Sen. Mark Johnson deployed a common Midwesternism to describe Minnesota’s legislative session thus far: “interesting.”
In a typically contentious session in the United States’ only “split'' Legislature, Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, described a deepening political divide between conservatives and liberals that’s become harder to figuratively navigate than in previous years because lawmakers stay in a “campaign mindset” longer. And the COVID-19 pandemic has meant restrictions on the ways in which lawmakers meet to craft legislation, which has meant new logistical hurdles for Johnson and other lawmakers to clear.
Johnson, first elected in 2016, fielded a handful of questions from the Herald about how the session has been going as it enters its second of four months that, if history is any guide, will end with a whirlwind of 11th hour deals made behind closed doors as the prospect of a special session looms ever larger. Johnson was appointed deputy majority leader this year, which means he’s set to be behind those doors with other decisionmakers, rather than in the Senate or House chambers with rank-and-file lawmakers.
“It'll be a new position for me this year, and it does give me the opportunity to be more involved in those higher level negotiations,” Johnson said Thursday. “So more and more, I will be in the room participating in influencing those year-end, session-ending negotiations, which will be quite interesting this year, given the positions of both the Senate, the House, and the governor's office on most items.”
But those sort of negotiations are still months away. For the moment, legislators are mostly thinking in relatively broad terms, especially as they wait for an upcoming state budget forecast. That, Johnson said, makes it tough to say exactly what sort of “wins” or “losses” he’s noted thus far.
Still, he readily offered a pair of figurative wins: a bill that would make it easier to remotely witness and execute wills and another that would give real estate agents and attorneys more time to work on problems with deeds or titles. Both are making slow but steady progress through St. Paul.
“Losses,” in Johnson’s estimation, include Gov. Tim Walz’s push to have the state’s pollution control agency adopt “clean car” regulations that would require car dealers across Minnesota to stock greener vehicles such as hybrids, a plan that Republican lawmakers have generally opposed and which Johnson believes inappropriately sidesteps the Legislature. Another is a proposal by the Minnesota Department of Education that would add standards that some on the right have decried as a “‘woke’ invasion.”
“So what they're signaling is that in social studies, we no longer care if you teach about World War I, World War II, or even the Holocaust, and some of those things,” Johnson said. “And instead, they've replaced it with a real social agenda that – it’s more of a dogmatic thing for a liberal agenda right now.”
The car regulations aren’t specifically part of the legislative session, which is part of Johnson and other GOP lawmakers’ objection, and the ed department’s standards still specifically mention the two world wars, but typically as lines of demarcation for related discussions – “How the post-World War II geopolitical reorganization produced the Cold War,” for instance.
That aside, what about Johnson’s district, which includes a vast swath of northwest Minnesota? Johnson outlined a proposal that would borrow money to pay for a new ag facility in Crookston, but that assumes legislators decide to work on a bonding bill in an odd-numbered year, when such bills, historically, are either relatively small or nonexistent. Another proposal is a small tweak to a 2014 bonding bill that would mean Thief River Falls’ airport wouldn’t be on the hook for an additional $30,000 from a $800,000 sewer project that ultimately came in well under budget.
Johnson also hopes to alter the state’s formula for local government aid in a way that would mean more money each year for East Grand Forks’ city government. City leaders have said the current “LGA” formula means a decreasing amount of aid each year because it takes into account the number of houses in a city that were built before 1940, and many such houses there were wiped away in the 1997 flood.
But that formula also identifies tens of millions of dollars' worth of need across Minnesota’s cities that isn’t met by existing state appropriations. When asked if he supports putting more money toward the program, Johnson said he isn’t sure where the state would find the money.
“There’s a number of competing issues, there,” Johnson said. “Maybe LGA would make the best case for some of that competing dollars, but infrastructure – we’ve got counties and cities that have been really impacted because travel restrictions have been on and reductions because events aren’t going on, so now we’ve got to figure out how we’ll backfill that money into our infrastructure.”
The bills of which Johnson is the chief author don’t do anything specifically for East Grand Forks, but he said others of which he’s a co-author would be a boon, generally, and/or would help the city keep pace with its much larger neighbor across the Red River. One bill Johnson is helping push through St. Paul would eliminate state income tax on Paycheck Protection Program loans, another would lower state income taxes generally, and a third would force nearly all state agencies to reduce their administrative budgets by at least 20% through 2025.
“The deal with East Grand Forks, of course, is we’ve always got the gorilla in the room right next door of Grand Forks,” Johnson said. “How do we become more competitive so our families and our businesses stay in East Grand Forks?”