Local legislators bring priorities to new session

Published 6:28 pm Friday, January 6, 2023

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The 2023 legislative session kicked off this week, and legislators already have a lot on their plate.

Whether it is passing the budget, dealing with the $17.6 billion surplus, passing a bonding bill or a myriad of other issues, it’s sure to be a busy session.

The Herald spoke with District 23 Sen. Gene Dornink, District 23A Rep. Peggy Bennett and District 23B Rep. Patty Mueller about their priorities for the session:

Sen. Gene Dornink

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Sen. Gene Dornink

Dornink, R-Brownsdale, said his priorities going into the session are the same as the ones he campaigned on.

His focus is on the state budget surplus, tax relief, public safety, literacy and the bonding bill.

Dornink said the $17.6 billion surplus is even larger than the projected surplus during the last session, and he heard over and over when he was out campaigning that the money should be given back to the people.

“Tax relief is still the No. 1 thing,” he said, referencing his preference for a middle class tax cut.

He also supports eliminating the taxes on Social Security income and spending money on crisis areas, including in long-term care and nursing homes.

“It’s needed to take care of the most vulnerable,” he said.

He said the state needs to continue to have support for public safety and literacy as priorities.

He plans to lobby diligently for bonding projects for both Albert Lea and Austin.

“Now we don’t have the majority, so what I have to do is build relationships and try to do what I can in the minority,” Dornink said.

In Albert Lea the big projects he will promote are the city’s wastewater treatment plant and the last phase of dredging for Fountain Lake, while in Austin the projects are the wastewater treatment plant, a new Minnesota BioImaging Center of the Hormel Institute for biomedical and cancer research, a project at Riverland Community College and the University of Minnesota’s proposed Future of Advanced Agriculture Research in Minnesota complex.

Dornink said water infrastructure throughout the state is in dire need of funds, noting there are many smaller communities that can’t afford the updates to their systems.

The senator said he has a few of his own bills he plans to submit again, including one on omnibus bill reform, a senior citizens property tax credit bill and another on short call substitute teachers.

He said overall it had been a positive first week back, though he expected to get more in-depth into issues next week.

The Senate did take a vote on getting rid of remote voting and eliminating per diem payments for senators not in attendance to vote in-person. He said remote voting will still be allowed, but senators will have to specify where they are at if they call in to vote.

Committee hearings started Thursday, and Dornink this year will serve as the Republican lead of the Labor Committee and as a member of the Agriculture, Broadband and Rural Development and Elections committees.

Regarding some of the other issues the DFL majority is trying to pass this session — regarding legalization of marijuana and a bill regarding abortion — Dornink said there are other issues that should take priority.

He said he thought some issues with medical marijuana still needed to be worked through before it should be legalized and said he thought it was a public safety concern.

“There are more important issues that we need to deal with first,” he said. “That’s what I’ve heard from my constituents.”

Dornink said he is honored to serve another term and he appreciates the support shown to him throughout the district. He encouraged people to reach out to him with their concerns.

Rep. Peggy Bennett

Rep. Peggy Bennett

Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she has three main priorities for the new term: tax relief, children’s education and public safety and crime.

On tax relief, Bennett said the state’s surplus was indicative of people paying “way too many” taxes and said she thought there needed to be permanent, long-term relief.

“The cost of things is a lot and people deserve to keep more of their money in their own pockets so they can spend it on the things they need,” she said.

She said it was something she wanted to see pass for a while, and noted Minnesota was one of a few states that taxed Social Security.

“It’s time, since we have a surplus, that would be a great form of tax relief we can offer,” she said.

She also wants to see the majority of the surplus returned to taxpayers, and said she was open to any way to return money and wanted to look at every option.

“I know the governor has proposed checks before,” she said. “There are other types of tax relief like getting rid of Social Security tax, cutting the income tax that we have.”

Bennett said she thought part of the surplus should be devoted to creating special funds for things that could lower property taxes.

Regarding children’s education, she said half of children were proficient in reading, while less than half were proficient in math.

