by Paul Rignell
Through 2012, the adjacent communities of Big Lake and Elk River have been not only in separate state House districts but also in distinct Senate districts, based on redistricting 10 years ago that followed the 2000 census.
Ten years later, after federal workers repeated the census, officials on many levels found populations had changed enough through the region that redistricting shifts moved Elk River out of districts with communities to the east and into the new House District 30A (with Big Lake) and Senate District 30.
While Elk River was moved out of a district from its current House member for the 2012 elections, Big Lake’s incumbent representative, Mary Kiffmeyer, filed to run for an open seat in Senate 30.
Both the active Democrats and Republicans in House 30A thus were tasked with finding new challengers for a legislative seat, and as election season has reached high gear the DFL has endorsed Holly Neuman of Big Lake to race against the GOP’s candidate, Nick Zerwas, of Elk River for an unclaimed seat in St. Paul.
The House 30A candidates sat next to each other in Elk River City Council chambers for 45 minutes the morning of Oct. 6 for a forum sponsored by the Elk River Area Citizens League, where Neuman and Zerwas responded to questions that were known in advance and others which came from a live audience.
Talking on taxes and school funding
Neither candidate would have any prior record as a new session begins at the Capitol regarding work on party or bipartisan initiatives. After their opening statements Oct. 6, Neuman and Zerwas both were asked to tell how they might work to bridge the political divide.
“We need to have civility in politics,” said Neuman. “It seems like nothing can be accomplished if both sides aren’t working together. We need to be a team. We need to work for all of Minnesota.”
“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” said Zerwas. “I think if we all focus on what we think are our strengths, where we think we can excel, and how, most importantly, we can help the people in our district, I think that’s how we move forward and move the political discourse forward.”
The candidates were asked next to speak about when it may be appropriate to raise taxes, and what they would do to balance the state’s budget.
Zerwas said people are fundamentally divided over whether the state has a problem with revenue or with spending, and he said he is of the belief there is a problem with spending. He said he has not signed a “no new taxes” pledge, yet the state has also not reduced its expenses in every way that it could, he added.
He said spending priorities are a concern. He said he is troubled by the money budgeted for mass transit, while improvements for Highway 169 through Elk River are not yet on the state Department of Transportation’s 30-year plan. “We need to re-look at where we’re spending our transportation money, and allocate it where it can benefit the most people.”
Neuman responded: “I think we need to try to find waste in the budget and we need to cut waste rather than raise the tax. When you raise taxes on people, they can’t buy stuff, and when they can’t buy stuff, the economy is never going to progress.”
Leading into his third question, forum moderator Charlie Blesener noted that voters in Elk River Area School District 728 are about to consider whether to raise the schools’ operating levy. With that approval, he said, the district’s per-pupil funding would be higher but still about $250 below the metro average. He asked if the candidates would fight for equitable funding for the area schools.
“I don’t think it’s fairly divided on what we get, compared to what Minneapolis gets,” said Neuman. “I think we need to fix the system. It’s a very complicated system. … The state needs to pitch in, to help us like they do for Minneapolis.”
Zerwas said there has been a push to move the Elk River district’s central offices out of Elk River and either east into Anoka County or south into Hennepin County where, by the state’s formula, District 728 would qualify for more assistance.
“To think that we could get millions and millions of more dollars in education funding simply by taking over a hundred employees out of the city of Elk River and having them work in Rogers, that’s ridiculous,” Zerwas said. “Our students are as valuable in this area as they are in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and they need the exact same funding and the exact same opportunities.”
Later in the forum, the candidates were asked to discuss topics such as health care, their views on the voter ID amendment, and also the value they would place on voting for their party versus all Minnesotans.
The forum is scheduled to re-air 10 p.m. Wednesdays and 4 p.m. Fridays, on ERtV Cable Channel 12, until Election Day.