Local legislators talk priorities for the new legislative session: bonding, fixes on last year’s legislation

Published 9:00 pm Friday, February 16, 2024

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By Eric Johnson and Sarah Stultz

With the first week under their belt, local legislators are looking forward to a session that doesn’t seem to be quite so hectic as last year.

In the second year of the biennium, legislators will look to focus on two areas — bonding and policy fixes.

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A number of bonding projects will be at the forefront for local legislators, including several large projects vying for bonding money.

Albert Lea is asking for $40 million in bonding aid for its wastewater treatment plant while Riverland Community College is asking for $17.1 million dollars for renovation of its East Building in Austin, which would create a unified center for student services.

Meanwhile, The Hormel Institute in Austin is asking for $19.8 million for the first phase of its Minnesota Bioimaging Center (MBiC) expansion that could turn the institution into a regional hub for scientific research as well as a specialized STEM education center.

“It’s important that we remember that the core function of bonding is infrastructure,” said 23B House Rep. Patricia Mueller. “We have to try really hard to make sure we are focusing on what bonding is really for.”

Patricia Mueller

Both Mueller and the Minnesota Senate’s Gene Dornink, representing District 23, have been campaigning for all three projects, understanding not just the importance they represent for the communities the projects are a part of, but also the importance for the surrounding areas as well.

In particular, the Institute’s project hopes to combine its existing cryo-electron microscopy with the soon to be added cryo-electron tomography to create a bioimaging center that it expects to revolutionize research.

It’s hoped that by the time the project is completed, researchers from throughout the state as well as the Midwest will be able to use the new center to further research.

At the same time, the center will also open up education possibilities for students from the earliest grades all the way up to college students.

“Because that’s such a big deal, I have already been talking with our local officials and also trying to talk to the governor to get him down to take another tour and to hear our bonding request,” Mueller said. “When he’s on board, he can push it as well.”

Riverland’s project, which seeks to unify its services to students, requires the remodeling of its East Building, something Riverland’s new president Dr. Kat Linaker said was essential to Riverland students’ education.

“That’s where I went to school,” Dornink said. “The school does a great job, and this is important to them and it’s important to me.”

Meanwhile, Albert Lea’s project mirrors Austin’s own push for a renovated wastewater treatment plant. Dornink said that while everybody wants clean water, he added that because of changes made by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, plants like Albert Lea’s can use the boost bonding money would provide.

Albert Lea’s project is projected to cost around $80 million with project construction expected to start this summer. Some of the required work is due to the age of the plant, but it’s also due to MPCA regulations and standards on phosphorus.

Gene Dornink

“Wastewater infrastructure is huge in both smaller and larger communities,” Dornink said. “Because the MPCA has issued stronger and together water quality measures (the state) should invest in that.”

However, Dornink also said that Albert Lea’s ask of $40 million is probably unrealistic and will most likely need to be broken down in chunks.

“We got them $2 million last year,” Dornink said. “When you have such a huge project, it’s better to go in phases. There’s an $80 million price tag and $40 million is the request. That’s probably not going to happen in one bonding year.”

These are just three of the biggest in the area, with a number of smaller measures being requested throughout the area including requests of bonding dollars to help Blooming Prairie with repaving work on Highway 218 and money that would go toward completing the Shooting Star Trail from Taopi to the Iowa border where it would hook up with Iowa’s Wapsi-Great Western Line Trail.

District 23A Rep. Peggy Bennett said she will be advocating for the Albert Lea project, as well as projects in Manchester and Clarks Grove. Manchester is requesting $2 million toward the design and construction of a new clean water distribution system, new water treatment plant and new well, and Clarks Grove is requesting $9.9 million toward designing and constructing new water and sewer infrastructure, including a new treatment plant, two new lift stations and other infrastructure replacement.

Peggy Bennett

Bennett said 50 years ago, the federal government put a lot of money into wastewater treatment plants across the state, and now they are all aging out at the same time.

She talked of the importance of bonding money being used for core issues such as wastewater treatment facilities and noted she has also been in communication with U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad to see if the federal government might also be able to take on a portion of the projects.

