EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part of a series that outlines the priorities of Greater Grand Forks lawmakers as they begin the 2021 legislative session.
Minnesota lawmakers in the northwest part of the state say passing the budget will dominate their overall agenda. It’s a challenge they need to meet while working online or in a hybrid manner during the pandemic.
According to state budget leaders, legislators should have a surplus of more than $600 million to work with, after a revised economic outlook was announced in early December. That outlook is a far cry from one announced in May that projected a $2.4 billion shortfall, when the coronavirus pandemic asserted its hold over the state.
Along with the budget, District 1 lawmakers said their priorities include reopening the economy while limiting the use of peacetime emergency powers by Gov. Tim Walz. They also want to mention health care needs, including expanding access to providers through telehealth. Minnesota's legislative session began on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
District 1 Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said lawmakers will still need to wrangle over budget specifics in the wake of the pandemic, but he intends to focus on the “bread and butter” functions of government. Johnson, who is in his second term and will serve for the first time as deputy majority leader, said the Department of Health also will be a priority.
Whether Republican or Democrat, "I think we could all agree – roads, bridges, public health and all those things that the government was established for – those get taken care of first,” Johnson said in a phone call with the Herald.
Johnson said he will focus on bills that have a local concern as opposed to broad policy bills, due to the fact that lawmakers won’t always be meeting face to face. The Senate will operate in a hybrid manner of online and in-person, while the House of Representatives will be fully online. He said he will be leery of large new proposals, as those likely will only have input from a few legislators.
“To me, it's going to be very difficult to have a robust conversation to really do the due diligence that these bills need, which scares me,” Johnson said. “I mean that's not how our legislating should be done.”
Among Johnson’s priorities will be local funding requests, and a bill designed to keep auto markets open. New clean car standards from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, set to take effect in 2025, will limit where Minnesotans can buy vehicles. Many of his constituents often buy cars in North Dakota, then register them in Minnesota, he said.
Following the U.S. Census, Minnesota lawmakers also need to grapple with redistricting at the state and federal level. Johnson, who will chair the Senate's redistricting committee, said drawing new district lines could bring about “significant changes” to the maps. Rural districts tend to become larger, while districts in the seven-county metro area could shrink as population there grows.
Johnson said the state could lose a federal representative, leaving the state with seven U.S. House members. The loss, should it happen, would stem from increases in southern states, such as Texas, that have seen their populations grow as people relocate there. The U.S. House of Representatives is capped at 435 members, and the number of seats allocated to each state ebbs and flows with population changes.
“The South has really just been exploding so that's where most of those seats are going to end up,” Johnson said.
Like Johnson, newly elected District 1A Rep. John Burkel, R-Badger, said broad policy legislation likely will be limited, due to the fact that it is a budget year and because lawmakers in the House will be operating online.
Burkel said he would be doing a lot of “listening and learning” while he settles into his new position, though he intends to address how governors use peacetime emergency powers. Burkel said the expanded powers have shut out both chambers of the Legislature in responding to the pandemic and have caused financial harm to small businesses.
“This process works best when the Legislature works with the governor,” Burkel wrote in an email to the Herald. “Unfortunately, Gov. Walz has been making unilateral decisions since March.”
Burkel told the Herald he will work to reopen the economy and oppose any tax increase, which he said is not necessary considering the budget surplus.
Longtime District 1B Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, also said her priorities include reopening the economy, which she called one of the most pressing issues for her district. The tax dollars generated by businesses are necessary for future budget allocations, she said.
Kiel’s priorities also include health care proposals, an area on which she has focused in her 10 years in the Legislature. Telehealth expands access to residents in greater Minnesota and should not be seen as a reaction to COVID-19, according to Kiel, who is calling for advances made in telehealth to be made permanent. She says the pandemic may have opened the eyes of other lawmakers.
“I couldn't get anybody to hardly hear the (telehealth) bill four years ago,” she told the Herald.
Kiel said she will prioritize legislation allowing for medical advocates – a family member or trusted adviser who can accompany a patient and speak to their interests. The coronavirus has tightened who can enter health care facilities, out of concern for spreading the virus, but Kiel expressed confidence in allowing an advocate to safely enter the premises with a patient.
“I have found in dealing with health care issues, and pretty serious ones, a loved one, or somebody that you have prepared, would know your health issues and also what you want,” Kiel said.