About 25 people attended a Sept. 13 forum that featured the two major party candidates for House District 54B.
Democrat Tina Folch of Hastings is seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Tony Jurgens of Cottage Grove.
RELATED: House 54A candidates debate issues
The forum was sponsored by the Minnesota League of Women Voters.
House District 54B includes the eastern half of Cottage Grove, Denmark Township, Afton, Hastings and Nininger Township.
Topics, provided by the audience, included legalized recreational marijuana, medicaid work requirements and the achievement gap in high schools.
What do you see as the three top needs of District 54B?
Tony Jurgens: The top three needs for District 54B are the same top three needs for the entire state of Minnesota: education, health care - meaning the cost of healthcare - and, especially here in our district, clean drinking water. And of course when you talk about clean drinking water in this district the first and foremost thing that comes to mind is the PFC contamination and the $850 million lawsuit or settlement that the state of Minnesota has with 3M. We had some legislation this year to help put some guardrails around this money so that it stays in the east metro where it belongs.
Tina Folch: I would actually say that I think our first issue is affordable health care for all. Second of all would be investing in education, pre-K through career training. I agree that water quality is important but I think the third really important issue that we have to look at is housing, making sure we all have affordable homes and that we're working to make sure that people are in their homes particularly as they get older.
What are the needs of education for the next biennium and please include the discussion of early childhood education?
TF: Now more than ever we really need that strong investment in schools. ... And I've talked to a few principals, they've told me that their greatest challenge is the number of kids who are coming to school now with mental health issues and the complexity of those. About 23 percent of our student body now is known to have mental health issue(s). ... Not only are the kids not able to succeed, it's causing a secondary fatigue within the teachers as they're trying so hard to help these kiddos make it through the classes. We need that public investment to bring in more school psychologists and school counselors so that there is more resources within the schools to be able to help these children.
TJ: We are coming up on a budget year. Education funding is going to be first and foremost. As far as pre-K, I'm in favor of continuing to fund that so that school districts can make the choice. Parents can make the choice if they want to send their children to early childhood or pre-K, but a lot of parents, a lot of families will choose to ... send their kids to a daycare center. And some families are in a position where a parent or grandparent can stay home with the child. I don't think it should be mandatory. I think it should continue to be a choice. I think that through local control that the local school district should be able to make that choice.
Do you favor increasing the gas tax to fund roads and infrastructure?
TJ: No, it's not necessary. The gas tax is a very regressive tax. The people who are the lowest earners sometimes drive the cars that aren't as energy efficient, so an increase in the gas tax hits them harder. An upside to the gas tax is that, to some extent, you are using other people's money. As other people come through our state and fill up with gas, they're contributing to our taxes. We had an option in the legislature this year to use an existing sales tax on the sale of auto parts to go to the roads and bridges. It passed out of the house with bipartisan support. Unfortunately the Governor vetoed that. We thought we had enough votes to override the veto ... Unfortunately when it came back all the Democrats were in lock step with the governor and we were unable to do that.
TF: The fact of the matter is that the gas tax is just not viable, folks. Our vehicles are becoming more and more fuel efficient, which means we have less and less tax revenue. What we're going to see by 2040 is that half of our vehicles will convert to electric. That is what's being predicted right now ... and so the gas tax as funding mechanism for our roadways is no longer a viable system. Met Council is saying that by 2040 we're going to have an additional 700,000 people living in the metro area. That's the equivalent of all of North Dakota moving into the Twin Cities. It's going to have a huge impact on our roadway infrastructure. And so we're going to need a great deal more infrastructure event stent and also investment in transit. The Republicans say, 'Oh we have this great surplus.' They don't want to talk about in 2020 and 2021. The Met Council is foreseeing a $100 million deficit. That affects working people, working people who don't have vehicles to come and go to their jobs from their communities and I think we deserve better than that.