Brainerd lakes area legislators call for community help reaching Democrats
Area Republican legislators address the challenges that come with being in the minority of a legislative body
EAST GULL LAKE — A packed room turned out to Madden’s on Gull Lake’s Wilson Bay Dining Room on Friday, Feb. 3, to hear legislators that represent them speak about the atmosphere, bills and outlook of business-relevant legislation at a Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce Eggs & Issues event.
Present were Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids; Rep. Ben Davis, R-Mission Township; Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa; and Rep. Krista Knudsen, R-Lake Shore.
A common theme included those legislators' limited power in a year when Democrats control the House, Senate and governor's office.
"I honestly believed the Republicans would have the trifecta," Davis said. "I honestly believed that's the way the elections were going to go. When that didn't happen it was shocking."
Knudsen echoed those sentiments.
"The biggest shocker to me so far has been how much power the majority party has and how little power the minority party has," Knudsen said. "In every decision. I thought there'd be a lot more debates, a lot more discussion about issues and we're really put in our place. We don't get the opportunity to share ideas."
Not everything was negative.
"We have 25 new freshman GOP members in the House and they're awesome," Knudsen said. "I feel blessed to be part of this group."
Eichorn talked about the divide between the parties, saying that when he started, then-Gov. Mark Dayton was open to meeting with Republican legislators, but Gov. Tim Walz has yet to meet with him.
The four discussed issues teed up by Chamber President Matt Kilian, especially the mandated paid leave program and tax relief.
The mandated paid leave program was one of the primary discussions.
Heintzeman said Republican opposition and lobbyists aren't going to be enough to affect change in the current proposed bill. He encouraged business owners in the area, especially large business owners, to be their own advocates.
"It's going to take folks in the energy sector, Xcel (Energy), for example," Heintzeman said. "I need the CEO in committee testifying how bad these bills are.
"In order to be taken seriously," Heintzeman said, “the biggest voices in the state are going to have to step up."
Eichorn went into details about his biggest concerns with the mandate, particularly the amount of time a person could take off if they or a family member are sick. Under the current version of the bill, employees could receive 24 weeks off for illness.
"It's worse than that," Eichorn said. "You have the paid family leave stuff, but you also have the sick and safe time. On top of the 24 weeks, you're going to get another two weeks of additional time off. Basically, someone could take off half the year and you wouldn't be able to terminate that employee."
Eichorn said Republicans in 2022 had proposed a privately run insurance product instead, functioning similar to Aflac, which employees or employers could opt into.
Kilian asked if any of the chamber members in the room supported the program, seeing only one hand in support.
That man later explained that he wanted to be able to support his employees’ health needs with time off, and that the .7% proposed tax provided him with the only way he could afford to do so.
The legislators said the bigger issue is having a small business short one employee for a temporary but extended period of time. This was the issue Knudsen brought up.
"We can't even hire the employees we need right now," Knudsen said. "Where are we going to find the temporary employees we need, especially in my business in the summer, because all of a sudden three of my employees have a sick aunt in North Carolina they have to take care of? I think it could be devastating as written."
Knudsen said there are only 20% of businesses that don't have a paid medical family leave plan in place. That number seems to vary from source to source, with some indicating only 13% of businesses offer such a plan, or just under 40%, but Knudsen said twice that only 20% do not.
Knudsen urged those who wish to oppose the mandate to message Democrats outside of their districts to urge them to reconsider.
Tax changes were also a topic at hand. Legislators were happy to have finally achieved tax conformity; however, it was a short-lived celebration.
Many Republican legislators are disappointed that the majority blocked a full repeal of Social Security taxes.
"We originally thought there would be something in the realm of Social Security," Eichorn said. "Now the governor in the house and Democrats are saying they don't want to do that anymore."
Davis and Knudsen echoed Eichorn on the Social Security repeal.
"It's so frustrating, especially as a business owner," Knudsen said. "I really campaigned on eliminating the tax on Social Security benefits for everybody. I co-authored that on my second day and it's not going to happen. That's heartbreaking. I thought we could all agree on that."
There are also new tax proposals. Heintzeman said Walz is proposing an increase in capital gains tax, dividends and income over $1 million on individuals and trustee estates.
The group did have some positive outlooks on the smaller, less contentious issues before the House and Senate. Some of that surrounded possible education bills.
"I heard a bill in committee offering EMT classes in school as an elective," Knudsen said. "They had appropriations for it - $1 million to offer EMT classes as an elective in our schools. Everybody is struggling to find employment, but health care has been hit so very hard."
Davis commended efforts to increase technical education in schools. Heintzeman also celebrated Minnesota achieving the lowest unemployment rate in the country.
The summer 2022 1.8% rate was not only the lowest in the country at the time, but the lowest number since that number has been recorded, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Smaller discussions were had on such topics as deregulation of industry, mining and child care as well as bonding projects including the National Loon Center in Crosslake and WonderTrek Children's Museum in Brainerd.
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.