Area legislators agree on local successes
Area legislators received praise from business leaders for bipartisanship on local successes during the legislative session at a Brainerd Lakes Chamber-sponsored forum Tuesday June 17, in Brainerd, but remained split on key statewide issues.
Among legislative actions the lawmakers worked together on were the local option sales tax for Brainerd and Baxter, approved as part of the tax bill, and the chili cookoff bill, allowing off-site meat preparation for cooking contests that will likely boost participation in Crosslake's Chili Cookoff and WinterFest SoupFest.
The sales tax, if approved by voters this fall, will fund expansion of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport's water and sewer infrastructure.
"Regardless of our differences, we work really well together," said Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. "All of you (businesspeople) really contributed to the success for this area in this session."
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Cass County, agreed with the other legislators that their ability to work together greatly benefited local issues.
"If you build bridges, then you can actually accomplish a lot," he said.
From there, whether this year's legislative session as a whole was a success or a failure depended on who was sharing their viewpoint.
Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, said in terms of the biennium, it was one of the most successful he's seen in his eight years in government. He pointed to what he said is the "largest tax cut for small businesses in the history of the state" and successes in jobs and education.
Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, said he was also pleased with the session, and noted that despite some of the seemingly divisive issues the Democratic majority passed this year, "93 percent of legislation had at least one Republican's support."
"The vast majority of the workings of state government are done on a bipartisan basis," he added.
Gazelka said "misplaced priorities" led to bad legislation, including the anti-bullying law he said will cost school districts $20 million to implement, changes to allow medical marijuana, unionization of daycare providers and the expansiveness of MNSure.
"As a state, the unchecked power was not positive," he said, referencing that the House of Representatives, the Senate and the governorship are all in Democratic control.
Ruud said the session was "pretty disappointing," noting her displeasure for spending in the bonding bill dedicated to civic centers in several communities and other projects that she considered unwise spending.
"We shouldn't use state bonding bills to fund small projects that should be funded by communities," Ruud said. "There was no transportation dollars for our area ... our transportation needs are great."
She also described the Women's Economic Security Act, a law intended to reduce the pay gap between men and women, as the "worst degrading thing they've ever passed for women."
She said it gives women the impression that they need government help to be successful.
"I knew there'd be a lightning bolt from heaven and my mother would fry me in my seat (if I voted for it)," she said.
The increase in minimum wage passed this session drew praise from Radinovich and Ward and disappointment from Ruud and Gazelka.
Gazelka said the increase "makes us uncompetitive with other states."
"It hurt rural Minnesota more than metro Minnesota," he said.
Ruud said it was "one of the most disappointing issues."
"I think we'll see a loss of jobs," she said.
Ruud said a tiered wage proposal was one of the first bills she worked on when she served in the state Senate in 2003.
"It's very irresponsible to raise the minimum wage so high without that," she said by phone June 20. "I've always thought we should have a tiered wage."
Mark Ronnei, general manager of Grand View Lodge in Nisswa, said he supports a minimum wage increase overall, but challenged the lawmakers on the lack of discussion on the tiered wage issue. He said the Legislature should have considered a freeze on wages for restaurant servers given how much they make in tips.
Ronnei said he had just been working on his budget for the next year before arriving at the forum, and accounting for the increase in pay to servers at Grand View, his projections indicated a loss of $2,000 of profits per day.
"You missed it on this one," he said, "because you're just hammering us."
Ward and Radinovich, who voted for the minimum wage increase, both said they were willing to continue working on a server exemption.
"We have promised you this isn't a dead horse," Ward said.
Ward said he has legislation "waiting in his desk" on the issue, and if he's re-elected, he plans to pursue it.
The legislation, Ward said in an interview June 20, would eliminate tips altogether, opting for a service charge to be added to a bill that would be shared by all staff.
The Minnesota Restaurant Association had proposed an add-on to the legislation that would have allowed restaurants to continue paying servers $7.25 per hour, assuming they could prove they made up to $12 per hour including tips. If they did not achieve that rate on average in shift, the restaurant would make up the difference.
Radinovich said this proposal may work for larger, more expensive restaurants where servers have the opportunity to make more money, but small cafes may end up paying their employees more this way than with a raise of the minimum wage overall.
Both Radinovich and Ward pointed to the complicated nature of determining whether a server has reached the $12 per hour threshold.
Ward described it as a "bookkeeping nightmare which may add to the cost of the restaurant."
The forum shifted to a more positive discussion when the topic of the 2014 Governor's Fishing Opener arose.
Brainerd Lakes Chamber CEO Matt Kilian, who moderated the forum, said the goal for the event was to get the equivalent of $1 million worth of media coverage. Kilian said the coverage totaled to almost triple that, worth $2.7 million.
All legislators agreed the event brought a lot of positive attention to the area and was great for businesses.