Debate over Duluth: State House candidates discuss education and transportation funding
Candidates vying for Minnesota House district seats 3B, 7A and 7B converged at a debate hosted by the News Tribune on Wednesday night. A range of topics were discussed, from the hyperlocal issues of transportation and educational funding in the T...
Candidates vying for Minnesota House district seats 3B, 7A and 7B converged at a debate hosted by the News Tribune on Wednesday night. A range of topics were discussed, from the hyperlocal issues of transportation and educational funding in the Twin Ports area to larger political themes of legislative civility and bipartisanship.
While the Duluth District 7A and 7B debate featured all female candidates, District 3B pitted 42-year Democratic-Farmer-Labor incumbent Mary Murphy against former Hermantown mayor Republican Keith MacDonald.
Top of mind was the status of Duluth's streets and the sales tax proposal that never made it through the Legislature earlier this year. Noting its popularity with area constituents, both 3B candidates endorsed the need to fund roads.
"Voters did vote for this, due to the fact that Duluth has some roads that are pretty bad and need a repair," said MacDonald, "I would support an additional temporary tax to street repairs that are needed and then there would be a sunset on it once those repairs were completed so the tax would go away."
MacDonald said he wants the tax to be temporary due to Minnesota's high income and corporate taxes. Murphy agreed, before stating her displeasure with the reason it was never approved.
"We have to stop with giant omnibus bills and reduce them down so that even if we have an omnibus bill, it doesn't include the past, present and future," she said.
During the 7A and 7B district debate, both DFL candidates also reaffirmed their support for the sales tax, echoing similar frustrations Murphy had about the proposal's failure.
"That was something that would not have cost the state money," said Liz Olson, the 7B incumbent. "We really worked hard with Senator (Erik) Simonson. It just got used as a political bargaining chip by the party in charge. It's a casualty of not having the power we needed in those rooms at the end of the day."
Agreeing with her incumbent colleague's sentiment, Jennifer Schultz, the 7A District representative, blamed the Republican leadership for the bill's failure.
"There was a positive response and bipartisan support for this bill, but in the end it was pulled out at the final legislation," Schultz said. "It's really unfortunate that Republicans had a barrier this time to something that a local government and the people of Duluth voted in favor of and supported."
Pushing back on the "blame game" was 7A Republican candidate Dana Krivogorsky, who is running against Schultz. She said blaming an entire political party for the proposal's failure needs to stop.
"I have no problem giving money to the government if government is responsible enough to say 'We've been through the budget; we shuffled it around and there's absolutely no money," Krivogorsky said. "I believe in a tax increase only and only if the city has absolutely no other way to pay."
Looking to unseat Olson in 7B is Republican Caroline Burley, who didn't like the idea of prioritizing a sales tax when poverty remains in the city.
"I know that Duluth wanted a sales tax," said Burley. "I have a concern with so much poverty in Duluth. And a sales tax affects everybody, rich and poor alike. And the poor in our city are struggling enough already without more of a sales tax."
When it came to discussing education, a broad question about how the candidates viewed education investment was put forth. Concerns of investments in education, where it should come from and how it should be spent sparked a diversity of ideas and responses.
Burley stated she wanted to be rid of Common Core in public schools. Eyeing the necessity for what she called a "moral foundation," Burley said the education system needs to address the root of why students fail.
"We need to help all the students currently failing in our Duluth school system," said Burley. "It is a crime against our kids and handicaps them for life when they cannot succeed. So we need to use different techniques. We need to reach the children where they are. If you're having a problem with absenteeism, or tardiness, what is the root cause of that?"
Olson agreed with her opponent for the need to get creative in order to tackle problems in the school system. However, Olson said funding efforts should focus on increasing the baseline money that goes toward each pupil enrolled in school as well as prioritizing education at the pre-K level.
"Early childhood is essential," said Olson. "For third grade, you can determine a student's success way later in their educational career, so investing in early childhood is one of the best things we can do to level the playing field."
Schultz looked at her experience of having two children enrolled in the Duluth school district.
"I'm learning a lot just by visiting that school often and talking to teachers often," said Schultz. "We're doing a lot of good things in Duluth and we're piloting full-service community schools to help children succeed in life, and we need to be adequately funding our schools, especially things like the social services and health services."
Firing back at Schultz, Krivogorsky, who ran unsuccessfully for Duluth School Board in 2017, said she had an "upper hand" when discussing the school district. While the Republican candidate said she appreciated how hard teachers worked, she felt differently about the district administration.
"We are in absolute shambles," said Krivogorsky. "No one knows how much money is spent, or what it's being spent on and it's absolutely ridiculous what's going on. But, having said that, somehow teachers and kudos to them, somehow they are willing to show up in class and teach kids under the circumstances where smartboards are ripped off and they don't have money to buy printers."
In the District 3B race, Murphy commended Gov. Mark Dayton and the education finance chair Jenifer Loon for pushing funding across the state.
"We've made great progress in the last four years, and I think we should continue with what we started," said Murphy, "and especially for the early childhood group of kids."
The DFL candidate went on to place the same emphasis on the need to prioritize early childhood education. "From infancy to kindergarten, those kids need to be in education programs in every community across the state," said Murphy.
MacDonald pushed back on Murphy's statement about the importance of early childhood education, saying it was more importance for those kids to be at home.
"This is an area where Mary and I would differ on," said MacDonald. "I think with an infant and a toddler, I think why have children if you're not going to be there when they're infants to help them learn their ABCs and things like that."
Citing an already overburdened education system, MacDonald didn't think it was prudent to take on an increased responsibility of pre-K education when area schools already struggle to guide students through elementary and high school.