2015 Session: New perspectives may surface at Legislature
The Republicans' new majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives - spurred by that party's electoral success in outstate Minnesota - could result in new perspectives being brought forward when the 2015 legislative session opens Tuesday.
Central Minnesota lawmakers who were contacted recently listed a wide range of issues they'd like to see addressed this year by the Democrat-Farmer-Labor-led Senate and the Republican-led House.
"I do think there'll be a more balanced approach to government in Minnesota," Rep.-elect Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, said.
The newly elected legislator said he hoped common ground could be found on such issues as jobs and transportation. Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said key committee appointments made by legislative leaders will have an impact.
"I think we will have better balance and I think greater Minnesota will have a greater voice," the newly appointed assistant majority leader said.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, said when Democrats controlled the executive branch as well as the House and Senate, they could pretty much do as they pleased. That's changed with the Republican takeover of the House.
"Some of the things that happen will have to be through compromise," Gazelka said.
The rural perspective on transportation was evidenced by the lack of interest expressed for funding mass transit projects. Gazelka said the Republican perspective on transportation focuses on adequate funding for roads and bridges. Light rail is not a priority, he said.
"I don't see it as efficient at all for the dollars we spend on it," Gazelka said.
Ruud said she was opposed to a gas tax hike, because so much of it would go to mass transit projects in the urban areas.
"Transportation will probably be the No. 1 thing we address," Ruud said. "We didn't do anything last biennium."
Rep.-elect Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said a gas tax hike would be wrong in light of recent tax hikes passed by the Legislature. He would rather shift the money from sales tax on new tires from the general fund to roads.
"This is about making roads and bridges a priority, not jamming new taxes on people," Lueck said. "That (tire sales tax revenue) goes to the general fund. Why doesn't that go to the transportation fund. Mass transit really needs to be funded directly by the citizens that benefit. You're not going to cure that huge amount of congestion by rapid transit. The cost benefit is not there."
Lueck sees a more pressing problem for truck drivers who "get their equipment beat to death" on roads such as Highway 65 in Aitkin County, parts of Highway 371, north of Brainerd, parts of Highway 169 and Highway 210, east of Aitkin.
"You'll jar the fillings right out of your teeth ... in a big truck," he said.
Heintzeman said he thinks most Minnesotans are opposed to raising the gas tax. He said much of the money raised by taxes on vehicle sales does not go to roads and bridges. Investment in mass transit projects in the Twin Cities, he said, is not a balanced investment for the other half of the state.
Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore said $6.1 billion was spent on transportation during the last biennium and $6.9 will be spent this biennium. The increase in transportation funding was about five times less than the increase in the Department of Human Services (DHS) (from $26 billion to $29 billion). He described the DHS as a "bloated bureaucracy" and said he'd like to see the welfare spending spun off so that spending in that area would be more transparent. He said he'd oppose a gas tax hike.
"You don't need to raise one dime," Anderson said. "The money is there."
Anderson said he would support a spending cap on the Legislature, stating that the current state spending is out of control.
"We over-spend and we're still over-taxed," Anderson said. "We've got a tax-and-spend problem. We're over-regulated."
Citing his own recent experience opening up a new business, Anderson said there were several different departments that had regulations to be met. He also said his preference would be that the Legislature complete its work in the first couple of months.
Although not directly a state issue, the recent federal court ruling that, in effect, relisted wolves on the endangered species list was criticized by Ruud, Lueck and Heintzeman.
Lueck wrote a Dec. 29 letter asking U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to immediately appeal the latest judicial decision. In the letter, he maintained relisting the wolves put Minnesota citizens in the unacceptable predicament of committing a federal felony under the Endangered Species Act should they injure or kill a wolf while attempting to protect a family pet or their domestic livestock.
Ruud said she's been working with the DNR and House hearings are likely on the wolf issue. In addition she said lawmakers can put pressure on the state's congressional delegation for a change to the current situation.
Heintzeman said he didn't think the federal judge understood the situation.
"People are concerned we are going to see more pets being killed (by wolves), fewer deer, Heintzeman said.
Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said he'd like the Legislature to concentrate on jobs, long-term care and transportation. He cited a skills gap that prevents employers from finding qualified employees.
"I certainly would like to focus efforts on improving the job climate," he said.
The second term representative served on a governor-appointed commission that dealt with child protection issues. Kresha said that body will soon release its final recommendations and he's hopeful some changes will be made in child protection legislation this session.
Kresha said he didn't see a huge rural/urban division in the Legislature.
"We have an ag (agriculture) base and the population's not as dense," Kresha said. "It just creates different challenges. Certainly, distance plays a role in people's access to education and long-term care."
Gazelka, an assistant minority leader and the ranking minority member on the Commerce Committee, said he hopes to take a second look at MNsure and explore representation by insurance agents and company executives on the board that oversees MNsure.
"If I had the choice I would scrap the whole thing," he said but he admitted that was not likely to happen.
Ruud said she continues to hear of problems people are having with MNsure and said she saw a report that estimated 87 percent of the participants are having their health care costs subsidized by the government.
Gazelka criticized the Minnesota State High School League's guidelines regarding transgender athletes.
"I felt it was unfair to girls playing sports to have a male player on their team and potentially be in their locker room," Gazelka said.
Lueck said that although the Legislature doesn't directly oversee that panel it's an issue that could eventually wind up before senators and representatives.
"If they keep monkeying around in that area ... If you irritate enough people ... it doesn't matter who has oversight," Lueck said. "We don't need to go down that road. That's really getting close to the line when you ... school boards have to decide 'Are we going to have to create a big bathroom for a third category of individual?' If they keep it up it will end up in the Legislature."
Gazelka said he will see if he can find bipartisan support for a Freedom of Conscience Act that would allow businesses to not participate in the celebration of a gay marriage if they chose not to do so. This could include counselors or Christian colleges that allow on-site weddings.
"I think we should allow people to follow their consciences," he said.
Ruud said she's working on language for a possible bill called DNA Saves which would give officials the authority to swab for DNA on those arrested for violent felonies and for the establishment of a database from this information. She also hopes to help Pequot Lakes, Nisswa and Jenkins as they deal with an accelerated schedule for Highway 371 improvements; help Aitkin County with a burden it faces when too much land is designated as wetland area. Another issue she would like to look into is ensuring proper protections are in place for surrogacy issues that crop up with surrogate parents. Ruud said she would oppose efforts she's heard of to legalize assisted suicide.
Heintzeman said he wants to see changes to make the state more business-friendly. He also said he's talked with Central Lakes College officials about MnSCU issues.
Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, and Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township (Itasca County) could not be reached for comment.