, to try to get some input and move things along.  The worst case scenario is that the legislature plays hardball because they control the purse strings and they can take the money away from these agencies.  I hope that it does not come to that.  Hopefully, we can work with the agencies and the governor’s office to make these things happen and get it right.”

Murdock, through a written response, notes that the 2010 Legislature created a Subsurface Sewage Treatment Systems (SSTS) Implementation and Enforcement Task Force.  “We directed the PCA to work in collaboration and consultation with the task force and in collaboration with county officials to provide to counties enforcement protocols and checklist that county inspectors, field staff, and others may use when inspecting subsurface sewage treatment systems and enforcing subsurface sewage treatment system rules.”

Kagan noted that when going around and talking to people, there is “tremendous anger in all the regulations and government interference and, one particular one is, the people are angry about having to pay for a waiver to do something and when they don’t get the waiver, they don’t get their money back.  It is really important to really concentrate on the issue of fairness for everyone, rather than money or deficit, fairness for the common good.”

Nornes, through a written response, said “I personally believe the local units of government should be involved with changes since the cost of enforcement will be born by the county budget.  Otter Tail County is more sensitive to property subsurface sewage treatment because of our high volume of lakes.”  It is his hope that all agencies treat people with respect and approach their job as a helping hand.

Funding for Natural Resource Projects:

Kagan did not offer any specifics; however, he noted that he saw the issue as one of fairness.  He does not want people to have an attitude that the budget is “not real”.

Nornes, through a written response, said “I believe the only area where natural resource funding may be at risk is the portion allocated from the general fund.  The other funding sources should be stable unless some legislators go after the other funding sources.  I won’t be one of them.”

Skogen noted that legacy money is clear on how it should be spent, however, other funds are more fluid.  Skogen spoke about getting back to the core functions of government, prioritize and focus resources and he is willing and prepared to do so.  “Everybody needs to know, you are all going to be part of a fix, this is a big number and big crisis and nobody gets a free pass.”

Phillips spoke towards the Legacy money and debate.  “We need to use the constitutional funds as intended,” Phillips said, “they were not intended to take the place of general funds, they were to supplement them.”  Phillips believed that the general fund would provide fewer dollars for the environment this year because of the deficit.  “I’m not a big fan of user fees to try to take care of things because I think that they are regressive and people can’t afford that.”

Murdock, through a written response, said “The Legislature has the final say, because constitutionally, only Legislature is authorized to appropriate state taxpayer money.  One concern I have, and one reason I voted against the 2010 LCCMR bill is that it seems that many of the proposed projects get far-flung from the intended purpose of the money.  The bill had so-called priorities such as paying landowners to protect rocks, teaching teachers to teach kids digital photography, and numerous “environmental education” and energy projects that didn’t seem related to the environment.  We would have done much better by using that money for researching innovative technologies for SSTS or wastewater systems.”

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