More than 70 constituents jammed into the Northwoods Bank community room Saturday to voice their concerns to their Minnesota legislators.
They traveled from Becker, Mahnomen, Clearwater, Beltrami and Hubbard counties.
State Senator Paul Utke, District 2B Rep. Steve Green and District 2A Rep. Matt Grossell faced intense questioning from a vocal crowd.
The Park Rapids Area League of Women Voters (LWV) hosted Saturday's town hall-style event. LWV is a non-partisan volunteer organization whose mission is to encourage informed and active participation in government and influence public policy through education and advocacy.
LWV moderator LuAnn Hurd-Lof asked the first few questions based on policy issues, then opened up the floor to audience members.
Drinking water pollution
"Several polls have shown that pollution of our drinking water is a major concern of Minnesotans," Hurd-Lof said. "Hubbard County has many private wells and at least one city well where nitrogen levels exceed the maximum level. This has cost Park Rapids residents a great deal of money. Do you have any ideas on what we can do to protect and clean up our drinking water?"
"A lot of you people out there think I'm anti-clean water. Believe me, I'm not," Green said, adding that his research finds water quality is greatly improving.
"To get to where there's no trend in pollution, you have to be improving," he stated, citing a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency report from 2014.
"Water cleans itself. We don't go in and put anything in to clean it. What we do is stop polluting it and it actually cleans itself," Green said.
If there's improvement, why introduce more regulations "on to the people who are employing our sons and our daughters?" he asked, specifically mentioning the farming community and R. D. Offutt Company which "directly or indirectly employs 1,200 people."
Utke praised agricultural producers for actively improving farming practices.
"I think everybody is a player in this. They're doing a good job and continually working to get better. I'm convinced we'll continue to push and do as much as we can, but we need to do it in a safe and sustainable manner," Utke said.
"I'm for clean water, too," Grossell said. "The Legislature has worked in a bipartisan fashion to enact and improve buffer legislation that respects farmers and landowners while improving water quality. We have to find a balance and keep working together to make sure we take care of our water resources."
A retired biology teacher stood up to counter Green's assertion that there is less water pollution. Phosphorus levels are, in fact, getting worse in Minnesota's lakes and rivers, he said.
Green and Utke said they would not support a clean energy manufacturing tax credit in Minnesota.
Renewable energy manufacturing doesn't work in Minnesota or North Dakota, Green said. Wind farms can't produce to their full capacity and "solar is even worse."
Subsidies come out of taxpayer's pockets who can't afford it, he added. Existing power plants - Green said there was no evidence to support pollution claims at one particular power plant, triggering a loud chorus of boos and "Baloney!" from the audience.
Grossell said he supports cost-efficient energy solutions, but needs to see more evidence that renewable energy is practical.
Eliminating new buffer law
John LaFond of Ponsford questioned Green's support of House File 167. The bill repeals a statewide buffer law.
By Nov. 1, vegetative buffers averaging 50-feet wide must be established around public waters in Minnesota. A year later, at least 16.5-foot wide buffers must be along public ditches.
Gov. Mark Dayton's landmark buffer initiative designates an estimated 110,000 acres of land for water-quality buffer strips statewide.
The state Legislature passed the law requiring the buffers along lakes, rivers, streams and ditches in 2015 and updated it last year.
Plant buffers filter water and prevent soil erosion, LaFond said. Farmers and property owners will be paid through conservation funds.
"Why then do you want to eliminate when it does so much to protect water?"
"This is a personal property rights issue," Green said.
Token payments aren't enough to replace profitable farming land, Utke agreed.
Chemicals go into everyone's groundwater, making it a public issue, argued LaFond.
Repeal of Legacy funding
John Hitchcock of Park Rapids urged constituents to read HS 0698, authored by Green.
Green is pushing for a state Constitutional amendment that replaces the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment with funding dedicated to roads and bridges.
Minnesota voters approved the Legacy amendment in 2008.
"Especially read Section 4 prohibiting any state employee from expressing opposition to the proposed amendment, which clearly violates the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech," Hitchcock said. "Those who voted for the original Legacy amendment recognized the need to protect and enhance and restore the very things that not only make Minnesota attractive to residents but also serve as an economic engine for the millions of visitors to the state."
Arts events, like the Heartland Concert Association series, are supported by Legacy funding, Hitchcock pointed out.
"Why would you gut the whole spirit of the state to fix roads and bridges rather than enact the necessary taxes for that work?"
The lengthy list of public officials who would fall under the gag order include the director of Explore Minnesota Tourism and the Governor, Hitchcock said.
