ST. PAUL NOTES | Lots of civic engagement at legislative Town Hall


I expected a small turnout at the legislative town hall on February 18. Surely most people would have other things to do on a spring-like Saturday morning. Who wants to spend time inside, listening to politicians, when the sun is shining through the windows? To my surprise, more than 80 people filled the third-floor meeting room in the Como Pavilion, listening intently to their legislators: Representatives Alice Hausman and John Lesch, State Senator Mary Jo McGuire, and U.S. Congressmember Betty McCollum.

Bonding, jobs, education, the environment, and health care dominated the discussion.

On bonding: “The bulk of time that we’ll spend this session is on the bonding bill,” said Hausman. “That’s capital investment … funding all of infrastructure – higher education building, wastewater, transportation, parks and trails, regional economic development stuff,” such as improvements to the port in Winona that will strengthen the economy there.

There are, said Hausman, two key things the government can do to bolster the economy. The first is “a world class education system from early childhood to higher education” and the second is building and maintaining infrastructure. “No company can build their own system of roads,” she pointed out. As a side benefit, she said, “you also put construction workers, architects and engineers to work.”

On education: McGuire noted that she is sponsoring the Child Care Affordability Act. In the question period, she noted that the legislature should be discussing questions about “whether we fund centers or families and the child care rating system,” but said that “I’m not confident that we will not be able to have these discussions, because we are not getting the hearings we want.”

“We try to pretend we are putting more money into education,” said Hausman, “but if all we are doing is shifting, we are not taking the strain off schools, and so schools cut. They don’t cut reading and math, they cut art, music, physical education.”

Hausman pointed to a new Stanford study on education that “tracked decades of the achievement gap. What it found was: what has an even greater impact than race is poverty.” She noted that research on after school programs shows that they enhance academic achievement, prevent crime and reduce the incidence of teen pregnancy — “but we’re cutting them. … We aren’t taking what we learn and applying it to policy and applying it to funding.”

On the environment: “This is a very bad time for the environment, because of what is happening in the legislature,” said Hausman. In particular, she cited sulfide mining in northern Minnesota. “Some of us want the right financial assurance mechanism in place, and want to make sure we protect the water in northern Minnesota … But the sentiment [of the majority] is: invite this company from Chile or Canada in, with as few restrictions as possible. We are sort of losing that battle.”

McGuire said that PFCs and mercury in Minnesota fish are also important environmental issues. “Mercury in fish is not going away. It’s getting worse. We need to be sensitive and aware and keep fighting to get it in legislation.” Unfortunately, said McGuire, “we don’t have a receptive majority on these issues.”

State Senator Mary Jo McGuire: I always tell my students: It’s easier to elect a person that feels the way you do than to change the minds of people who are already there.

On health care: “Every other industrialized country can provide health care for everyone at significantly lower cost than we pay,” said Hausman. She said the discussion of health care policy founders on the namecalling about socialism. When your house is on fire, and the firefighters come to put it out, that’s not socialism, she said. When your business is burglarized and you call the police, them come and that’s not socialism. When we provide free K-12 public education, and roads for everyone to drive on, that’s not socialism, but “the minute we talk about health care for everyone, we label it socialism, and it’s off the table. … People continue to lose their homes because they lose their insurance and then they have a major health incident and then they lose their homes. That doesn’t happen in other industrialized countries.”

What’s going wrong at the Capitol

“If you read the paper,” Hausman said, “you will find out that we have a few distractions.”

Representative John Lesch said the amendment proposals are among the distractions facing the legislature: right to work, the marriage amendment, voter ID amendment, and the supermajority amendment.

“Out of 4000 investigated cases of so-called voter fraud in Hennepin County,” said Lesch, “they came up with three actual cases, and two of those were felons were those who said, ‘Oh, I thought I could vote.'”

He finds that entirely credible. “Those folks who come through my courtroom,” said Lesch, “they’re not people who are just poring over the statutes to begin with.”

State Senator Mary Jo McGuire agreed, noting that, “95 percent of people who come to testify say that this is not a problem and that we are disenfranchising voters.”

Lesch pointed out that the state cut income taxes for the wealthy at the beginning of the decade, costing about a billion dollars a year in revenue. Now, he said, instead of restoring 1990s tax rates, the Republicans in the legislature want to take money from the renters’ credit to give a further tax break to corporations. He characterized the proposal as a trickle-down philosophy that doesn’t work.

State Representative John Lesch: Why would we fund those corporations on the backs of renters? That’s beyond me.

The question period also brought up the issue of gambling, whether casinos, pull tabs or racinos. Hausman responded, “People in a secret back room meeting in a restaurant somewhere know they cannot propose any tax increase because public is vastly opposed to public money going into a Vikings stadium,” and the audience applauded, with several people calling out, “Hear, hear!”

Compromise and hope

Congressmember Betty McCollum, noting the compromise that extended the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits, and Medicare payments for doctors this week, said that working together is both necessary and possible. She talked about the fight over regulations requiring energy plants to reduce mercury emissions, and the East Coast power companies that are seeking to delay the effective date, though they have had years to get ready.

Xcel Energy, said McCollum, is now a leader, having “gone from kicking and screaming about the mandates for clean energy,” to saying we can do more of it and asking how they can cooperate. During the debate in Congress, McCollum said, “We contacted Xcel, and they said, ‘Don’t repeal the standards.’

“This is what we should be about in our country. How do we sit down and solve problems?”