After a heated election that failed to significantly alter its composition, Minnesota’s Legislature returned to work Tuesday with a budget to write and plenty of other pressing issues to tackle.

Even as vaccinations have begun across the state, the specter of COVID-19 looms large over the legislature. To minimize the risk of transmission, which claimed the life of Sen. Jerry Relph last month, both chambers have made major changes to the way they conduct business.

The DFL-controlled House is where the most dramatic changes will be felt. Even voting won’t be the same, with the lower chamber using a fingerprint-activated voting system that will enable representatives to vote from their own offices. In the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow majority, the changes won’t be as dramatic. However, person to person interaction between Senators will still be significantly limited and hearings will include remote as well as some in-person testimony.

Local legislators expressed disappointment that they won’t get to see their colleagues in person nearly as much as they’re used to. Sen. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, said he’s concerned that the lack of in-person interaction could make the chamber less productive.

“With these Zoom calls you don’t get…. that face to face time not only with constituents but with lobbyists and other legislators,” he said. “In the elevator, walking down the hall, (asking them) ‘what do you think about this, what’s your idea on this?’”

Rep. Brian Daniels, R-Faribault, expressed frustration with proposed rules that would limit the number of legislators on the House floor to as few as 12 out of 134. Daniels suggested that the House could have one-third to one-half of its members on the floor at one time.

“Zoom just doesn’t cut it,” Daniels said. “We’re supposed to be representing our people and you feel like if you can’t understand what’s going on on the call, you’re not doing your job. ”

Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, argued that the likely end effect of limiting in-person discussion among members will be the centralization of power among party leaders — something his New House Republican Caucus has been vocally critical of since its inception.

Two new faces

Locally, the legislative picture is largely the same as it was in the previous session, with Republicans representing most legislative districts. The one change came in St. Peter’s District 19A, where Republican Susan Akland is replacing outgoing Rep. Jeff Brand.

District 20B, which includes New Prague and parts of Le Sueur and Scott counties, will also have a new legislator, local banker and National Guardsman Brian Pfarr of Le Sueur. However, Pfarr is a Republican like the legislator he replaced, retiring Rep. Bob Vogel, R-Elko New Market.

Statewide, Akland was one of five Republicans who unseated incumbent DFLers, narrowing the DFL’s majority in the lower chamber to 70-64. Several incumbent senators of both parties lost, with the DFL achieving a net gain of one seat to narrow the Republican majority to 34-33.

As a first year legislator, Pfarr said that he’s still working on listening to his constituents and developing priorities for the session. He’s been assigned to the Housing, Commerce and Judiciary committees.

Akland was disappointed she didn’t get a seat on the Agriculture Committee, but was happy to be able to get seats on the other committees she requested — Health Finance and Policy as well as Environment and Natural Resources.

Although environmental issues weren’t a focus of her campaign, Akland requested a seat on the committee because she believes it’s of particular importance to her constituents. She said the state needs to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic concerns.

“A lot of these changes being proposed have a significant impact on rural communities,” she said. “They need a voice to say we want a good environment, clean water, but it has to be done in such a way that it won’t be devastating to them.”

Akland said that lowering the cost of healthcare is also a particularly important issue, especially for her rural and small town constituents. She said that talking to farmers across the district, she regularly heard that they had difficulty affording care. Akland cited improving access to telemedicine as one way to improve access to healthcare for rural families. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said that she will once again push for legislation to expand the use of telemedicine.

Rosen has been working for years to expand access to telemedicine, with the legislature first passing a telemedicine expansion bill all the way back in 2012. However, she said that the issue has become even more important amid the pandemic.

Even for legislators who are returning to the capitol, the new session offers different committee assignments. Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, gave up his seat on the Taxes Committee to assume a new role as lead Republican on the Transportation Committee. While the Transportation Committee plays a crucial role in allocating funds for road maintenance across the state, Petersburg noted that its purview stretches far beyond even that very important task, including railroads and the state’s extensive network of airports.

The Budget year

However they’re able to meet, the legislature will have to put together a budget by June 30 to avoid a government shutdown. While a February budget forecast will provide more clarity, the forecast released on Dec. 1 showed a modest surplus of about $641 million.

That surplus is significantly smaller than the $1.5 billion projected last February, and the next biennium still shows a deficit of about $1.3 billion. However, the forecast is far better than last May’s, which showed a deficit of more than $2 billion.

Jasinski said that three factors have driven the rosier budget outlook — rising sales tax revenues, falling enrollment in all day kindergarten, and decreased medical reimbursement expenditures as COVID-conscious patients put off visits.

Rosen, the Senate Finance Committee Chair, said that work on the budget will kick into high gear after the February budget forecast. Legislators will also pay attention to Gov. Tim Walz’s recommendations, which will be released in late January.

