Legislators for Minnesota Senate District 49 participated in a virtual town hall last week as they answered questions from constituents.

Sen. Melisa Franzen (D-Edina), Rep. Heather Edelson (D-Edina) and Rep. Steve Elkins (D-Bloomington) responded to hot-button issues during the Feb. 9 online forum. A recording of the event was later uploaded to Edelson’s Facebook page for viewing.

The event was coordinated by the Edina and Bloomington chapters of the League of Women Voters.

COVID-19 legislation

The first questions asked of the legislators focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked about thoughts on Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders and how much influence the state Legislature should have on COVID-19 policy, the lawmakers said they were generally pleased with the state’s response. But they also noted other actions they intend to push for to better tackle the pandemic.

Elkins noted that the Legislature is exploring whether the emergency executive powers of the governor’s office should be curtailed, an effort led by Rep. Gene Pelowski (R-Winona). But in general, Elkins said he thinks Walz did a good job during the pandemic and responded appropriately.

The mask mandate was incredibly important, especially for keeping businesses open, Edelson observed. It’s been helpful for “getting back to the life that we want,” she said.

Edelson also mentioned the eviction moratorium as a good policy for the pandemic, but said she wants to look into ways for there to be an effective “off-road” on the issue.

Franzen said that when it came to Walz’s decisions on the pandemic, she agreed with some and disagreed with others. She said the system was not prepared for this emergency and so lawmakers must collaborate on ways to tackle future emergencies. “I’ve been pleased ... (But) we are not out of the woods,” Franzen said.

Vaccine rollout policy

For policy around the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, Franzen said that everyday, the state is receiving more information on dose numbers. She said vaccinating teachers should be a priority.

Edelson said the rollout is a “logistical nightmare” due to low supply and high demand for the vaccine. But she did say the vaccinations of many in congregate care facilities was gone well in the state.

Elkins said future vaccinations should be funneled through primary-care doctors instead of being administered under a “scattershot approach,” such as seen with the lottery system, which is currently in place for those ages 65 and older. He also mentioned that moving the age for the second phase of vaccinations from 75 to 65 was a mistake due to the limited number of doses available.

State budget

With greater needs due to the pandemic, another question asked of the legislators is how to balance the state budget under split party control. Minnesota is the only state in the U.S. with a split two-chamber legislature.

Several options to balance the budget were suggested, including dipping into budget reserves or increasing taxes, which the lawmakers weighed in on.

Franzen, who sits on the Finance Committee, said the state will probably have to implement a little bit of everything. But “luckily, we do have reserves,” she said.

Elkins, who is on the on State Government Finance Committee, said administrative agencies have enacted hiring freezes. He added that the state should ensure it will not take money from the Education or Health and Human Services fund.

Edelson noted that while the state seems like its in a bad place economically, it’s in a better position than during the recession of 2008.

Variety of social issues discussed

The lawmakers were asked about the status of various social issues in the Legislature.

On affordable housing, Elkins said he’s been focused on looking to solve institutional barriers to the creation of affordable housing. He said plans to introduce a comprehensive bill to address this issue. Franzen said the state can’t ignore the issue. Prices for housing are out of control and legislators must try to incentivize developers, such as through tax increment financing, to build affordable housing, she said.

Franzen is the lead author on a bill to legalize marijuana, another policy effort centered on social issues. “It’s one of those issues that’s ‘let’s be realistic,’” she said. She said she knows there are concerns but the substance should be properly regulated in the state. Edelson said she used to be opposed to legalization, having seen addiction in her family, but has since become more open to the idea out of concern over racial bias in enforcement.

In helping curb climate change, Elkins has worked on legislation to stress the use of electric vehicles. Edelson said the issue of climate change has caused her frustration as many in the Legislature will not reach common ground on its negative impact, despite science backing it up.

– Follow Caitlin Anderson on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

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