Gunther, Klassen square off

FAIRMONT — Bob Gunther and Heather Klassen both say health care is the No. 1 issue on the minds of people in southern Minnesota.

Gunther, the 12-term Republican incumbent from Fairmont, and Klassen, a Jackson-area Democrat, met in a forum on Wednesday evening as they seek the District 23A seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives.

“I believe health care is a right, not a privilege,” Klassen said.

Gunther agreed that there are “tremendous needs” among his constituents, who call him to express worries about their lack of access to health care or about its costs. He says he has worked on a case-by-case basis to get people the help they need. He also touted the work of his Republican colleagues for passing reforms that have led to a second straight year of premium decreases in the individual insurance market.

“So things are looking up,” he said.

But Klassen, a health insurance broker, noted that the individual insurance market represents only 5 percent of the population. While the news is good for some small business owners and farmers, there are bigger problems elsewhere, such as with group rates (employer-sponsored insurance) that are going up, she said.

Klassen says that what is needed is a “Minnesota health care solution,” which she describes as a basic level of universal coverage, to be offered by the state if it cannot be done on the federal level.

The duo discussed recent state efforts to provide one-time funding to offer people relief from expensive premiums, with funds coming from taxes on providers.

Klassen argued that such measures are only temporary fixes, or “Band-Aids,” that do nothing to help create a permanent solution. She said people are still forced to hang on to jobs they may not want in order to retain benefits.

Gunther said lawmakers felt the short-term fixes were necessary because many people were suffering. But he also noted that taxing providers does not affect either insurance companies or medical professionals, since both pass along the costs to consumers.

The questions the pair faced also touched on health care-related topics, such as nursing home care and funding cuts affecting those who take care of handicapped individuals. Both said the funding cut should be restored to help the providers of services for the handicapped. Gunther suggested that an additional 3 percent funding be added.

Klassen acknowledged that she has more to learn about nursing home financing. She did say nursing home care is critical. Gunther said he takes pride in having passed legislation that probably saved many nursing homes from going out of business, at a time when several did close.

Moving on to other topics, the candidates offered their views K-12 education.

Klassen said state funding is not keeping up with the rate of inflation, and schools routinely have to go to voters to ask them for more money. She noted that no other government entity — city, county — has to ask for funds like this when it has needs.

Education, Klassen says, offers the best return on the money invested. More funding is needed, and more equitable funding across the state, she said.

Gunther said he would continue to push for the same amount of funding for schools regardless of where the schools are located. Schools in his district receive less than in places like Minneapolis, he said.

Both said they support things such as funding classes out of regular school hours, to foster things such as vocational learning across a wide range of disciplines, such as welding, plumbing, electrical and construction.

Asked whether they support a preschool option for 4-year-olds, Gunther said this would have a detrimental effect on daycares, where the 4-year-olds currently spend their time.

Klassen rejected that notion, saying all-day preschool for 4-year-olds makes a lot of sense, especially given the shortage of daycare providers. She said the school setting has much to offer these youngsters in terms of enrichment, and the investment is worth it.

Facing a question on roads and bridges, the candidates were asked if they would support a gas tax increase to help pay for improvements. Gunther said he would not, arguing that it will hurt outstate Minnesota, which drives more, and farmers. He noted that the state has spent, for the second year in a row, a record amount of money on infrastructure improvements.

Klassen said she is not opposed to a gas tax hike, but it has to be implemented fairly so it does not adversely affect certain sectors of the population. She noted that Minnesota’s tax of 28 cents per gallon is below the national average of 31 cents.

Asked for her thoughts on immigration, Klassen said Minnesota relies on immigrants to help staff its farms, factories and companies. She said she supports a path to citizenship for immigrants, as well as allowing them driver’s licenses. She said the state should be welcoming to people.

Gunther agreed that a way must be found to bring in workers to businesses that need them. He said Fairmont Foods would add two production lines tomorrow, hire 200 employees and pay them $15 per hour if it could find the people.

Finally, the pair offered their final pitches, with Gunther touting his experience and leadership roles in St. Paul. He said he wants to return to the Capitol to work on a variety of issues, including federal tax conformity and health care, to insure everybody who needs insurance.

Klassen noted her appreciation for Gunther’s tenure, but said she has been all over the district, attending meetings, listening and knocking on 9,500 doors, meeting people. She said people in southern Minnesota work hard and take care of each other, and that’s what she wants to do in St. Paul.

The candidate forum was sponsored by the governmental affairs committee of the Fairmont Area Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau.