Lawmakers' assessment of legislative session splits along party lines
Depending on which Brainerd area legislator was providing the perspective, the 2014 Minnesota legislative session that adjourned last week was either an assembly lawmakers could take great pride in or an abject failure.
Not surprisingly, the division of opinions fell along party lines.
Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, and Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, said the highlights were plentiful while Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point used Twitter vocabulary and summed the Legislature’s performance as “#failure.” Other Republicans, Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, and Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, pointed to a few positive points but expressed disappointment at the level of spending that took place.
Ruud, a member of the minority in the Senate, said she found herself voting no so often one might have thought her red button was duct-taped in that position. Ward said he preferred to evaluate the session from a two-year perspective, marking the period where Democrats have had majorities in the House and the Senate.
“From my perspective, I think the last two years — what we were able to accomplish — had some really positive impacts for the citizens of the state of Minnesota and for the state of Minnesota,” Ward said. He said he could talk at great length of the legislative accomplishments of the last two years.
“I feel that good about the session,” Ward said.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA BILL
Lawmakers also divided along party lines on the medical marijuana bill. It was supported by Ward and Radinovich. Gazelka, Ruud, Anderson and Kresha voted no.
Gazelka said while he believed medical marijuana could benefit some people, he still felt the state should use the same procedure as with any other prescription narcotic where it would be regulated and controlled.
“We’re marching out on our own,” he said of the state’s action.
Radinovich said the compromise legislation on medical marijuana received bipartisan support. It would allow the use of marijuana in the forms of pills or extract oils. He said the law enforcement organizations were neutral on the bill.
Kresha said he voted no on the medical marijuana bill because the legislation wasn’t “research-based enough.” He also feared there would be distribution problems.
Ward noted the medical cannabis bill passed the House by a substantial bipartisan margin. He said he had not supported medical cannabis previously but he changed his mind after visiting with a family whose ill child could benefit from the use of marijuana. He said he also talked to law enforcement and medical personnel on the issue.
“It’s the most restrictive law in the nation with medical cannabis,” Ward said. “I think the benefits for ill people far outweigh the negativity on this.”
Ruud said despite the restrictions spelled out in the marijuana bill, its passage was a terrible thing and only the first step.
“I’m not fooled,” she said. “Full-out legalization. That’s the goal.”
Anderson said marijuana is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the Legislature shouldn’t be authorizing use of a drug that’s not been approved.
LOCAL OPTION SALES TAX
An extension of Brainerd and Baxter’s local optional sales taxes was approved as part of a tax bill. If voters approve the measures, Baxter will be authorized to collect an extra $8 million that will be dedicated to extending Brainerd water and sewer service to the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. The state fire marshal’s office has told the airport it needs to either build its own water pump and tank system or connect to city water by 2016 in order to establish consistent water pressure that would be needed to simultaneously power all zones of the fire suppression sprinkler system at the airport.
Ward, vice chair of the panel that deals with bonding requests, said the extension of water to the airport was not going to be included in the bonding bill this session.
“It was dead on the vine,” he said, explaining how lawmakers and local officials switched their efforts to see that a dedicated fund for the project could be part of a tax bill instead. Ward said one benefit of paying for the project through the local option sales tax is that tourists who shop in Baxter would help pay for the improvements.
Gazelka, a member of the House Tax Committee, said negotiations on that topic were complex. He credited the work and expertise of Brainerd and Baxter officials.
“Watching Baxter work to help Brainerd, I think maybe that was the biggest highlight for me,” Gazelka said. “This was just a real effort to work together.”
Another positive point Gazelka pointed to was the cooperation among himself, Ruud and Radinovich when they successfully sought an exception that allowed the organizers of a chili cook-off in Crosslake to continue their activity. Gazelka also was pleased two tax relief bills returned about $500 million of the $2.2 billion increase in taxes that was approved a year ago to taxpayers.
“On the negative side, we did not control spending like we should have,” Gazelka said.
Gazelka voted against the bonding bill because of his concerns about spending. He said the bonding bill included a facility for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Little Falls and about $4 million to $5 million in building improvements at the Staples campus of Central Lakes College (CLC). He said he was also disappointed in the bill because it did not authorize enough money for the asset preservation requested by the Department of Military Affairs.
Radinovich said he was pleased the bonding bill contained money for water infrastructure for both the Brainerd airport and the city of Cuyuna. That bill also will provide funding for a fairgrounds building that’s needed in Aitkin County and $100,000 for the Mille Lacs Tourism Council in recognition of that lake’s troubled situation regarding walleye fishing.
He said legislation this year also provided sliding scale scholarships for parents who want their children to participate in quality early childhood education programs.
Personal care assistants who work with the developmentally disabled will receive a wage increase as the result of legislation passed this year, Radinovich said.
He said the minimum wage hike, which he supported gradually rises to $9.50 an hour by 2016. Radinovich said it returns the minimum wage to where it was in about 1980 in terms of real dollars.
The first-term lawmaker also said millions of dollars were authorized to fight aquatic invasive species such Asian carp.
Kresha said he was most disappointed at the level of state spending in this session.
“I think the lowlights were the tremendous amount of state spending we did at the at the end,” Kresha said, noting he would have liked to build up the state’s reserves. “I think we could have been a little bit more conservative.”
He voted for and served on the conference committee for the Women’s Economic Security Act. He said the bill has measures to prevent women from being discriminated against if they are pregnant or nursing children. The bill also offered entrepreneurial grant programs for women in business.
The bonding bill, he noted included the building improvements at CLC in Staples and money for land acquisition and construction of the State Veterans Trail.
Ward said bonding for state projects makes sense since interest rates and labor costs are both low. The projects put people to work, he said.
He said the bullying legislation that was passed deals with a real problem, one that students at Forestview Middle School in Baxter have brought up on their own.
Anderson differed from Ward on the question of bonding. He said the money from the surplus could have been used to pay for the bonding projects and money would not have to be borrowed. While he authored a bill for the building improvements at the CLC Staples campus, Anderson said he voted against the bonding bill after his bill was incorporated into that larger bill.
“In the end, I couldn’t support the final bill,” he said, citing his concerns about state spending.
“Where are we getting this money?” he asked.
Anderson criticized what he termed as anti-business legislation such as the minimum wage increase. He rejected the notion that only the rich were being taxed by the Legislature’s recent tax bills.
“That’s just a shell game,” he said.
Ruud pointed out what she thought were positive achievements of the Legislature. They included the 5 percent wage hike for those who care for long-term care residents and the disabled and the tax bill that extended the local option sales taxes for Brainerd and Baxter.
She criticized passage of “the crippling minimum wage bill” and the anti-bullying bill. She said the gun law that places restrictions on stalkers was unnecessary since it’s already in federal law. Ruud also said she voted no on the $90 million that will be spent on the Senate office building.
The Women’s Economic Security Act sends the wrong message to women of Minnesota implying they can’t make it without government help, Ruud said. She said that bill was difficult for male legislators to oppose. Ruud said society is past the days when women can be told they can’t make it in the world unless the government helps them.
“We raised taxes over $2 billion, gave one quarter of it back and they call it tax relief,” she said.
She also spoke against the relaxing of graduation standards; the change in government terminology to refer to Asian carp as invasive carp; bonding money for conventions centers in Rochester, St. Cloud and Mankato.
She voted no on the bonding bill because of projects she termed pork barrel spending.