She also supported potentially using a portion of the state surplus for one-time money to support these types of projects throughout the state.

“I think that’s a reasonable use of that money,” Bennett said.

Legislation fixes

Another important part of this session is to work on fixes for the legislation passed last year, of which several will be eyed this year.

Fixes to recreational marijuana legalization, legislation regarding use of force among school resource officers, paid family leave requirements and tax error fixes are some of the biggest fixes legislators will be looking at this year.

“There was an awful lot of legislation passed really quickly,” Mueller said, referring to last year. “We’re going to see several fixit bills.”

One of the earliest being looked at so far this year is the SRO use of force requirements. Already, Democrats have fast-tracked fixes regarding the use of prone restraints by officers, which would allow SROs to use prone restraints on students, something that was taken away from officers in the previous session.

The caveat is that SROs would be required to go through training before working in schools.

“SRO’s know what they need to do,” Dornink argued. “I know there are SRO’s not in schools because of a lack of clarity on what they can and can not do. They’re professionals. They know what they need to do.”

Bennett said there is no data to show that the actions of SROs have been problematic like the rhetoric that has gone out; in fact, it is actually rare that a restraint would even need to be used.

“We need to get this fixed,” Bennett said. “At this point, the majority party is in a little bit of a pickle because they have legislators on their side that are fighting the fixes.”

Instead of being a political issue, she said she thinks it should be a bipartisan one.

“I’m fine with legislation to collect more data, or increase training for SROs, but other than that … we need to get it fixed,” she said.

Bennett also spoke of the need to fix what she described as a “major tax error,” saying if it was not fixed 76% of Minnesotans will be paying more in taxes.

Legislators also have their own projects they are pushing to put through. Dornink would like to see a balanced approach to paid family leave that would strip away the one-fits-all approach currently on the books.

He said that approaches for larger businesses is not a fair approach to smaller businesses who utilize largely part-time work or simply have a small number of employees in general.

“How can we carve out for this group, but not this group,” Dornink said. “Small communities and their employees are more like family. There’s a relationship there. It’s trusting businesses and letting employees and employers come to an agreement. If they are good with that, leave them alone.”

Meanwhile, Mueller will once again be looking to shore up support for her on-call substitute teacher pilot program that would make it easier for districts to secure substitute teachers when needed by eliminating some of the licensure required by the state.

Part of her bill was appropriated last year, but comes up short of what Mueller was hoping for and requires districts to pay substitutes a minimum of $200 a day.

“This is one that intentionally widens the pool so local school districts have the autonomy to hire substitute teachers,” Mueller said, adding that the $200 requirement might be sustainable for larger districts like Austin and Albert Lea, but isn’t necessarily sustainable for smaller districts.

Bennett said aside from her priorities for bonding and the laws that need to be fixed, her third priority is fiscal restraint.

With a surplus close to $20 billion last year, she said the Democratic majority spent a good chunk of that on long-term spending, part of which was spent on expanding state government. She said her concern last year was that the state needed to be careful or they would force themselves into a deficit.

While there is a $2.4 billion surplus projected for this year, after that a $2.3 billion deficit is projected.

“I’m extremely upset about it because this is our state budget, and we shouldn’t be playing games with people,” Bennett said. “Now we’re going to be in a world of hurt.”

Just like with a personal budget in which you need to be careful how much debt you take on, the same is true at the state level, she said.

Local legislators are also hoping that this session includes more of a unification of efforts across the aisle.

“It’s better when we have a balanced government,” Mueller said. “The opposite side of the aisle has different views and philosophies, but we have the same goals for Minnesota. They are still people elected to represent their constituents and we’re trying to do what we are elected to do.”

“I just hope that the real goal is to work together and try to truly be one Minnesota in the realm that we are in together,” Dornink added. “We are working for the best solutions for Minnesota. Really being mindful that what we do affects people.”

Bennett said she is hopeful for a calmer session, but there is no guarantee on that, as she said there has already been a lot of extreme legislation introduced, including a bill that would make the state a sanctuary state for people who are in the country illegally and another that would approve physician assisted suicide.

“Whether they move on it, we’ll see what happens,” she said.