Back to business today in St. Paul
Property tax relief, education funding and affordable, accessible health care -- those are the cornerstone issues that will shape much of the debate in the 2007 session of the Minnesota State Legislature, which starts today.
But there has also been a resurgence of interest in a perennial issue that continues to divide Minnesota's body politic: a statewide smoking ban.
Some, such as District 2 Senator Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook) and Dist. 9B Representative Paul Marquart (DFL-Dilworth) are skeptical about imposing such a ban, while others, such as Dist. 9 Sen. Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon) are in favor of the concept.
"I'd have to see what it (the proposed smoke-free legislation) finally looked like," Marquart said. "I don't smoke, and I certainly agree that smoking and secondhand smoke cause health problems -- but I'm not in support of a blanket ban."
Marquart went on to say that he opposes a statewide ban for a couple of reasons:
"One is that I think (the decision to smoke or not smoke) should be a personal health choice," he said.
"We make personal health choices every day -- what I eat, whether I exercise, whether I put on a seat belt when I drive... I think it comes down to personal responsibility, and ultimately, the people will decide this issue. I don't like the state just telling these businesses (i.e., restaurants and bars) that this is what you have to do."
Secondly, Marquart continued, he's concerned about how a smoking ban might hurt business in smaller communities that have only one restaurant or one bar.
"And then there are the communities along the border -- North Dakota does not have a ban," Marquart pointed out. "If we do, are we putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage?"
Skoe expressed similar skepticism.
"I always thought it was a local control issue," he said. "Local jurisdictions do the licensing and manage the facilities, and they should be able to make their own decisions on these matters.
"I have not been supportive of it in the past, but I would make my decision after I see what the exemptions and criteria are in the bill," Skoe added.
On the other side of the coin, Sen. Langseth noted that a smoking ban -- particularly in restaurants -- would allow for a healthier working environment for restaurant workers.
"Seventeen states have it (a smoking ban) now, and I think Minnesota will eventually," he said. "I haven't decided for sure, but I guess if it came up on the floor, I would vote for it -- but it would depend some on how extensive (the ban) would be."
"I really wouldn't have problem at all with (a ban) in restaurants," he said, noting that he was particularly concerned about young people working as waiters and waitresses in a smoke-filled environment.
"The governor has said that if a smoking ban (bill) reached his desk, he would sign it," Marquart noted. "I'm sure it will come up, but it's not a priority."
All three legislators agreed that there were more pressing matters that would be coming before the Legislature this session.
"Property tax relief is going to be pretty big, because it's (taxes) gone up 58 percent statewide in the last four years," Langseth said.
"That really hits the pocket books of families and farmers and seniors -- it's a huge issue for rural Minnesota," Marquart added,
"It's one of the most unfair mechanisms used to fund government," Skoe added. "We should be not having these double-digit property tax increases we've had the last four years."
Marquart and Skoe, in particular, will have the opportunity to make an impact on this issue, as the two area legislators have been selected to chair the property tax relief committees for the House and Senate, respectively.
"We're going to be working to bring some property tax reductions to Minnesotans," Skoe said. "I look forward to working with Rep. Marquart to make some progress in reforming and reducing property taxes.
"We really do have an opportunity to benefit not just rural Minnesota, but the entire state."
But property tax relief isn't the only major issue that will come to the floor this session.
"It's a budget session, so we'll be going through the entire budget, which covers pretty much everything," Langseth said.
Besides property taxes, Langseth said another area that will need to be addressed is the dramatic increase in tuition costs for post-secondary education at public colleges and universities.
"Tuition at public colleges has gone up 50 percent in the last four years," he said. "That's just one of the things we'd like to do something about."
Education funding as a whole is something that will definitely need to be addressed, Skoe added.
"We're really going to have to take a look at education funding," he said, adding that education, from early childhood through college, has been under-funded for the past four years.
The double-digit tuition increases for public colleges "has been restricting access to education, and I really feel that's something we shouldn't be doing," Skoe added.
"It's important that we provide adequate funding for education, so our local schools can do what they need to do -- and that's to get the highest level of achievement possible out of their students," Marquart said.
The underlying problem, Langseth noted, is that under-funding of public education has caused too much of the burden for funding education to be put back on the property tax system.
The other area that all three legislators felt would be a major topic of discussion during the upcoming session is health care access and affordability.
"The third issue that will have a lot of play this session is that we have to do something with the soaring costs of health care and the resulting rise in health insurance costs that are becoming a problem for businesses, individuals and the government," Skoe said.
"We need to make it easier for small businesses to offer health care (benefits) and make sure the people who need health care are getting it," Marquart agreed.