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New and veteran legislators share session thoughts

Budget surplus and election outcome caused a stir.

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Submitted photos.
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Both familiar and new faces were in St. Paul on Tuesday, Jan. 3, representing the lakes area when the Minnesota Legislature convened for the 2023 session.

The five Republicans shared their thoughts about the session, including Democratic control, the state’s $17.6 billion budget surplus and the need for permanent tax cuts.

They include veteran Sens. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, and Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids; as well as Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa.

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Newcomers elected in November are Reps. Benjamin Davis, R-Merrifield, and Krista Knudsen, R-Lake Shore.

Justin Eichorn, Senate District 6

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State Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids
Justin Eichorn
Contributed / Nick Sherlock

Senate District 6 includes parts of Cass County, including Ponto Lake Township in the Echo Journal coverage area; northern two-thirds of Crow Wing County; and parts of Itasca County.

Like his fellow area legislators, Eichorn said Minnesotans are overtaxed, and hopes budget surplus money can be given back to taxpayers in a meaningful way.

“It seems a little more crazy to me that the Minnesota state government, in my opinion, has collected so much tax above and beyond what is needed,” Eichorn said. “What I would love to see is that money be given back to folks in the form of long-term, permanent tax relief. It's great that Gov. (Tim) Walz wants to give people a check that gives some money back, but that's a one time blip of money. I think long-term, ongoing tax relief could be more important.”

At the end of the day, those dollars are state government dollars – they belong to the taxpayers, Eichorn said.

Local legislators also worry that being the minority party in the House and the Senate may have an adverse effect on the more rural northern Minnesota cities.

“Folks like myself, Josh Heintzeman and Ben Davis are going to have to fight like hell to make sure some dollars make it north,” Eichorn said. “We have a lot of needs in wastewater treatment … We have so many infrastructure needs, like roads and bridges.

“I do think we can still be successful even in a minority role, but we've got a lot of work to do, and we're ready to do that as a team, which I think is pretty cool,” he said.

Benjamin Davis, House District 6A

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Ben Davis
Pastor Ben Davis has announced his candidacy for House District 6A.
Contributed / Ben Davis

House District 6A includes the cities of Crosslake, Manhattan Beach, Fifty Lakes, Emily, Crosby, Ironton and Deerwood, along with Fairfield, Ideal, Little Pine, Mission, Ross Lake, Perry Lake, Timothy and Wolford townships in Crow Wing County; and Ponto Lake Township in Cass County, among other Cass County communities. This district also includes part of Itasca County, including Grand Rapids and Cohasset.

"My heart kind of sank a little bit, because I was thinking it's going to be more money the Democrats are going to want to just spend,” Davis said of the budget surplus.

"That money belongs to the Minnesota taxpayer, and we have an obligation to do the right thing and give that money back to the taxpayer, just not to people as a whole, but actual people who paid taxes into the state," Davis said.

Davis said he'd also be willing to see the money used to reduce taxes going forward.

With many predicting a "red wave" in November, some area legislators are moving into a different legislative session than they were anticipating.

"We were expecting to win the House, and that didn't happen," said Davis. "We were expecting to keep the Senate and that didn't happen. I was hopeful we could also take the trifecta with the governor's office as well. None of that happened. So my expectations have greatly changed.”

As a result of Democrats seizing a trifecta in the 2022 election, local Republican legislators have had their plans altered, but they are still looking ahead to working on common ground.

“The agenda I campaigned on, Democrats aren't going to want to work with me on that agenda," Davis said. "But one expectation I do have, and Democrats ran on this too, is cutting Social Security tax. I am fully expecting this Legislature to cut the Social Security tax on everyone across the board for Social Security.”

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Josh Heintzeman, House District 6B

Josh Heintzeman
Josh Heintzeman

House District 6B includes most of western Crow Wing County, including the cities of Brainerd, Baxter, Pequot Lakes, Nisswa, Merrifield, Jenkins and Breezy Point.

