WILLMAR -- Joe Gimse and Lyle Koenen have differing views about property tax relief and the future of the local government aid program to Minnesota cities, but on other issues the two legislators agreed more than they disagreed at an hour-long candidate forum Wednesday in Willmar.
The forum, sponsored by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and hosted by the city of Willmar, brought together the candidates for the Minnesota Senate in District 17 and the House in District 17A to talk about their platforms on taxes, state spending and economic development in greater Minnesota.
In the newly redrawn District 17, voters face a choice between two incumbents: Koenen, a DFLer and 10-year veteran of the Minnesota House who won a special election this spring to take over the seat of the late Sen. Gary Kubly of Granite Falls, and Gimse, a Republican who was elected to the Senate in 2004 and is seeking re-election.
Redistricting put both into the new District 17, which covers Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Renville and Swift counties.
Gimse and Koenen have strong ties to the district, where each grew up, went to school and now work, Gimse as a contractor and land developer in Willmar and Koenen as a dairy farmer near Clara City.
Both said they support economic development strategies that recognize the needs in rural Minnesota.
They agreed that infrastructure, access to capital and a workforce that's educated and prepared are all critical to the rural Minnesota economy.
They offered ideas for how to create jobs and strengthen the economy in ways other than the traditional approach of cutting taxes and regulations or increasing spending on education and infrastructure.
Acknowledging that Minnesota regulations "are burdensome," Koenen said permitting processes could be speeded up without compromising air or water quality.
"There's some room for improvement there," he said.
Simply giving tax breaks to corporations does not automatically lead to job creation, Koenen said. What's key is consumer demand and whether people have money to spend on goods and services, he said. "That takes investment in people and especially in education."
Gimse countered that the economy can grow when taxes and regulations are reduced so capital can be freed up.
He also suggested innovative approaches to funding for state services. As chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, he's currently on a transportation finance advisory committee that has been working this past summer on developing new ways to fund transportation.
"My idea is to take a collaborative approach... We need to engage our local partners," he said.
The two candidates differed more widely on questions about property tax relief and the future of local government aid to cities.
They sparred politely over the market value homestead credit, which helped offset homeowner property taxes but was replaced this year with a homestead market value exclusion that in effect applies a lower value to properties before calculating the taxes.
Koenen said the market value homestead credit should be restored. "Homeowners really need some relief," he said.
But Gimse said the program "wasn't working" and could not be fully funded by the state for the past several years. His preference: Apply property tax relief toward the market value exclusion for homeowners.
Although both candidates said they support the concept of local government aid, they differed on its future direction. The aid is distributed to cities to help offset property taxes and is based on a formula that takes into account local needs and the local tax base. Many communities with a low tax base would see their property taxes double without local government aid. The program is struggling, however, and for the past decade the funding has gone down steadily and significantly.
Rural Minnesota towns have seen the impact, Koenen said. Many have had to levy higher property taxes, cut back on services or both.
"We as local taxpayers end up paying more for less," he said.
But Gimse said local government aid is "a program that hasn't worked."
He said he favors taking a closer look at which cities should receive local government aid and which need it the most. "I would support significant changes to that program," he said.