WINONA — For the first time in 22 years, state legislators this week boarded buses in St. Paul and fanned out across southeastern Minnesota over three days for a series of tours, hearings and conversations billed as a mini session.
It was a visit that leaders in the Minnesota House of Representatives said was key to bringing in greater Minnesota voices to the legislative process and showing models of innovation there that could be modeled elsewhere. And they budgeted around $100,000 to get 102 lawmakers and staff to the region and to house them while in Winona.
Community and business leaders, local officials and others who came out to join the public hearings said they appreciated the lawmakers' willingness to take conversations about state spending and decisionmaking from the Capitol to their area. But others argued it was a waste of taxpayer dollars.
And as in St. Paul, legislators took partisan dust-ups to Rochester, Winona and beyond. They took some swings over issues that were covered or not slated for discussion during the hearings.
While they didn't take action on any policy, lawmakers said they'd take what they'd learned from people in southeastern Minnesota and keep it in mind when weighing which public works projects to fund next year or considering changes to state laws or spending.
"This just really was an excellent way to go out, meet people where they live in rural Minnesota and listen to real concerns," Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said. "We picked up a lot of things that we're going to be working on and discussing in this next session."
Legislative committees take hearings to cities around Minnesota every so often. And ahead of a legislative session that will determine which local public works projects around the state get funding from the Legislature, lawmakers from the House and Senate bonding committees have toured regions of the state to prioritize top needs.
But a mini legislative session is different. Lawmakers spent three days embedded in the region. And they heard first-hand the ways the state's spending and laws were helping or in some cases hurting people in southeastern Minnesota.
They learned about how Spam gets made at the Hormel plant in Austin and toured a nearby wastewater treatment center as well as local schools and Niagara Cave.
In Rochester, doctors and health experts sat down with legislators to find ways to drive down the price of prescription drugs and city energy officials talked about local efforts to implement clean energy initiatives.
They heard Winona and Caledonia residents about their local property taxes, ate breakfast with students, boarded a boat to see the Mississippi River from the water and toured the Prairie Island Indian Community reservation with Prairie Island administrators before visiting the Xcel Nuclear Power Plant.
Lawmakers sat in a jury box at the Winona County Courthouse Thursday morning as Third Judicial District Judge Jodi Williamson spoke at a podium about the importance of the judicial district and how it seldom gets the coverage the executive and legislative branches get.
She noted that a news story previewing the mini-session didn’t mention the judicial branch, which is typical. And despite stories previewing the mini session that suggested she'd give lawmakers "an earful," Williamson said she was just glad to share her perspective.
“I’m not giving you an earful,” she said. “I’m really glad you’re here.”
Scott Olson, president of Winona State University, told lawmakers at the Winona County History Center that he was glad they'd made the trip and noted the last mini session in Winona in 1989 had helped spur a new composite manufacturing sector in the community.
“This is why we’re grateful you come,” Olson said. “As you hold listening sessions and tour Winona, you’ll learn about how your decisions have mostly helped us, sometimes hurt us, and how you can help us prosper.”
But budget-focused lawmakers said elected officials should take it upon themselves to make visits around the state and to learn about Minnesotans rather than asking taxpayers to bankroll a visit.
"Any member could have done this on their own. We have a big state but any member could have done this on their own," Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said. "I like to call this the Democrats' rural apology tour for the radical agendas that they've passed over the last session. They're coming out here and trying to gain some support from people they've done a lot of things to."
Other community members brought tough questions to legislators about how they could help make child care more accessible, improve access to mental health care resources, reduce learning disparities in schools, clean water in rural communities, drive down the price of prescription drugs and expand access to broadband.
"Why does finding early education for our children need to feel like we won the lottery?" Kattie Tibbs, 32, asked lawmakers discussing the child care crisis in greater Minnesota. The mother of four waited months to find a quality child care option for her first child.
Lawmakers didn't have an immediate answer for Tibbs. And they faced similar situations as Minnesotans asked them to resolve complex problems when they return to St. Paul.
As they boarded the buses Friday on the way back to the Capitol, lawmakers committed to finding answers for southeastern Minnesotans (and others) before the legislative session gets going again in February.