“It’s been going down for quite a few years, the whole pandemic-related closures and things made that worse, but it’s been an issue for quite some time,” she said. “… We need to work on education and achievement.”

For her, that means smart funding and ensuring what was funded worked to help students learn better. She also wants students to get back to the basics of reading and writing, which would mean districts may have to stop mandating certain classes.

She wanted to see more local control and for the state to “stop micro-managing schools,” and allow them to innovate to meet student needs. She called the term “diversification of opportunity,” and wanted to empower schools to provide those opportunities.

Bennett said it was more than additional funding for schools, but rather funding “smartly,” and she wanted the state to empower parents more and be more involved in their child’s education.

“Universal one-size-fits-all doesn’t work well in most everything, and especially it doesn’t work well in education,” she said. “We need to be able to individualize. We need to diversify opportunities for students who, if their needs are not being met in whatever school they’re attending right now, why not open that up and allow diversification so that they can find an education mode that works best for that student.”

Bennett noted outside-the-box thinking was especially important for schools that scored low on tests.

Regarding public safety, she wants to enact legislation that holds criminals more accountable and find ways to support public law enforcement, including police officers, sheriff’s deputies and state troopers.

“I know our local police department approached me last year about the catalytic converter thefts and the increase in those,” she said. “I have a bill actually that will get introduced in the near future here to try to address that.”

She also said there was an issue with nursing and group homes.

“We need to do some emergency funding reform for them, as well as regulation reform,” she said. “They’re on the verge of closing a lot of these places, and one of our core priorities is to take care of the vulnerable in our state.”

Bennett is also in support of the bonding bill that addressed critical infrastructure needs such as a wastewater treatment plant in Albert Lea and the dredging of Fountain Lake.

She said it should also include road and bridge maintenance, as well as the upkeep of state buildings.

On her goals for the new term, she wanted to eliminate the state’s tax on Social Security.

Another issue she’d like to talk about: election reform.

“We have people on both sides of the issue,” she said. “Some say we have problems with our election integrity, some say we don’t.”

Bennett said over half of Minnesotans thought there was an issue and argued if the belief was there and not trusting the system, adjustments needed to be made in order for people to feel their vote counted and that the voting system had integrity.

“I would support common-sense reforms to help people feel like their vote counts,” she said.

For her, those reforms include voter ID and getting “a handle on voting by mail,” and believes there needs to be more of a tracking method to ensure ballots went to the right places and counted correctly.

“I had a situation where a voter called me from Waseca and said my name was on her ballot, and it should not have been,” she said. “Therefore, she may have gotten the wrong ballot.”

Bennett said she called Waseca County about the issue, and argued rural election-counting departments were overloaded with mail-in votes.

Besides serving on the Education Policy and Education Finance committees, for the first time Bennett will serve on the Veterans Committee.

“I’m really looking forward to being on that committee and learning more about issues that affect our veterans and working on legislation to benefit our veterans,” she said.

Bennett is the minority lead for the Education Policy committee.

Rep. Patricia Mueller

Rep. Patricia Mueller

With Tuesday’s swearing in, Rep. Patricia Mueller, R-Austin was ready to hit the ground running with a pair of bills she tried to get passed last session, while at the same time making a push to ensure that Austin receives bonding money for its wastewater treatment plant and get to know her new district, including Freeborn County.

Mueller, who now represents the newly created District 23B after redistricting due to last year’s census numbers, is hoping to make sure schools have a pool of substitute teachers to pull from by reintroducing a bill that would meet short-call substitute teacher requirements without going through the licensing process under the Minnesota Department of Education’s Public Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB).

The bill was one of Mueller’s top priorities last year and found bipartisan support when it passed in the Senate; however, the bill ultimately stalled in the House behind pushback from the Minnesota Department of Education.

“The Minnesota Department of Education took the issue from me and wrote their own language that the school districts didn’t want,” Mueller said. “The compromised bill didn’t really go any place.”

“Frankly, when the Department of Education comes out against it then people won’t vote for it,” Mueller added.

