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Legislators list priorities for ’12

January 24, 2012
By Per Peterson , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - Minnesota politicians get back to work today, and local lawmakers say they are focused on putting more Minnesotans in that exact same situation: back to work.

With myriad issues facing the 2012 Legislature, including a big one that will go a long way in determining the fate of arguably the state's most popular professional sports team, elected officials are looking for answers that will best serve the state and its residents in the long run.

Four area legislators were asked to list their top three priorities for the 2012 session. Here's what they had to say:

Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, says job creation should be at the top of the Legislature's to-do list, because that can satisfy the needs of businesses and those looking for jobs.

"We need to make sure that businesses want to come here because there are a decent number of people to hire," he said.

"We should be looking at what decisions we can make to help private-sector job growth. There are some major issues in government spending and sustainability."

Swedzinski also wants to put together the kind of bonding bill that will address transportation issues and the basic needs for local projects.

Like his fellow House Republicans, Swedzinski, who is starting his second year in the House, will also focus some of his attention on reform, including Reform 2.0 - an umbrella-like effort geared toward trimming government, education and health care reform, creating jobs, and growing the economy.

"We're really looking at how to go about the business of policymaking within different sectors - like the ag department and how some of the fees are collected," he said. "Make it more like a clearinghouse in an agency instead of repetitiveness. I think that's a big thing."

"The first thing I would like to see the Legislature work on is jobs," said Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City. "In rural Minnesota, I don't think we have the same unemployment issues as the metro area, but we do have a lot of people who would sure like better jobs. We need to be looking at that."

Koenen, who was first elected to the House in 2002, also said the Legislature must address how the state will start paying back schools after last year's massive school funding shift.

The deal reached last summer to end the government shutdown increased funding for K-12 education by $190 million in FY 2012-13, or 1 percent, mostly by increasing funding for the basic education formula. However, the bill also delayed more than $2 billion in payments to school districts. After the state's cash flow and budget reserves are refilled, by law, with the $876 million surplus for the current two-year budget, any future surplus will be used to start buying back the school payment shift.

"We need to start figuring out a way to get that paid back," Koenen said. "It's getting to be such a huge dollar amount, and the bigger it gets, the more difficult it becomes to pay back. We showed a surplus for the remainder of the biennium, but in the future we'll be looking at a deficit again, and we have to be careful we don't do more school shifts that will make the whole thing worse."

Koenen said any future reform shouldn't be relegated to just government. He said the Legislature needs to be open to game-changing tax reform as well, including analyzing the effects of the elimination of the Market Value Homestead Credit.

"Of course with the budget, efficiency in government is important now, and because money is so tight we have to make the best use of the dollars we do get," Koenen said. "We have to look at tax reform - who pays taxes and how."

Gary Dahms, who like Swedzinski is starting his second go-around at the Capitol, cited jobs and the economy as his top priority.

"Overall, jobs and the economy have to be number one," Dahms said. "We need to create jobs and make sure the economy is moving the way we want it to go - that is, to start building up steam, get more companies hiring people. As that happens, we'll bring in more tax revenue. We need to grow our jobs and our economy."

The Republican from Redwood Falls said the Vikings stadium drama must be addressed as well.

"We need to do something with the stadium," said Dahms. "We need to move forward with an up or down vote and get this issue resolved to give the Vikings some indication to where we're at."

Dahms said the team, along with its partner, needs to present to the Legislature a concrete plan, one that includes a specific site, as well as funding proposals.

"In order for us to do something, the players in this have to come to the Legislature with a location and a plan, and so far they have not," he said. "Until they come up with a location everyone can agree on I don't believe we should be making that decision. That needs to be a decision made by the players; that has to be done first. Then they can come to us so we can look at the plan and make a decision."

Dahms believes Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is open to reform, but said the reform race is more of a marathon than a sprint, and that meaningful, difference-making change doesn't happen overnight.

He said the Legislature needs to tackle reform with a long-term goal in mind instead of downsizing government with a wholesale-type mindset.

"It's not something we're going to do in one session, but we have to start working on it now. A lot of things can be done through attrition. It's a lot easier said than done, but we have to sit down and work out solutions that are workable with everybody and put the best interests of our constituents first."

Dahms said the Legislature needs to act wisely in this area and avoid simply cutting services to save money.

"We're not talking about reducing services, we're talking about becoming more efficient, like looking at the computerization in our government," he said. "It's very expensive to service our systems because they've become antiquated, and that should be part of a reform package."

Andrew Falk, in his second term in the House of Representatives, will pay close attention to the bonding bill this year. He said the state has avoided addressing key infrastructure needs for too long.

"First and foremost is the bonding bill," Falk said. "We need to make a major investment in infrastructure. Our state has suffered from severe neglect; for two decades we haven't invested in infrastructure at levels we need to to remain competitive. The idea that we can't do it because it's fiscally unwise - I do not buy into that argument. We have bids coming in significantly lower than we had anticipated and interest rates are at historic lows."

Falk, a Democrat from Murdock, calls the Republicans' stance on bonding and their desire to trim it down this year "folly" and said the state needs to pursue more "responsible bonding."

Falk listed jobs as his No. 2 priority and supports Dayton's jobs plan that includes tax credits for businesses that hire veterans, long-term unemployed resident and college graduates.

"We want to focus on them and get some real results and get people through training programs and into careers where they can earn a better wage than they're earning now," Falk said. "I want to do that soon."

Even though it's not a budget year, Falk said the Legislature must not ignore what's likely to come in the future: another deficit. He said policymakers need to be proactive on the budget.

"We have this quote-unquote surplus, but we have a structural imbalance," he said. "We're running up to a big shortfall for the next biennium, and that's not counting the school shift. We need to continue to have this discussion because if you have an unwillingness to do things the result is you're going to see property taxes increase more.

"We need to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes."



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