Asking the Experts: An interview with Minnesota legislators
Asking the Experts: An interview with Minnesota legislators
This month we are debuting a new section in The Bridge! Going forward, you can expect to find an interview with a legislator or expert each month. We’ll tackle topics on relevant policy issues to shed light on current pieces of legislation or initiatives we think you should know about.
As Minnesota’s legislative session rapidly approaches and is set to convene on February 11, we had the opportunity to sit down with our three District 4 legislators, Senator Kent Eken, Representative Paul Marquart and Representative Ben Lien, to discuss various issues and topics that are likely to arise. Below you’ll find, listed by topic, what issues we talked about.
Sen. Kent Eken (4, DFL) Rep. Paul Marquart (4B, DFL) Rep. Ben Lien (04A, DFL)
During the upcoming legislative session, the State of Minnesota is likely to pass an extensive bonding bill aimed to address infrastructure and deferred maintenance requests.
Representative Paul Marquart, Chairman of the Tax Committee, expressed the desire to pass a $1.5 billion bonding bill and highlighted the ability of the state to take on a bill of that the size as Minnesota has the debt to cover it. When asked about the projects he is most passionate about, he expressed interest in continuing to fund flood mitigation projects, the Heartland Trail by Detroit Lakes, the Clay County Solid Waste Center, and the 11th Street underpass projects in Moorhead. Among other bonding requests submitted, Rep. Marquart mentioned supporting college infrastructure projects as well as the Beker County Library.
Senator Kent Eken expressed his desire to pass an extensive and robust bonding bill, at the higher end of the proposed amounts, to deal with the critical infrastructure needs of our state. Sen. Eken expressed concern that the size of the bonding bill has not substantially changed over the last 20 years, since the $1 billion amount was first reached, and we have not been keeping up with inflation and the increase in costs over the years. Sen. Eken, expressed interest in passing two separate bonding bills during the 2020 session, one focused on deferred maintenance and the other focused on new projects.
Even though the state has an estimated debt capacity of roughly $3 billion, Representative Ben Lien expressed that the final bonding amount is likely to fall between $1 - $1.5 billion due to anticipated political disagreements between the House and the Senate on the bonding value. As a member of the Higher Education Committee, Rep. Lien will have the opportunity to vet bonding projects on MN campuses before sending them off to the bonding committee.
Recent economic forecasts show Minnesota is estimated to have a seventh consecutive budget surplus with an estimated amount of $1.3 billion for the remainder of the current biennium.
As the legislature reviews ways to spend the anticipated budget surplus, Rep. Marquart highlighted the need to use caution stating, “… we are currently in the longest post-recession upswing since the Great Depression, at some point, we have to be cognizant that the economy may flip.” Additionally, he brought focus to the next biennium as the State looks at how to spend the surplus and anticipates only $200 million to be available for on-going expenses meaning the State needs to be careful and prudent and invest in primarily one-time expense projects.
Some legislators across the state have suggested a need to tax relief and reduction. Rep. Marquart highlighted the successes of the previous session which provided a $360 million rate cut, $160 million by increasing the standard-deduction and help provided to Social Security taxes. He further discussed the importance of avoiding rebates but instead that the focus should be on permeant tax reduction in the areas of Section 179 Like-Kind Exchange, Social Security, and Property Tax reductions as his top priorities.
Sen. Eken expressed the need to utilize most of the money in one-time funding projects but also expressed the need to look critically at reducing the property tax burden on our properties, businesses and farms and that a portion of the surplus could be utilized to address this on-going concern.
As some potential uses of the surplus, Rep. Lien first expressed the need to exercise caution when deciding what to spend the dollars on but explained a desire to focus on Section 179 Conformity, as a supplement to the Bonding Bill, broadband access, workforce housing issues, and any other project, done on a one-time basis that would help the economy grow.
When asked about potential tax reductions, Rep. Lien shared that it is a possibility, but that it should be done to grow the economy and rebate checks and income tax reductions might not have the desired long-term impact some hope.
MN Tax Conformity
Minnesota during the 2019 session failed to fully conform with Federal Section 179 of the tax code, which has resulted in MN farmers and small businesses being assessed with retroactive state income tax increases.
With an estimated cost of $220 million to fully, and retroactively conform to section 179, Rep. Marquart has the goal to accomplish this in 2020, but if the dollars are not available to do so, his focus would transition to accomplishing the like-kind exchange situation, which comes at a much lower cost.
Sen. Eken stated his full support to conform to Section 179 stating, “I think it is unfortunate that it was not accomplished in the last session." If not fully accomplished this session, we need to at least get started on it and we could maybe use some of that one-time money to help with initial high cost.
