Chili - not eggs - was on the plate for lawmakers
The Brainerd Lakes Chamber sponsored legislator forum was titled Eggs and Issues but Crosslake chili was the main fare Wednesday morning at the Brainerd Hotel and Conference Center.
Six lawmakers, half of them first-termers, rehashed the 2013 Minnesota legislative session in a wide-ranging discussion of topics from health care to the minimum wage. Varied opinions were offered on the session, yet the issue that seemed to unite them was talk of resurrecting a failed bill that would have provided exemptions for the Brainerd Lakes Chamber’s annual chili cook-off in Crosslake.
Legislators attending the breakfast session were Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore; Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls; Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby; Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point; and Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter.
The Minnesota Department of Health objected to the fact that chili samplings were prepared at contestants’ homes and then brought in to businesses for tasting.
Cindy Myogeto, Crosslake area director for the chamber, said she felt that business locations that might be OK for sampling chili might not be the best places for preparation.
“I prefer chili made in someone’s kitchen,” she said.
Myogeto said a conference call was set up with health department personnel to discuss the problem but no solution was found.
Radinovich explained how a bill that had carved out narrow exemptions for the Crosslake competition was denied a hearing in the House. The freshman lawmaker said he understood the role of the Minnesota Department of Health as a regulator.
“That doesn’t mean you take away common sense.” he said.
He said his intent was to resurrect the bill in the next session.
Ruud, who sponsored the bill in the Senate said they appeared to have hit a brick wall with the health department. Department officials, she had been assured, would work with the Crosslake people but she said that one conference call on the topic wasn’t her idea of working with folks.
Gazelka suggested the Crosslake chili cook-off organizers work behind the scenes and in the ear of the governor on this issue.
“If he wants it, it will find its way into a bill,” he said.
Kresha noted how big government agencies can be a little overzealous and facetiously urged a little civil disobedience.
“Let’s go to jail together,” he suggested. “I’ll bring a crock pot.”
When it came to more traditional political issues the senators and representatives split along party lines in their assessments of the session.
Anderson said it was not a business-friendly session and he was there to represent the business people of the state. He suggested the jobs bill should be termed the employers’ bill because these were the people who were job creators. The Lake Shore Republican also expressed his skepticism with government in general.
“The government is not your friend,” he said.
Gazelka said it was his most difficult session and one that produced $2.1 billion in new taxes, $250 million in fees and a socially liberal agenda. He said corporate deductions were eliminated, business to business sales taxes were approved and taxes were increased for the upper bracket income taxpayers. A particular disappointment to him was the abolishment of a sunset committee that was charged with evaluating every area of government at least once during a 12-year period.
“Elections have consequences,” he said. “If you like the direction then I’m probably not your legislator.”
Kresha, a freshman lawmaker, described the session as a full-contact sport in which many Minnesotans were worried about having their taxes raised.
“At one point, everybody was in the cross hairs,” he said.
Radinovich said in eight of the last 10 budgets the state had been facing deficits. The income tax hikes affected families making more than $250,000 a year. He said in Aitkin County that would affect 44 tax returns and in Crow Wing County 226 returns. He also noted in Aitkin County, which the District 10B lawmaker represents, 59 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
Ruud said she expected the brakes would be put on the state’s recent good economic news once new laws take effect in July. She took solace in the fact that Republicans were able to stop a hike in the minimum wage and gun control laws.
Laws that passed that she characterized as ugly were a bill that would allow private day cares to unionize, a warehouse tax and the omnibus health care bill.
“If this (the health care bill) isn’t a business-crusher I don’t know what is,” Ruud said.
Ward said it was a productive session with laws that helped job retention and creation, investments in education and a needed increase in pay for nursing home workers. He also lauded $400 million in property tax relief after a decade which, he said, saw an increase of 86 percent in those taxes.
“We’ll see if the sky is going to fall or not,” Ward said.
Mark Ronnei of Grand View Lodge urged lawmakers to talk to business people during the off-session months and not make last-minute decisions under time pressure on such subjects as minimum wage.
“You scare us when you don’t talk about these things,” he said.
“Now is the time to have the conversation,” Gazelka said in agreement. “It is coming back next year. It matters when you call us or call the governor.”
Radinovich contended that people earning minimum wage are much worse off than they were 30 years ago. He said he’d like to see a compromise resulting from a conversation with businesses and individuals.
Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber and moderator of the discussion, explained the feelings she hears expressed by business people.
“It’s business that has to carry this ... and smokers,” she said.
Ward said that an increase in the minimum wage would put more discretionary income in people’s pockets and help businesses thrive.
Kresha said 49 percent of the minimum wage earners are 18 and under. Less than 10 percent of the minimum wage earners are actually living on that wage, he said.
The Little Falls lawmaker also expressed his skepticism about how new health care programs are going to work.
“We’re trying to pay for something that’s unrealistic,” he said
Ward said the creation of Minnesota’s health exchange was a work in progress but many benefits of the Affordable Care Act are appreciated such as extended benefits for young adults on their parents’ health plan, and no people being dropped from health care because of pre-existing conditions.