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Clean lakes, broadband, opioid crisis come up at town hall meeting

From left, Steve Lindow of Ponsford and Darren Leno of rural Audubon met with Rep. Steve Green and Sen. Paul Utke at a town hall meeting Thursday evening in Lake Park. Nathan Bowe/Tribune1 / 2
Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, left, and Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids held a town hall meeting Thursday in Lake Park. Nathan Bowe/Tribune2 / 2

Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, and Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, held a town hall meeting Thursday in Lake Park to give people a chance to talk about the details of the recently concluded 2018 session.

Although there were some bright spots in the session, like a bipartisan plan to fix the state's pension system, the lawmakers were disappointed that Dayton vetoed a tax reconciliation bill and an omnibus spending bill. "There was a lot of good stuff in the bills that got scrapped," Green said.

Darren Leno, a technology entrepreneur who lives on Little Cormorant Lake, brought up several concerns, including preserving the lakes.

Green noted that $10 million to fight aquatic invasive species did make it through the process.

"It's popular — nobody is going to touch that," he said.

Leno also brought up the need for more broadband funding by the state.

"The Internet I work with is just barely enough to operate my business; I'm moving gigabyte files. It's all built on the foundation of a strong Internet," he said.

Broadband Internet services delivered to rural homes and businesses by fiber optic cable is a huge economic development issue in Minnesota, Leno said, and it should be treated with the importance that rural electrification received early in the last century.

He pays $10 to $15 a gigabit when he goes over his Internet provider's plan. "When you're using a terabyte a month, that gets to be expensive," he said.

Utke agreed that "putting cable in the ground is the best we can do," to bring reliable, affordable Internet to rural Minnesota.

The Legislature had provided $15 million towards that effort in a bill that ended up vetoed by Gov. Dayton, he said. That was on top of $35 million provided by the Legislature last year, Green added.

Leno also asked the lawmakers to address net neutrality at the state level, by making Internet providers answerable to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. He said he was disappointed that Republicans reversed course on net neutrality at the federal level, allowing Internet providers to slow service for Netflix, for example, or any content producer that doesn't pay a higher fee.

Neither lawmaker showed any inclination to handle net neutrality at the state level, saying that the federal changes merely reverted the rules to where they were in 2015.

That's when the problems began with providers slowing down services, and that's why the FCC acted to regulate internet providers like utilities in 2015, Leno said.

Green noted that CenturyLink provides "some of the poorest coverage," while local providers like Arvig and Garden Valley Telephone Co. do a great job.

"It would be great if I could get it, yeah," Leno said.

Leno also asked the lawmakers to do more to help stem the opioid epidemic in rural Minnesota. A friend of his lost a son to an overdose, he said. "We really need help, because things are not getting better on their own," Leno said.

Again, anti-opioid funding was included in the omnibus bill vetoed by Dayton. The Senate had included $10 million and the House $9 million, the lawmakers said.

Utke noted that he was one of six senators to vote against the so-called penny tax on opioid manufacturers, sponsored by a member of his own party, because it amounted to more than a penny a pill, and he believed the cost would have been passed down to users. It would have raised about $10 million for treatment and prevention programs.

But there are improvements the state can make to thwart addicts who "doctor shop" for multiple prescriptions, while at the same time protecting patients who legitimately need pain medicine, he said.

"It's important to put money out for treatment and rehab right now, then work on other things," Leno said.

Green noted that a good share of opioids are "coming across the border illegally," from drug cartels south of the border.

Steve Lindow of Ponsford questioned the use of only using general fund money for anti-opioid programs, and said the Legislature should have combined general fund dollars and the "penny-a-pill" tax.

Lindow and Green sparred at length after Green said he would like to see the Legislature make the rules instead of state agencies.

It's a matter of checks and balances and accountability, he said. Lindow said that technical rules should be made by scientists and that the Legislature would politicize the rule-making process to the detriment of the environment.

Green said the rule-making process is already politicized, and told Lindow he'd probably feel differently if a Republican was the governor and his appointed department heads were making the rules.

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