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Juhnke, Wilhelm present differing views regarding state spending

WILLMAR -- Al Juhnke and Bonnie Wilhelm found some common ground Tuesday.

Both support a state constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot that proposes increasing the sales tax and dedicating the funds to the environment and the arts.

Both believe that failing to wear a seat belt should become a primary traffic offense in Minnesota.

But the two candidates for the District 13B seat continue to disagree on key issues about the role of government and how best to manage Minnesota's budget.

Juhnke and Wilhelm took turns outlining their views Tuesday night at a televised debate, one in a series being sponsored by the Willmar Area League of Women Voters, Heartland Community Action Agency and the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

It's the third time Juhnke, a DFL'er who has represented District 13B since 1996, and Wilhelm, a Republican, have faced each other on the November ballot.

During the hour-long debate, they fielded questions about their priorities, their experience and their perspective on everything from renewable energy to illegal immigration.

Wilhelm drew on a personal story of how her adult children are working harder to make ends meet as she made one of the key points in her platform: State government must live within its means.

"I believe that citizens work hard for their income and they should be allowed to keep more of it," she said.

Juhnke countered that the state budget is "extremely healthy" and that legislators have made every effort to spend responsibly.

This year's budget contained increased funding for education, nursing homes and renewable energy, he said. "We finished on time. We finished on budget."

If the spending forecast next February shows a deficit, "we will prioritize and we will take care of it, I suspect, without raising income and sales taxes," he said.

The two candidates also sparred politely over education funding and renewable energy.

Calling education one of "my No. 1 issues," Juhnke said he supports revising the funding formula in favor of a greater share from the state.

Many financially strapped rural school districts are finding it increasingly hard to rely on the local property tax, he said. "Frankly it's tough to pass levies in rural Minnesota."

Wilhelm disagreed. "Local control is the best solution to improving the education system," she said.

Increased state funding for education not only would fail to improve education but would be a financial disaster, she said.

"What are we going to tax? What are we going to cut in order to do that?" she asked.

Both the candidates were enthusiastic about the future of renewable energy -- but again, differ on how to implement it. Juhnke supported a biodiesel bill during the 2008 legislative session and sees the "25 by 25" mandate -- which requires Minnesota utilities to obtain 25 percent of their power from renewable resources by the year 2025 -- as placing Minnesota in the forefront of renewable energy development.

Wilhelm, on the other hand, said she's concerned about the hidden costs.

"The question will be, how will our economy suffer to meet those mandates?" she said.

Regardless of where they stand on the issues, she and Juhnke both pledged to represent their constituents fairly.

Juhnke, who chairs the House Agriculture and Veterans Affairs Committee, pointed to his experience in bipartisan leadership.

"If it's a good idea, we'll put it in our bill and carry it forward," he said.

He said his door at the state Capitol "is always open. I never ask what your party is when you call my office."

Wilhelm, chairman of the Kandiyohi County Republican Party, said she brings a background of working with diverse groups ranging from physicians to artists.

One of the things she's learned, she said, is that "there are always two sides to every story."

"The bottom line is you have to hear both sides of the story before you come and make a decision," she said.