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House candidates debate the issues on Range

VIRGINIA — Candidates in four Minnesota House races vying to represent Northeastern Minnesota at the state Capitol took on the economy and partisan politics during the News Tribune's forum in Virginia on Monday.

After the 2018 legislative session ended in chaos and a veto, Northland legislators running for re-election said their sessions need improvements, and most of the candidates challenging them said they would put aside partisan politics in St. Paul. Additionally, all the candidates said they support mining, including the proposed PolyMet and Twin Metals projects, but differed in their ideas to diversify the Northland's economy.

District 3A

During the 2018 session, legislators "bundled so many bad bills into big bills that it was just about impossible to get it done," said Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, who is running for his second full term representing District 3A covering all of Koochiching, Lake and Cook counties and part of St. Louis County. To resolve the issue, Ecklund said the Legislature should start following the Constitution, which states that bills need to be single-subject and amendments must be germane to the bill's subject, and start voting earlier on initial legislation to avoid the end-of-session logjam.

Silver Bay logger Randy Goutermont, the Republican challenger in District 3A, said the Legislature's problems come down to what legislators believe will benefit the residents. Elected officials should work together, but it's difficult to work together when there's a "stark contrast" in their political stances and it's up to Minnesota voters to decide which side they want.

"There's a big divide between parties. It's the bottom line on the polarized issues," Goutermont said.

To boost the Northland's economy, Ecklund said he wants the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to increase its timber harvest to drive costs down for the forest products industry and for research institutes to create a use for "garbage wood" because it's an available resource.

Goutermont said regulatory burdens need to lessened on businesses. Energy costs are hurting the paper mills and communities and he supports finding ways to lower energy costs, he said.

District 5B

Communication between the executive and legislative branches was lacking during the 2018 session, said Rep. Sandy Layman, R-Cohasset, who is running for re-election in District 5B that includes part of Itasca County. Improving communication between the two branches throughout the session could lead to votes taking place earlier than the session's final days, she said.

Former Itasca County Sheriff Pat Medure, the DFL challenger in District 5B, said partisan politics needs to be put aside to move the state forward and the "finger pointing and blaming" during the past few legislative sessions doesn't help the state. A legislator's political party doesn't matter at the end of the day because legislators are elected to serve the people in their district, he said.

When it comes to diversifying northern Minnesota's economy, Layman said the public sector can create a positive tax and regulatory climate to encourage business development. It can additionally invest in infrastructure, especially broadband internet, she said.

Medure said the region needs to "think differently" about economic development and entice industries that aren't tied to mining, power and paper to diversify the economy. Legislators need to be creative and think outside the box, he said.

Districts 6A and 6B

After seeing the "last-minute mess" in the 2018 session, Rep. Julie Sandstede, DFL-Hibbing, said the solution for the Legislature is to do less and do it better. A record number of bills were introduced during the previous biennium and the Legislature needs to streamline the bills while ensuring that the amendments are germane, said Sandstede, who is running for re-election in District 6A covering parts of St. Louis and Itasca counties.

Union member Guy Anderson, who is the Republican challenger in District 6A, said that the Legislature needs to follow conservative values and be fiscally responsible during its sessions. The DFL has been focused on big government, taxing residents and spending money, he said.

"The Democrat Party has been inconspicuously hijacked by the metro left ideology and we cannot continue down that road," Anderson said.

The large omnibus bills violate the Minnesota Constitution, but breaking them into smaller single-subject bills slows the process down, said Skeeter Tomczak, a former National Guard member who is running as a Republican in District 6B. Partisan politics also slows the process down and legislators need to "stop playing politics down in St. Paul," he said, adding that compromise is needed.

District 6B, which includes part of St. Louis County, is currently represented by Rep. Jason Metsa, who isn't running for re-election. Dave Lislegard, the DFL candidate in District 6B, was unable to attend Monday's candidate forum.

To diversify the economy, Sandstede said the state needs to expand its broadband internet as an incentive for businesses to move to northern Minnesota. Anderson said the state needs to streamline its tax and regulatory environment to make it easier and more affordable for businesses to operate in Minnesota. Tomczak said he supports opening rehabilitation centers in the Northland to bring jobs to the region and to help residents with opioid addiction.