Sen. Tina Smith, the junior Democratic senator from Minnesota, was at the White House last Monday as President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package into law. Minnesota stands to gain more than $6 billion of that money. Smith spoke with the Reformer to give an update on where negotiations stand on the second part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda (which the House passed on Friday), inflation, the Minneapolis Police Department and how Democrats might fare in the 2022 elections. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you put into perspective for Minnesotans the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed into law last Monday?
This infrastructure bill is a big deal. What it means for Minnesota is all of those miles of roads, all of those bridges that have been in desperate need of repair for a long, long time, that backlog of projects that the Department of Transportation has been hoping to get to, that local county boards and mayors have been hoping to get to, those projects are going to be able to move forward. It is roughly a doubling of the funding that Minnesota would expect to see, and it’s going to go right to projects that are going to improve public safety, improve mobility, improve the competitiveness of the state.
That’s just the transportation part of the bill. The other big chunk of it, which is so important, is the support for expanding access to broadband. A minimum of $100 million is coming to Minnesota, including dollars that will help address the digital divide and issues of deep inequity in terms of access to broadband that we see in Minnesota and states around the country.
Compared to the infrastructure package, how much harder will it be to gain passage of the Build Back Better Act?
As I’ve been saying, hard things are hard. This is all difficult to do, but it’s really important for Minnesotans. The work ahead of us is what’s in the Build Back Better plan, which I believe will get done by the end of this year. What this is going to do for Minnesotans, just to put it into context: It’s going to mean the largest tax cut for middle-class Minnesotans. Ninety percent of American families with children will continue to get this tax cut of at least $3,000 a year. That’s a big deal. It means lowering costs for things that are expensive for Minnesotans right now, especially child care and prescription drugs and health care. I believe it’s going to contain steps to address the climate crisis, which is extremely important for us to deal with, and we’re going to do all of this by continuing to grow jobs, so this is going to be seen and felt by Minnesotans right away.
You said it might get done by the end of the year? Is that a little optimistic?
I’m always optimistic. The Senate has to go through a complicated process to pass this bill by simple majority. Those middle-class tax cuts that lower the cost of prescription drugs, the cost of child care, no Republican will vote for any of that. And so we have to go through this process which is complicated but worth it in order to get that passed with a simple majority. This is another example of why we should reform the filibuster so we don’t have to go through this every single time we try to pass important legislation.
Last month, you issued a statement saying that the Build Back Better budget must meaningfully address climate change and that you wouldn’t vote for a bill that won’t get us where we need to be on emissions. Where are things now on some of the provisions you worked on? Should your vote be taken for granted? It sounds like you’re reminding your colleagues every single vote in this case matters.
That’s right. I’m reminding people that it takes 50 votes to pass bills in the United States Senate, and it takes my vote, too. I have worked very hard on the climate provisions that I think that we need to move our country to clean electric power while also keeping utility rates low, and the work that I did on the clean electricity plan would have accomplished that. Unfortunately, I’m deeply disappointed, but Sen. (Joe) Manchin could not get behind that. So what I’m focused on now is making sure that we have the strongest possible climate provisions and what’s important is that we achieve our goals. We need to reduce emissions, and I focused on making sure that happens. I feel very good about the provisions that are in the House bill. I wish that they included the clean electricity plan. The combination of tax credits for clean power plus other provisions in there I think would definitely fit my goal of having very meaningful and significant emissions reductions.
You’ve emerged as a player in negotiations over the recent budget. You have also taken progressive stances on issues like expanding the Supreme Court and reforming the filibuster rule. Are you showing more of your progressive colors now that you finally get to serve a full term in the Senate?
I’m a practical person. I’m a practical progressive. I want to solve problems for people in Minnesota and around the country and I am impatient to make progress.
I have given a lot of thought to this question of expanding the court and I was a little resistant to it because of so many of the reasons that people have said, that it would politicize the court and so forth, but I have to tell you that I had a real tipping point when the Supreme Court refused to stop this blatantly unconstitutional abortion restriction in Texas.
