WILLMAR -- Near the end of a 1½-hour legislative candidate forum Tuesday in Willmar, moderator JP Cola marveled that not one question about taxes had been raised by listeners or viewers of the debate.
With a nearly $6 billion state deficit expected next year, asking state lawmakers and their opponents how they'd solve the state's financial woes would be understandable.
Instead, most of the questions that were called in or e-mailed to candidates for the Senate District 13 and House District 13B race were of a social nature: How they felt about tax-funded abortions, term limits for candidates, making English the state's official language, requiring fingerprinting to prevent welfare fraud, requiring photo IDs to prevent voter fraud and if they supported comprehensive immigration reform that would provide a path to legal status of illegal immigrants.
The four candidates were also asked if they'd support reinstating funding for General Assistance Medical Care for poor residents and how the president's call to extend the school year can be reconciled with some schools implementing a four-day school week.
They were also asked if they supported getting a veterans home in Willmar, the impact green jobs could have on the region's economy and the complicated issue of prevailing wages.
Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, and his DFL opponent Larry Rice had contrasting responses, not only in their positions but also in detail.
Gimse, who's gained experience in public speaking during his four years in the Senate, used up every second of the 1½-minute time allotment for each question. Rice's answers were quite brief.
Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, and Bruce Vogel, the Republican-endorsed candidate for the House 13B seat, were also on opposite sides of most issues.
When it comes to "integrity" in the voting booth, Vogel said he "wholeheartedly" supports requiring photo identification and wants to eliminate same-day voter registration to prevent "corruption." Juhnke said there's very little fraud in Minnesota elections and while a photo ID may be worthwhile an affordable option would be needed for people, like elderly voters in the nursing home who no longer have a driver's license.
Requiring finger printing or some kind of biometrics identification before getting public assistance is a subject "near and dear to my heart," Gimse said, adding that it was "troubling" to see $250,000 worth of welfare fraud in Kandiyohi County during a three-month period.
He said government programs need to be brought into the new technology age.
While agreeing that a biometrics system could be a viable option, Rice said based on information gleaned from talking to the county health and human services staff, welfare fraud actually makes up a small percentage of their budget and that an anti-fraud unit is working well in the county and should be replicated throughout the state.
On the issue of term limits, Vogel said eight years is "plenty of time" to serve in the Legislature and that politicians should step down and allow others an opportunity to serve. The longer people are in an elected position the more they become "institutionalized and "removed from the real world," said Vogel.
Juhnke said the state has term limits. "It's called the general election." Without historical knowledge that long-time legislators have, Juhnke said decision-making could be turned over to bureaucrats and staff members who don't have term limits.
Responding to the question of tax-funded abortions, Gimse said he'll continue the campaign promise he made four years ago to be pro-life "every day, 24 hours a day." He said 30 percent of the abortions in Minnesota are paid for with taxpayers' money and 73 percent of Minnesotans don't want their taxes spent on abortions.
Rice said abortion is a "complex issue" and families, churches and communities should engage in ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Citing the Supreme Court's ruling and a woman's right to privacy, Rice said he supports a woman's right to choose.
On the issue of making English the official language, Vogel said if immigrants come here to live the American dream then they need to also "live by the rules" of the country. "This is America. English is our language" and people should learn to speak it, Vogel said.
Juhnke said English is the primary language of the state and immigrants are learning it. Citing a libertarian tendency, Juhnke said he doesn't favor issuing a government mandate regarding language. "Rather than condemn and pound of these folk," Juhnke said efforts should be made to help them learn English.
The candidates all had prepared statements they made at the beginning and close of the forum.
Gimse said he has the "determination and strong will" to advocate for people and businesses.
He said the state deficit is the fault of legislators and the governor and not Minnesota tax-payers. He said he'd do everything to prevent taxes from being raised and find ways to stop "wasteful spending" by the state.
Rice said he's running for Senate because Minnesotans "have an obligation to make places we care about better." He said he sees the "big picture" and will "consider the long view' when listening to people and formulating creative solutions to problems. Even though there are great challenges ahead for the state, he said he's optimistic there are "great opportunities" ahead.
Juhnke, who has risen to a key chairman position and is a senior member in the House, said when he first ran for office his goal was to "make a difference in peoples' lives." As he seeks re-election, Juhnke said, "I hope and pray I am making a difference."
If elected, Vogel promised to "work hard and learn fast" and "stay true" to his rural roots as he addressed problems that wouldn't be easy to fix. Vogel said he's "learned how to work hard and use common sense" in his own business and he'd do the same in St. Paul.