Legislators reflect on session

MARSHALL – The Minnesota Legislature’s most recent session has come and gone, but local residents got a chance to learn what it could mean for them during a town hall meeting held Wednesday morning at the Marshall Area YMCA. District 16A Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, and District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, answered questions and gave a wrap-up of the session.

More than 30 people attended the meeting.

“It was a very interesting session this year,” Dahms said. Lawmakers avoided going into a special session, but things went down to the wire. In some cases, Dahms and Swedzinski said, it meant approving smaller or more stripped-down bills in order to keep moving.

Marshall’s request for state bonding money for a planned amateur sports center didn’t get approved by the Legislature, Swedzinski said. The Minnesota House had proposed a more than $800 million bonding bill, but it didn’t pass.

“That bill was then pared down to a smaller bill,” with a focus on funding critical infrastructure projects and renovations at the state Capitol, Swedzinski said.

Dahms said the sports center was not included in the Senate’s bonding bill proposal this year. However, he said things looked positive to try again in 2014.

“There’s no guarantee, but I feel pretty confident we will get Marshall’s sports center into the bonding bill,” he said.

In the audience, Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes thanked the legislators for their support of the sports center project.

Some audience members told Swedzinski and Dahms they were disappointed that the Safe and Supportive Schools Act was not passed.

Dahms said it was very likely that the anti-bullying bill would come back next session. However, he said, “We need to do some work on that bill.” As it currently stands, Dahms said, the bill would place too much of a cost burden on school districts and take away some of the power of local school boards to make bullying policy decisions that fit their constituency.

Audience members also had questions about how the session would affect job growth and the local economy. Dahms and Swedzinski said lawmakers couldn’t agree on a minimum-wage bill, and that issue would likely come back to the Legislature next year.

Dahms and Swedzinski said the tax bill, especially sales taxes on warehousing products, will have “by far the most impact” on Minnesota businesses.

“It’s not just the rich who are going to pay more. Everyone’s going to pay more,” Swedzinski said.

“Some unintended consequences came out of that bill,” Dahms said. He said the warehousing tax had exemptions for agricultural products, but they might not protect farmers in some situations. For example, he said, the tax could apply to seed bought by a farmer but stored by a dealer until planting.

Swedzinski said the added cost of the warehousing tax could also hurt small businesses.

“This is going to affect groceries, this is going to affect all kinds of products,” Swedzinski said. “It’s going to have a huge effect on our state.”

Other upcoming tax changes that Dahms and Swedzinski noted included sales taxes on repairs and service for computers and electronics and the return of a statewide general education levy.

One of the last audience questions Dahms and Swedzinski addressed concerned how to adequately fund roads and bridges in southwest Minnesota.

“There’s a lot of talk, and a lot of studies going on,” about finding alternatives to the gasoline tax, Dahms said. However, those efforts face difficult challenges, he said. Growing needs for health and human services funding in Minnesota put the squeeze on transportation, and it’s difficult to find a long-term solution that would still provide the funds needed to update state roads and bridges.

Not all developments this session were negative, however. Swedzinski and Dahms said that while Republicans are in the minority in both the Minnesota House and Senate, they have still been able to work toward policy changes. Dahms said bipartisanship was important this year, especially working together with rural DFL legislators. Regardless of party, rural legislators tend to have similar views on issues affecting greater Minnesota, he said.