There was a town hall meeting hosted by State Senator Scott Dibble (DFL - 61), State Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL - 61A), and Speaker of the House Paul Thissen (DFL - 61B) at the Pershing Park Recreation Center on June 7, 2014. Around sixty people attended the event to hear the three legislators speak about the 2014 state legislative session and to take questions from constituents. The representatives first gave a summary of their biggest successes during the session and what they hope to accomplish the following year.
Representative Thissen, an attorney from Minneapolis, spoke first. He described the 2014 session as “very productive” and talked up some of the major victories for the DFL now that they had a majority in both houses: a bill raising the minimum wage, an anti-bullying measure drafted by Senator Dibble, tax cuts, new bonding funds to refurbish the Walker Art Center’s sculpture garden and the Nicollet Mall, and the Women’s Economic Security Act. Speaker Thissen characterized a transportation bill, which they state legislature still could not pass this year, as “unfinished business.”
Senator Dibble spoke next, describing the session as an “incredibly productive biennium.” He was glad to see so many “people engaged in the legislative process” this year. He talked about a few different issues, including a safe schools bill (which took a “ton of courage from young people” to speak up about the issue), medicinal marijuana, and the fact that this legislature did not leave a deficit.
Representative Hornstein, a community organizer from Minneapolis, wrapped up the introduction. Some of his favorite victories from the session included new money for the sculpture garden, funding for a new transit station at 35W and Lake Street, and updated recycling and composting laws. He also spoke of the need for transportation funding and said he would support a ¾ cent sales tax on gasoline. He also cited the legislature’s work in making sure oil companies “pay for the lion’s share” when cars containing shale oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota derail in Minnesota.
The legislators then opened up the forum to questions from the audience. This dominated most of the two-hour event. The first question surrounded gun control. Rep. Thissen said that while there was some domestic violence legislation passed this year, more could be done. He stressed the need for a broad campaign for legislative action, saying that there simply were not 68 votes in the House yet.
The next questioner asked about more funding to take care of the state’s world-class parks and lakes, describing them as “getting tired” from all the use from residents. Senator Dibble agreed, saying these parks receive “millions of visits per year” and need protecting. He cited the legislature’s work to help the Park Board institute a “park dedication fee” for any new residential construction, and said that some money did come from the Legacy fund (a constitutional amendment from 2008 setting aside specific funds for arts and the environment).
The following questioner asked about open-carry laws. Senator Dibble said that while restrictions were on the books they had been “liberalized” over the years. He did mention that businesses can place a sign explicitly saying “no guns” are allowed anywhere on the premises.
The next question dealt with transportation, and how the legislature can work with other communities around the state to increase bike trails to help people live independently. The constituent also raised the issue of preventing cell phone use by car drivers. Hornstein spoke about the need for a broad coalition on these issues, using the recent group MoveMN as an example. He spoke about a recent trip to Bemidji and how “bike infrastructure is important” up there. He brought up the law he authored banning texting while driving (which was signed into law by former Governor Tim Pawlenty), but said the ultimate goal is to ban all cellphone use.
The next question had to do with how to help people plan their estates when it comes to the animals they may leave behind. Dibble said he would “absolutely work on that,” and then brought up his recent efforts to bring more regulation to puppy mills in the state. He also talked about another animal-friendly piece of legislation he’d worked on, the “Beagle Freedom” bill, which requires universities that test on dogs to find a home for them afterward.
The next questioner had some hard questions for the legislators about water issues. The first issue had to do with a new Enbridge oil pipeline, which would criss-cross the state while bringing oil sands to Superior, WI. She also brought up the problems Minneapolis has had with a residential development at 1800 Lake Street, which has been misusing a DNR permit to pump water into the lagoon between Calhoun and Lake of the Isles. Finally, she spoke of her concerns regarding the Southwest Light Rail project and the plans to dig a tunnel under the channel at Cedar Lake, saying she wants “transportation out of the parks.” Rep. Hornstein began answering, saying that there was “some pipeline safety language” in the recent oil transportation bill, but did say that it was very tough getting the oil companies to agree on proper clean up times. Dibble did say he was in contact with the Minneapolis City Council about the property at 1800 Lake, and that the “city is taking the next legal steps” here. Finally Hornstein spoke again about the SWLRT project, briefly giving an overview of how the municipal consent process and describing Minneapolis’ recent decision to use mediation “a good thing.”
The following question had to do with the Ranked Choice Voting local options bill (allowing cities outside Minneapolis and St. Paul to look at using this system in their elections) and why it stalled in the legislature this year. Senator Dibble said it was important to keep the “organizing pressure” going, and said that Duluth will start using RCV this year.
The next question dealt with the PolyMet mine project on the Iron Range. The questioner mentioned that for every “one pound of nickel there will be one ton of debris.” Rep. Thissen said that the Pollution Control Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency are both looking at the environmental concerns the constituent brought up. Senator Dibble said he was “deeply skeptical” of this project, noting that the first Draft Environmental Impact Statement received an “F” grade from the DNR.
A constituent who was with the group Moms Demand Action spoke about recent “open carry” laws in Wisconsin, which allow people to carry guns even at stores like Target (a Minneapolis-based company). She said she hoped each of the legislators speaking “had her back” when she went to Target’s headquarters with a petition asking the company not to allow guns in Minnesota stores. As the crowd erupted in applause, the representatives seemed to offer their support.
The next question swung back to the SWLRT. The constituent raised her concerns that there has been no final DEIS on the project and that more trees will be lost to create a path for the light rail train than were lost during the horrendous rain storms in June of 2013. Hornstein said he has raised these issues and that he “agreed” that more environmental studies should be done.
The following question came from a Registered Nurse in the audience. She raised concerns over safe staffing levels in hospitals but also broader environmental health worries, such as the garbage burner in downtown Minneapolis. Rep. Hornstein spoke of Minneapolis’ goals to become a zero-waste city and to increase composting, which should reduce the amount of garbage going into the burner. Senator Dibble said the recent EPA rules regulating pollution and power plants will have to be “implemented by the state.” He also discussed a campaign to “release money we pay in taxes on solid waste fees” to use to pay for conservation and recycling efforts.
The next question concerned food stamps for people who are struggling to find work but may not have children. The constituent also spoke about recent expungement legislation written by Senator Dibble. According to some literature passed out at the event, this legislation will “clarify and create a balanced mechanism for those who were either charged or convicted of crimes to have their records expunged.” It states that it “aims to maintain public safety while allowing those who have served their time to have their records sealed so they can more easily secure employment and housing.” Rep. Thissen said that state benefit amounts have not changed since 1986, and and could be increased. Rep. Hornstein spoke of the legislature’s work to ensure children who can’t afford school lunches would still receive them.
The next question was about including acupuncture in state health care benefits. Rep. Thissen said the MNSure board will ultimately decide this.
Finally at the end of the event began what the legislators dubbed the “lighting round.” The questions here were fast and furious and dealt with a wide range of issues, including education (early childhood and not just preschool), RNAV, mental health funding, property taxes, and medical marijuana. The legislators concluded the event and there was some additional time for constituents to speak directly to the representatives. This town hall meeting, like the one your Examiner covered last year, was very informative and was a good opportunity for residents of the district to ask questions of the people representing them in the statehouse. Your Examiner also hopes to follow through on a promise he made last year and conduct an interview with Senator Dibble about his work in the legislature.