In the meantime, committee chairs are reviewing their budgets with an eye to hitting spending targets. Rosen said she’d like to see a continued effort to provide assistance for small businesses and families hit hard by the pandemic.

“I do believe we can live within our means and not rely on tax increases, shifts and gimmicks,” she added.

Rep. Todd Lippert, DFL-Northfield, said that House DFLers will produce a budget that “helps Minnesotans to rebuild” from the pandemic. Central to that will be investments in affordable housing and education and legislation to make childcare and healthcare more affordable.

As vice chair of the House’s Long-Term Care Division over the last two years, Lippert worked extensively on bipartisan legislation to support the state’s caregivers. This session, he said he’ll be working on a bill to boost reimbursement rates for facilities that provide care for the disabled.

Lippert said that the state’s care crisis is particularly severe in small towns and rural areas. While Minnesota has managed to avoid the worst of the nationwide trend toward hospital closures in rural areas thus far, the pandemic has been hard on hospital bottom lines and Lippert said that the state will need to take action to ensure the availability of care across the state.

“It’s critical for people in small communities to be able to access hospital care when they need it,” he said.

Another issue he highlighted is expanding access to high speed broadband for rural communities, which has become even more crucial with the rise of telecommuting and telemedicine. Notably, more broadband dollars were included in the latest federal stimulus.

Legislators will need to be prepared to use incoming federal dollars as wisely as possible. Given the state’s balanced budget requirement, dollars will be tight, and according to Lippert’s DFL colleague Sen. Nick Frentz, D-Mankato, raising taxes on working Minnesotans won’t be considered as a potential solution.

“We do not want to raise taxes on working families in a recession,” he said.

Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, said that the state instead needs to turn its attention to limiting spending. According to Draheim, state spending has doubled over the last decade, a trend he says is unsustainable as baby boomers retire, sapping the government of revenue.

One way to increase government efficiency and reduce costs could be found through technology. Draheim said he looks forward to continuing to serve on the Senate’s Technology and Reform Policy Committee, which focuses on those issues.

COVID battles

Republicans are expected to continue to push hard to force Walz to give up the executive powers he currently wields under the state’s Peacetime Declaration of Emergency and has used to implement tough restrictions intended to stop the spread of COVID.

Draheim believes that lifting COVID restrictions is the biggest thing that the state can do to help struggling small businesses. He expressed particular frustration that the restrictions have hit small businesses with a vengeance while large stores remain open.

“What Gov. Walz is doing will have lasting effects for years if not generations,” Draheim said. “If you don’t feel comfortable going into a store, don’t go in — use your head, avoid situations you don’t think are safe.”

Akland agreed with other local Republican legislators that continued restrictions should come with the consent of the legislature. Akland argued that legislative consent would achieve not only more informed policy but better local buy-in.

“If we do that, people will be able to say that (their) legislator did what they thought was best for their district,” she said.

Draheim said that so long as tensions remain between the governor and legislature over the executive orders, it will be difficult to achieve bipartisan breakthroughs on issues ranging from healthcare to energy to police reform.

Still, the senator touted his commitment to bipartisanship, noting that the large majority of bills he’s introduced have come with a DFL co-sponsor. Jasinski further suggested that with a polarizing election year behind, it’s possible that more bipartisan deals could be had.

Clean energy first?

One area that could offer potential promise as well as potential pitfalls is in the area of clean energy. Both Republicans and DFLers offered up versions of a “Clean Energy First” bill last session, but were unable to reach a bipartisan agreement.

Notably, the new session will see the author of the Republican Clean Energy First Bill, Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester, become chair of the Energy Committee. Frentz believes that’s a positive sign that could preclude the passage of a robust clean energy bill.

Not all Republicans are enthusiastic about the Clean Energy First Bills. Munson said that while he supports efforts to boost rural energy production, the key thing for him is that it needs to be kept affordable for ratepayers.

“I think we really need to look at the impacts that the green energy initiatives are having on ratepayers, because there’s really nobody at the capitol looking out for them,” he said. “Energy companies and public utilities don’t care if there’s more mandates put on them because they can pass on increased rates to consumers.”

The Walz Administration’s push to bring Minnesota up to “clean car” vehicle emissions standards modeled after California are also certain to be controversial, with both Republican legislators and car dealers across the state objecting to the changes. The administration has argued that the new rules are needed to address the threat of climate change, which it describes as an “existential threat.” While Minnesota’s overall emissions have declined over the last decade and a half, emissions from the transportation sector have not.

Under the order, 6% to 7.5% of new vehicles sold in the model year 2025 would have to be qualifying zero-emission vehicles, up from less than 1% now. In addition to criticizing the governor for pushing the new standards via executive order, Republicans have said the targets are unrealistic and result in significant costs for dealers.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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