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Talking state politics

Swedzinski, Dahms answer questions from SMSU students on current legislative issues

Photo by Deb Gau Students at Southwest Minnesota State University welcomed Minnesota Sen. Gary Dahms, at left, and Rep. Chris Swedzinski, at right, to a Q&A session held on campus Thursday afternoon. The two legislators discussed current issues in Minnesota politics and education.

MARSHALL — Minnesota lawmakers will have a lot on their plates in the upcoming session, with issues ranging from drawing new legislative districts to covering the cost of COVID-19 responses, area legislators said Thursday.

“It’ll be an interesting session,” said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls.

Dahms and Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, visited Southwest Minnesota State University on Thursday and held a question-and-answer session with students and faculty.

“It’s good to see young folks who have an interest in politics,” Dahms told students.

Passing a bonding bill will be one task facing Minnesota lawmakers in the coming year, Dahms and Swedzinski said. Members of the House Capital Investment Committee were at SMSU earlier this week to hear bonding requests from southwest Minnesota. Dahms said the Senate committee will also visit Marshall next week.

However, there are a lot of other issues legislators will need to work on, Swedzinski said. A new state budget forecast is coming in November.

“My guess is it will be higher than expected,” he said.

If Minnesota has a budget surplus, it will offer a chance to find areas for potential tax relief, he said.

Minnesota will also be looking at redistricting, using the results of the 2020 census.

“That’s more of an internal struggle,” Swedzinski said.

Minnesota will keep all eight of its seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, some state legislative districts will need to grow to include more people per district.

“We’ll be getting larger geographically,” Swedzinski said.

Dahms said the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will also be an important issue legislators face.

“We have a major deficit in our unemployment fund,” Dahms said, and the state needs to decide how to build it back up.

In response to student questions, Swedzinski and Dahms said the changing makeup of the state legislature and increasing political polarization are also challenges they face as lawmakers.

“There’s changing dynamics every year,” Swedzinski said.

With Republicans in the minority in the Minnesota House, it can mean having to “take a back seat” to DFL legislators when trying to get bills passed, he said.

Dahms said the deepening political divisions seen in the federal government are working their way into state politics, too. It’s challenging to deal with, when consensus-building is needed to get things done, he said.

“It seems like there’s more and more people coming in who are more interested in themselves,” Dahms said.

SMSU students and faculty asked Dahms and Swedzinski what some of the challenges and positives they saw in Minnesota’s higher education system.

Dahms said falling enrollments at Minnesota colleges and universities were concerning, although SMSU had worked hard to grow its student enrollment over the past couple of years. A combination of factors, like having good facilities and good support programs for students, would be important for schools to attract and retain students, he said.

Swedzinski said his concern was that colleges and universities might not be agile enough in planning ahead to meet students’ changing needs.

“I think four-year schools fall behind on that,” he said. “Two-year institutions are a little closer to the people,” and adapt more quickly, he said.

Offering unique degree programs, like agriculture education and restaurant management, is one positive thing SMSU has done to build up its strengths, Dahms said.

One student asked if Swedzinski and Dahms believed parents should have a stronger say in what is taught in schools.

“I believe a parent should have the ultimate choice in education,” Swedzinski said.

Swedzinski said he was also concerned about the quality of education Minnesota students receive, and whether it adequately covers the basics. Many students end up having to take remedial courses in college, he said.

“You do need to have some basic requirements,” Dahms said.

“But parents need to have some say in it.”

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