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Friday, October 10, 2008

District 8 House Candidates on the Issues: Analysis from the AAUW Forum

No, I haven't forgotten about the Madison AAUW District 8 legislative candidates forum; there's just been a lot of other news going on here in Lake County.

But I've been thinking a lot about what I heard and saw at the forum. This morning, let's look at the State House candidates. But first, if you like, feel free to peruse my commentary-free notes on the candidates' responses to the tough questions the voters gave them Tuesday night....

O.K., now some commentary!

We have four candidates running for the two District 8 House seats. In these four, we have about as much diversity as one could ask for in District 8:
  • Democrat Gerry Lange: 80-year-old Air Force vet, farmer, history professor, and veteran legislator
  • Democrat Mitch Fargen: 26-year-old SDSU grad, former student senator, now working at the Farmers Union
  • Republican Jerry Johnson: 50-year-old trucking business owner, former Madison city commissioner
  • Republican Patricia Stricherz: Army vet, social worker, grandma (and a lady whose age I'll leave her to publicize)
In terms of age, profession, schooling, and political experience, you have a little of everything. I'll let you decide (and discuss in the comments!) how those factors stack up in your book.

Let's look at how the candidates handled the questions Tuesday night:

On the energy questions,
Gerry Lange enjoyed an advantage on the energy questions thanks to his experience as a board member at Sioux Valley Electric. Even on the solar power question, Lange had a ready answer, mentioning a report on villages in India where women are making small-scale solar cells for rural power. (To come up with something new to say after the other five candidates have already had a crack at the question is pretty good.)

Mitch Fargen was also able to come up with a specific answer on solar, saying that SDSU has just received Sun Grant funding to work on solar power. Jerry Johnson and Patricia Stricherz weren't quite as specific on this issue, though I'll admit, the question caught me by surprise, too.

All four candidates appeared to fall in line against the idea of the state mandating that utilities buy back excess power generated by alternative home energy sources, although Stricherz said tax breaks for solar would be a good idea.

The question on wind power appeared to seek evidence from the candidates of things they themselves have done to promote that form of alternative energy. That's a tough question, because hey, what have you done? The candidates' answered drifted more toward what we could do. Fargen said landowners need to share in the true value of wind projects, not just get some small rent from corporations (Fargen is no socialist, but he touches my rebel heart by putting just a hint of disdain on the word corporations). Johnson said we need to look at all forms of energy and encourage cooperatives, cities, and other groups to work together. Stricherz passed on the question.

Only Lange, the experienced legislator, was able to cite concrete actions that he's participated in to promote wind power. He cited the Legislature's abatement of the contractor's excise tax, a tax he characterized as one of our worst and a competitive disadvantage South Dakota faces agaisnt other states. A veteran of tax fights in the Legislature, Lange rightly identified the tax structure as one of the main tools the state has at its disposal to promote wind power.

Party politics didn't come up much during the forum, but on education, the candidates started sounding like Democrats and Republicans. Lange and Fargen both advocated directly investing more state money to reduce the debt students incur at university. Johnson cheered the status quo and suggested looking for grants and private donors. Stricherz said the resources are there and that we just have let our kids find themselves... an interesting and positive parental perspective, but not a clear sign of proactive legislative effort. It's nice to be a fiscal conservative, but as Lange noted, the GI Bill, one of the greatest investments in education in America's history, paid back $9 for every $1 invested.

The responses were similar on increasing wages in South Dakota. Everyone agreed that we need to encourage higher education. Johnson pointed to his work on creating and keeping jobs at the local level and said it's not easy when we're up against global market forces. But again, only the Democrats spoke directly of Legislative action to address these problems, specifically in terms of increasing investment in education.

On the Regents' paydate-switching scheme and the harm it do to retirees benefits, Fargen was able to drop names, referring to a conversation with Tad Perry himself about options to move retirement dates. Of course, moving one's retirement date may not sit well with employees who've already made their plans and given the state decades of service. Stricherz offered an alternative solution, phasing in the paydate switch for new employees (though I have a feeling someone in Pierre will say their computers will explode if they have to keep track of two separate paydates a month). Johnson remained agnostic, saying he needs more information, but Lange wasn't afraid to call the scheme a scheme, the same sort of "shell game" that has gotten Wall Street into its troubles.

So who won? Well, the questions and answers at this specific forum didn't give me cause to change my vote from Lange and Fargen. But there are a lot more issues than what we got to discuss in this one hour, issues the candidates may get to address at the upcoming forums:
  • Tuesday, October 21: Madison HS, 7 p.m.
  • Wednesday, October 22: Howard Legion Hall, 7 p.m.
  • tentative: Tuesday, October 29: Chester HS (I've heard it's possible, but I don't have confirmation of date and time yet)
Keep reading, keep listening, and keep asking those candidates questions!

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