Heintzeman is somewhat optimistic and promotes excluding Social Security benefits from state income tax

Overall, he called it good that the state has a budget surplus as opposed to a deficit.

“What you do with it is up for debate,” he said, noting he opposes permanent, ongoing spending.

“The surplus isn’t based on typical economic activity that you can expect into perpetuity,” Heintzeman said. “Instead, it’s really, unfortunately, not a full picture.”

He noted over $80 billion in borrowed federal spending being injected into the economy.

“We’re going to have a heck of a time convincing our friends on the other side of the aisle to view it in the context of that economic situation and how it came to that point,” he said.

Heintzeman spends most of his time on the environment and natural resources, with expected topics including the need for a constitutional amendment to reauthorize the Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund and discussion on management and research of chronic wasting disease.

Regarding Democrats controlling all legislative branches, Heintzeman said only time will tell how that goes.

“My expectation is that the people of Minnesota will be heard. I hope that that is the case. If not, my responsibility in the minority is to ensure Minnesotans are informed,” he said.

He hopes public safety, the economy, tax cuts for seniors and businesses and statewide property taxes addressed in the budget surplus potentially could move through the DFL controlled Legislature.

Paul Utke, Senate District 5

Paul Utke
Paul Utke
Joel Maxwell

Senate District 5 includes parts of Cass, Hubbard, Wadena and Becker counties, including the area cities of Backus, Chickamaw Beach, East Gull Lake, Hackensack, Lake Shore and Pine River, along with the area townships of Barclay, Bull Moose, Bungo, Deerfield, Fairview, Home Brook, Loon Lake, McKinley, Pine River, Powers, Walden and Wilson.

There’s a huge difference between being in the majority and being in the minority, Utke said, noting he’s served as a senator for six years but always in the majority.

That changes this year as Democrats now hold the majority in both the Senate and House.

“Our whole thing will be to hopefully work our agenda a little bit as we can, whether with amendments or get Democrats to see a little different way,” he said.

In most cases last year, it was more rural vs. metro, rather than Democrat vs. Republican.

“I see things that I assume will be high on their (metro legislators’) list - recreational marijuana, paid family medical leave, a government run health care system, California emissions - things we don’t want to see,” Utke said.

“We’ll be trying to put the reins on some of those items and keep it focused on producing a budget that’s fair and respects our taxpayers,” he said, noting he’d favor shrinking the budget. “We spend way too much already.”

Utke said the budget surplus shows the state is overtaxing, which he called totally irresponsible.

“The good part is, it shows our economy is still healthy, so to speak,” he said.

He advocates a tax reduction plan and eliminating the tax on Social Security benefits.

Krista Knudsen, House District 5A

Krista Knudsen.jpg
Krista Knudsen

District 5A includes Includes parts of Cass, Hubbard, Wadena and Becker counties, including the area cities of Backus, Chickamaw Beach, East Gull Lake, Hackensack, Lake Shore and Pine River, along with the area townships of Barclay, Bull Moose, Bungo, Deerfield, Fairview, Home Brook, Loon Lake, McKinley, Pine River, Powers, Walden and Wilson.

Knudsen is hopeful to eliminate the tax on Social Security benefits and enact permanent tax cuts, saying some Democrats ran for office in November with both in mind.

“So I’m hoping that some of the DFL members will stay true to those campaign promises and actually follow through with that,” she said.

“Our senior population is leaving our state in droves and we need them here, not just for the tax base but for families. Families need their grandparents here to help take care of kids,” Knudsen said.

She called the budget surplus “theft.”

“The governor overtaxed the hardworking people of Minnesota and that money needs to be given back, and I think the best way to give that back is through permanent tax cuts,” Knudsen said, noting people are struggling to fill cars with gas, pay electric bills and buy groceries. “They need that money back. That has been my priority through my whole campaign and will continue to be.”

She’s terrified that Democrats will spend the funds, and in two years the state will have a shortfall trying to pay for programs enacted. Knudsen hopes to reach across the aisle and pull more moderate Democrats into common sense conversations.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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