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District 9A hopefuls spar in televised debate

Candidates for Minnesota House District 9A -- DFLer Alex Hering (left) and Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore -- participate in a televised debate Thursday, Oct. 4, at the Lakeland PBS studio in Brainerd. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

With Election Day looming on the calendar in five weeks, it's time for bright lights and big debates to help Minnesotans determine who will represent them come January.

Consider Thursday, Oct. 4, as something of a kick-off for the final stretch of the 2018 election season. On the docket for the Minnesota House of Representatives, District 9A candidates talked health care, broadband internet, mental health, gun control and education during a televised debate on Lakeland PBS in a head-to-head showing between the DFL and GOP.

Incumbent Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, and DFL challenger Alex Hering fielded questions from a panel of local media figures, including Dennis Weimann of Lakeland PBS, Heidi Holton of KAXE-Northern Community Radio and Gabriel Lagarde of the Brainerd Dispatch.

Poston, 60, is a retired executive, former mayor of Lake Shore and a small business owner seeking his second term in the House of Representatives.

Hering, 50, is an architectural designer by trade and serves as the Cass County DFL vice chair and owner of Cygnet Mina Inc.

District 9A covers most of Wadena and Todd counties, and southern Cass County.

District climate

Both candidates identified agriculture and tourism as the main industries in the district.

"Our economy is just OK," Poston said. "It's not great. It's just OK."

Tourism, he said, is doing well, especially around the Gull Chain of Lakes in southern Cass County. Farming, however, has struggled for many years, Poston noted.

"I continue to be an advocate for agriculture and trying to improve the outcomes for our farmers in my work on both of the ag committees," Poston said.

Hering agreed with the ongoing struggle surrounding farming families because of unpredictable tariffs causing uncertainty about farmers' ability to sell their crops. These issues, he said, lead to struggles in accessing health care.

"And that's just heartbreaking," Hering said. "We need to take care of that and get them squared. ... They're the businesses that we need to produce our foods."

Small businesses

Small businesses are a popular talking point for political candidates, but for the Brainerd lakes area this conversation is especially relevant.

According to figures by the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp., small businesses accounts for a significant chunk of local economies with about 88.4 percent of businesses employing 19 or less employees, while a further 54 percent employ four or fewer workers.

When asked how they intend to support small businesses if elected, both candidates noted the struggle with access to high-speed broadband in the district, especially in Todd and Wadena counties.

Long Prairie, Hering said, recently put its own broadband system together in a joint effort with Consolidated Telecommunications Co., which he noted is a good example for the rest of the district.

Poston said the Legislature worked on broadband efforts vetoed last session.

"But we'll continue to work to provide more broadband to Greater Minnesota," he said. "When you see kids at the Wendy's in Nisswa doing their homework because they don't have broadband at home, they have to go to the fast food restaurant to do their homework or a business person that has to go to a place that has that kind of connection to do their work, that's a sad thing, and we need to fix that."

Another key to helping small businesses, Hering said, are training programs.

"What I would like to see is a workforce that can help benefit small businesses," he said, noting more training and retraining programs will help small businesses attain the employees they need.

Both candidates said burdensome regulations on small businesses can be improved, though Hering said some regulations are important for the protection of consumers.

Recent tax changes, Poston said, have been beneficial to small businesses.

"I am hearing from businesses in the area that they are feeling a bit more optimistic and things are improving," he said. "But there is a lot of work yet to be done."

Health care

The candidates differed greatly on health care—Hering advocated for a single-payer health care system as the most beneficial option for Minnesotans.

On the other hand, Poston insisted a single-payer system would incur costs that would balloon the state budget to exorbitant figures, a price tag everyday Minnesotans flat-out couldn't afford. Instead, Poston said his goal was to get health care back to where it was about 10 years ago, when he believed Minnesota had some of the best health insurance in the country.

The only way to do that, he said, was through a free-market system.

Hering, however, remained adamant in his faith in the single-payer system to not only provide comprehensive, accessible and preventive care, but also to reduce costs for local businesses in the region and free up the workforce for better productivity.

"We're actually creating a larger pool of insured people. And just the definition of that is going to make costs, of course, go up because there's a larger pool, but they're going to be spread across a bigger pool of people with coverage," he said, noting people who can't afford premiums would still be covered. "Why not have that full coverage available for all Minnesotans?"

Poston said he thinks everyone should have insurance, too, but the tax burden, coupled with upheavals in the labor market, make single-payer health care an unreasonable option. Bipartisan projections, he said, show Minnesotans would lose 40,000 jobs in a single-payer health care system.

