Candidates weigh in on rural issues
Three running for Congress take Farmfest soapbox
By Lenora Chu
REDWOOD FALLS, Minn. -- Cordiality ruled the day as the three candidates for Congress in the 1st District gathered Tuesday at Farmfest to discuss their views on agriculture, rural education and transportation.
The Republican incumbent, U.S. Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Rochester, and challengers Democrat Steve Andreasen and the Green Party's Greg Mikkelson sat side by side and answered questions posed by a media panel.
The candidates' summary remarks homed in on their top rural priorities.
Gutknecht's comprehensive message focused on the need for "value-added agriculture," in which farmers are involved in processing and developing their crop products rather than simply sending a raw crop, such as corn, to another market.
"If we don't convert more of what we grow," Gutknecht said, "the least profitable thing is we can put it on a barge down the Mississippi River."
Gutknecht also praised the recent farm bill, which increases subsidies to farmers nationwide and strengthens conservation initiatives, but he acknowledged it "isn't perfect."
Andreasen, a security consultant who lives in Rochester, proposed the creation of a Commission on Agriculture Reform, which would bring together farmers, ranchers, environmentalists and consumers across the political spectrum to "sit down and talk about our future challenges."
The commission would seek to protect family farms, strengthen rural economies and improve the position of American agriculture overseas, Andreasen said.
Mikkelson, a farmer from Blue Earth County, stressed the need for a prescription drug benefit for seniors and questioned the value of the farm bill.
"Would we really need a farm bill if there wasn't so much corporate interest in commodity trade?" Mikkelson asked. Corporate interests benefit when crops are sold at low prices, corporate contributions helped get the bill passed, he said, and farmers are still quitting the profession.
"The farm bill is not addressing these concerns," Mikkelson said.
All three candidates acknowledged that transportation in outstate Minnesota needs improvement.
Mikkelson stressed the importance of preserving a river system for crop transport, repairing locks and dams and upgrading roads and bridges in southern Minnesota.
Andreasen said that strong transportation corridors are critical to the health of rural communities, but that until the government "turns around budget and tax policies that put a tremendous strain our federal budget, we're simply not going to see much federal money for transportation."
Gutknecht said one reason U.S. farmers compete well with South America is America's superior transportation system. "We need to keep that edge," he said, and referred to the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad line through southern Minnesota as an important corridor in that respect.
"I've taken some criticism from folks in Rochester," Gutknecht said, "but we need that railroad -- we need railroads, period."
On education funding, Gutknecht said that although further reform is needed, there have been improvements since he entered Congress in 1994.
"When I went to Washington, the federal government picked up 7 percent of the total cost of special education," Gutknecht said. "I'm proud to say that we're now at 14 percent. But that's still a long ways from the goal …; of 40 percent."
Mikkelson said government mandates, such as special education, should be fully funded.
"I've been in Washington, D.C., before, I looked around and money doesn't grow on trees there," Mikkelson said. "But you need to be complete with funding and put your money where your mouth is."
Andreasen said that although Washington doesn't create money, "it does set priorities," calling attention to the Bush administration's tax cuts that "gave 40 percent of the benefits to the wealthiest 1 percent" in America.
"The No. 1 thing that federal government can do for education in the state of Minnesota is to provide full funding of special education," he said.
All three candidates agreed that the decline in rural jobs and the increasing loss of young, rural residents to metro areas needs to be remedied.
"The simple answer to that is to make (agriculture) more profitable," Gutknecht said. "We need more value-added agriculture."
Andreasen said the ongoing improvement of rural education, transportation infrastructure and information arteries to outstate Minnesota would increase the retention rate of young people in rural areas.
Mikkelson said the farm bill contained "no vision" and does not address ways to keep young people in rural areas.
On the issue of increasing Congressional pay, none of the candidates advocated salary raises. Gutknecht said he felt he is compensated fairly and Andreasen said raises are "out of the question" when the economy is faring so poorly. Mikkelson pointed out that members of Congress already get automatic annual increases and the "right question" should center on whether to cancel these raises.