The Tolna coulee, cutting taxes versus improving services, saving education funding by replacing some local teachers with long-distance learning and public smoking bans were all issues discussed by Democrats and Republicans at Tuesday’s Candidate Forum.
During the two-hour debate-type forum, Democratic Sen. Larry Robinson, Republican senate candidate Keith Hovland, Democratic state house candidates Sharon Buhr and Naomi Muscha, Republican house candidates Myrene Peterson and Dwight Keifert and incumbent county commissioners John Froelich and Cindy Schwehr all had a chance to outline their positions. About 75 district 24 residents were in the HAC for the two-hour forum.
A notable issue all agreed on was their support for banning smoking in public places.
Michelle Wobbema, who moderated the forum sponsored by the Valley City Area Chamber of Commerce, asked questions, kept candidates on track and managed to prevent the event from going much longer than the allotted time. It ran from about 7 p.m. until 9:10 p.m.
The first question candidates were asked about their backgrounds and why they decided to run for office.
Peterson said she was new to the district, having been moved from District 22 by redistricting. She said she was the wife of a veteran, a resident of Enderlin, came from a farming family, and got her teaching credentials at Valley City State University.
Hovland, who recently retired as plant manager for the Valley City John Deere facility, said this was his first attempt at elected office because employers would not allow him to take off the time needed to serve. Hovland said he was a veteran, and was successful in business for 42 years.
Keifert said the election will allow voters to decide who is most capable of representing them in the North Dakota legislature. He said it was significant that if his opponents were elected they would be members of the minority in Bismarck “fighting to be heard.” As a Republican, Keifert said, he would be listened to.
Muscha, a resident of Enderlin who graduated from VCSU, said she was initially asked to run, but “I want to do what I can so my children and grandchildren have the opportunities their parents and grandparents did. I’m ready to work for you.”
Robinson said, “We can’t sit back and wait for the future to arrive. I’m running for re-election because I want to be at the table when decisions are made to fight for district residents.” Robinson, an employee of VCSU, said the university supports his serving in the legislature, he works many late days and weekends and uses little vacation time so that VCSU is not shorted.
Buhr said her roots are in the Valley City area, and she grew up on a farm near Tower City. She has lived in Valley City for years and raised her children in the city. She has also served on the Valley City School Board for more than 20 years. “I’m running for the state house of representatives (because) I want to see North Dakota reach its full potential.”
Incumbent Barnes County Commissioner John Froelich said he represents commission district 5 , was born and raised 10 miles from Valley City and worked the farm and drove truck for a living.
Schwehr said she is now finishing her third four-year term as district 1 county commissioner, and “have lived in the Valley City area my entire life. Family and roots are very important to me. (If re-elected) I will continue to do the best I can.”
Major differences between candidates came out on education and North Dakota’s expected $1.6 billion budget surplus.
Most candidates said at least some of the surplus should be used for property tax relief, but Keifert only mentioned property tax relief, and Hovland said there should be no surplus, and the money should be returned to citizens.
“I have a real problem with surpluses. Budgeting and planning should be based on the revenue stream,” Hovland said.
Peterson suggested funds could be used for student loans and for loans to help small town residents buy existing businesses from people planning to retire.
Robinson said his priorities for the additional funds would include tax relief, infrastructure, long-term health care, rural health care, EMT services, rural fire departments, senior transportation programs, flood protection and to help North Dakota to shift to more treatment and less incarceration for offenders.
Buhr said she favored tax relief, infrastructure improvements especially in western North Dakota and support of college students including more scholarship money for students attending North Dakota colleges.
A question from the audience was how to improve eastern North Dakota teacher pay to better compete with higher wages paid in the west.
Robinson noted teacher salaries are increasing in western North Dakota, and some smaller districts are paying teachers more than the Williston School District.
Buhr said scholarships for education students to remain in North Dakota could help increase teacher pay.
Peterson said smaller school districts can’t afford to pay as much for teachers as can larger schools.
Hovland said “The pay structure (for teachers) is based on market demands.” Hovland said going to more modern technology such as long-distance learning can cut costs of education. “We need to be early adopters of new technology.”
Keifert said more concentration on vocational training would be a good move, and could lead to higher paying jobs for students.
Muscha, who has worked as a teacher, said “I was replaced by an ITV box (a term for remote learning over closed circuit television).
Long-distance learning works in some cases, but not, for example, foreign languages.”
The only candidate supporting passage of Measure 5 (toughening laws agains abuse of dogs, cats and horse) was Buhr.
Wobbema asked county commission candidates their opinions on Devils Lake and what the state is doing with the Tolna coulee.
Both Schwehr and Froelich said they are unhappy with the Tolna coulee control structure which has stop logs that can be removed to let more water through, but would not be put back in place if no longer needed.
Said Froelich, “I have strong opinions on Devils Lake, and I don’t agree with the governor.”
Said Schwehr, “The Tolna coulee thing is kind of scary (because) once the stop logs are removed, they can’t be put back. Whenever the state discusses (Devils Lake flooding that would have an effect downstream) we should be there, so they (state officials) know we’re there and watching. We should protect Valley City and Barnes County from flooding.”
Froelich said he would like to see elected officials from counties and communities along the Sheyenne River more unified in their position on Devils Lake flooding and its effect downstream.