Rep. Baker and Sen. Lang hold town hall in Willmar prior to opening of Minnesota Legislature
A significant crowd of constituents attended a pre-session town hall with State Rep. Dave Baker and Sen. Andrew Lang in Willmar on Friday. The two lawmakers gave a brief rundown of the priorities this session before turning it over to the public for their questions and concerns.
WILLMAR — Only a few short days before the start of the 2022 Minnesota legislative session, a large group of constituents from District 17 attended a pre-session town hall in Willmar, both in person and remotely, with state Sen. Andrew Lang and Rep. Dave Baker.
"We are going to St. Paul Monday and we have a session in front of us that will be really interesting," Baker, R-Willmar, said. "This is our final chance to make sure we hear from you. We want to make sure we hear from our constituents in this area. We need to know what is working and what is not."
Making the session even more interesting, a word Baker and Lang used often to describe this session, is the $7 billion state surplus and how to spend it.
"We have a huge budget surplus in a non-budget year," said Lang, R-Olivia. "On top of that huge budget surplus, we have a lot of differences in how that money should be spent, or the programs that money should be spent on."
The largest item of business for the Legislature will be the bonding bill. The House and the Senate will create their own bills and try to meld them into one piece of legislation to be passed by both chambers and then signed by Gov. Tim Walz, all by the end of the session in May. Walz released his bonding bill earlier in January, with a total of $2.7 billion. The proposal contains money for infrastructure, education and funds for local projects across the state.
Regionally, there are several projects looking for state money, including a large water treatment plant project for Willmar Municipal Utilities, a trail project for Sibley State Park, infrastructure works in Spicer and Lake Lillian and funds to rehabilitate the old Bird Island elementary school in Renville County.
"I am also certain there will be a pretty robust bonding bill," said Baker, who hopes the state uses a lot of cash on hand to pay for it, instead of borrowing. "It is a complicated process."
Baker and Lang would like to see the state stop taxing Social Security benefits. They said they've heard from and about seniors who leave the state after retiring to avoid the tax. The state receives about $400 million in taxes from this, but Baker and Lang said keeping people in Minnesota is more important.
"This is our chance to do this for seniors," Baker said.
The questions from the audience covered a wide range of issues — from aquatic invasive species, Social Security taxes and marijuana legalization to voter ID and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
When it comes to recreational marijuana legalization, Lang had a very simple answer.
"Nope," Lang said.
Lang was once more open-minded about the possibility, but said he has become a firm opponent of the measure since hearing about the experience in Colorado and Washington state. Both Baker, who is also against recreational marijuana, and Lang support medical marijuana and industrial hemp opportunities.
In regard to business mandates, such as the COVID-19 vaccine mandate recently struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, Lang and Baker said agencies and departments like OSHA, who do have rule-making authority, are testing the limits of that power.
"How the heck does OSHA have anything to do with your personal medical preferences or history?" Lang said. "I for sure see some real constitutional issues when it comes to personal freedoms that are being trampled on."
Baker said he doesn't want the government to tell owners how to run their businesses, including how much they have to pay their workers, but he does have concerns about employers that are pushing vaccine mandates on employees.
"I get both sides of it, and the employer has those choices," Baker said. "I think we are crossing a line as an employer and I would have a hard time doing that."
A challenge facing lawmakers of any party this year is the political climate of Minnesota and the rest of the nation. Lang and Baker said there are communication challenges between the Legislature and the governor's office, along with what they said is the feeling that Walz is not as concerned about greater Minnesota as he is about the Twin Cities metro area.
"I am extremely frustrated with a leader that doesn't make me feel heard like I hope folks here feel we are hearing you," Baker said. "I don't get that and it is frustrating."
The distance between the two parties will be a major issue this session, one it is hoped can be overcome. However, if the mountain is just a little too high to climb, it won't be the end of the world. This year is not a budget year, and the state has money to do the work it is already doing.
"At the end of the day, if there is money not spent — say we don't come to an agreement, say we don't do a bonding bill and say everybody leaves session in May screaming and crying and wringing their hands leading into an election year and we don't spend that $8 billion — the state of Minnesota will be just fine," Lang said. "All the bills are paid; we did that last year."