Reps: Return to revisit what wasn’t done in last session
Published 10:28 am Tuesday, January 3, 2017
By Deb Nicklay, Jason Schoonover and Sam Wilmes
The 2017 Minnesota Legislative session gets underway Tuesday and Austin’s two Democratic representatives are preparing to be in the minority party this session.
Rep. Jeanne Poppe and state Sen. Dan Sparks, both DFL-Austin, both won re-election in November despite a swing in favor of the Republican party and President-elect Donald Trump in Minnesota and across the nation.
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“I think that the voters sent a strong message that they weren’t happy with the status quo and the way things were going,” Sparks said.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, that didn’t bode in their favor.
Poppe would like to think that two parties can work together for the betterment of the state’s citizenry as the Minnesota Legislature convened Tuesday.
But, “I have some concerns” Poppe understated last week. Poppe begins her seventh term as representative of House District 27B.
Despite a Republican-controlled House and Senate, Poppe is hoping that partisanship can be set aside.
Sparks, on the other hand, says he’s worked with divided government before and noted the sides will have to work together. But this government will be about as divided as it can get: Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, Republicans hold a strong majority 76 to 57 in the House, but Republicans only hold a 1-seat advantage in the Senate with a 34-33 majority.
“Now more than ever, every vote will count,” Sparks said.
But the five term senator said he’s looking forward to working and meeting the challenges that come with being in the minority party.
“The word compromise is not a negative thing in politics,” he said.
But Poppe is not holding her breath.
After last session’s poor end, with its lack of transparency and time mismanagement in the final days that ended in lack of action on bonding and transportation, now means time will have to be spent returning to that work. Some had hoped for a special session but it did not materialize and now the issues must be addressed during the regular session.
Sparks voiced frustration that the state wasn’t able to hold a special session, especially to address hefty premium increases for individual insurance. So he said the first order of business must be getting relief for people who saw sharp increases to their family or individual health insurance premiums sky rocket through MNsure.
District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, also wants to address skyrocketing health care costs. Minnesotans faced premium increases of 40 to 70 percent starting Sunday, Bennett said.
“We really need to address that immediately,” she said.
But to Poppe, that should also include more information and education about MNsure, which she argued too many people confuse with Obamacare, or rather, the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s actually just a website, but one that has valuable information” for citizens. “It gives a lot of market comparisons, alternative plans for people. It’s important.”
But she does understand the impact of the rising health insurance costs for individuals, noting that they are particularly tough for rural citizens.
“It hurts a lot of farmers who are already struggling,” she said.
Minnesota Republicans have promised changes to MNsure, but Sparks said it may be best to wait and see what the Republican-controlled federal government does. Still, Sparks noted there are areas that can be improved, as he said many of those facing hefty increases are “hard-working Minnesotans.”
“I think it’s going to be a lively debate,” he said.
Bennett, for example, wants to work with health care stakeholders on a long-term solution.
“Just as important, any relief plan should also address access to clinics and medical specialists,” she said. “Many of these same people who are getting hit hard financially are also in the predicament of losing their long-time doctors and clinics because they’ve been forced off of their current insurance and into a different plan that doesn’t cover their doctors and clinics.”
Bennett said though health care is a complex issue, legislators need to address cost and access while they work on long-term solutions.
Starting with a tax bill?
Sparks would like to see the state revisit some of the discussions and topics left incomplete after last year’s session ended without a tax bill or bonding bill. To get the session and discussions going, he thinks the state could revisit the tax bill, which he said received bipartisan support but was vetoed because of an error.
“I think that’s a bill we could move fairly quickly on,” Sparks said.
The tax bill would provide tax relief for farmers and changes for local government aid and other types of state aid, and Sparks said that bill could help open the logjam and potentially spark further work on the bonding bill and other issues.
Bennett said she supports provisions of a tax bill vetoed last year by Dayton, such as property tax relief for farmers and other groups. She supports phasing out the Social Security income tax and statewide business property tax.
Sparks also said the state has been “stuck in a rut” for too long when it comes to road and bridge funding, and he argued there’s a “clear path forward” using a combination of bonding dollars, general funds and new revenues.
But this year’s session will be most-focused on setting a two-year budget.
“We’ll have to get our priorities in the right areas and then set that budget for the next two years,” Sparks said.
Bennett does not support a proposal by Dayton to increase the gas tax to fund road and bridge repairs.
“I support the dedication of current taxes on automobile tires and parts toward roads and bridges,” she said. “In years of surplus like this, I do not think we should be creating additional taxes on people, and I also feel it’s important for us by the border to be competitive with Iowa.”
Many issues hold local importance.
If the state revisits the bonding bill, Sparks said it would likely hold funding for Austin waterway plans, wastewater treatment upgrades and $7.4 million request for Riverland Community College’s Albert Lea campus to make it a transportation-training center.
Bennett also said she wants a bonding bill to pass this year for local projects, such as the from Riverland renovation. Bennett said she has heard that if the project is not funded this year, its estimated cost is expected to increase in 2018.
Sparks said he and Poppe have also discussed teacher licensing issues with Austin Public Schools, wastewater treatment upgrade cost concerns with the city of Austin, and an issue with volunteer firefighter pensions affecting Austin firefighters.
Workforce housing is also important, and Sparks hopes to get some work surrounding that.
“That’s a big issue for Austin and Albert Lea,” he said.
Sparks also anticipates minimum wage being a hotly discussed issue as cities have discussed setting minimum wages above the state level, and the state could supersede that possibility.
Sparks also said the state could look at automatic inflators that he said could cause some issues for businesses, especially in border communities like Austin and Albert Lea.
Poppe will serve as the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Finance Committee.
She will also serve on the Agriculture Policy, the Capital Investment, and the Ways and Means committees.
Sparks will serve on the Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Finance Committee; the Capital Investment Committee; and as the ranking minority member of the Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee.