MARSHALL - With the GOP now representing the minority in St. Paul in the upcoming session, freshman Republican Sen.-elect Bill Weber says his party's role is to be more than a bump in the road that prevents Democrats from "steamrolling" their ideas through to Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. Weber says the GOP needs to expand on that role by presenting credible alternatives to what the DFL rolls out.
In other words, the soon-to-be-freshman senator doesn't want to see a one-sided Legislature.
"I don't want us to simply say 'no,'" said Weber, who is replacing veteran lawmaker Doug Magnus as senator for the newly-aligned District 22, which now reaches north to cover all of Lincoln County and the southern tier of Lyon County. "We need to say, 'No, we can't go along with that and here's why.' It's also important to develop other plans. I think people expect us in the minority to come up with logical alternatives."
Weber, of Luverne, joins Reps. Chris Swedzinski (16A), Rod Hamilton (22B), Joe Schomacker (22A), and Paul Torkelson (16B) and Sen. Gary Dahms (D16) as southwest Minnesota Republicans who enjoyed victories on election night, off-setting - at least locally - major gains by the DFL, which assumed the majority in the House by 12 members and in the Senate by 11. Those six will bring their rural voices to St. Paul come January, and the four out of the group who serve within the Independent's immediate coverage area spoke with the paper recently about their priorities for the upcoming session:
Weber, six years removed from losing a bid for a senate seat to now-retired Jim Vickerman, said he enters the upcoming session with an eye on job creation and economic growth in rural Minnesota. He says too many jobs have been lost to South Dakota and Iowa.
"I'm very concerned that many people in the metro area and in state government have no realization as to what the tax and business policies has done to our job climate out there," Weber said. "I think we need to be very concerned about that. It's almost impossible to measure from the standpoint that it's really hard to count the number of businesses that don't even bother checking into Minnesota and locating here because of the tax ramifications."
Aside from job creation, Weber thinks the state's real estate tax system is complicated enough to warrant some level of tax reform. He also said the state needs to keep its spending under control to avoid deficit problems in the future and monitor spending policies to the point where monies can be repaid to schools from past funding shifts.
He also wants to look at the cost of state government.
"We have to look within for ways to become more efficient," he said. "I don't know that the state government has really accomplished that. I think bureaucracy in St. Paul has gotten to the point where it's almost unmanageable. It seems like anytime the state has made an effort to curtail their operations, it's done so at the expense of us out here."
On Dayton's plan to put more tax burden on the top 2 percent of wage earners in Minnesota, Weber said those taxes "don't go anywhere in terms of solving the budgetary issues we're always talking about. They're going to have to expand the number of people who get taxed; I think people will be surprised when they see who all falls into the 'rich' category."
Schomacker, of Luverne, like his Republican counterparts, is focused on jobs and economic development and said a lot is up in the air for now, until "fiscal cliff" issues are resolved at the federal level. He said all states would be affected if negotiations break down without a solution before the new year.
Even so, "we still need to try and be competitive," in the job market," he said. "I live eight miles from South Dakota and eight miles from Iowa and see how businesses are choosing those areas over ours all the time. We're never going to be competitive tax-for-tax when one state doesn't even have an income tax, but there are ways to make us more business-friendly and keep taxes low enough to at least entice businesses and show them that we aren't as bad as the perception of us is out there."
Government spending is another area Schomacker is concerned about. He said the Legislature needs to balance the budget without having to look at extra revenue and look at reforms and ways to "modernize" government.
Schomacker said he will be on the Health and Human Services finance committee and plans to work to help provide Minnesotans with affordable and accessible health care, while allowing for innovation in the health care field and competition across the market.
"With the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the work that's being done there in implementing the health insurance exchange it's going to be critical we have a consensus on a lot of these things. Hopefully one side's agenda isn't just pushed through," he said.
Dahms' top priority for 2013 is job growth. He said taxing the wealthy isn't going to help the economy or grow jobs, either in rural Minnesota or the suburban areas.
"You hear a lot of talk about taxing the wealth and that will solve the issue, but that's just not gonna do it," he said. "We need to grow jobs, and the sooner we get serious about it, the sooner we can continue to turn this economy around. It's important for the short-term and the long-term."
The senator from Redwood Falls also wants to see an equalization of funding between rural in metro in areas such as education, health care and hospital pay.
"I can understand there will be differences in some areas, but it's the amount of difference - it's just too large. We have to make sure we're getting our fair share."
The Legislature, Dahms said, also needs to continue to look at taxation and, more specifically, corporate business taxes. He said the state will not be able to attract or keep businesses without taking a serious look at the tax issue.
"We've come a long way in the last two years," he said. "We've reduced unemployment by about 2 percent, we've paid back a lot to schools, about $1.6 billion in the next year. But we can't put the economy back into another recession. We need to make sure we have a steady hand and move the state forward."
Dahms hopes the DFL doesn't become overly aggressive in its ideas with its new-found power at the Capitol. He said taking an aggressive approach on taxes would jeopardize the state's gains on unemployment and could send it back up toward the 7.5 percent level.
Dahms also said if the Legislature continues on its course set during the last two years it can grow revenues at a fast enough rate where the $1.1 billion deficit can be handled without resorting to things like borrowing from schools.
Swedzinski, of Ghent, said legislators need to pay close attention to what's happening on the federal level, because what happens in D.C. doesn't always stay in D.C. Same goes for other states, he said.
"We have to realize what is happening on the federal side and see how that equates to our state," he said.
He said common sense solutions need to be reached on the budget. Stakeholders in Minnesota, he said, are calling on Dayton for more spending.
"Look at what's going on in California the last few months; they passed huge tax increases and already they're almost a trillion (dollars) under what they expected in revenues in just under one month. We have to look at other states when making decisions here."
Swedzinski, who co-authored legislation directing the Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) Office to request state employees to verify eligible dependents that were receiving state-paid medical benefits - a law he announced recently that has led to $4 million in savings to taxpayers - is troubled by a transition at the capitol that combines the environment and agriculture finance committees, calling it a potentially big hit to the local economy.
"To me, that's no friend of agriculture," said Swedzinski, a farmer himself. "I don't think that's in the best interest of agriculture. I know a lot of ag folks are worried about that, and both the DFL and Republicans are hoping to be able to have some common sense prevail."
Swedzinski said although the conversations will mainly be the same this upcoming session, there will be a different atmosphere and different faces at the Capitol in the coming year.
"It will be a little different because the caucuses have definitely changed," he said. "I can't imagine we'll get all of our ideas completed, but we'll at least try to move them forward and do the best job we can in representing southwest Minnesota."
The Legislature, faced with a $1.1 billion deficit in the 2013 session, convenes at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 8.