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At legislative preview in Benson, mixed approach to deficit favored; racino, stadium get little support

State Reps. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, left, and Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock, host a town meeting Monday in Benson regarding the upcoming session. Atkins is chair of the House commerce and labor committee. Falk will host a town hall meeting at 1 p.m. today at Benson City Hall. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

BENSON -- A budget deficit of $1.2 billion, the bonding bill and an expected tug-of-war between the two parties over taxes are sure to be the showstoppers when the Legislature convenes Thursday.

But there are plenty of other dicey debates likely to pop up -- everything from whether to help build a new stadium for the Vikings or a racino -- and they're all on their way in the House to the commerce and labor committee headed by Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights.

If the town hall meeting he hosted Monday along with Rep. Andrew Falk, DFL-Murdock in the Benson School Auditorium is any indication, the Vikings have every bit as big a challenge coming in St. Paul as they found in New Orleans.

"Why should I be the one to get a penalty for something I don't enjoy,'' said one audience member when Atkins asked whether there was support for taxing everyone to build a new stadium for the Vikings. There was more support shown for taxes that would be placed only on those who benefit directly, such as those buying game tickets.

No one raised their arms with the enthusiasm of players signaling a touchdown when Atkins asked about taxpayer support for the team, however.

Instead, most lifted their hands when he asked if they were unsure about what to do.

The audience included a smattering of local business owners and interested citizens, along with students from two high school classes.

Two of the students had strong feelings about a proposal likely headed to Atkins' co-mmittee as a bill.

It seeks to reduce the minimum wage for wait staff on the basis that they also receive tips as compensation. "It should be equal,'' said the students, who told the representative that their table waiting duties includes lots of cleanup work, and tips are never guaranteed.

Atkins also expressed some concerns, telling the audience that he knows of servers in Menominee, Wis., coming home with no more than $8 for a night's work.

It's also apparent his committee will be scrutinizing proposals to build a racino -- a combination of a racetrack and casino -- or expand gambling some other way. The proposals have been offered as revenue for everything from building a Vikings stadium to helping fix the holes in the budget. Atkins said he is not a big fan of gambling. "I know folks who do too much of it,'' he said.

A majority of hands raised in response to his questions also showed a reluctance to expand gambling.

Atkins said his committee will also likely consider a proposal supported by Gov. Tim Pawlenty to allow out-of-state health insurance companies to sell their products in Minnesota.

The audience showed a mixed response to the idea.

As for how to solve the state's budget deficit, most hands went up in favor of a mix of cuts and taxes to make up the difference.

Only a few hands were raised in favor of making up the deficit either entirely by increased taxes or cuts.

The committee chair said after the meeting that what he heard in Benson on these issues mirrors what he's heard elsewhere in the state.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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