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Marquart, Eken talk state issues

DFL lawmakers Sen. Kent Eken, left, and Rep. Paul Marquart spoke in DL Monday. DL NEWSPAPERS/Nathan Bowe

State Rep. Paul Marquart and State Sen. Kent Eken held a town hall meeting in Detroit Lakes Monday — and they had a lot to talk about.

“The economy is going in the right direction, Minnesota is the fifth-fastest growing state in the nation, people are getting back to work and making money,” Eken told about 50 people at the Detroit Lakes City Council chambers.

“As a result,” he added, this year we were able to cut taxes and invest more in very critical areas of the budget.”

Eken carried a bill to give a 5 percent wage increase to home health care workers and other on the low income side of the healthcare field, some of whom have not had a raise in six years or more, he said.

Last year Eken shepherded through a 5 percent wage increase for nursing home workers.

“So we’re very, very happy about that,” he said.

Marquart said the state had been staggering from budget crisis to budget crisis for the last 10 years, and the DFL majority is now playing catch-up for years of Republican mismanagement.

“The state had a $627 million deficit last year, we owed school districts $800 million, property taxes were going up every year, nursing home (reimbursement rates) were flat … we didn’t just solve the budget deficit for these two years, we did it for the long-term.”

With the Democrats in control of both houses and the governor’s office, income taxes were raised on the top 2 percent of wage-earners, a 75 cent-per-pack cigarette tax was levied, and three business-to-business taxes were passed last year.

“We ended the shifts and gimmicks, and actually have an honest budget,” Marquart said.

With the state’s economy roaring back, along with the new tax revenues, the DFL-controlled legislature has paid back the school districts, taken serious action to lower property taxes and invested state funds in education at all levels.

The Detroit Lakes School District received a substantial inux of new dollars, Marquart said, and the legislature chipped away at the gap between rich and poor school districts.

 “We closed disparities by 23 percent in high and low revenue districts around the state,” he said.

If the state could close the achievement gap between high-performing and low-performing students, it would boost the state’s gross domestic product by about $5 billion a year, he said.

The state is looking at a $1.2 billion surplus this year, and the DFL majority has decided to use about two-thirds of that on tax cuts (all three business-to-business taxes are going away) and about a third on further investments and property tax relief, Marquart said. A rainy day reserve fund will also be reestablished.

“The last few years have not been easy for rural Minnesota,” he said. When Republicans pushed down to keep the lid on statewide taxes, local city and school property taxes squished up in outstate Minnesota to meet the need.

“I think we’ve turned   the corner on that, I really do,” Marquart said.

Among those asking questions at the town hall meeting were Detroit Lakes Alderman Ron Zeman, Callaway Township Supervisor Roger Winter, Janet Green, executive director of Ecumen Detroit Lakes, and Becker County Commissioner Ben Grimsley.

The two also fielded questions about the new state anti-bullying law from a handful of conservative-leaning audience-members.

“That anti-bullying law we have to adopt from St. Paul,” said one woman, “one size does not fit all — something tells me there’s some hidden agenda going on with our children.”

She held up a sex education textbook and pointed to a cartoon image of two people in bed. “This is pornography,” she said.

The law was passed in response to suicides and school violence perpetrated by young people, and has nothing to do with sex education, Marquart said.

 It does not focus on anti-gay bullying or any other specific type of bullying, he added.

“Read the bill,” he said, holding it up. “It’s right here. There’s total local control. This allows school districts to come up with their own plan. We have a 37-word definition of bullying and many districts have not adopted that language.”

Marquart also doesn’t think it will be expensive for districts to implement.

“It tells schools they need to have one person in charge of bullying — they should have one person in charge of discipline now,” he said. “We can’t prevent 100 percent of bullying, but it’s good to look at some consistency around the state on how to do this. If kids feel comfortable about going to school, they’ll do better.”

Tom Frank of Detroit Lakes criticized Marquart and Eken for voting to legalize gay marriage, even though the majority of voters in their districts did not support it.

“I’m afraid you’re losing touch with the majority of your constituents,” he said.

“There’s a lot of support for the positions we took and it’s increasing in the district,” Eken said. “One reason there was so much opposition to the bullying law is people see it as an extension of the gay marriage law. The bullying law is for everyone, not one particular type of bullying,” he said.

“I had a brother who was disabled. I was thinking of him when I voted for this.”

Marquart said his vote on gay marriage was not political.

“It’s what I felt (was right) in my heart,” he said. “I can sleep at night … You have to separate what happens in church and what happens in the courtroom. You have to treat people equally.”

The two talked for about 90 minutes on a wide range of issues, including the need for more statewide transportation funding, and the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund.

Eken would like to see the Legislature assert itself over the Outdoors Heritage Council at times —putting the fund  to use against aquatic invasives, for example, and not so heavily tilted towards hunting habitat preservation.

“The council does not control the money — they make recommendations to the Legislature,” Eken said. “We can change them, and should, if we don’t agree with them.”

On the issue of legalizing medical marijuana, Eken supports it — if it’s strictly controlled. Marquart opposes it.

The higher state minimum wage will benefit 350,000 Minnesotans, over 200,000 of them women — nearly a quarter of whom are the sole providers for their families, Marquart said.

That money will have an outsized economic impact on the state because it’s likely to be spent, not squirreled away, he added.

And it will help take some pressure off federal and state anti-poverty programs.

“With the current minimum wage, with one kid at home, you’re at the poverty level,” he said.

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