Area state legislators agree that this year's legislative session was frustrating and unproductive, but they are hopeful that when they return to budget negotiations Monday, June 14, during a special session, they will come to a conclusion before the June 30 deadline to avert a government shutdown.
That's according to statements made online via Zoom on Tuesday morning, June 8, in an update with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce.
Participating were state Reps. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, and John Poston, R-Lake Shore; Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point; and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.
" We are negotiating, I think, in good faith and we will get done on time. "
— Paul Gazelka.
"The fact that we've got the targets set as far as the tax relief we're going to spend in each area was really, really important and extremely hard to do," said Gazelka. "We've got $3 billion in extra money that came into our pocket. We're very concerned about the future money that we spend. We are negotiating, I think, in good faith and we will get done on time."
Gazelka said there are still hurdles, including passing a budget while shooting down what he called anti-business measures like paid family leave and sick and safe time.
"We're not going to do any of that so that's what you should be thankful for," Gazelka said.
Gazelka said it is difficult because Minnesota is the only divided Legislature in the country with a Democrat controlled House and governor and a Republican controlled Senate. Others echoed that sentiment.
"This was a very unproductive six months," said Poston. "We had no budget bills come to the floor for the end of the regular session. This is a budget year. We spent that six months working on some very controversial policy, which we should not have been doing. We should have been fixing PPP. We should have been fixing the unemployment issue. We should have had the budget done. But because of the House majority, those bills didn't make their way to the House floor."
Poston said those issues are being discussed in conference committees, though he understands discussions are not going particularly well.
Ruud agreed but said they had made some accomplishments with an agreement, which still needs to be passed, for use of the Legacy fund, totaling $700 million.
"As you know, those pieces of the puzzle are amazing tourism draws to our area. So to get that done is really wonderful," Ruud said.
The agreement passed unanimously, which she said is the first such time. There were 22 policy provisions in the bill initially, but they were removed, Ruud said.
"Negotiations are very difficult, but if we stand strong for the right things we can get this done," she said.
"It's time to really push," said Lueck. "No more missing deadlines or anything else."
This session and future sessions will also involve discussions designed to fix the financial fallout and business impacts from COVID-19. There was a general agreement that those present felt Gov. Tim Walz's reaction to the pandemic was initially good.
" We're struggling like all of the service businesses out there to find help. I think unemployment extended benefits are part of it. I think there's another part of it where people don't seem to want to work in our industry. "
— John Poston.
"I'll give him high marks initially," Lueck said. "He stepped in and saw we had clear and major problems and he did the right thing."
"I agree with Dale," Poston said. "I think the governor started off doing a good job. I think he should have brought the Legislature back into the fold, into the process."
The legislators also agreed they don't approve of how Walz continued, including disagreements with mask mandates, business and school closures, and ultimately his use of emergency powers to make decisions bypassing the Legislature.
"The talent in the Legislature is amazing," Ruud said. "They come from all walks of life. They have all this experience to bring tremendous talent and the ability to govern. There's so many things that have fallen to the wayside."
The legislators also spoke about ending various COVID-19 policies, such as unemployment insurance and the eviction moratorium.
Poston said the extended unemployment insurance benefits are part of the worker shortage in the area, but not the whole picture.
"We're struggling like all of the service businesses out there to find help," Poston said. "I think unemployment extended benefits are part of it. I think there's another part of it where people don't seem to want to work in our industry."
Poston pointed out that teenagers, who have long made up much of the workforce in the service industry, do not qualify for unemployment insurance, but for some reason they are still not applying for the open positions. Ruud echoed that same sentiment.
What many people might not realize is the pool that pays for unemployment is running out, which could increase costs if no measures are put into place.
"Because so many people used it, there's going to be an increase in unemployment insurance costs to the employer," Gazelka said. "Early on we recommended that we replenish that fund. It's more than a billion dollars short. We're not going to get that. Maybe next year. Maybe the federal government will help us with that issue."
There is currently a bill in the House designed to incentivize a return to work; however, Poston and Lueck said they didn't have high expectations for its ability to garner support from Democrats.
Virtual attendee Becky LaPlante asked when to expect action on an "eviction moratorium off-ramp" designed to end the moratorium. Legislators said they did not see a timeline for the off-ramp, but Gazelka said it might be time to simply end the moratorium without an off-ramp.
Ruud said an off-ramp could help avert another housing market crash
"I think we are really headed for a disaster in our housing market," Ruud said. "We have an unsustainable real estate market right now with homes going for 30%-60% over market value. It reminds me of 2007 or 2008, when everything crashed. Then we have this rental issue where folks on that end get to the point where they have no equity left in those rental properties. I think we have a tremendous foreclosure issue coming. I think our housing market in the state of Minnesota is really unstable and unsustainable and that worries me a lot going forward. If we could get an off-ramp and put some stabilization into the market, that would help us down the road."
LaPlante also said Rent Help MN, a website intended to help those behind on rent to make payments and therefore to prevent rental property owners from shouldering additional financial strain, doesn't work. Lueck, who has corresponded with her in the past on the subject, agreed that the site does not function correctly and is not serving its purpose.
Legislators spoke to new Minnesota Pollution Control Agency emission standards styled after those in California. The provisions for those standards are twofold, first adopting the standard for low emission vehicles, which is currently a federal standard that the state must abide by.
The future of the federal standard is considered uncertain after a proposal to roll back those standards under the former administration, but adopting those standards at a state level would prevent a rollback in Minnesota.
The second is a requirement for auto manufacturers to make more efficient hybrids and electric vehicles available in Minnesota, which would also likely require dealerships to carry more of those vehicles, which may not sell well in Minnesota, especially in rural places.
Legislators opposed these standards in part because they don't want Minnesota rules and regulations dictated by California.
They also oppose how the standards were adopted, as they bypassed the Legislature. A court ruled that it was within the agency's power to do so. Ruud said there was not enough notice and comment sought in rural Minnesota, including Brainerd, which she said has a massive MPCA facility that could have hosted hearings.
To that end, legislators are seeking a two-year moratorium on the plan to allow them to gather more information from constituents and research the standards. Of course, if Walz is not re-elected in two years, whoever follows in his shoes could direct the agency to make changes to the rule as well.
On the subject of the next election, when Chamber President Matt Kilian asked, Gazelka did not rule out the possibility that he might run for governor.
"I am seriously considering it, but I have to finish this session before I make a final decision," Gazelka said.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com.