Taking it to the people

Published 3:28 pm Saturday, February 14, 2009

State Sen. Dan Sparks (Dist. 27) and Rep. Jeanne Poppe (Dist. 27B) are not sugar-coating what lies ahead for the Minnesota Legislature this session.

“We are facing some very challenging times,” Sparks said, referring to the $4.8 billion state budget deficit, which he said may climb to as much as $7 billion. “Historically, the State of Minnesota has been able to weather the storm, but in the past six years, that hasn’t been the case.”

During a town hall discussion Friday afternoon at the library, the Austin DFLers laid out for citizens what the obstacles are and how important public input is at this point.

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“The biggest piece is the budget deficit,” said Poppe, vice chairperson of the State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections Committee.

“I will be voting to cut programs … many of you will be disgusted with that,” she said. “Many of us will have to make decisions that are very harsh.”

“Our No. 1 priority has to be to balance the budget,” said Sparks, vice chairperson of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee and Economic Development and Housing Budget Division.

“None of this is going to be easy, but it has to be done,” Sparks said.

The legislators arrived at the Austin Public Library after visiting Grand Meadow High School, where they had a full house of citizens. They planned to stop by Brownsdale, LeRoy and Wykoff on Saturday.

Jerry Reshetar, superintendent of Lyle Public Schools and the first speaker from the audience, asked for an ease in the number of mandates.

“As a public educator, I can take some cuts in state dollars,” he said. “I can’t do it under the current mandates we have.”

Reshetar said one example is the mandated training for van drivers, which means teachers cannot even driver a few students to a destination.

“Why are we doing that?” Reshetar asked.

“It affected rural schools much more than the metro schools,” Sparks said.

The rural versus metro funding priorities debate has been an ongoing frustration for many local officials and citizens alike.

Calder Pfeifer inquired about wind turbine revenue for school districts.

“Is that revenue supposed to stay in Mower County?” he asked.

Portions of the tax revenue paid by wind energy development companies go to counties, townships and schools. Legislators including Rep. Robin Brown have been pushing to ensure that districts like Grand Meadow continue to benefit from the revenue — a hard sell for metro area legislators.

Sparks said they had the same discussion in Grand Meadow earlier that day.

“The money’s still going to Mower County … but the school is not getting the additional 6 percent amount,” Poppe explained.

Bill Koopal asked when relief is coming for real estate taxes. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has repeatedly emphasized he is not interested in raising taxes, Sparks and Poppe said.

“And we know it’s going to go up next year because of the justice center,” Koopal added.

“What is the threshold across the state to raising revenue? That is what we are grappling with,” Poppe said.

“We can talk about ‘no new taxes’ at the state level, but you look around this room and I bet every one of you has seen your property taxes go up,” Sparks said to the several dozen people in the meeting room.

Environment was another big issue raised by Jim Stiles, environmental activist and owner of Super Fresh Produce.

He commented on how voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment in November to increase the general sales and use tax rate by three-eighths of 1 percent; now, Pawlenty wants to cut environment and conservation programs by 23 percent.

“People know that we have a lot of issues with the environment,” Stiles said. “Why should we be penalized — or the environment penalized? We passed a tax.

“What’s more important than clean air and clean water?” he asked.

“A 23 percent cut when the environment only gets 1.3 percent of the budget is ridiculous,” Bob Goetz agreed.

Sparks concurred that the purpose of the amendment was supposed to be “over and above” what was already there.

“We have many needs in this state,” Poppe said. “Any one of you has a passion for something.”

To contact Rep. Jeanne Poppe:

Mail: 487 State Office Building, 100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155

E-mail: rep.jeanne.poppe@house.mn

Phone: (651) 296-4193 or (888) 682-3180

To contact Sen. Dan Sparks:

Mail: 75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Capitol Building, Room 317, St. Paul, MN 55155-1606

E-mail: sen.daniel.sparks@senate.mn

Phone: (651) 296-9248