Koenen looks to serve in west central Minn.'s new Senate district
WILLMAR -- Lyle Koenen finds himself on familiar ground these days as he campaigns for the Minnesota Senate in District 17.
Born in Willmar and raised on a farm near Maynard, the 56-year-old Koenen is a 10-year veteran of the state Legislature, first as a member of the House of Representatives and then this spring winning election to the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Gary Kubly.
But this time around, the campaign trail looks a little different.
Redistricting placed Koenen in District 17, which now includes Kandiyohi and Swift counties, along with Koenen's home territory of Chippewa County.
For the first time, he's campaigning for a full term in the Senate. And in one of several races being closely watched, he's up against another incumbent, Republican Sen. Joe Gimse of Willmar.
Koenen says he's ready to become state senator in the new District 17.
"I think I can do a good job of representing the district," he said. "I've lived here all my life. ... I think I have a pretty good sense of what people want in the area."
A self-described moderate, he brings some seniority from his previous 10 years in the House, along with political experience. "I am familiar with how things work in St. Paul," he said.
As he travels around the district meeting with constituents, the most pressing issue being talked about is jobs, especially jobs that pay well and encourage young people to stay in the region, Koenen said.
If elected, this will be one of his priorities, he said.
He will offer several strategies: more help for small businesses and start-up businesses that include incentives for good wages, and bolstering higher education to make it affordable and accessible not only for high school graduates but also for older workers in need of retraining.
Infrastructure also is closely tied to economic development, Koenen said.
Roads and bridges, which are vital to the rural economy, have been lagging in improvements and there isn't enough money to address the problem, he said. "The current level of funding is not going to keep up with the demand."
He said he's in favor of raising taxes, possibly a higher gas tax or a mileage tax, to help pay for road and bridge improvements.
On this point, Koenen and his opponent, Joe Gimse, agree. Where the two candidates diverge is on budget issues.
Koenen has voted in the past for a combination of spending cuts and revenue increases, and said he will continue to do so. "We've got to take a balanced approach," he said.
He said he also favors discontinuing the practice of building the state deficit into future budgets or using a one-time source of funding to balance the budget. "That needs to be done. It's just good budget practice, I think," he said.
The Legislature should begin taking a look at the state's overall tax structure, how it works and where loopholes might be closed, he said.
Another priority that's high on Koenen's list: addressing the growing cost of the state's health care programs for the poor and elderly. Koenen calls this "the elephant in the room."
Spending has been rising for these programs, and that's reflected in the state budget, he said. "There's no way to ignore it or get around it."
Heading into the final weeks of his campaign, Koenen said he has been "really busy" with door-knocking, campaign appearances and candidate forums.
What inspires him is the chance to create a better Minnesota for the next generation, he said. "Hopefully the state's better."