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Rep. Steve Green: Legislative session was 'not a failure'

Ten constituents attended a legislative forum hosted by state Rep. Steve Green, Sen. Paul Utke and Rep. Matt Grossell. It was held Friday in Park Rapids at Northwoods Bank community room.

Successes

Green began by talking about what was accomplished in the 90th session of the state Legislature "because the news media, and even us, we talk a lot about the bills that were vetoed, but we don't talk about what did pass."

Green noted the Legislature operates on a biennium, "and last year was our budget year." He credited the "biggest tax cut in almost 20 years in Minnesota" with the state's budget surplus.

"We accomplished a lot and we're seeing benefits of it in Minnesota today," he said.

Funding to build three new veterans homes — in Bemidji, Preston and Montevideo — passed in this year's bonding bill.

"Now it's one step closer to becoming reality for rural Minnesota to have veterans homes closer to their families," Grossel said. "So that was a great accomplishment for us."

Red Lake and Warroad schools in Grossell's District 2A received funding for security improvements and expansion. He co-authored a bill for demolition and replacement of Hagg-Sauer Hall at Bemidji State University. That project received dollars in the bonding bill, with the legislation appropriating $22.5 million.

Grossell, a retired law enforcement officer, said his primary focus is public safety. He worked on bills increasing child pornography penalties, keeping track of stay of adjudication so it is a registerable offense, preventing municipal or counties from disarming their police forces, implementing bus driver background checks and increasing penalties for attacking fire, emergency or hospital staff. None of the bills passed.

Park Rapids resident John Clauer asked why bills were lumped into the Omnibus Supplement Finance bill — which was eventually vetoed by Gov. Dayton — instead of introduced as individual bills that might stand a better chance of passing.

Utke said a large number of bills were "dual-tracked," meaning they were in the omnibus bill and also ran as stand-alone bills. "Some of those got signed, others got vetoed. The veto pen was used quite a bit this year," he said.

Regulations

Lyn Pinnick, owner of Jewel of the North Bed and Breakfast, asked Green to clarify his statement about reducing red tape.

"There are certain things that are really consumer protection regulations that we're really grateful for," she said, pointing out the fact that no one was smoking in the room due to that law. "Many so-called regulations are beneficial to our health and protects our water, our air."

"The first thing I would say is you're the first business owner that came to me and said you like regulations because most are driving our businesses out of Minnesota. There are so many regulations coming — pick an agency," Green said. "There's issues with farmers dealing with a lot of regulations from the MPCA. People drilling sewers now are having problems with mound systems and how they gauge. There's probably too many to name."

Pinnick agreed there are numerous regulations. "For a lot of us in central Minnesota the ones that are particularly near and dear to our hearts is our water. The lakes are important to us. It's what provides our tourism and our quality of life. We really care about the air, the water, the environment."

"So do we," Grossell said.

"That's what I'm really eager to hear about. Tell me how you share those values," Pinnick said.

Tax reform

Utke said the tax bill was a priority during the session due to the federal government's tax code revisions in December 2017.

"As a state, we needed to get busy and conform to what they did," he said. "We want to simplify. That's been the ultimate goal."

Conformity and reform were the main purposes of the proposed tax bill, Utke said, adding "99.8 percent of citizens would've been held harmless and paid no increases in taxes."

The governor vetoed the tax bill, claiming it favored multinational corporations and wealthy Minnesotans.

Clauer asked if the conformity issue can be fixed before the April 2019 tax deadline.

Bills likely will be "rejacketed" with new numbers when legislators return to the Capitol Jan. 8, 2019. "First bill out of the shoot can be the tax bill," Utke said.

Enbridge

Pinnick asked for comments about Enbridge's Line 3 replacement project.

"I've been a supporter of pipelines. I think the pipeline is still the safest way to move the oil," Green said.

The fact that Line 3 is pumping at half of its capacity "tells you that the danger is there. It does have to be replaced," he said.

One resident stated he's not opposed to oil, rather where the pipeline is placed.

Clauer inquired about the recent ruling that the Minnesota Department of Revenue's (DOE) overvalued Enbridge Energy's oil pipeline system by billions of dollars. From 2012 to 2014, the pipelines were overvalued by $3.2 billion, according to Judge Joanne Turner of the Minnesota Tax Court. The DOE is appealing the decision to the state Supreme Court.

"It's going to impact the counties big time because they've already spent the money," Clauer said. "Is the state going to try to compensate Hubbard County in case courts rule they were overcharged?"

Green said the Legislature is working to compensate affected counties, but the implications are even wider. The courts only addressed 2012-14. "That's not including the next three years that's coming at us again. This is going to be huge," Green said. "This isn't just Enbridge pipeline. This is other utilities as well. This could be statewide for the utilities that were assessed wrong by the Department of Revenue."

Utke said the DOE raised utility property values — pipelines, gas lines, overhead transmission lines — 20 to 25 percent higher than neighboring states.

"Finally, Enbridge took it to court. Of course now that the courts have ruled with them, you're going to see a whole bunch standing in line because they are only player of many doing business in our state. This thing is going to go wide open," Utke said. "We need the Department of Revenue to do this fairly. It's not fair to the companies. It's not fair to the state, and it's put counties in a pickle."

Utke speculated it will take legislation to solve the problem.

Free speech

Clauer said an Indiana school teacher was forced to resign because he would not call students in his class by their transgender name. The teacher said it was an affront to his religious beliefs.

Clauer asked if there was any consideration in Minnesota to strengthen and protect freedom of speech rights.

Both Green and Utke said they would support such a bill.

Clean water

Sharon Natzel, president of the Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations, asked for legislators' opinions on the state's proposed groundwater rule.

"I'm concerned about agriculture and other things that might harm our groundwater. I'm seeking common ground," Natzel said.

Green said he doesn't like the nitrogen rule because it wasn't based on nitrogen in the soil, but rather soil texture.

"My problem is I don't like rulemaking. If there's a rule that has to be made, it should be codified by the Legislature," he said. "It bothers me when people who are not elected will come in and make rules, even though they have public hearings for the most part. It's not an open process as it is through the Legislature."

Ponsford resident Steve Lindow said he wants experts to evaluate information and write rules, not politicians.

"You're wrong on the soil type. It's an important piece," Lindow said. Nitrogen quickly seeps through sand, for example, he noted, so measuring nitrogen in the soil "doesn't tell you much."

"Politicians don't know anything about water quality, how nitrogen flows the soil. But the science will probably say we need a rule to protect water from nitrogen," Lindow said. "If you look at politics right now, politicians don't get much done."

Utke noted that the state commissioners will be replaced when the new governor is elected, so politics are involved in the governor's appointments as well.

The comment period for the proposed Groundwater Protection Rule is open until July 26. All comments must be submitted in writing to the Office of Administrative Hearings website.

Five public hearings have been scheduled around the state: Farmington, Stewartville, Worthington and Park Rapids. Attendees may provide testimony before the administrative law judge. The Park Rapids hearing will be held at the American Legion from 9 a.m. to 3 pm. July 26.

Pinnick thanked the legislators for holding a town hall and being willing to answer questions.

"We hear all across the nation of other representatives who don't have the courage to face or be willing to answer questions," she said. "We really appreciate getting the chance to talk to you, hear your views and find those areas of common ground. Because as Minnesotans, we want to believe we have those shared values."

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