Hubbard County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Lynn Goodrich said that he, too, would be among those prohibited from speaking against Green's amendment.
One-third of Legacy amendment funding is supposed to go toward clean water projects, Green replied, but approximately 10 percent does.
Legacy money is also used to purchase private land and convert it to public land enhancements, he continued, removes the land from tax rolls.
"Is this really how you want the money spent?" Green asked.
The audience responded with "Absolutely!" and "Yes!"
Politicians making natural resource decisions
Scott Benson from Becker County raised issue with HF 551. Green is the chief author of this bill which eliminates the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's and Department of Natural Resources' rule-making authority. Instead, House and Senate committees would have jurisdiction over environment and natural resources.
"What's your expertise?" Benson asked Green.
Legislators would evaluate DNR and MPCA proposals, Green said, noting that people in his district are "very, very angry" about the agencies' rulings "outside of the legislative process."
"There are several bills on voting procedures before the Legislature," Hurd-Lof said. "One is about envelope-free, in-person absentee voting that saves time at the county level. This bill (HF 463) seems to have bipartisan support in the House."
Hurd-Lof asked Utke if he would support its companion bill (Senate File 500) in the Senate.
"Not at this time," he replied. "Looking at what is in the bill at this point, I'd support a lot of things that affect voting, but that's not one."
"I don't like the bill," said Green. "I think we rush sometimes to make things faster and easier when, in Greater Minnesota, we don't have a problem at the polls. I'm more interested in voter integrity."
The Republican lawmaker suggested that most voter fraud occurs in Hennepin County. Green claimed there were 24,000 new voter registrations that had no one living at those addresses in the 2008 election of Senator Al Franken.
The audience audibly sniggered their disapproval. A few called him a "liar."
Another set of bills (HF 245 and SF 323) provides for automatic voter registration when a Minnesotan applies for a driver's license, identification card or learner's permit. The applicant can opt out of voter database.
"Your information would be automatically updated in the statewide voter registration system, making it more secure," Hurd-Lof said. "What needs to change in order to get bipartisan support?"
Green said he didn't like this bill either.
"We already have same-day registration at the polls. Is the purpose of voting so that it can be made easy or to elect your elected officials with integrity and make sure the process is good? I think it's to make sure the process is good," he said. "I don't see this improving the voter turnout at all."
Grossel said he doesn't support "forcing people to opt out."
Utke also voiced opposition, saying he was unsure who would be able to acquire drivers license or Minnesota IDs in the future.
"The League of Women Voters is interested, above all, in voter rights," Hurd-Lof stated.
Proposed redistricting commission
Finally, Hurd-Lof referenced HF 246 and SF 370 which would establish a non-partisan commission of five retired judges to recommend the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts. By March 1 of each year, four of the judges would be appointed by legislative majority and minority leaders. The redistricting commission would then select the fifth judge.
"Given that the last time the Legislature drew a redistricting plan it went to court, would you support the bipartisan commission? Why or why not?" asked Hurd-Lof.
"We could take a look at it," Grossell said, adding he thought District 2A was already well aligned. "I'd rather have it the way it is versus having someone outside decide."
"No," Utke said. "It's another non-elected group in our state. We have too many already that are not accountable to all of you guys. It's our job as elected officials to do this."
Green agreed with Utke.
"You may not like what we do, but at least you have access to us. When we get these commissions, you don't have that option," he suggested.
Influence of PACs
Political action committees (PACs) and other independent spenders are playing a greater role in elections, Hurd-Lof said. "What changes in Minnesota would change this trend?"
Both Green and Grossell said little could be altered without limiting free speech. They suggested it's voters' responsibility to do their own homework on candidates running for offices.
Sheltered workshops for the disabled
Laura Kovacovich, a Hubbard County Developmental Achievement Center client, spoke on behalf of sheltered workshops and group homes for disabled people.
Utke serves on one of the legislative committees addressing the Olmstead ruling in Minnesota.
"We're doing everything in our power to retain what we've got," he told Kovacovich.
"Yes, there may be a few that could go into the individual workforce, but at least 75 to 80 percent will stay with our sheltered workshops. There's just a whole lot of pluses to what we currently have here. Hubbard County is a great example of what's going on. I frequently use that as an example."
The DAC and similar workshops will be facing a huge deficit due to new regulations coming through. Utke said the committee is working to address staffing and funding needs.
Grossell mentioned that his sister has Down Syndrome, so he is close to the issue as well.
"You've got my support 110 percent," he said.
Bills introduced in the Minnesota State Legislature can be followed at www.leg.state.mn.us/leg/legis by entering the House File or Senate File numbers.