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District 37 candidates debate issues

District 37 candidates for North Dakota's Senate and House of Representatives came together Thursday for a public forum held at Dickinson City Hall. Participating were House incumbents Mike Lefor and Vicky Stiner, both Republicans, and Democratic...

The District 37 candidates, four pursuing the North Dakota House of Representatives and two pursuing the ND Senate, met at Dickinson City Hall Thursday to offer voters their thoughts on current issues. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)
The District 37 candidates, four pursuing the North Dakota House of Representatives and two pursuing the ND Senate, met at Dickinson City Hall Thursday to offer voters their thoughts on current issues. (Brandon L. Summers / The Dickinson Press)

District 37 candidates for North Dakota's Senate and House of Representatives came together Thursday for a public forum held at Dickinson City Hall.

Participating were House incumbents Mike Lefor and Vicky Stiner, both Republicans, and Democratic challenger Keith Fernsler; and Senate incumbent Rich Wardner, a Republican, and R. Travis Brazelton, a Democrat.

OPENING STATEMENTS

Brazelton opened by saying, "I'm not a politician" and described himself as a "recovering Republican" who once happily supported Wardner.

"He's everybody's favorite school teacher at the high school, and coach, but 28 years is long enough," he said. "It's time for a change."

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Brazelton criticized state Republicans for advocating smaller government, term limits and lower taxes, will doing little to address any of those issues.

"Recently they've come up with a new term, citizen legislators, just to get elected over and over again," he said. "Insanity is doing something over and over, and expecting a different result. Every year the incumbent hopes you'll do it one more time."

Wardner touted his 28 years of experience, eight years spent in the House and 20 years in the Senate, and his hard work to build positive relationships.

"What gets things done is treating people right, treating people with respect, and making sure you get out and make contact with them," he said. "Doesn't matter if they're a group at the state level or an individual in the district."

Pokorny, also a first-time candidate, said her life has been enriched by the people she's met while campaigning.

"Whether you challenge me or disagree with me, it was a pleasure meeting my neighbors and I have been made better by the experience," she said.

An education advocate for three sessions at the state capital, she said she would bring a diverse background to the legislature.

Steiner applauded the achievements of the three Republican candidates, including property tax reform and securing funds for Dickinson State University.

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"Your republican team balanced the budget using smart reductions and reserves," she said.

Fernsler said he was running because too many people in Dickinson face "great uncertainty" in their lives.

He argued government no longer works for everyone, which he attributed to a super majority that "leaves too many people on the outside looking."

"Many of our citizens no longer know if they're able to vote or if their vote will count," he said.

As a result, citizens are at risk of losing access to resources such as critical health services.

Lefor argued that there is a Republican majority because "voters put us there" and that they reflect the conservative values of the voters.

If re-elected, he said he would continue to help secure funds for DSU, infrastructure, nursing homes, public safety and health care.

"I have a great deal of pride doing what we've done in the last two sessions," he said.

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RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA

Asked if he supports Measure 3, recreational marijuana, Lefor said he does not.

"(The measure) contains no taxes for regulatory structure," he said. "Marijuana can be grown anywhere at anytime by anyone in any quantity."

Fernsler said it is for the public to decide.

"It's a rather daunting thing to get a measure on the ballot, and I think interest emerged very definitely," he said. "Measures usually come because of discontent with the legislature."

Steiner said she was against the measure.

She voiced concerns about smoking near churches and schools, and the lack of limitations in the measure, including driving while intoxicated.

"If the voters decide they want it, I will do the best to make that work for the public," she said.

Pokorny agreed with Fernsler that it is an issue for the public, and spoke about the benefits of access to medical marijuana.

"When I think about the people who have waited for the medical marijuana to come to fruition to help alleviate their pain, my heart breaks," she said. "I understand there are some issues with the way the bill is written. The legislature fixed the last one. I think it can happen again."

Wardner was also against the measure.

"The THC, the chemical that is in the marijuana today is much higher than it was," he said. "As someone who was the assistant principal of Dickinson High School, I see the negative impacts far outweighing the positive ones."

Brazelton said he was for it, though, as an oil field worker, he would not be allowed to use it.

He argued that Measure 3 is response to 2016's Measure 5 on medical marijuana.

"People voted 62 percent for it. The legislature decided they were going to try to delay it and then try to fix it," he said. "More people voted for that than Donald Trump in North Dakota, and it's considered a landslide."

OPIOID CRISIS

Steiner voiced concerns for the district's behavior health issues and the need for a regional health center.

"One of the frustrating things with drug use, especially meth, they don't get fixed right away," she said. "They can take counseling, but they don't necessarily get healthy immediately, and they re-offend and get in trouble with the law. It's very stressful on the families."

Pokorny noted that in the last session $28 million was put into House Bill 1040 to help address the problem.

"Unfortunately, only $300,000 passed," she said. "If we could restore what that bill provided, then I think we will be able to find more providers. That's one of the issues. We don't have enough providers, and the ones we do have we don't pay very well."

Wardner said the problem can be solved by the medical community and law enforcement working together.

"The medical community needs to be involved in this, and when it comes to prescriptions they need to be kept at a smaller doses than some of them have been," he said.

Brazelton said access to medical marijuana will be difficult in the district, as Dickinson's hospitals said they will not allow their doctors to prescribe it.

"That leaves basically two doctors who have said they will come out and do it, and they're in Fargo, and it's against the law in North Dakota to doctor shop," he said.

Lefor said the cost of incarceration is high, and alternatives need to be found. He supported the idea of bringing a regional health center to Dickinson.

"We need to work with professionals to come here," he said. "We need to help those with addiction issues. We need to focus on that to help get them back on their feet and stop the revolving door of addiction."

Fernsler said there are already models for programs in place that could help. A chief problem is regulations for counselors.

"If you go from being a social worker to an addiction counselor, you have to start over," he said. "We need to find out how we can get licensing so we can get more of those people in the treatment field to address those kinds of problems."

CHILD CARE

Asked what the state can do to help address the need for access to child care, Wardner said tax incentives could help.

"The best thing we can do is, businesses that would provide funding for child care, we give them a tax credit or tax break and encourage that," he said. "I don't think the state wants to get in the business of child care."

Brazelton argued that child care assistance needs to be expanded, as it directly relates to the state's workforce shortage problem.

"You can't go to work if you can't find a daycare for your children," he said. "Several of us went to Watford City and met with those people during the Bakken tour and they're doing the very best they can, but it's simply just not enough."

He added, "The state needs to step in."

Lefor agreed the state should not be in the business of child care.

"It's not government's responsibility to solve all the problems. I believe in a private sector solution," he said. "We can't continue to drive up the cost of government, especially when we have so many other priorities."

Fernsler noted that the cost of daycare for a single percent is 37 percent of their income.

"It's very expensive for them," he said. "We need to get that tax break there and we need to give employers enough of an incentive to make it work."

Pokorny noted that for a single parent, daycare for two children is 73 percent of their income.

"I had a (teacher's union) member call me and ask me to help them be released from their teaching contract because, and this was a cheap daycare, she had three children, so it was costing her $81 a day for three children," she said. "By the time she paid her rent and child care, she had $81 dollars every two weeks to cloth and feed her children."

Steiner called the issue a "tough one," suggesting community solutions such as providing daycare through multi-business cooperatives.

"I would like to see the private sector solve it," she said. "We do some incentives to spur it. Different communities solve it in different ways."

The general election will be held on Nov. 6.

Related Topics: RICH WARDNER
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