*We are continuing our Meet the Candidates conversations for the November 3rd, 2020 elections. We recently talked with Senator Paul Utke (R) from Minnesota Senate District 2 who is running for reelection, you can see his facebook page here.
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*KAXE/KBXE News and Public Affairs Director Heidi Holtan recently spoke with Senator Paul Utke. The following transcript has been edited for clarity. The audio of this interview is available at the top of this page.
(Heidi Holtan) Q: Paul Utke is a Republican senator serving Minnesota Senate District 2. This region includes Beltrami, Becker, Clearwater, Hubbard, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Otter Tail, and Wadena counties, as well as the White Earth Nation. Senator Paul Utke joins us now. That's a lot of counties and a lot of land there. Isn't it?
(Paul Utke) A: Yes, it is. It's a great area of northern Minnesota, but we do have the second largest Senate district in the state. So, we cover a lot of territory.
Q: Since you are the seated Senator right now, why did you run for office in the first place, and why are you running for re-election?
A: Like you mentioned, I'm just finishing my first term. As I look back, first of all, if you asked me about this five or six years ago, I would have had a completely different response. I had no inkling or no reason to be running for the position, but, it ended up, as we were looking for a candidate, four or five years ago, those that were working with me kept asking me if I would do it. And I kept saying no, like most people do...you're busy working and all these things. But in the end, I agreed to do it, and it was successful, which was great. I'm glad it worked out. I truly believe that in the last four years we did some good things for Minnesotans, but we have a lot left to do. And that's why I'm running for reelection again...I'd like to be part of the process going forward to hopefully do some more, good things. At this point it's been an interesting, educational process. You learn a lot. And as long as I think a person is still interested in liking it, it's a good thing to pursue, and I've enjoyed it. So, I'm ready to give it another run.
Q: If you had to limit your priorities in your district to just two, what would you say they would be?
A: Oh, two is tough. You know, one thing that comes up everywhere, across our district, and around the state is childcare. It's beyond just taking care of children. It's basically our number one economic driver. Of course, the past five or six months, have given us a totally different economic view in our state because of COVID challenges, but in general, leading up to that point, and even during this time period, childcare is huge. We had a terrific need for employees and, we had a number of people wanting to be in the workforce, eligible to in the workforce, but because of the lack of childcare, one of the parents was probably staying home most of the time to take care of the children. Childcare just comes in all different forms and needs across our district. There's a lot of things I could add to that list...healthcare is one that pops up a lot, and included with that would be mental health and the human services side of it.
But with healthcare in general, we have a lot of people throughout this district who are self-employed. They are farmers, they're small business people, and they're accessing their healthcare, or their health insurance, through the individual market. That has gotten better over the last four years. Better is probably the fact that it hasn't gone up in as large of increments as it did prior, but the problem is, is it affordable? And yet at this point, I believe that particularly for those that are getting up in their upper fifties and early sixties prior to Medicare age, their healthcare is not affordable. It's too expensive. When you look at the income range and the percentage that would be paid out for healthcare. So, I'll go with that childcare and healthcare, two big issues, and that list could grow if we wanted to go further.
Q: Yeah, there is a lot to discuss. I hear about childcare from most of the candidates that I am talking to. You can't solve it, but what could be different in our climate right now? We're in a very odd place because we are still under a pandemic. So things are different than they ever have been, but what are some things that could make the state of childcare better?
A: One of the biggest things I hear from the providers... And we actually had a bill that I had written up this past February. I guess we probably were doing it prior to that, but February is when we started our 2020 session. And it was thanks to, in a large part, the childcare providers of Beltrami County, because they've been organized, running over things that are challenges to them, and we've had the chance to work with them. And we put a bill together for our in-home providers and that's the provider of all the way across this district. They provide the most childcare service because we have very few center-based, which would be a commercial based childcare. Most people are taking it to someone they know in their home and that's still the largest thing.
We've heard it for a long time, but it's regulations. In the bill that I put in, thanks to input from the providers in Beltrami County, we try to realign the age classifications, make it more user-friendly for the provider. First of all, these providers, in a lot of cases, probably started when they had young children themselves, but as their children aged, they got older, and worked through the childcare era. They stayed with it, and they do it because of their love for working with the kids. Not because they're getting rich, because the payment just doesn't allow that, but they did it because they enjoy kids. Well, they still enjoy the kids, but they're tired of the regulations that control everything they do, from the meals they serve. And, we want safe environments and want good meals. We want all that, but we have to rely on those providers some. But this age flexibility was a big deal because it was pretty tight. The kids, as they grow older, and they move through that time period pretty fast...all of a sudden their provider was good for 10 kids, all of a sudden the next week, it might only be eight or seven because some kids passed over that age classification. We tried to make that a lot more user friendly on the low end. With the infants, we still had to have smaller numbers. But we've built the flexibility in the middle range, because those providers know their capabilities. If they really like the youngest ones, they'll do a wonderful job with it. Others would rather have the three and four and five year olds, just prior to kindergarten. They could have a houseful, the 10 or the 12 (kids), and do just very well. Unfortunately that bill, we just had a hearing on it, and then everything changed with the shutdowns due to coronavirus. We will bring that back in 2021 and try to move it forward because I believe it's good for the childcare industry. It's great for our providers, and it'll be good for our parents looking for childcare services.
Q: We are talking with Senator Paul Utke today. He is running for reelection as the Republican Senator from Minnesota Senate District 2. Before we go, how was it, as a senator during this pandemic, and how do you think the state has responded to it?
A: The state has done some good things. It was a big deal all the way across the whole United States, and actually around the world. It was something that had to be addressed. Plans had to be put in place. Now that we're five, six months into this, we need to get back to work in a lot of cases. The unfortunate thing is, politics and healthcare don't mix, and we have to make sure that we deal with strictly the facts and the data of what this virus really is. I think that in some cases, the fear has gone too far. Plus, in our state, the Metro is different than the rural areas and we need to treat each area differently too.
We had a lot of things and we still do that are tied up, shut down in rural Minnesota... that should be open and running, just because we're a land of wide open spaces already, and we can do things differently. That's the one biggest thing that I was advocating for even as far back as April is rural, Minnesota needs to be treated differently, and let us have some local input. Because like a lot of things, when it gets back to the local people, we can make good decisions based on where we actually sit today.
Q: That's Senator Paul Utke. You can find more information at paulutke.com. Thanks so much for your time today. I appreciate it.
A: Thank you.