The message from area political representatives was clear: the budget takes priority in this legislative session along with election integrity. Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka (R-Nisswa), State House of Representatives District 9A Rep. John Poston (R-Lake Shore) and Eighth District Congressman Pete Stauber (R-Duluth) each shared the host of discussions to come from supporting small businesses to the need for rural broadband.
As the Minnesota legislative session began on Jan. 5, representatives Gazelka and Poston emphasized their goal of not raising taxes to offset the projected $1.3 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget cycle. Gazelka said the funds could come from rainy day reserves or shifting funds. The legislators must pass a two-year budget by July.
The top two areas in the budget are health and human services and K-12 education, both of which attendees and representatives shared their concerns on the needs. Gazelka said the categories grow above the inflation rate each year.
The health and human services have had “stripped” funding in the past, as CentraCare Health Long Prairie administrator Dan Swenson said, including nursing home funding. Gazelka said nursing homes were advocated for in the last budget cycle to not be cut.
While joining the K-12 education policy committee this year, Poston shared the message from superintendents is the current and future budget impacts. A Menahga small business owner and school board chair Andrea Haverinen noted the “better” state financial situation includes students not attending public schools as they transitioned to homeschool or private school. Poston hopes the committee will work on how this issue will be financed, that school districts will be held harmless, how free and reduced lunches will be analyzed and improving the ratios of counselors and nurses to students.
The Senate will operate in a hybrid model with smaller in-person meetings for committees and other representatives joining on Zoom. The House will operate remotely through Zoom, including a fingerprint reader on representatives’ mouse pads for electronic voting, as Poston said. The change replaces voice votes from the 200 representatives that were used in the special sessions in 2020.
After the Nov. 3, 2020 presidential election, representatives shared their hope for discussions on election integrity, namely legality in votes being counted. The election results were announced on Nov. 7 with president-elect Joe Biden narrowly winning. President Donald Trump has said the elections included “widespread fraud.” Gazelka plans to again push for photo identification. Stauber noted the issue is nationally and within states and emphasized the importance of the 10th Amendment (powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively).
The Minnesota Senate and House will also again vote on Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency powers that have been extended since March 2020. While Gazelka is unsure of when the powers will end, he wants to see the legislature have “equal footing” with the Governor. Walz and Gazelka have disagreed on this issue throughout the pandemic.
The lower mortality rates from COVID-19 and its complications while being “much more open” in Colorado and Wisconsin point to Walz being “stubborn” about changes, as Gazelka said. As of Jan. 4, 5,443 people in Minnesota have died, 4,997 in Colorado and 4,884 in Wisconsin, according to each state health department. Gazelka said Walz’s protections caring for Minnesotans “haven’t been protective enough in places where they should have,” such as in nursing homes. Minnesota is the fifth worst state for deaths in nursing homes, according to The COVID Tracking Project.
As a United States Congress representative, Stauber shared the importance of responsibly reopening businesses as a way for the economy to “flourish.” He sees farmers, ranchers and small businesses including child care providers as economic drivers as well as the jobs brought by the Line 3 project daily.
Stauber also looks forward to possible investing in transportation planning, rural broadband and seeing emergency departments and hospitals prepared for serving the public while keeping them safe.
One of the issues Region Five Development Commission executive director Cheryal Lee Hills and Tri-County Health Care president and CEO Joel Beiswenger want to see addressed is rural broadband for participation in government and access to health care. Hills emphasized how the issue needs to be moved from the backburner and is no longer a luxury. Poston said rural legislators understand the need and battle with metro legislators.
Within legislative decisions, Stauber and Poston noted the continued hindrance of partisan politics. Both agree working across the aisle is important to help Minnesota.