Imbroglio erupts at DFL town hall along party lines
BY Sarah smith
Two Democratic lawmakers trying to spread the good word of budget stabilization through a town hall meeting instead ran into a buzz saw of opposition from a dozen citizens.
“Can you believe these guys?” an angry Al Kleinke asked after the nearly 90 minute session at Northwoods Bank that slid past the hour deadline.
Kleinke maintained that Sen. Rod Skoe and Rep. Roger Erickson’s comments weren’t based in reality.
The two factions clashed on Minnesota’s workforce, business, priorities, water issues, the minimum wage, same sex marriage, the developmentally disabled and human service programs.
Skoe and Erickson tried to exit for their next stop in Bemidji, but the angry confrontation could be heard all the way up the stairs at the Park Rapids bank.
It started off innocuously.
Erickson talked of his successes last legislative session in education, stabilizing Minnesota’s budget to where the state has a modest surplus and getting through this bonding session, restoring $400 million in property tax relief, paying back the school shift, continuing the trail system west and to Itasca State Park and whether funding for an arts center at The Armory Events Center in Park Rapids would be ready to go.
“Bonding projects take time,” he cautioned.
Skoe spoke of the practicalities of a short session finishing before the May deadline, minimum wage issues and tax cuts passed last year that need revisiting.
But he said the thorniest issue will be how the legislature deals with civilly committed sex offenders and getting a maintenance program in place.
“The feds will take over the problem and bill us if we can’t do anything,” he warned. “The feds say you have to have a plan, We don’t have a plan in place.”
Then he opened up the town hall meeting to comments.
Resident Brian England challenged the lawmakers as to whether “we’re going to start warehousing sex offenders. I’ve never seen a rehabilitated sex offender,” he maintained.
“We’re between a rock and a hard spot on that,” Skoe, the Clearbrook Democrat, said.
Federal courts are positioned to take over programs governing the rights of sex offenders who have served their time but may not be ready for public release, Skoe said. The state would then be billed for those services.
The lawmakers came in for criticism of the 2012 government shutdown, in which tourists could not purchase Minnesota fishing licenses and state parks such as Itasca shut down.
Same sex marriage
This issue got the most heated opposition.
“We didn’t want it up here,” one attendee stated.
“It was a constitutional measure on the ballot,” Skoe said.
“No, you guys in St. Paul voted for same sex marriage,” one attendee angrily responded, suggesting the lawmakers propelled the issue onto the ballot in an effort to duck blame for it.
Others said they were insulted that the lawmakers claimed same sex marriage was a fundamental right.
“Look at the last six works if the Pledge of Allegiance,” Erickson pointed out. “With liberty and justice for all,” maintaining that part of that liberty and justice included “the freedom to marry anyone.”
Kleinke almost shot out of his chair.
“That’s an absolutely incorrect interpretation of the Constitution,” he replied.
Instead of legislating for a same sex union, lawmakers codified an illegal marriage contract, Kleinke said.
Marriage involves “propagation of the species” in which a mother and father raise children together, Kleinke said.
Skoe said he hadn’t formed an opinion as to whether to oppose or support proposed pipelines that would carry crude oil to either Duluth or the East Coast, especially when he wasn’t sure what the status of the state’s environmental fund and whose responsibility it was to clean up any spills.
“A pipeline is safer than a train,” he said, referring to a recent spill in Casselton, N.D., after two freight trains collided, one carrying crude oil.
Erickson acknowledged that a pipeline such as Enbridge should be responsible for cleanup costs but said the state has a Superfund amount he’d like to see broadened.
“Two-thousand railroad cars a day wouldn’t have to be on the road if the pipeline goes through,” Erickson said of a proposed route from Western North Dakota to Duluth and beyond.
Skoe said he’s concentrating on budget issues this session.
Lowell Shellack, who lives on Hay Creek, said if an Enbridge line crosses the creek north of town and spills, the results would be catastrophic. So he urged caution in approving any line that would cross sensitive areas.
“What would you like me to do?” Skoe asked, contending that jurisdiction for most pipeline issues lies with other authorities.
We’ve destroyed the comprehensive high school,” said Park Rapids School Board member Gary Gauldin, adding that “bogus curriculum requirements” are replacing classes students don’t need and don’t want.
Erickson, a former public school teacher, said “one third to one-half of the kids” don’t go to college, so making them take basic curriculum like chemistry sends kids out the doors.
“Park Rapids is losing 25 students per grade to open enrollment,” Gauldin pointed out.
Skoe said the legislature needs to sort out propane and natural gas issues so temporary shortages like the propane one experienced in the north country don’t cripple local economies.
This issue commended the second most vociferous battle of the day. Passing a minimum wage bill might destabilize the state’s economy right now, both sides seemed to agree.
Ed Ranson, director of the local Developmental Achievement Center programs, urged caution in raising the minimum wages without raising the rates on recycling and other ventures the DAC participates in.
Ranson said for the first time since its inception, the DAC is losing money on all of its businesses.
“We’re spending our reserves,” Ranson said.
Welfare cuts fall on the most needy, he and Skoe agreed.
“We have increasing needs, not decreasing needs,” Ranson told the legislators.
Sheltered workshops so that employees can learn skills under a mentor is preferred, said one man.
“You’re always going to have a minimum wage,” said conservative Arnold Leshovsky. “You have to have a starting wage that will make employees money. It’s not intended to be a living wage.”
Water issues and AIS
“Water is an ongoing discussion,” Skoe said. The state needs to drill numerous test wells and he’s looking for funding.
Skoe wondered if we are drawing aquifers down.
“We need to raise the fee on well appropriation permits to pay for test wells,” he said. “It didn’t go anywhere last year,” but he said he will keep pushing for legislation.
Skoe said apportioning funds through Lessard Sams Outdoor Council funds would get local resources to people who care about their water quality.
He’d like to change AIS funding components to allow counties and lakes with public access points enough money to patrol their lakes, not leave AIS funding up to the DNR.
He’d do this by bolstering County Program Aid.
“That way we would get the local resources to the people doing the work, not the DNR,” Skoe said. “A good part of the state has given up on AIS.”
Water activist Ken Grob said a clean water foundation might me a better place to seek AIS funds from.
But both men agreed counties should have a 50/50 share of such funds.
And most of the room agreed that the way the Clean Water Amendment was written and interpreted was a disappointment to how the funds have been appropriated.