Finding the fault lines in District 17A legislative race

BENSON -- The audience was small, but the issues were big when District 17A Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, and his DFL challenger, Lyle Koenen, of Clara City, met in a recent debate in Benson.


BENSON - The audience was small, but the issues were big when District 17A Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, and his DFL challenger, Lyle Koenen, of Clara City, met in a recent debate in Benson.

Immigration. Health Care. Education. Roads. Rural population declines. Workforce shortage. Housing.

Hot button issues in some quarters, but Miller said at the start of debate hosted by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities: "I don't think you will find Lyle and I lighting it up tonight.''

That's because the two generally agree on the issues, a point both readily make.

But there are differences, starting with the friends they keep. Asked in a separate interview how he differs from his opponent, Miller pointed out that Koenen would caucus with the DFL, which he accused of being led by urban liberals.


"That is where the distinctions really come in," Miller said. "Who we are going to be working with.''

Koenen alluded to party affiliation when asked the same. While crediting Minnesota Republicans on many tax issues, he said that Republicans emphasize tax relief for big businesses. And, he said, Republicans are less likely to support teacher licensure and training standards that he supports.

Miller, 52, has represented District 17A since defeating Andrew Falk in 2014. He started a run for Collin Peterson's Congressional seat earlier this year, but later withdrew. He got interested in politics in 2009, he said.

"I looked at our country and our state and I said 'you know, government is not serving the people the way it is supposed to.' I am old-fashioned that way, by the people for the people.'"

Koenen served in the Legislature from 2002 through 2016, serving four terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in a special election after the death of Gary Kubly. He was unsuccessful in his bid for re-election to the Senate against Andrew Lang in 2016.

His decision to run again this year came after repeated urging by local DFL'ers. He's not looking to make up for the loss, he told the West Central Tribune. He likes the work of speaking up for a rural district, he said.

"Just plain rural stuff,'' he said of his motivation.

District 17A includes all of Swift and Chippewa counties and most of Renville County as well as a small portion of Kandiyohi County.


Rural talking points

Miller said it's time to hit the reset button on how the formulas for state aid for schools and roads are determined. Funding for education has risen by 19.2 percent in the last four years, but schools in District 17A are still facing a financial crunch, he said.

Koenen is not ready to hit the reset button on how funds are divvied up, but said that the current education funding formula - based heavily on student enrollment - hurts rural districts with smaller numbers but with the same base costs for curriculum and facilities.

Both candidates are concerned about shortages of child care and affordable housing for young, working adults. Koenen favors support for developing workforce housing. He also pointed to Watertown, South Dakota, where he said graduates can receive a free, two-year education at the technical college if they remain in the area.

"The good news is we have good paying jobs out here. The bad news is I don't think young people recognize it,'' said Miller on the challenges of retaining young people in the district.

He's concerned that state regulations are overly burdensome for child care providers, and that state taxes slow business growth. "We have to look at some of the job killing regulations and taxes that we have out here,'' said Miller during the forum in Benson.

Health care

Health care is the issue that both candidates hear raised most often.


Koenen said he is concerned that Minnesota health care providers are not fairly reimbursed under federal programs. He feels that Minnesota Care - the subsidized health insurance program for Minnesota residents who cannot afford private insurance but make too much to qualify for other subsidized programs - should be operated more like an insurance company, but he wants to keep it.

He wants help for farmers and others forced to buy insurance on the independent market.

Overall, Koenen emphasized that he is not looking to expand the role of government in health care.

"If the private sector can handle something, the private sector should do it,'' he said.

Miller voiced support for private-sector solutions as well.

"I believe we need to increase choice and we need to increase competition,'' said Miller in Benson.

He co-authored the legislation that allows farmer cooperatives to form insurance groups.



Both told the audience in Benson that immigration is important to the rural district's economy.

Koenen said more education and training should be provided to help assimilate the region's newest residents. He told the Tribune that what he described as Republican talking points on immigration have made people worried. President Donald Trump's rhetoric referring to some as murderers and rapists makes him uncomfortable, he said.

Miller said he wants more done to properly document immigrants, but added that he would not send 16-year-old kids to a country they have never seen. He said we must make the "tough decisions" and do the "difficult work" to remove those who are doing bad stuff, such as selling drugs or human trafficking.

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