Three themes emerged when area Republican legislators spoke their minds during a Brainerd Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce forum held virtually via Zoom on Friday, Feb. 19:

  • Taxes won’t be raised to balance the budget.

  • Constituents’ voices are not being heard because the Capitol building is closed to the public.

  • Communicating with Gov. Tim Walz has been difficult and he needs to hear from the public and businesses.

“To balance the budget, the governor wants serious tax increases on businesses and the wealthy. We won’t do that,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said.

He later told chamber members: “The pressure of your industries is probably the loudest voice the governor needs to hear.”

Also participating in the forum were Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point; Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore; and Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin. All represent portions of the Echo Journal’s coverage area.

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In opening comments, the area legislators shared their perspectives on the legislative session thus far. Following are their responses:

Gazelka: He outlined four priorities - to get the COVID-19 vaccine to people, particularly those over age 65; to balance the budget; to get businesses back up and running without governor mandates; and to get kids in grades K-12 back in school buildings five days a week.

Ruud: She echoed Gazelka’s comments, adding passionately: “One of my frustrations down at the Capitol is that as hard as we are working to get our businesses open, we are not open at the Capitol. We are for the people, and there are no people.”

Ruud said legislators on the other side of the aisle haven’t been at the Capitol in St. Paul for a year, and the House building is totally shut down.

“It is really not the way we are supposed to do business,” Ruud said. “We have senators who don’t want to come to the Capitol to open up our business. … There is no reason we can’t do business at the state Capitol, none whatsoever.”

Ruud said legislators can do their work at the Capitol safely, but there are legislators who don’t want to.

“Because if we open up, you have to open up,” she told chamber members. “If we let you open up, then they have to come back to work.”

Ruud said she is at her office in St. Paul and anyone can make an appointment to see her there.

“We need to be back in business. We need public input,” she said.

Heintzeman: He echoed Ruud’s comments, saying the Capitol isn’t to be taken lightly and, “It’s super important that it’s open. It is the people's house.”

Heintzeman said if people can use Zoom online, they might be able to take part in committee hearings.

“But most people are really struggling, especially in Greater Minnesota, to interact and let their voice be heard,” he said.

Poston: He agreed with Ruud and Heintzeman.

“I’m not sure the public is aware of this, but your voices are really not being heard right now on the House side,” Poston said, noting committee meetings held via Zoom are limited in time so House representatives are not able to ask the questions they want to ask.

Lueck: He touched on another topic he said is not helpful to businesses and rural Minnesota - that being “the governor’s current breakneck rate to impose California auto emission standards and auto standards on the state of Minnesota.”

“I see that as something I would hope everybody agrees - that we don’t need to start mimicking California.” Lueck said.

He said chambers play a huge role.

“We’re cut out of this. The governor knew the Legislature won’t swallow that,” Lucek said, noting written comments are being taken and urging people to share their thoughts. “He (Walz) is absolutely bent on jamming this down our throats. It’s unacceptable.”

Tourism

Ben Thuringer, of Madden’s on Gull Lake, talked about tourism, saying 116,000 jobs at $16 billion in sales annually in the state - or $42 million per day - is not something to be taken lightly.

“Confidence is there. Shutdowns are what is hurting,” he said, noting he hopes to see restrictions lifted so resorts and others can service those who want to vacation.

He supported a bill promoting a three-phase plan, saying business owners realize planning is important and stepped phases are important. The bill is important because Minnesota is losing national and international conferences to neighboring states, he said, and the state can’t stand to lose more resorts.

He asked about legislators’ outlooks working with Walz and what is being done to help tourism in the state.

“I’m not terribly optimistic. I’ve tried about every avenue to get the governor to play ball,” Gazelka said, adding pressure is going to build on Walz as COVID-19 cases trend downward, the vaccine becomes more available, and death rates drop “to hardly anything.”

He added that unless House Democrats agree that the governor’s emergency powers to take actions should end, the Legislature cannot end them. He was optimistic that pressure would also come forth.

Gazelka also said he’s been pressuring Walz in the past few months to open schools.

Poston said it’s been very difficult trying to communicate with the governor.

“He doesn’t respond to emails. He doesn’t respond to phone messages. He’s not communicating with legislators, especially those on the other side of the aisle,” he said.

He said a bill he is working on would require mandates for events spaces to be the same as those for restaurants, meaning events spaces could be occupied at 50% of capacity rather than 50 people.

Ruud talked about a bill that would provide a $1 million grant for marketing to help tourism and hospitality businesses once they do fully open again.

“We know that our hospitality industry is going to lack the dollars. They’re just hanging on to stay in business and they’re going to lack the marketing dollars to bring people into the state,” she said.

The grant would help send the message that Minnesota is open, with a goal to help get conventions back at resorts, Ruud said, citing 12,000 timeshare rooms that sit vacant in Breezy Point.

Heintzeman said it’s painful to look across the state’s borders and see businesses and economies wide open, and people from Minnesota crossing those borders “and driving right by all their local businesses.”

He also spoke to the frustration of not being able to communicate with the governor’s office or get responses.

Lueck claimed the governor is not focused on “getting out of this mess,” but rather on what people can’t do.

“We must change the mechanism the governor is operating under,” he said, citing the loophole in the emergency order statute that allows a governor in circumstances of a longer range issue like this “to hold onto emergency powers until there’s not a single case of COVID left in the world.”

State budget

Regarding the budget that legislators are tasked with setting this legislative session, Gazelka said government spending should have been reduced, but the governor chose not to do that. Instead, the state has more than $2 billion in reserves that can be used as a secondary measure and that will likely happen.

Again, he said: “We are not going to raise taxes.”

Poston agreed.

“We can do this without tax increases,” he said, adding the state likely will have to use the rainy day fund and cut back on agency spending.

“I hate to tell you this, but on the House side of things … we are sitting in committee meetings right now and being asked to appropriate more money, to appropriate more money, to appropriate more money for things that are clearly not on this priority list that Sen. Gazelka laid out earlier,” Poston said.

The state is lucky it is not facing a worse deficit, Heintzeman said, but everyone knew last year there’d be a downturn and the governor was asked to have agencies reduce costs and that didn’t happen.

“Agencies should have tightened their belts a little bit and we would have no deficit at all,” he said, also reiterating that legislators cannot raise taxes.

Other thoughts

Legislators also talked about potential legislation mandating employer benefits, the mandate against eviction orders and the idea of California emission standards.

Lueck reiterated the plea for businesses and people to continue to pressure the governor with emails. Ruud said bills are flying fast and furiously, but this is not a year to make major policy decisions because there is no ability for public input.

Heintzeman and Lueck spoke to reasons to be optimistic.

“The economy has pent up power and opportunity going forward to recover in dramatic fashion,” Heintzeman said.

Lueck said: “We are coming out of this. The challenge here is let’s plan for success.”

“It’s important to me that the Senate is known for people who solve people’s problems,” Gazelka said, noting his relationship with the liberal Democrat Speaker of the House is very good.

While it’s frustrating that the governor keeps using emergency powers, before that Gazelka said he and Walz worked well together.

“It comes down to mutual respect. Even with great disagreements you can find a path forward,” he said. “Minnesota is the only divided legislature in the country … and yet we figured out how to do it. People should be proud that Minnesota, frankly, at the government level is working. We fight for what we believe in. We fight for you. But in the end we govern.”

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.