BAXTER - The Republican takeover of the Legislature was illustrated Friday by some hyperbole by Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, at the Eggs and Issues breakfast.
"Things are changing," Ward said at the Brainerd Lakes Chamber event at the Lodge at Brainerd Lakes in Baxter. "My (Capitol) office is now in the Sears parking lot."
Veteran lawmaker Larry Howes, who will soon start his seventh term, noted how the political balance of area lawmakers has switched back and forth over the years.
"The tables continue to turn," he said. "I'm the only constant. That doesn't mean you can blame me."
Lawmakers are still waiting for their office assignments as Republicans prepare to assume majority status in both the House and Senate. The turnover meant the chamber's annual legislative preview featured two new area lawmakers and a new state senator who previously served in the House.
The newcomers were in House District 12B and Senate District 4 were Rep.-elect Mike LeMieur, R-Little Falls, and Sen.-elect John Carlson, R-Bemidji. Sen.-elect Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd represented Senate District 12.
LeMieur, a part owner of a heating and plumbing business in Little Falls, defeated Rep. Al Doty, DFL-Royalton, on his second try. Carlson, who owns an insurance agency in Bemidji, defeated Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji. Gazelka, also the owner of an insurance company in Baxter, formerly served in the House in 2005-2006. He won the Republican endorsement and then defeated three contenders in the general election. They were Sen. Paul Koering, R-Fort Ripley, who ran as an independent, Democrat Taylor Stevenson of Baxter and Constitution Party Candidate Stephen Park of Nisswa.
The area legislators discussed the business climate, the state’s projected $6.2 billion deficit, education and poverty before crowd of about 60 chamber members.
All of the lawmakers agreed it was important to help entrepreneurs grow jobs and remove obstacles that prevent that from happening.
LeMieur said he wanted a more business-friendly Minnesota and called for a reduction in the state’s corporate income tax and permitting costs.
Howes noted that Minnesota is affected by many of the national and international economic events. He favored tax incentives to companies that added jobs. He said state agency employees should not be able to impose their wishes on the Legislature.
“We have to be able to force agencies to make it work,” he said. “The agencies do not run the state of Minnesota. The people do.”
Howes, who will be chair of the House Capital Investment and Bonding Committee, criticized expenditures made by larger Minnesota cities with Local Government Aid funds, particularly expensive water fountains in Minneapolis. He suggested cutting all LGA funding to the bigger cities, but later explained that his point is that the LGA program has gotten away from its original intent to help struggling cities.
The importance of small businesses was emphasized by Ward who said legislation was passed in 2010 to help that sector. He favored tax credits or incentives for job growth and streamlining of regulations and the permit process. He said retaining current businesses and public/private partnerships to encourage innovations are also important. The DFLer said he would agree to look at adjusting the corporate tax rate but said that such changes tend to benefit the Twin Cities area more than outstate Minnesota.
He said the projected state deficit is real and is a major financial problem. He said jobs are needed to improve the picture. Brainerd, he noted, stands out with its high unemployment rate.
“We don’t want that prestige anymore,” he said.
Cuts have been made in state government and will continue to be made along with streamlining of inefficiencies, Ward said. He said he favored cuts that were “smart and wise and futuristic” balanced by revenue.
“Needs and wants are in the eye of the beholder,” Ward said.
His own list of needs included education, health care, the environment and a fair taxation system.
District 4’s new senator, Carlson said the state’s budget problems have to be solved without raising taxes. He said lawmakers have to differentiate between wants and needs and provide the business community with certainty on tax issues
“Until there’s that certainty you’re going to see capital stay in the check book,” Carlson said.
Looking at the government’s role to help entrepreneurs, he said the big thing the government could do is to get out of the way.
Gazelka also stressed the need to speed up the time it takes to receive a permit. He said he hopes Obamacare is repealed or at least not funded so that health care costs can be contained. The senator-elect also called for tort reform and lamented that Minnesota is a leading state in terms of mandating health care coverage.
“There’s no big thing we can do but a lot of little things,” he said.
Gov.-elect Mark Dayton’s comments Thursday that his goal of alleviating poverty would be very difficult because of the state’s bleak financial picture generated conversation and revealed differing perspectives on the topic.
Carlson said that while he favors giving a hand up to the truly needy certain people choose to live off the government because they can. He referred to a Bible passage that stated that there would always be poverty.
“You’re never going to eliminate poverty,” Carlson said. “It’s impossible because some people choose that path.”
Ward countered that while some people may abuse the system, all families are just one incident away from poverty. He emphasized the importance of wise investments in early childhood education, quality child care and Kindergarten-12 education.
Gazelka said education should be redesigned to reach pupils before they get to third grade. Academic success, he said, can also be helped by strengthening the family unit.
“The family unit is vital,” LeMieur agreed.
A wide variety of concerns was brought up by business people in the audience.
Tom Haglin of Lindnar Corp. raised the issues of the sales tax businesses pay on capital equipment and on the high cost of health care.
Char Kinzer of Crow Wing Power said her company went through the slow process of seeking government approval for its Manganese Extraction Demonstration Project in Emily. She said the mine should be going full bore soon.
Responding to a question about lifting the state’s ban on new nuclear power plants, most lawmakers appeared to be in favor of that measure.
Howes, Gazelka and LeMieur favored lifting the ban. Ward said he had concerns about the spent fuel but he had supported one bill that would have lifted the ban with stipulations.
Crow Wing County Treasurer Laureen Borden urged lawmakers to be mindful of what happens to local governments when the state doesn’t pay the market value credits.
MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.