Swedzinski, Dahms Take on questions at town hall meeting

Photo by Deb Gau Minnesota state Rep. Chris Swedzinski speaks to about 50 Marshall area residents and businesspeople on Monday morning.

MARSHALL — Marshall area residents and businesspeople had plenty of concerns to bring to local legislators Monday morning, ranging from broadband Internet to health care and changes to federal taxes.

About 50 people attended a town hall meeting with Minnesota state Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) and state Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent), at the Minnesota Emergency Response and Industrial Training (MERIT) Center. Most of the meeting was taken up by a question-and-answer period with the legislators, but they also spoke briefly about the upcoming legislative session.

This session will hopefully focus more on passing a bonding bill, Swedzinski said. However, Dahms added that “We’re going to have an interesting Senate session.” For one thing, there will be a special election to fill a vacancy in Senate District 54 on Feb. 12. District 54 includes parts of Washington and Dakota Counties. Then there’s also been a lawsuit filed against Lt. Governor Michelle Fischbach, who has said she will continue to fulfill her duties as a state Senator and as lieutenant governor at the same time.

The outcome of the election and lawsuit could affect Republicans’ narrow lead in the Senate, Dahms said.

Dahms said the first bill lawmakers pass this session will also be to re-instate the Legislature’s operating budget, after Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it last year.

Swedzinski also spoke about the state budget forecast, which was showing Minnesota at $188 million in the red, he said. Swedzinski said the deficit wasn’t extreme in the context of what the state spends on a daily basis, and “A few good months might make all the difference.”

Brad Gruhot of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce asked how the new federal tax reforms would affect Minnesota.

State legislators usually pass a “conformity bill” to put the state in line with federal tax credits, Dahms said. However, the new tax changes are going to be more complex, he said.

“We already have our researchers researching that very hard,” Dahms said, “so people aren’t penalized” by the tax changes. A conformity bill dealing only with family tax credits may come first, Dahms said.

Other topics of concern included state funding to bring broadband access to rural Minnesota. Swedzinski said legislators passed bills that would allow for 5G wireless access, but that mainly focused on the Twin Cities area.

“It’s an incremental issue,” Swedzinski said of improving broadband access to rural Minnesota. One major question facing those efforts is the cost of running fiberoptic cable to rural residences, he said.

Dahms said the push for broadband had been to unserved and underserved communities first.

“I really think we need to continue to work on unserved and underserved (areas), and then get speeds up,” Dahms said. One positive development is that more people are beginning to see Internet access as an infrastructure need, he said. “You’ve got to have a good highway system, but you’ve also got to have a good Internet service.”

Area residents also asked the legislators what they were doing to help increase the availability of special needs and mental health care services in southwest Minnesota. Some specialized services can only be found far away from Marshall, audience members said. Cliff Carmody, executive director of Southwest West Central Service Cooperative, said the cooperative was providing services to a growing number of students with autism. However, it’s hard to find space and facilities to offer those services in.

“I think it’s going to take a combination of things” to address the needs, Dahms said. “This is a very big issue and it’s a very broad issue.” Swedzinski said part of the difficulty was the question of whether southwest Minnesota had the capacity to support certain services and providers. Dahms and Swedzinski mentioned some possibilities including tax incentives, higher education partnerships, working to attract needed specialists, or public/private partnerships.

One of the concerns voiced at the town hall meeting came from supporters of the MERIT Center. MERIT Center Coordinator Jasmine DeSmet and Marshall Public Safety Director Rob Yant asked Swedzinski and Dahms if they could help the MERIT Center get a road sign directing traffic to the training center. The MERIT Center had previously applied for a sign, but their request was not approved by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, supporters said.

DeSmet said Monday that the MERIT Center is continuing to bring in both local and regional visitors for a variety of meetings and training sessions. In January alone, a total of 248 people came to the MERIT Center for everything from driver’s education and fire training, to a session on financial education for farmers.