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Koenen promotes hard work, rural agenda

CLARA CITY -- It's not as if there's never been a political discussion when the Koenen family gets together.

Lyle Koenen's father, Kenneth, serves as a Chippewa County commissioner and his brother, Kurt, was mayor of Clara City, and is running again.

But Lyle Koenen insists it's not the politics that he enjoys as a state legislator, but the nitty-gritty task of fighting and plowing through various budget, tax law and policy issues on behalf of the rural needs of House District 20B.

Koenen, a four-term incumbent and DFL-endorsed candidate, attributes his political involvement to his farm background. He operated a dairy farm with his brother in Chippewa County during the farm crisis of the 1980s. He said he found himself working with farm organizations to make things better. He quickly found that not all office holders were receptive to the needs of rural areas. It led him to seek elected office, he said.

Koenen unsuccessfully challenged former state Sen. Charlie Berg of Chokio during his first run. He ran successfully for the House seat he now holds after redistricting created the current District 20B, which includes Chippewa and Renville counties and a portion of Yellow Medicine County.

"I've enjoyed the people and I like doing the work,'' he said.

Koenen, 54, grew up on a farm in Chippewa County and graduated from Willmar Vocational Technical Institute with a degree in agriculture production. He also studied fluid power for one year at Granite Falls Area Vocational Technical Institute.

Koenen and his brother operated a dairy and a livestock farm operation until about seven years ago. He is now a contract milk hauler and school bus driver. He and his wife, Sandy, are parents to two sons in the MACCRAY School District, and he is a stepfather to two adult sons.

Koenen said fighting for rural needs remains his priority. He said the last eight years have been productive but frustrating. The frustration came from what he called the "political part of it'' and a governor who he said was often unwilling to negotiate.

He's proud of work to provide disaster aid to Buffalo Lake and Granite Falls following tornadoes and floods, funding for capital projects in his district, and for a prominent role in expanding the services Minnesota offers its military veterans. "Minnesota is one of the leading states in the nation as far as serving veterans,'' he said.

He said he would continue to work for a veterans' nursing home in Montevideo.

Koenen serves on the Veterans Affairs Division committee in the House, as well as on property and local sales tax and tax committees. He helped craft legislation that reduced the rate at which farmlands are taxed by 0.5 percent. He also helped develop legislation to prevent developers from exploiting the "green acres'' law that is intended to protect working farmlands from rapidly escalating values.

He prefers what he calls a ''balanced approach'' of both making cuts and increasing revenues to balance the state budget. The huge projected deficit means some cuts will be needed, said Koenen, adding that he wants to protect education and rural needs. He would like to protect Local Government Aid to rural communities, but said it is likely that the budget needs will mean some reductions.

He also said this is not the time to simply cut taxes and hence eliminate public jobs "and hope that jobs are created'' in the private sector as a consequence. He said any tax cuts should be viewed from the perspective of whether they will create new jobs, and be weighed against the lost jobs that could result.

"Just to throw it out there and hope jobs are created is not good policy,'' he said.

Koenen said saving the jobs of teachers and other public employees in rural areas is important to our economic stability and recovery.

He also charged that many of the state tax cuts championed by the governor have only served to increase local property taxes and place a greater share of the tax burden on the middle class. He'd prefer to see those in the higher income brackets -- $200,000 to $250,000 and above -- pay a share that is equitable to what those earning less are already paying.

His years in the Legislature have also convinced him that progress comes slowly and only through hard work. He warns against believing that the state can "solve it all'' or that there are any simple, one-sided solutions.

Lyle Koenen

Age: 54

Family: Wife, Sandy; two sons and two stepsons

Occupation: Self-employed, contract milk hauler; school bus driver

Education: High School Maynard, Clara City Post secondary: Ag production degree, Willmar Vocational Technical Institute, fluid power one year, Granite Falls Area Vocational Technical Institute

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335