Northwest Minnesota Republican lawmakers hope to see shift in focus for remainder of legislative session
While DFL lawmakers have focused on issues like abortion and climate change, Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, says his constituents are worried about issues like education and public safety.
ST. PAUL — Republican legislators from northwest Minnesota are hoping to see a shift in focus during the remainder of the 2023 legislative session, after Democratic-Farmer-Labor party priorities have taken center stage initially in the session.
So far in the session, DFL lawmakers have used the control of the House of Representatives, Senate and Governor’s Office to their advantage, taking on issues like abortion, removing the proof of citizenship requirement for drivers license applicants and clean energy.
However, Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, says back home in the northwest corner of Minnesota, his constituents are more worried about issues like education and public safety.
“The issues we’ve heard at the door were that school was out for two years, how do we get our kids back up to reading level, to math level?” said Johnson. “How do we make sure that law enforcement has the tools that they need for putting bad guys behind bars and making sure that our streets are safe?”
In the House of Representatives, Reps. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, and John Burkel, R-Badger, expressed frustration at the speed at which some bills have moved through the Legislature.
“We started Jan. 3, and just hit the ground running hard, almost to a flaw,” said Burkel. “To be honest, it’s been hard to keep up with bills.”
“It’s hard sometimes to get connected with people when you’re trying to find answers and working with our members across the aisle,” Kiel said. “It takes time and they’re busy and you’re busy — just trying to get the details and the discussion down about some bills.”
Now, with some of the issues important to the state’s Democrats out of the way, legislators from District 1 hope to see more of their priorities discussed.
“They should be ashamed of the way they’ve prioritized this legislative session, so I’m hoping that will change now and we can get focused back on the actual needs of Minnesotans,” Johnson said.
Priority issues for District 1’s legislators in the rest of the session include the fate of a $17.5 billion budget surplus, Social Security tax reform, other tax relief and a bonding bill.
“I’d like to see stuff that lowers some other taxes for families so that they don’t have to worry about trying to buy eggs and milk — we need to make sure that more is in their pockets,” said Kiel.
The bonding bill passed in the House on Monday, March 6, but Senate Republicans are calling for tax cuts before they approve the bill. On Thursday, March 16, the bonding bill was up for a floor vote in the Senate, but failed to get the three-fifths supermajority needed for it to pass. The Senate voted 47-15 to table the bill so it can be reconsidered at a later date.
Both Kiel and Burkel said they would also like to see nursing home staffing shortages and pay addressed before the end of the session.
“They’re really in a bind right now and they’re all struggling with workforce issues and how they’re reimbursed. ” said Burkel. “The state really needed to step right out of the blocks to get that figured out and we have not had enough conversation about nursing homes down here.”
Burkel, Kiel and Johnson have introduced a number of bills specifically pertaining to District 1, especially around funding. House File 2871, would provide funding for the Thief River Falls airport and House File 2113 would provide funding for the Karlstad Airport. Funding for flood hazard mitigation projects in Roseau are addressed in House File 2450 and Senate File 2531, and for the Red River Basin in House File 1244 and Senate File 1034.
The House and Senate Taxes committees have yet to hear House File 2129 and Senate File 2073, which would open the door for a vote on an East Grand Forks sales tax to fund upgrades to the East Grand Forks Civic Center, VFW Memorial Arena and Blue Line Arena.
Legislators are also working on bills in their respective committees.
Kiel serves on the Human Services Policy Committee and says she has been reworking House File 2513, which would require employers to phase out sub-minimum wage pay for employees with disabilities and modify some Department of Human Services requirements and trainings.
“The stakeholders in the district are very concerned about job loss for those that are handicapped who work jobs that are not minimum wage, but give them something to do, a purpose, a direction, especially those who live and work in group homes,” she said.
In the agriculture finance committee, Burkel has been working on House File 2718, a bill to create a grain indemnity program to help protect farmers from grain buyer failure.
“We’ve had that issue in our area with Karlstad a few years back — we had some producers in our area harmed by the Karlstad bankruptcy,” he said.
Johnson says as the Senate minority leader, most of his time has been devoted to caucus work.
With the DFL holding only one spot over Republicans in the Senate, Johnson is hopeful Republicans will continue to stick together and turn some votes in their favor.
“That could help to moderate some of the bills that are coming though, whether it’s tax policy, whether it’s education policy, whatever it might be,” he said. “I understand initially they wanted to get some things off the plate, but I’m hoping toward the end of the session we can work closer together and moderate some of this legislation that’s coming through.”
The session ends on May 22.