But what employer wouldn't be happier, Hering asked, to have a healthier workforce in which everyone is insured?

Mental health

The health care discussion eventually led to mental health, which both candidates agreed is a crisis in the area, especially in terms of the high suicide rate among local farmers.

More local resources, including facilities and counseling services, are needed, according to both candidates.

Hering said mental health is an issue representatives haven't been able to address in a long time. Poston disagreed, saying legislators worked hard to address mental health in a straightforward and high-priority fashion. But some of the bills dedicated to those efforts, he said, were vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Child care and transportation

Candidates were asked how to address economic barriers for people who are willing to work but unable to due to inaccessible day care or lack of transportation.

Poston said transportation is improving in Wadena and Cass counties but still needs some work in Todd County. A success he cited is a bus running from Staples to Brainerd/Baxter, because there are many people who work in Staples but live in the Brainerd/Baxter area.

The issues with child care, he said, stem from over-regulated independent facilities with too many burdens placed on them.

"There's a lot of problems there that certainly need to be fixed," he said.

Hering said regulations may be the issue, or it may simply be not giving day cares a chance to expand. But perhaps one of the bigger issues, he said, is paying parents livable wages so they can better afford child care.

Gun control

When it came to gun violence, both candidates agreed gun control itself is not the issue but differed on the crux of the matter. Poston said mental health is the bigger issue, while Hering said gun safety and responsible gun ownership is key.

As a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, Poston said he has yet to see a good gun control bill that will improve citizens' safety. He again advocated for more mental health resources, which he believes will limit gun violence.

"As a state, our ratios of counselors and security officers and nurses and support people in the schools is among the worst in the country, and that has to improve," Poston said.

Hering said he is a gun owner himself and believes in teaching responsible gun ownership.

"I'd like to see, not more gun legislation," he said, "I'd just want to see us following, basically the laws we have and be responsible, like most of us are."

Omnibus bills

With criticism about legislators failing to act on important issues in the last two sessions and waiting until the "eleventh hour" to review bills with big-ticket items, the candidates were asked how they would change that process so the Legislature can function more effectively going forward.

Hering said the problem was omnibus bills—enormous documents hundreds of pages long and dealing with a host of issues lawmakers often received just minutes before the vote. These "garbage bills," as he called them, need to be cleaned up so they contain one subject. Dayton received a lot of blame for vetoing bills dealing with crucial topics, Hering said, but that's because the bills contained too many topics, even though they may have dealt with important matters. As a result, he said, a lot of meaningful legislation is getting blocked.

Poston adamantly disagreed, saying there were very few garbage bills in the last session. Most of the big bills at the end of sessions, he said, were single topic and Dayton still vetoed them. In one case, Poston noted, despite promising he would agree if lawmakers included funding for school safety, Dayton still struck down the bill when the Legislature honored to his request.

Sometimes multiple issues may get thrown into the same bill, but Poston said those are the bills the public wants legislators to work on until the end of the session. The idea of garbage bills, he said, simply isn't true.

Hering still disagreed.

"That's enough garbage," he said in rebuttal.

Education funding

Both candidates agreed something needs to be done to offset the cost of education, and they also agreed free tuition for community and technical colleges is probably not feasible.

Poston said he would like to see more education funding than the Legislature approved last year and emphasized the importance of closing the education equality gap between Greater Minnesota and the metro area.

"I think we can do a little better," he said. "Everyone deserves a real quality education."

Hering said the Legislature needs to look into more pre-kindergarten programs to alleviate the struggles with child care and paid internships within government offices, which would help students get needed experience and help offset their debt. He also said the state should be able to do something to lower or eliminate interest on student loans.

Sports gambling

The candidates were asked if they would be in support of legalizing sports gambling across the state—essentially, regulating a practice already in place that largely exists in a shadowy, illicit manner, and opening it up to be taxed, thereby creating a revenue stream for Minnesota.

Hering admitted he hadn't given the matter much thought, though he said there are already many forms of sports betting going on. Fantasy football and establishments in Nevada have long been legal, he noted, so there are examples to evaluate and make judgments on. However, Hering said he would be reluctant to make those judgment calls without having an in-depth look at the issue.

Poston said he would be opposed, describing gambling in all forms as a destructive practice proven to end lives. He cited Native American reservations and noted high rates of suicide—deaths connected, he said, to tribal gambling and casinos.

The debate ended with moderator Ray Gildow acknowledging the congeniality of both debaters.

Dispatch staff writer Gabriel Lagarde contributed to this story.