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Local legislators reflect on session; taxes, education among main priorities

BEMIDJI — Local legislators, weary from the whirlwind that has been the State Capitol the past few weeks, are returning to their home districts this week.

And with the hundreds of miles between here and St. Paul, they’ve had some time to reflect on their work during the 2013 session. For the most part, they considered it a success.

For freshman Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette, the 2013 legislative session was a learning experience. Erickson won the right to represent the district that stretches from the state’s northernmost point to Hubbard County in November’s election.

Erickson said learning how to relate to other legislators, especially fellow party members from the Twin Cities metro area, was key. That was especially true during the debate over gun control legislation.

Gun violence issues are more prominent in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Erickson said. But in rural areas, gun owners, including himself, see guns as a "tool" or something used for recreation, he said.

"We have to find something that works for both places," Erickson said. Legislators ultimately declined to pass expanded background checks for gun sales this session, but improved the system that’s already in place.

One of the session’s major accomplishments, according to Erickson, a retired schoolteacher, was education investments. The Legislature approved funding for all-day kindergarten and an undergraduate tuition freeze at state colleges and the University of Minnesota.

"I know the cuts that schools have made and the programs that they’ve had to trim up or even eliminate," Erickson said. "It’s hard in these small rural schools."

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji agreed.

"That’s huge," Persell said. "We’re reversing 10 to 12 years of ‘disinvestment’ that’s been going on in Minnesota…And we did it without gimmicks."

Persell acknowledged that in order to pay for schools, money had to be raised. That came in the form of $2.1 billion in new revenue, derived from increased taxes on the state’s highest earners and smokers, while expanding the sales tax.

"As I said in one or more of my public meetings coming up to this last election, that you know someone has to make the tough decisions about moving Minnesota forward," Persell said.

Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, knows those decisions well. As chair of the Senate’s taxes committee, he was instrumental in forming the final tax bill sent to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.

Despite some differences between the Senate’s proposed tax bill and the one that ultimately passed, Skoe said it was "really good" legislation.

"The first thing in the tax area that we set out to do was solve the deficit and have structural balance in the budget for not just this biennium but for the four-year time period," Skoe said. "And as I think I’ve indicated, if we accomplished that, I would consider it a success. And that was accomplished."

Beyond that, Skoe noted that there is some reform included in the tax bill. That includes changing the way the state calculates how much cities receive in Local Government Aid, and some expansion of the sales tax.

He also touted economic development projects in the tax bill, including an expansion at the Mall of America and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said he was proud of his state government finance bill, as well other bills he authored to increase funding to promote tourism and the Department of Natural Resources’ forestry budget.

He was disappointed, however, that the state’s minimum wage wasn’t increased from its current $6.15 rate for large employers and $5.25 for small companies. But overall, Saxhaug said legislators accomplished much of what they set out to do.

"I spent a lot of time in Bemidji going door to door and basically telling people that I thought we had to balance the budget, invest in education, cut some property taxes…and do some jobs work," Saxhaug said. "I think we did what needed to be done."

The Legislature passed a smaller bonding bill that helps pay for the State Capitol building’s restoration. Persell was disappointed a larger one didn’t pass, while Saxhaug seemed content with the $156 million bill sent to Dayton.

Gay marriage

Besides fiscal issues, there was one social policy issue that the 2013 legislative session will be remembered for: the legalization of gay marriage.

Skoe, Erickson, Saxhaug and Persell, who delivered a passionate speech on the House floor during debate, all voted to legalize gay marriage.

Skoe, who didn’t indicate which way he was leaning during a town hall meeting at Bemidji City Hall in April, said he knew for a while how he was going to vote.

"If two people wanted to live committed together, I didn’t feel that the role of government was to interfere with that," Skoe said. "And so I supported people having a choice in how and who they live with."

On the other hand, Erickson said he reflected on the issue almost up until the House voted to legalize gay marriage on May 9. He said a couple came into his office the day before, and without saying a word, handed him a handwritten card in the shape of a heart.

"And it was like, what is the state of Minnesota doing? What business does it have to stop two people from going out and getting married?" Erickson said. "It just crystallized my thinking and I’ve been comfortable with the vote ever since."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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