In that moment, you have to ask yourself, Are we just going to sit idly by, see the Supreme Court, which has clearly been politicized over the course of 50 years of effort by the far right, and our response to that is going to be to just sit by and smile and hope it gets better? That isn’t a practical solution to what is a serious affront to our democracy. That led me to conclude that the thing to do was to add justices to the court. Let’s be clear: It’s not as if the number of justices on the Supreme Court has been set in stone. It has fluctuated over the years we’ve had a Supreme Court. It’s not defined in the Constitution. It doesn’t even require a constitutional amendment. Adding four justices to the court is a way of restoring balance.
Student loan borrowers are just two months away from payment resuming on those loans that were in forbearance during the pandemic. Do you support loan forgiveness?
I’m in favor of forgiving $50,000 of student debt. That is the right thing to do. I think it is the right thing to do for those families that have incurred all of that debt, but it’s also the right thing to do for our economy. In the Build Back Better bill, there is significant progress made towards expanding Pell grants and taking the steps that we need to take to make higher education more affordable. It is ridiculous in this country that we tell people that higher education is a pathway to success and then they end up getting so loaded down with debt that they can’t fulfill their dreams of buying a house or buying a car or starting a family.
Minnesotans are paying more for almost everything. What should Washington policymakers do to help address the issue of rising inflation?
They should support the Build Back Better Act, which is going to lower prices for things like child care and prescription medicine. In fact, even fiscal hawks like Larry Summers (I can’t believe I’m quoting him!) have said that these bills, the infrastructure bill and then the Build Back Better Act, would help with inflation. Inflation and rising prices is a very real worry for Minnesotans, and it is not something to be taken lightly. Most of those inflation pressures are caused by what’s happening: There’s a mismatch right now between the demand that is out there and the supply of goods. What we need to do in that case is to make sure that we fix some of these supply chain problems that are out there and go at the fundamental problems as best we can.
You voted against the public safety ballot initiative in Minneapolis, which failed to pass. Mayor Jacob Frey was re-elected. What should happen now on the issue of police reform?
I’d like to note two things. The first is there is a deep need for systemic reform of policing and the police department in Minneapolis. Though I did not support the public safety amendment, I strongly support getting that reform. That now rests squarely on the plate of the mayor of Minneapolis. Now that we’ve worked through this election, he and the city need to come together to define exactly what that should look like.
The second thing I want to note is that in April, the U.S. Justice Department undertook a patterns-and-practices investigation to look at whether the Minneapolis Police Department has systematically violated people’s civil rights or systemically exercised excessive force. That kind of pattern-and-practice investigation can be very powerful in getting the kind of reform that I think we need. We don’t know the results of that investigation yet. I know from the Justice Department that the city has been cooperating with that, and that is the place where we can actually get some really systemic change. If it’s done the way I hope it will be done, it won’t be a voluntary effort. It will be a required effort and have impact on existing contracts the police department has that might be getting in the way of the kind of reform that we need.
What conclusions do you draw from the election results? Midterms are coming up next year. There’s a governor’s race here in Minnesota.
When I became a senator, I hung up my prognosticator spurs. It is very tricky to draw conclusions from one or two elections. For example, in Minneapolis, though the public safety amendment failed, I believe there’s strong support for systemic reform of the police department. You need to understand that in order to be able to understand what really is happening in Minneapolis, and I think that the same is true in Virginia and other places where we’ve seen elections. My answer to your question is there’s going to be a lot of work ahead for the election. I am going to be out there strongly working for Gov. Walz and Attorney General Ellison and we need to organize, organize, organize.
It seems that one of the issues that really pushed the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia over the finish line were issues of education, parental choice, COVID-19 mandates and the issue of critical race theory. How do you see issues like that playing out in Minnesota, especially when Republicans here are hoping to replicate what happened in Virginia?
Most people and most Minnesotans wake up every day trying to figure out how to make their lives work, and the election in 2022 will come down to who they think is going to be on their side. As they struggle with things like how to pay for their healthcare costs or how to find good child care, the kind of the issues that are affecting them in their daily lives, I’m optimistic that with not only the good work that we’re doing in Washington, but the work that is happening at the state level too, that people will consider that and will see that it’s the Democrats that are on their side when it comes to those core issues. It’s sort of a cliché but a year is a lifetime in politics.