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Candidates in Districts 17, 43 focus on jobs, education

North Dakotans have a say in 72 seats in the North Dakota Legislature up for election.

A number of candidates were motivated to run, or seek re-election, because of budget cuts or because they want to improve their communities.

Some candidates say incumbents have been in office too long, yet others feel having served in the Legislature for so long allows them to accomplish things they promised to do.

In Districts 17 and 43 there are 12 hopefuls vying for six seats in the Nov. 6 election.

District 17

Those elected in District 17 represent South Grand Forks and part of Central Grand Forks County.

Republican Mark Sanford, the incumbent of almost eight years, is a retired superintendent of Grand Forks Public Schools and Grand Forks Air Force Base Schools. He held this position for 26 years and said his experiences have given him the skills necessary to working in the Legislature.

"You need to work with a variety of people in the House," Sanford said. "You have to use the skill sets of all members."

Education, workforce development and how to spend the Legacy Fund are issues he sees this Legislative Assembly facing.

"I have a background in areas I think are critical to growth and development of the state," Sanford said. "And my seniority gives me the ability to be on committees that can do the most for our state, like the Appropriations Committee."

He said citizens have invested in him, and now he has an opportunity to be more productive for the region and state.

The other House Republican incumbent is Mark Owens. He has worked in the Intelligent Transportation Systems Industry for the past two decades. This field includes technologies such as lane departure warning, blind spot warning and autonomous vehicles. Before that, he served in the U.S. Air Force.

"I have continuously served the public, my community and country in various ways all my life, and it seems the right thing do at whatever level I can offer my skills, knowledge and services," said Owens, who has served two stints in the House from 2005 to 2008 and again since 2011.

He said his experience gives him a the ability to see solutions not normally considered.

He plans to keep people, and how the law affects them, at the forefront of every decision.

Monte Gaukler, a Democrat, taught with Grand Forks Public Schools for 32 years. This fall, she began teaching at UND.

"After 32 years in public education, there's another step I can take toward realizing the values I believe in. I can further impact the statewide processes of education by becoming a legislator," she said.

Gaukler wants to see a more balanced House in terms of gender and political parties. The Legislature will need to stabilize the budget, Gaukler said.

"The Legislature needs to invest more in economic development and diversifying our economy," she said. "I also believe that funding for education and behavioral health will be very important issues to address."

Another Democrat in the House race, Angela Urlacher, is an anthropology professor at UND.

"The cuts over the last few years have dramatically changed our community," Urlacher said.

Her district is seeing the effects of the cuts in social services, education, criminal justice systems and more, she said. She said she's had a front row seat to consequences of cuts on higher education as a professor.

"I've spoken with many people who have told me about their challenges in finding services for loved ones with addiction and mental health issues," she said.

To fix this, District 17 needs to create a stable budget that takes the area off the "roller coaster ride" it has been experiencing as commodity prices fluctuate, she said.

Challenger Phyllis Johnson is running for Senate in District 17.

Johnson is retired but was UND's vice president for Research and Economic Development from 2009 to 2014.

Johnson, a Democrat, said she is running because the "Republican supermajority" and the light presence of women in the Legislature means voices like hers should be heard.

She also is running because she is upset about drastic budget cuts for higher education.

"The cuts at UND hurt not only the university, its students, faculty, and staff, but the vitality of the entire Grand Forks community," Johnson said.

The biggest issues the Legislature will face will be the governor's request for further budget cuts and the UND-North Dakota State University request for research funding. Another major issue is the need for much more behavioral health care in the state.

"This is particularly important in light of our drug problem and the high suicide rate in North Dakota," Johnson said.

Her incumbent opponent, Ray Holmberg, has been in the Senate since 1977. Before retiring, the Republican taught social studies at Central High School, and then was a counselor.

Holmberg is running to continue efforts to diversify the state's economy beyond the commodities of agriculture and oil.

"The (unmanned aircraft) industry in Grand Forks, Grand Sky, is literally taking off," he said.

Infrastructure is something he has worked to improve and plans next session to implement a comprehensive plan of road and bridge improvement.

The biggest issues the Legislature will face will revolve around the state budget.

"We had a major reduction in the past three years because of commodity prices," he said. "We are starting to climb out of the hole created by those reductions, and now we have to make sure that growth cycle continues."

District 43

Those elected in District 43 will represent southwest Grand Forks.

Mary Adams, an agent with Crary Real Estate, was motivated to run for the North Dakota House of Representatives when she was watching the news and found herself yelling at the TV.

"Like most people do," Adams said.

Her husband then told her to do something about it, and this is her way of doing that.

"I want to be a state that helps people," Adams said. "We're all the same in God's eyes. We should help everyone."

Adams wants to help teachers, the poor and elderly.

"New teachers come out with so much debt and then they have to pay with their own money to set up their classroom," she said.

She also wants to balance out the House by running as a Democrat.

"I know it's going to be a tough battle because we are the minority, but I want my voice to be heard," Adams said.

Also running for the House, Matt Eidson is currently a full-time student at UND.

He is running for the House of Representatives because of the "devastating impact" on the community following recent budget cuts.

Eidson, a Democrat, wants to implement an incentive program targeted at veterans that would cover the remaining costs for flight hours not covered by the GI Bill if they complete their aviation degree at UND and agree to work in North Dakota for two years following graduation.

"I believe this program would bolster North Dakota's emerging UAS operations and strengthen our economy," Eidson said.

Realtor Ben Olson is running for the House of Representatives as a Republican. Two years ago he ran for Grand Forks City Council and lost, but that helped him find his love for public service.

Funding for education and educators' pay is an important issue to Olson.

"Grand Forks is a community centered on education," Olson said.

Getting jobs filled is also an issue he is concerned with. He said the government could ease restrictions on out of state licensures, then people from out of state could come to work in North Dakota.

Rich Becker has completed his first four-year term in the House and is vying for a second. The Republican worked in the oil industry, which is where he said he learned to manage people and work with different people.

He said he works with people on both sides of the aisle.

"The House is strongly Republican controlled, but that doesn't mean Republicans can walk away with whatever they want," Becker said. "You don't exceed common sense."

An issue the Legislature may have to deal with is legalization of recreational marijuana. Becker said he and the majority of his constituents are against Measure 3.

The Legislature will also look at funding for higher education and the makeup of the Board of Higher Education, Becker said.

"I've learned so much this term, so I think in the second term I'll be even more effective," Becker said.

Democrat JoNell Bakke was in the Senate from 2007 to 2010. She is a retired special education teacher and currently works with UND to supervise student teachers. In her time in the Senate, Bakke said she was able to address many of the issues she felt were important. This time around, she has new concerns she wants to work on, like making child care more accessible. Accessible child care would allow more people to enter the workforce, she said.

As an educator, she also feels funding education should be a priority.

The single biggest issue facing North Dakota, Bakke said, is how to balance the budget.

"We need to address our priorities and then put the money behind those priorities," Bakke said.

Lonnie Laffen is the founder of JLG Architects. He has been in the Senate since 2011. Laffen is running to "give back."

Some issues Laffen is concerned with are stabilizing the budget, how to spend the Legacy Fund and education.

"I think there are ways we can use (the Legacy Fund) to build real 'legacy' infrastructure projects and still protect and grow the principal," Laffen said.

Laffen said he thinks North Dakota can work to fund infrastructure in the eastern part of the state now.

Laffen also wants to work on filling the 50,000 open jobs in the state.

"We can't fix the weather but if we could figure out how to attract talent we could really grow our economy."

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