Mere hours after wrapping up the 2021 Minnesota Legislative Session in the wee hours of the morning, Thursday, area legislators were in Little Falls for a post-session update hosted by the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, gave brief opening remarks regarding their thoughts on the session as a whole. They then took several questions from a standing-room-only audience in the Little Falls City Council Chambers.
Both Gazelka and Kresha said 2021 was a year unlike any other. The COVID-19 pandemic brought on many unexpected challenges, including getting businesses and schools back open and how to spend an influx of $18 billion worth of extra funding from the federal government. Solving those and many other issues, in part, kept the state government from finalizing its budget by the May 17 deadline. That forced a special session in which all bills had to be completed by midnight, June 30, to avoid a state government shutdown.
“A lot of battles; more difficult this year than any other budget I’ve ever done,” Gazelka said. “I’ve been responsible for three, two-year budgets where I’m the final guy in the room. It was like, this was just really, really hard. I don’t know if it was just COVID and people were mad, all the federal money and what to do with it, or just that we’re so divided. But, in the end, I think the end product was reasonable. Both sides would probably say we could live with it.”
Kresha, in his opening remarks, spoke to the difficulty legislators had navigating a budget as large as the one passed in 2021 — due in part to the federal money coming “fast and with a lot of uncertainty.” He said he took a lot of calls from constituents regarding unemployment benefits and housing.
Those two areas, along with clogs in the supply chain, were issues he said still need to be resolved. He added that they will also have long-term ramifications on the state’s economy.
“It is a situation unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Kresha said. “... Whatever happened now in the legislation that we passed in the budget, we are going to have to pay for that in two to four years. It’s coming back. You can’t pass a budget this large, with this much money and the revenue net to cover it, without some severe ramifications in two to four years, I don’t know what those will be, but that exists. When you look out, and you start to run the numbers out, the uncertainty that we face today could become exponential in the next two to four years.”
Feedback from the public ranged from residents thanking the legislators for backing a particular issue or cause, to vaccines, to funding for more local levels of government, such as township boards.
Kathy Lange, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Morrison County, spoke about the challenges facing her organization and other nonprofits throughout the state. She said Habitat’s construction manager told her that materials that would have cost $100 per square foot in 2020 now cost about $170 per square foot. She said 41% of families in Morrison County are cost-burdened households, and increases in supplies — particularly lumber — will make it difficult for the organization to provide an affordable home this year.
“We need to look for innovative funding ways to maintain Habitat’s mission of building homes and affordable housing for our families,” Lange said.
Gazelka said the housing bill that passed this year was “not a great bill,” though he was glad it ended the moratorium on evictions throughout the state. He added, however, that there was money in there for single-family dwellings, which he believed would help organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
Walter Edin, a member of the Upsala Lions Club, asked the legislators for an update on electronic pull-tabs. He said his organization, and many nonprofits around the state, have relied on those gambling proceeds to help fund local causes. As an example, he said just this week his group donated $5,000 to the Upsala Fire Department for new turnout gear.
Kresha said local organizations do a great job with the gambling proceeds that they receive. However, the state government is still dependent on that money, which came about with the Minnesota Vikings stadium deal in 2012. Further complicating matters, state Native American organizations contend that all gambling money within the state should go to them.
He said the charitable gambling tax needs to be reduced, and this is likely going to be a “big fight” going forward. He added, however, that local organizations could help through grassroots efforts regarding the tax.
“What we’re doing is, we’re reducing the dollars that are ending up in the communities,” Kresha said. “I won’t support that. I won’t support more dollars leaving our charities and heading to, whether it’s the tribes or the state. So, we’ve got to find a way to do that. I can just tell you, it’s going to be a very big issue, especially with the lieutenant governor right now, and many of the promises they’ve made to the tribe. So, what I would say to gambling — charitable gambling organizations — be very vigilant. We’ll do the best we can.”
Sheila Watercott, who helps coordinate the drug prevention program at the Little Falls Community School District, told the legislators that, prior to COVID-19, both youth and families in the community were facing a lot of challenges regarding substance abuse and mental health. The pandemic, she said, has only exacerbated those issues.
She asked Kresha and Gazelka what they were prioritizing going forward to provide support for youth and families that are struggling.
“Funding is great, but some of those families need more than just that,” Watercott said. “They need some more support.”
Kresha said her job was not going to get any easier.
He said the pandemic and the isolation that has come with it has created more depression and breakdowns in the family and less church attendance.
“All of the things that hold us, the pillars, are gone,” Kresha said. “The government can’t solve those problems. Continually I hear, ‘government programs, government programs.’ The reality is, those government programs will never solve those issues. Until we build our communities back up and start to open some things, that’s just going to be really hard.”
“This big experiment, globally, on a pandemic and locking everybody down and shutting everything down, I don’t think it’s been good for us at all,” Gazelka said. “Was there a risk? Absolutely. Was the virus serious? You bet it was. ... So, this big experiment we did with just locking everything down, really hurt the kids, but I think it’s what made everybody so angry. The riots are out of control. I don’t know. We’re gonna look back at this and say, ‘What in the world did we do?’ But not every state did it the same.”
On the virus, Sister Carol Schmidt from Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, asked the legislators why they had not encouraged residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19. The point drew applause from a couple members of the audience.
“If everybody who could, by their age or whatever, got vaccinated the minute possible, we would be in a very different position right now,” she said. “That was really disappointing to us; and it still is.”
Both Gazelka and Kresha said they did not want to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19, but felt getting vaccinated was a personal choice.
“I can’t come out and tell you to get vaccinated, or not to get vaccinated,” Kresha said. “That’s not my job. I don’t have enough knowledge of anybody’s personal health.”
Roman Witucki of Little Falls said he was glad to have a public infrastructure bill coming out, but how that is going to affect the local community is an issue. Specifically, he was concerned with the fact “none of that money every seems to funnel back to a township or small unit of government.”
He said his township, last year, raised its levy 70% to cover some flood costs. He urged the legislators to, during the next session, put some effort into helping fund townships with local infrastructure.
Kresha said those are the types of issues that were impacted by not having face-to-face contact with constituents due to the pandemic. He said, in a normal year, representatives from the townships come to his office and are in regular communication with him. That wasn’t the case this year because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“The township issue — hopefully we can get back on top of that,” Kresha said. “It was muted. It was, like, pushed way, way down because of so many other things that we were dealing with. Hopefully that will change.”