District 16 legislators hopeful for bonding, transportation
GRANITE FALLS -- Two area legislators said the new session is off to a "fast and furious start,'' and so were the issues on Friday as they hosted the first of a round of town hall meetings in Granite Falls.
GRANITE FALLS - Two area legislators said the new session is off to a "fast and furious start,'' and so were the issues on Friday as they hosted the first of a round of town hall meetings in Granite Falls.
Transportation funding, buffer legislation, bonding for Pioneer Television and the fate of the Appleton prison were among the issues tackled by State Senator Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, and Representative Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent.
The legislators are optimistic about seeing transportation and bonding bills passed in the wake of their demise in the last minute of the 2016 session.
Dahms said he expects a bonding bill similar in size to last year's to emerge. Swedzinski indicated the House favors a smaller version. Neither expect Governor Mark Dayton to realize his goal for a $1.5 billion bill.
Both are optimistic that a bonding bill will offer $1.95 million sought by Pioneer Public Television to outfit its new headquarters and studio under construction in Granite Falls. The facility is nearly complete. The funds are needed to provide modern electronic equipment to replace the aged gear currently in the Appleton location, and to erect two small towers to connect the new site with the 1,500-foot broadcast tower, according to Pat Kubly, chair of the board and Jon Panzer, station manager and chief engineer.
The legislators also believe a bonding bill will include funds - possibly in the range of $100 million to $200 million - to help small, rural communities with water and sewer infrastructure needs.
There is support in the legislature for a new transportation bill that increases funding, according to Dahms. He pointed to a Minnesota Department of Transportation projection that the current revenue stream will leave us $20 billion short of needs over the next 20 years.
He believes the increased revenues will come from a mix of sources, including a proposal to assign sales tax revenues from auto parts to transportation instead of the general fund. "It will be a combination, but I don't know what pieces of the puzzle will be in there,'' he said of the mix of revenue sources.
The senator opposes a hike in the gas tax as the only solution. "It does not fix the problem,'' he said. With ever-improving fuel efficiencies and the move to electric vehicles, a gas tax hike will only fall short of meeting needs, he explained. "The question is do we want to keep fighting about (a) gas tax year after year after year or do you want to solve the issue?"
Both rural legislators expect legislation to advance that will require the state to lease space from the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton if the Department of Corrections expands its number of prison beds. They said Governor Dayton remains opposed to using the private prison.
Dahms said he is also optimistic the Department of Natural Resources will allow the City of Fairfax and Nicollet County and a private group to lease the golf course at Fort Ridgely State Park. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has twice rejected proposals by the Friends of Fort Ridgely State Park and the two local government units seeking to lease the course, which the DNR is planning to remove and replace with native prairie. The parks division saw an annual loss of $120,000 operating the course.
The legislators also urged area counties to accept responsibility for enforcing the state's new buffer law, despite the hesitation of some counties. Peg Heglund, Yellow Medicine County administrator, said counties are concerned about not only the upfront costs of the responsibility, but the possible "tail" costs of litigation by upset land owners.
Swedzinski expressed concern about the process for determining waterways classified as public waters, which require a 50-foot buffer. "I have not been for a full repeal but I am leaning towards (it). Maybe that is what we need to do,'' said Swedzinski in expressing his frustration with the process.
But Dahms cautioned the buffer requirements are not going to go away. Counties should not give up their authority to the Board of Water and Soil Resources for enforcement. "(You're) really going to be kicking yourself two years down the road if you give this authority up. It will bite you,'' he said.
He and Swedzinski said they are hopeful of seeing changes made in how state funds are distributed as counties program aid, similar to the local government aid municipalities receive. The current formula reduces the aid to agricultural counties where farmland values have been high.