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Candidate Q&A: House District 27B

Author’s note: This is a continuation of the Herald’s candidate Q&A features and the second such feature with State Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B) and challenger Patricia Mueller (R). In this feature, the candidates were asked questions regarding infrastructure.

Here are their responses.

1. How would you describe the district’s current infrastructure needs?

Mueller: There certainly is a continuous need for roads and bridges to be repaired to allow safe transportation of goods and services along with safe access for individuals and families. Along with these updates, I have learned of two pressing issues.

The first is funding for the Austin wastewater treatment plant so citizens have continued access to clean water in the Austin area and down-stream communities. State help is needed for the Austin wastewater treatment plant so local residents continue to have access to clean water. The current facility dates back to Franklin Roosevelt and a new facility is badly needed. This is critical infrastructure that should not be a partisan issue. Unfortunately, the $19 million in state funding that is needed to complete the project still has not been approved, despite both of our local legislators having years of seniority. The result is that the project either will have to be delayed or local rate payers will have to pay even higher taxes to fill that gap. This is why we need a fresh voice representing us in St. Paul.

The second issue is about flood hazard mitigation in the Cedar River Watershed, which is a joint project across the district to improve drainage during large rain events and minimize damage from spring flooding in southern Minnesota.

Poppe: We have a number of assets of local, regional and statewide significance within our district, including a community college, numerous roads and bridges, and water and wastewater treatment facilities in our communities. The needs include maintaining what we have as well as updating and repairing and/or building new structures.

As an example, we have 370 bridges under the jurisdiction of Mower County with quite a few bridges approaching 90 years of age, definitely reaching beyond their useful/safe life. Currently, there are plans nearly complete to upgrade two relatively large bridges in Austin.

In Austin, we need to provide State support for our Austin wastewater treatment plant. The city is asking for State support of $19 million (of the $78 million project cost). Minnesota has many needs throughout the state and seeking $19 million for one project is a large ask. Due to the anticipated overall bonding amount cap, it may be that our portion of this year’s total bonding bill will be enough money to use for planning and design (nearly $8 million). This puts us still in the process for future funding to complete the project within the next bonding cycle. Our plant is the state’s largest phosphorus producer and is a high priority both financially and environmentally.

Riverland Community College has ongoing maintenance needs which can include roofs, windows, heating and ventilation. New projects are in the pipeline to be considered to keep up with the needs of our students and community.

2. With the 2020 Legislature having yet to pass a bonding bill, what would you do to help the district acquire funds to offset infrastructure costs, particularly roads, bridges, and upgrades to Austin’s wastewater treatment plant?

Mueller: First, providing roads, bridges and clean water infrastructure is a core function of government and an appropriate use of our tax dollars. Infrastructure provides avenues of commerce and a means to stay healthy. Quality infrastructure is even more important when one takes agriculture needs into account. These provisions should be funded through current auto-related revenue. It is important that we target how taxes are spent so that they are used in the most effective way rather than waste money on projects that are cost-ineffective, like the light rail boondoggles.

Second, the fact that a bonding bill has not been passed yet is a perfect example of why we need fresh voices in St. Paul. Funds are being held up in political gamesmanship. I believe critical infrastructure should not be a partisan game. Sending the same people back to St. Paul will only continue this dysfunction. I hope to represent the region, not just political parties and interest groups.

Poppe: Past and present engineers for the City of Austin have been great advocates and have assisted our efforts in gaining awareness of and support for our flood mitigation efforts at the state legislature. We have also been wonderfully represented by the staff and leaders of the Cedar River Watershed District, who provide exceptional testimony in the district and in St Paul. It has been my privilege to host House legislators who serve on the capital investment committees every year when they come here on tour.

Mower County officials have ably and willingly addressed the bridge and road needs and helped us seek funding to expand our recreational trails system.

There is no doubt our region has benefitted from the collaboration between state and local elected and appointed officials. We also benefit from the strong support of the Hormel Foundation.