Mueller’s plan calls for potential substitute teachers to qualify at minimum for a Tier 1 license that would mark them as a short call substitute and would require them to hold an associates degree. However, it also maintains that substitutes teach no more than 15 consecutive days in the classroom before needing to be a licensed teacher.

It would give districts more control and flexibility over hiring during a time when many districts across the state are struggling with a shortage of teachers.

“Why can’t the school district hire them and train them how it would work in their own district?” Mueller argued.

However, Mueller said that the Minnesota Department of Education’s headwind comes from wanting to maintain control over licensing.

Mueller plans to meet with the Minnesota Department of Education this session to find a way through to passage of the bill and to let them know what she’s hearing from schools in her district in order to get some backing, however, she said if it is to get passed, it will require another bipartisan push.

“If I’m going to get it done, it has to be done with my colleagues in the majority party,” Mueller said.

The second bill Mueller is hoping to get passed is the Alternative to Incarceration bill, which would build on a pair of programs out of Wright and Crow Wing counties and would focus on rehabilitation of low level drug crimes rather than jail time.

Mueller said she has found wide-spread support among the law enforcement and law communities based on those two prior programs and hopes that it will translate to a statewide passage.

“It allows for the county to have dedicated funding from the general fund of $160,000 for a liaison and resources for non-violent offenders,” Mueller said.

However, the effort was also stalled last year.

“Nothing really happened because nothing happened at all,” Mueller said. “This year, being a budget year, I would really like to see what happens. I have the bill drafted and introduced it this week.”

Not only would the bill allow a relieving of stress on jails and law enforcement, but it would also help in treatment for people who are stuck in a cycle they can’t get out of.

“We know that drug abuse and mental health often go hand-in-hand,” Mueller said. “When we are looking at how we treat those struggling with both of those issues, the last place they need to be is in jail.”

“We just need something other than isolation and being behind bars to help people get out from this dark hole they are in,” she added.

The bill, if passed, would not pertain to violent offenders.

“Those who are dealers, who are violent, need to be held responsible,” Mueller said, explaining that those accused of low-level drug crimes often just need help. “They need to have a chance to get clean and get their lives back.”

One of the other priorities is the attempt to get funding secured for infrastructure, specifically Austin’s wastewater treatment plant. The city was informed last year, which was a bonding bill year, that the $14.6 million it had requested was one of the top projects for approval.

However, at the last minute the money was denied because the Legislature failed to get the bonding bill passed.

This year, Mueller will be asking for supplemental bonding money.

“I got to talk to the governor and say if we could even go with the bonding bill we agreed upon last session and use it as supplemental funding,” Mueller said. “It would be something rather than nothing.”

A consequence of not having bonding money last year was a hike in sewer fees for Austin residents over four years, including an initial raise of 15% this year.

“We need to have supplemental bonding,” Mueller said. “We have to pass something this year. People cannot go three years without bonding. It can’t happen.”

Locally, because of the shift in her district further east, Mueller will have a sliver of Freeborn County to cover, which she didn’t have before. She admitted that she was still getting to know the area; however, she is aware of at least one place she wants to support.

“When I did some door knocking, I’ve mainly focused a lot on Hayward,” Mueller said. “People have come to me a couple of times about the fire department. I really want to make sure they have good funding for the fire department.”

“Mostly, It’s me getting to know them and learn more about them,” Mueller said about that side of the district.

One of the big items on this year’s docket will be the state’s surplus of $17.6 billion and how to spend it. Mueller said she is hoping for quality discussion that doesn’t get lost in arguments over how to spend the money.

There is bipartisan support for eliminating the Social Security tax, though, as to what extent tends to be of differing opinions. Mueller is one of those voices that regardless the money should be used for permanent tax relief.

“We have to be wise on how we spend this,” Mueller said. “If we’re going to spend it, it should be focused, fair and wise and isn’t a continuation of expanding government.”

Mueller will be serving on the House Education Policy and Public Safety Finance and Policy committees this term.

By Sarah Stultz, Alex Guerrero and Eric Johnson contributed to this story.