Lawmakers question spending priorities
LANESBORO — The environment, health care, and a dam in danger. All were connected Wednesday night as a handful of DFL representatives talked about where they differed on the legislative agenda with Republicans.
Reps. David Bly, DFL-Northfield, and Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, led a discussion with about 20 people who came to talk about the dam but turned to a wide range of issues.
Hansen began by discussing the environmental bill, focusing more on what is not in the bill than what is. For starters, he said, there is a lot less money in the bill for 2018. "The goal for this bill was to cut $94 million from existing spending," he said.
That means less service for both businesses and the public who are looking for answers, he said. "If you're going to call in to seek a permit, you want clear information that you can follow if you're on the business side," Hansen said. "If you're on the public side, you want clear information you can follow. That takes people."
Cutting $94 million from the environmental budget will affect staffing at places like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, he said, meaning a slow down for businesses looking to get environmental permits. "The environmental review strengthens the end product, and that takes people," he said. "When you're cutting the budgets, you're actually going to be delaying the permits."
Those cuts were available in part because the state is streamlining the permitting process, said Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston. In a separate interview, Davids added that the permitting process often holds up projects that meet state standards, keeping legitimate business interests from moving forward.
A good example, he said, is permitting for oil pipelines. "New high-tech pipelines are safer than semis, safer than rail," he said. But the DFL is working to block pipelines, he said, in favor of transportation systems with more risk. "How is that protecting the environment?"
Save the dam
Bly said that cuts have been made because Republicans are trying to keep the $1.6 billion surplus in the tax bill. "The budget we're debating is a debate of priorities," he said. Cutting spending on the environment, he said, is a priority for Republicans.
Spending the money to fix the Lanesboro dam should be a priority as well, because fixing the dam would be cheaper than replacing it after it breaks. "We've got to support projects like the dam," he said.
Davids, whose district includes Lanesboro, said such a call is welcome, but he questioned where the DFL was when the dam was part of the last bonding bill that failed. "The DFL in the House kept their word. The DFL in the Senate did not," he said. "They killed it for light rail in Minneapolis.
"When the Democrats start talking about the Lanesboro dam, I say where have you been."
Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said she hoped Davids kept his support for repairing the dam because of its impact on tourism as well as a source of renewable power for the city. She said it will probably take a bonding bill in the last month or so of the legislative session to get funding for projects like the dam.
Health Care Costs
Lielbling, who sits on committees for Health and Human Services, answered questions from the audience about health care, particularly the reinsure bill that passed without Gov. Mark Dayton's signature. "I'm not happy with it," she said of the $542 million pool meant to stabilize the individual insurance market.
While insurance regulations require insurance companies spend a certain percentage of funds on coverage, she said, the bill does not guarantee the money will be more than a bailout for insurance companies.
Instead, Liebling said she'd prefer to open up Minnesota Care further to individuals, making Minnesota one big insurance pool. "I believe that's a direction we ought to go," she said.
Davids said the reinsurance bill, like the 25 percent premium buy down that was passed in January, is a response to a broken insurance system. With premiums jumping 40 percent and 67 percent over the past two years, the premium buy down and reinsurance bill should give about a 45 percent relief on premiums in the individual marketplace.
"Obamacare destroyed the individual market around the country," he said, adding that choices in many Minnesota counties are limited because of the impact of Obamacare. "We're not bailing out insurance companies. We're bailing out a failed Obamacare system."
Davids added that talk from the DFL representatives of cuts in spending are a twist of the facts. While spending might be lower in some agencies, overall, spending is up 7-9 percent in the budget for 2018. "We're not cutting spending. Education is up," he said. "Health and Human Services is up hundreds of millions of dollars."