Area leaders hope health care among topics covered at Capitol

Published 8:06 am Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Minnesota Legislature reconvened Tuesday, and local legislators and officials hope health care, infrastructure, education and many other topics are tackled this year.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she hopes to help reduce health care costs and allow for more health insurance options and choices after local residents expressed desire to be able to go to non-Mayo affiliated facilities locally.

“We need to look at all of those things,” she said.

Bennett said though she plans to evaluate the MinnesotaCare buy-in, she doesn’t feel the plan will lower health care costs or increase access because reimbursement rates in association with the program are lower than Medicare.

She predicted Mankato and Rochester would be the only two regional cities with providers if the plan is implemented because smaller medical centers would not be able to afford to stay open. 

Bennett said the plan is also a one-size-fits-all approach.

“If we think we have it bad now, it would be multiplied,” she said.

Bennett noted she is re-authoring a bill that includes tax incentives to assist in the locating of health care providers to underserved areas.

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, called health care “a huge issue” legislators have worked hard on. He noted he was appointed to the Select Committee on Health Care Consumer Access and Affordability, adding a top priority is health care access in the wake of Mayo Clinic Health System announcing it will close Alden and Kiester clinics this month.

“As health care continues to change, we need to make sure we are changing at the state level,” he said.

Infrastructure

A persistent infrastructure funding shortage continues to leave local officials looking for more state and federal dollars to complete projects.

Sparks noted Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz supports increasing the gas tax and acknowledged though he does not have a mandate, transportation is an important issue for the state’s safety and economy, calling it “a top priority they will have to work with and find a compromise.”

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin

He said any gas tax increase needs to be dedicated to roads and bridges. Sparks said he does not have a specific increase figure he supports but added the state cannot adequately fund transportation under current funding levels.

Bennett noted extensive infrastructure funding passed by the Legislature during her two terms in office and said progress needs to be continued.

She spoke of the need to find a more sustainable, predictable funding source after being informed of the need by Freeborn County Public Works Director Sue Miller.

“It’s just an ongoing issue, especially in rural Minnesota,” Bennett said.

She spoke against plans to raise the gas tax with a projected $1.5 billion state surplus. She said the increase would mostly affect the poor who tend to use less fuel-efficient vehicles out of necessity.

She said a majority of constituents have told her they do not support increasing the gas tax.

“I just don’t agree that the gas tax is the way to go,” Bennett said.

Education

Bennett said she will author a bill encouraging all government-funded programs to be evidence-based, similar to the Reading Corps program. She said the plan will include goals, strategies to reach the goals and ways for the Legislature to monitor. She said the approach would give the education committee she is a member of more information when more money is requested to see if the approach is working.

She spoke of the need to close the state’s special education funding gap and to reach more at-risk early children. She spoke against universal pre-K for 4-year-olds because she said it would take away from focusing on at-risk children.

Bennett noted she supports similar current programs continuing, including two in Albert Lea.

Sparks noted Walz is a former educator, and added that sufficient funding and policies making it easier for teachers to do their jobs are needed.

Sparks spoke of transportation issues caused by open enrollment, including some districts having to travel 40 to 50 miles to get students, and a shortage of bus drivers.

He said there is a shortage of substitute teachers.

Gun legislation

Sparks said any gun legislation needs to ensure there are no more mass shootings while respecting the rights of gun owners.

Bennett said she has “no doubt” gun legislation will be attempted to be passed this year.

She expressed an openness to evaluating all proposals but noted she wants to ensure any legislation serves its intended purpose. She said she has not seen a proposal that would do that — she believes proposed legislation would affect law-abiding citizens more than criminals and in some cases would turn non-criminals into offenders.

Bennett noted approximately 60 percent of gun deaths are suicide-related, with the next largest percentage being gang-related. She said she supports smaller measures such as mental health-related approaches, and she discussed mentor programs in place that help keep children from joining criminal gangs.

“I am very passionate about protecting our Second Amendment,” she said. “I think that’s super-important.”

Surplus

Sparks said the Legislature should be “cautious” and maintain reserve funds with the state surplus. If the money is spent, it needs to be spent on prioritized items, he said.

Bennett said the state needs to meet its obligations and ensure it fills the special education funding gap. She said state teacher pensions and roads and bridges are underfunded.

Recreational marijuana

Bennett said she is open to listening to opinions on the issue and has heard from supporters and detractors over the last couple years. She said the issue will likely come up again last year, and she leans against legalizing the drug because she has seen how destructive it is for young people. She said use of the drug has increased in children since recreational use was legalized.

Sparks, who said he has not formed an opinion on the issue, noted the Legislature must look at the revenue legalizing recreational use of the drug would generate and the potential dangers.

Local leaders hopeful area priorities will be tackled

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams said the city’s legislative priorities have not significantly changed from the last few years and listed what he believes are the six top issues for Albert Lea:

LGA funding: Adams said LGA funding has not sufficiently increased over the last 10 to 15 years and has decreased more than increased. He expressed concern the city will need to increase its tax levy if it does not see additional sources of revenue because of increased costs. Officials have requested LGA funding be restored to 2002 amounts.

Housing: Adams said he wants the state to provide more grants, tax credits and tools to allow the city to attract and develop more housing, adding the city has a demand for workforce, market-rate housing and rehabilitation of existing stock.

“We don’t have all of the resources to fund all of those rehab programs,” he said.

The city received a $150,000 forgivable loan from Minnesota Housing to help develop 12 units of the former Ramsey School building. Adams noted the city has a shortage of funding to fill hundreds of more units.

Child care: Adams said the issue has evolved in the last couple years and he is aware of providers being at capacity with long waiting lists. He said employers and residents have child care needs, adding tools and grants are needed to help solve the issue, which could include assistance to employers to get quality child care, he said.

Road infrastructure: Adams said the city has used state and federal funding on large corridor projects, adding there needs to be sufficient funding for other infrastructure projects and repairs.

Water quality: To Adams, the city possibly having to pay $60 million to $70 million for upgrades at its wastewater treatment plant would “devastate” the local economy.” He said the MPCA standards have to be established based on quality science.

Rural health care: Adams said as the city continues to navigate rural health care challenges, it needs more state programs, guidance and tools to ensure it has quality health care in Albert Lea. He said the state needs to do more research on the health care crisis and help ensure the city can attract physicians.

Adams noted the area has some of the highest health care costs in the state and attributed that to a lack of competition in local health care delivery. To him, conversations are needed with the state in case another provider says it can financially sustain bringing more beds to the community because of a moratorium on hospital beds.

Freeborn County Administrator Thomas Jensen said the top issue the county will look to address at the state level is transportation.

“That’s been on the block for many years, that we get farther and farther every year based on the size of our roads system,” he said.

Jensen estimated the state has approximately $2.5 billion of unmet transportation needs per year and said he hopes the Legislature will find a sustainable transportation funding formula.

He said resources are needed to reduce the number of mentally ill people in jails, and he hopes high-speed internet is soon available across the state.

Jensen would like county programming aid funding levels to increase and be kept at a rate Freeborn County can rely on every year.

He said he hopes the state addresses having elected county recorder and auditor/treasurer positions appointed because of the minimal qualifications they must have to oversee substantial budgets and responsibilities.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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