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Marquart, Eken: Of gay marriage, taxes, min. wage

Kent Eken, left, and Paul Marquart talk issues at a town hall forum in DL. Nathan Bowe/Tribune

With Democrats in control of the Minnesota Legislature and governor’s chair, talking budget and taxes was almost a pleasure for Rep. Paul Marquart and Sen. Kent Eken, both DFLers.

After all, not too long ago they were in the minority in a Republican-controlled Legislature, trying to fend off constitutional initiatives on gay marriage and absentee voting — and watching established programs like the Homestead Tax Credit come to an inglorious end.

Now, for the first time in 20 years, Democrats don’t have to contend with a governor from another party or opponents controlling the House or Senate.

The DFL has seized on the chance to balance the budget without short-term fixes like borrowing from school districts or spending tobacco lawsuit settlement money designed to keep kids from smoking.

Marquart and Eken met with 40-50 adults and high school students in a town hall forum held at Detroit Lakes High School Monday morning.

Marquart, a teacher in Dilworth, laid it out in simple terms: The state faces a projected $600 million deficit.

And it owes school districts about $800 million, essentially borrowed to balance the state budget.

“We also want to invest in education, infrastructure, health and human services and property tax reform — and that costs money,” he said. “Even though Minnesota is a cold-weather state, we do very, very well because of the investments we put in.”

Democrats are likely to tap the well-off to get that money.

Dayton’s plan will generate about $1.2 billion through a 2 percent hike in the state income tax on those who earn over $250,000 a year.

Income taxes will not be raised on those below that level.

Dayton is looking at another $400 million from smokers by raising taxes on tobacco products.

And he will go after about $200 million in corporate taxes currently being shielded overseas via a tax loophole.

That’s about $1.8 billion in new tax revenue, and the preliminary budget also includes a $150,000 a year cut in the health and human services budget  — something that Eken says unfairly targets the elderly and disabled.

Asked by a man in the audience if they expected that proposed budget to pass, specifically the new “fourth tier” income tax on top earners, Marquart said yes.

“The governor has a lot of clout,” he said.

Dayton earlier dropped his proposal to expand the state sales tax and lower the rate. There was too much opposition to his plan to tax business services.

There are currently no plans to change the state sales tax, Marquart said.

Revenue from the new sales tax would have paid for lower corporate taxes and for a $500-per-household property tax refund. Those proposals have now also been dropped.

The two were asked by a student if the Legislature intends to raise the minimum wage. Eken said there are legislative proposals to set the state minimum wage at anywhere between $7 and $10 an hour.

Marquart said the state minimum wage is now at $6.50 an hour, less for smaller businesses. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.

“We have to balance the competitiveness of business — especially in the border areas — with the purchasing power of employees,” Marquart said. “I think $10 is too rich, just for competition’s sake.”

“I do believe there will be a minimum wage increase,” Eken said. “The only question is (how much) it will be.”

Asked by a student about the high cost of college tuition, Eken noted that Dayton has included $80 million in his budget for MNSCU colleges, which include the Detroit Lakes campus.

Funding for higher education in Minnesota used to come a third from tuition and two-thirds from the state. Now it’s two-thirds from students and a third from the state, Eken said.

“We have to get back to the state investing in higher education,” Eken said. “There’s been a great dis-investment, which is why you see tuition going through the roof.”

Asked whether there will be a move to put seasonal property owners and agricultural land back on the tax rolls for school district operating referendums, Marquart said it’s not likely, because the move would cost the state $40 million in lost state property taxes and no credible funding fix has been proposed.

Marquart and Eken both say they haven’t decided how they’ll vote on legalizing gay marriage. Both say budget bills should be handled first. Both opposed last year’s effort to outlaw gay marriage in the state constitution. Eken said he supports civil unions.

They were lobbied by both sides Monday.

Tom Frank of Detroit Lakes said he was glad the budget is their top priority.

The U.S. Supreme Court is going to review the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which outlaws gay marriage, and if it is struck down “it’s kind of a can of worms,” he said. Mormons, for instance, may “try to get polygamy back if the Defense of Marriage Act goes down,” he said. “If Minnesota does allow same sex marriage, the children of those unions are going to be shortchanged (compared to) the way I grew up,” he added.

Mary Ann Burnside, who said she was 81 and first voted for Eisenhower, did not agree. “I’m here to support the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) community,” she said. “This is civil rights. I don’t understand why we’re still fighting civil rights — to me this is a no-brainer.”

Larry Swenson said the ban on gay marriage has caused “so many inequities in Minnesota — terrible things have happened to people.” Gay couples have no rights in the legal system and no say over their partners’ medical decisions when they are incapacitated or their estates when they die — even legal wills are overridden or ignored by family members, he said.

Marquart also said he’s not sure how he’ll vote on a bill that would unionize daycare providers who accept state subsidies.

Terrie Boyd, a member of the Detroit Lakes School Board, said she was taking off her school board hat and speaking as a daycare provider.

Under the bill, she said, “I would be considered unionized childcare and have to pay union dues or ‘fair share’ fees.” Providers will have to raise rates or quit accepting kids in the subsidized daycare program, she said.

“I think a lot of rural daycare providers think this is kind of a metro thing being pushed on them out here,” Marquart said.

“Those pushing for it see it as a way to increase public funding for daycare in our state,” Eken added.

Mary Jacobson of Lake Park, who said she was 85 years old, urged the two to support efforts to make it easier to vote, including early voting. There shouldn’t be any great opposition, she said, telling Eken and Marquart “You kids just get it done.”