Sparks focuses on roads, health care, taxes

Published 10:37 am Friday, November 4, 2016

Transportation, health care and tax relief are top priorities for a District 27 senator seeking re-election.

DFLer Dan Sparks of Austin is running for the District 27A senate seat against Republican candidate Gene Dornink of Hayfield.

Dan Sparks

Dan Sparks

“We need to address transportation funding,” Sparks said. “The system is in great need of repair, and the list of projects continues to grow longer and more costly. I am prepared to take the tough votes on real solutions not only for state projects but to help our local governments address their infrastructure issues as well, so those costs don’t fall more heavily on local taxpayers.”

Sparks said transportation funding has always been a difficult compromise.

“Minnesota has a vast amount of road and bridge infrastructure, and it is very costly to both maintain and update that system,” he said. “The last time we addressed it, it required a veto override to get it done. The fact is that we need to be serious about the problem, and take the hard votes now to get problems addressed now and into the future.”

No serious proposal can address state needs and help cities and counties address their infrastructure without new revenue, Sparks said.

“I support compromise and finding diverse solutions, but I think it is best to use sources that are dedicated to transportation funding so that we can depend on that being being in the budget.” 

Health care

Sparks — first elected to the Legislature in 2002 — said the cost of health care is a major concern.

“The Senate passed extensive reforms to the individual market and rate review process, and a proposal to apply for a waiver from some federal regulations,” he said. “These are real solutions that target the problem of reducing costs.”

Sparks said they have a proposal to help people purchase insurance on the individual market by buying down premium increases.

“The House rejected these proposals, because they were focused on getting rid of MNsure, which would have no impact on rates,” he said. “I’m open to any MNsure reforms, but simply scrapping it would cost millions, end MinnesotaCare and push us onto the federal exchange — relinquishing our state authority to federal control.”

Tax relief and attracting business

Sparks said he wants to pass tax reductions and reforms.

“We did reach agreement on a tax bill with the House at the end of last session that had many good provisions for individuals, working families, farmers and businesses,” he said. “I believe that with a few adjustments we should be able to resolve this, and pass important tax relief this session.”

Sparks said Minnesota is a great place to live and work, adding that businesses continue to choose Minnesota as a place to grow and expand.

“Of course there is always room for improvement, and issues that need to be addressed like the workforce housing and technology infrastructure in rural areas,” he said. “These are matters that the businesses in our area are asking us to address for them that will make a difference.”

Sparks said though the state has made improvements to its permitting process, it should continue to tighten and streamline regulations as much as possible.

“Of course, taxes is always a big issue,” he said. “I have supported business property tax reductions and authored bills to reduce unemployment and work comp costs for all businesses.”

Working with others and compromise

Sparks said he spends a lot of time with people on the phone and through emails communicating about legislation and issues.

“During the legislative session I spend most of my days and evenings meeting with people from the district about their priorities for the session and reserve time on the weekends to meet with people in the district about similar issues,” Sparks said, adding that wherever he goes, he talks about possible solutions to state and local issues with his constituents.

Sparks said building relationships with Republicans and Democrats from across the state and gaining a reputation of being reasonable and seeking compromise are his biggest strengths.

“This was evident during the two years I served in the minority,” he said. “I was one of the few members of my caucus to pass a number of significant pieces of legislation, including filing reductions for our small utilities, a banking bill, reforms to child abuse statutes that I worked on with local law enforcement and secured funding for the Hormel Institute expansion.

Workforce housing and broadband funding

Sparks described himself as a leader in workforce housing and broadband development, noting he has authored legislation for both issues.

“During this last term we have passed numerous recommendations of the broadband task force with the goals of border-to-border access to high-speed internet,” he said. “These changes include the first significant reform of our telecommunications regulatory environment in decades, and the creation and funding of the broadband grant program that is funding investments across Greater Minnesota.”

Sparks was the chief author of the workforce housing bill brought by the Coalition for Greater Minnesota Cities and Greater Minnesota Partnership.

“The legislation was supported by our cities and local chambers,” he said.

The Legislature passed and received funding for the grant program, Sparks said, noting a project in the district was among the projects awarded in the program

“The other key component to getting these projects done is a tax credit program,” he said. “We successfully included it in the Senate tax bill, but the House did not support it. I will continue to work on the issue, and convince House members of its importance to Greater Minnesota.”

The Senate has proposed a state-based tax credit for people who do not receive the federal credit to offset cost increases, Sparks said.

“I think we will get the best results through these local organizations partnering with landowners on projects that make sense and have support rather than one-size-fits-all approaches,” he said.

Education

Sparks said the Legislature has invested in education and early learning, such as all-day kindergarten and voluntary pre-K programming, which Austin and Albert Lea have taken advantage of.

“We also have worked to address some funding disparities for rural school districts,” he said. “I would like to continue on this path, and make sure to allow the local districts flexibility with their funding to do what is best for their students.”

Sparks said the state needs to continue to make investments and reforms to keep high education costs in check. 

“In the last few years we have frozen tuition, grown and expanded the state grant program and provided more opportunities for students to attend our local community colleges for two-year degrees,” he said. “We should continue to search for reforms and savings within the institutions, so more dollars are heading into the classrooms.”

Water use and quality

Water use and quality will be big issues discussed by the next Legislature, Sparks said.

“Gov. Dayton has been working on this issue and stated that action on it will be a priority of his,” he said. I have been working with stakeholders on this issue and will be dedicated to making sure that all voices are heard and are part of the solutions on this issue.”

Sparks recalled working with Republicans and Democrats, landowners and environmentalists to reform the buffer initiative Dayton brought forward.

“When these issues come up I reach out to our local watershed districts and soil and conservation offices,” he said. “These are our local experts and know what our needs are and how to best address these issues in our area.”

Background

Sparks said he has deep roots in the district and is raising his family here.

“I also have a diverse work history having been a laborer at the Hormel Plant, on a county road crew, worked as a loan officer at a local bank and farming,” he said. “I understand the challenges and priorities of people in our area, and work to ensure that our perspective is heard in St. Paul. I have been effective by not getting pulled into political divisiveness and collaborating with all parties to get things done.”

Sparks said if re-elected, he looks forward to working with other legislators to find common ground to move forward on the issues.

“I also will continue to focus on Greater Minnesota — priorities like workforce housing and broadband,” he said. “Protecting and promoting rural areas to make sure they are treated fairly. And, working with the communities in our district to bring state funding home to support our development projects.”

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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