Supporting the bonding bill is always a high priority for our district. We generally receive some benefit (some years it is greater than others). I anticipate having the opportunity to vote in support of another bonding bill when we reconvene in mid-August. It is my hope we have settled enough outlying issues so the bill will meet the necessary 60 percent threshold for passage (at least six Republicans must vote with all of the DFL House members).

3. Should the state invest in a border-to-border broadband program? Why or why not?

Mueller: Internet access in rural communities is essential. Families without internet access are disadvantaged because people bank online, learn online, and work online. Access to the internet has become part of our standard of living; however, government solutions to the rural internet access problem will be expensive and soon obsolete. We should enable legislation to encourage competition because regulations make it extremely difficult to allow startup companies. Allowing community ideas and competition can bring solutions that are state of the art and cost effective.

One idea I heard about was of people coming together to form co-ops around a smaller network tower. The state government could emulate the program that electrified rural America through grants and access to low-cost loans to these local co- ops. The free market will continue to find innovative solutions that will be more cost effective.

Poppe: Yes. Border-to-border broadband is necessary in our technologically advanced world. Farmers, business owners, students, teachers, all need to have the ability to communicate and submit data and information. When there are remote areas of the state not currently served with high-speed internet, that leads to a disadvantage not easily overcome. The need for B2B broadband is much the same today as the expansion of rural electrification was in the 1930s.

4. Do you believe there is a mentality of “Rural Minnesota vs. Metro Minnesota” in the Legislature when it comes to funding infrastructure needs? Why or why not?

Mueller: I think there is that perception as people witness work done each summer on the same freeways in the metro while it takes several years to update Highway 14. While Austin continues to struggle to get the money for the critical wastewater treatment plant, the metro is given money to build outdoor music venues, bike lanes, and the metro light rail. These are not essential, yet are prioritized over our critical infrastructure needs. It is time to have a representative who represents our region first with critical needs rather than metro wants.

Poppe: When it comes to bonding for capital projects, I think there is an acknowledgment we are a very large state with significant needs throughout. The civil unrest in early summer, which destroyed property and neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, has led some people to declare we should deny providing support for rebuilding because they want to place blame on the governor or mayors. The problems are great, the answers aren’t easy, but pointing fingers instead of providing assistance is going down a path from which we might not have chosen under different circumstances. When a tornado, fire, or flood has resulted in property destruction, the Legislature has often come to the aid of those communities in need. Certainly southern Minnesota (especially our district) has benefited from legislative action to fund many of our requests. We live in challenging times, we must consider how to assist our fellow Minnesotans.

5. Anything else you want to add?

Mueller: The next three or four years are going to be extremely difficult as we see how the pandemic has affected our state budget with decreasing revenue and increased demands. It is required to have a balanced state budget. This means we will need to make difficult decisions about where money is spent. It is important to remember the fundamental roles of government — one of which is to provide an infrastructure that meets the needs of all its citizens. This is not a time to be raising taxes to fill budget shortfalls; rather, we need to target our spending towards the essential functions of government. The pandemic has caused a lot of economic and social hurt. The decisions we ask our leaders to make in the next few years must be fiscally responsible and balanced to meet the unique needs of both metro and rural Minnesotans.

Poppe: Over the past 16 years, our district has been the recipient of millions of dollars of funding supporting our regional flood mitigation efforts. Another noteworthy example of our success was bringing $13.5 million in state funds to Austin to build more capacity at the Hormel Institute.

To me, relationships matter. Having served in the Minnesota House while under both Republican and DFL leadership has given me the good fortune to develop relationships with members of both parties. I can honestly say many of my colleagues and I respect each other, even when we don’t always agree. This year especially I have good relationships with current committee chairs of the bonding and tax committees. These relationships matter a great deal and are exemplified by my many years of successfully carrying legislation benefiting our district.