Rep. Lien reiterated his support towards Section 179 conformity and explained if it cannot be fully accomplished this session, work should be done to possibly phase in the conformity as the price continues to decrease after each biennium.
The exponential growth of drug prices has been an issue the State of Minnesota is working to address, each legislator had the opportunity to discuss their ideas on how MN can address this concern.
Rep. Marquart highlighted that the concern is larger than only prescription drugs and extends to the need to address the overall rising cost of healthcare. Currently, the state of MN is doing a bipartisan supported reinsurance program that has not driven down the cost of healthcare, but it has stabilized it within the private market.
Highlighting the limitations states face to solve the increasing drug prices due to the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution, Sen. Eken stated his support of programs that ensure emergency funds are available for people to get the medication they need to live as well as exploring all options, including further support of public research funding aimed at addressing high drug prices.
Rep. Lien believes the legislature should allow the government, for Medicaid and other medical assistance, direct negotiating power with prescription drug companies and eliminate the ‘middle-man’ to hopefully help bring down the cost of some prescription drugs.
Currently, 11 states the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana – should Minnesota become the 12th?
- Rep. Marquart: Absolutely Not – “As a teacher, I don’t believe we should add this into the mix for our youth.”
- Sen. Eken: No – “I am not supportive of recreational marijuana, but I have been strongly supportive of medical marijuana.”
- Rep. Lien: Possibly – “If it was the right bill, the right program and it worked for Minnesota – I would support it.”
Gun laws have been contentiously debated both at both the federal level and state level; with the upcoming session likely to see various proposals to change the existing MN laws.
Expressing concern with major changes to our laws regarding gun ownership, Rep. Marquart expressed his desire to maintain the laws as they are, stating, “when dealing with the Constitution and the Second Amendment, we better have tried every single avenue and looked at every single cause to deal with these concerns before we start passing laws that might not even have an impact.” Furthermore stating, “Right now, I haven’t seen any changes in law that restrict people’s Second Amendment rights that would stop some of these crimes when a lot of it stems from mental health concerns.”
On a similar note, Sen. Eken communicated his belief that when discussing gun laws, the focus should be more on the root causes of the problems we are facing in our society and any gun legislation should be a common-sense type of approach with board-based support. Further stating, “we have to be careful that we don’t negatively impact legal gun owners and infringe upon their freedoms and their rights.”
“I support the universal background check – if you want to go out and purchase a firearm, you should have to go through a background check.” Rep. Lien also supports placing the onus on the individual who is seeking to purchase a firearm to receive a permit to purchase, as opposed to asking the seller to be responsible.
Should strong beer and liquor be sold in grocery/convenience stores?
- Rep. Marquart: No – expressing concerns over creating new competition with municipal liquor stores.
- Sen. Eken: Reluctant to support any such changes – expressing concerns over potential negative impacts on municipal liquor stores that positively impact the bottom lines of many of our smaller communities.
- Rep. Lien: No – “We just passed Sunday sales and I think it would be smart to take a step back and see how it is working out.”
The number of states that have legalized sports betting is continuing to increase, should Minnesota join the trend?
- Rep. Marquart: “At this time, I don’t know if the state is quite ready for it yet. I am willing to look at it, but I am not in huge support of it right now.”
- Sen. Eken: “I am not inclined to support it,” expressing his concerns over additional social consequences associated with expanding gambling any further.
- Rep. Lien: “I don’t think the state is ready for it – it is a conversation that will need to continue for a couple of biennia before we can say what sort of a model or system would work best for Minnesota.”
What other top priorities do you have for the upcoming session?
Rep. Marquart highlighted his focus on solving the Like-Kind Exchange and Section 179 Conformity issue, passing a bonding bill, and increasing the accountability and transparency within the tax systems across the state.
Serving on the Family Care and Aging Committee, which focuses on both daycare and long-term care issues, Sen. Eken believes those are two areas we need to focus additional attention on as we face demographic changes that we have never seen in world history in terms of the percentage of our population that will be entering their senior years.
Eken also said, “I think we need to pursue significant reforms with how regulations are created and implemented to make sure that we are adequately looking at the additional costs that would be imposed on our farms, businesses and communities. I don’t think that our current system takes those costs into account.
Sen. Even previously introduced legislation that would require a cost-benefit analysis of any new regulation and if it exceeded a certain cost, it would have to go through an independent peer-review process then to the legislature for legislative review for final approval.
Rep. Lien reiterated his hope to accomplish something around insulin as well as passing a bonding bill to positively benefit Moorhead.