From Republican district, a plea to be spared from cuts
In the first legislative session in nearly 40 years with their party in control of both the House and Senate, Republicans are insisting on closing Minnesota's $5 billion budget shortfall with spending cuts alone.
Many say there's no chance they will give in to Gov. Mark Dayton's call to raise taxes on the wealthy.
But in a series of town hall meetings on Tuesday, two freshman lawmakers from safe Republican districts in southwestern Minnesota found constituents more concerned about budget cuts than tax hikes.
State Sen. Gary Dahms of Redwood Falls and State Rep. Chris Swedzinski of Ghent started their day in Tracy, then moved on to Marshall and Redwood Falls.
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Once the meeting in Tracy began, it was clear the audience wasn't much interested in the Republican vs. Democrat struggle at the Capitol. Voters like Diana Slyter of Florence were mostly interested in their own backyards.
Slyter said she fears the partisan wars are distracting lawmakers from what they really should be doing: taking care of their home districts. She said long after the two political parties have hurled their final challenge at the other side this legislative session, the people of Minnesota will have to live with what sort of budget they end up passing.
That sort of sentiment was echoed by others at the Tracy meeting. Jason Swanson, the administrator of the nursing home in Tracy, said care centers in rural areas need more state support from lawmakers.
"We are not getting a fair shake out here," Swanson said. "We are over-regulated, we're underfunded. And who's getting hurt the most is not only our residents, our vulnerable adults, our grandparents, our parents, but also our staff."
Swanson said nursing homes are the most heavily regulated industry in the state. He said that threatens the future of care centers in Minnesota's small towns, which often lack the financial resources to keep those facilities running.
One audience member did state a clear partisan position during the meeting. Bud Hayes said he thought the legislators should pass Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal to increase taxes on upper-income levels.
"I cannot understand how anyone in St. Paul can even consider looking at a stadium bill at this time."
"The person that's on a $9-an-hour job out here cannot pay any big tax bill," said Hayes. "But the guy that's making [$600,000] - $700,000 dollars a year can afford it. And you can only get it from those that's got it."
Dahms said he didn't think there was any chance Republicans would change their "no tax increase" stance. He said his big worry is that if taxes are raised, it's a fix that won't last very long -- because if legislators approve the Dayton plan, in two years they'll be looking at more tax increases. He fears the next round of tax increases would reach into the middle-income earners.
Another issue that came up was the proposal to build a new football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, paid for in part by public money. School bus driver Ray Randall said he opposes the idea.
"I cannot understand how anyone in St. Paul can even consider looking at a stadium bill at this time, to build a place of business for a billionaire owner," Randall said, "when we can't come up with enough money to fund our K-through-12 education fully, on time."
The residents at the town hall meeting in Tracy said they hope their legislators will act on their ideas. The two lawmakers there promised to take them back to St. Paul, and add them to the mix of ideas lawmakers are working on.