More than 100 people packed the Forest Conference Center at Ecumen Detroit Lakes on Monday night for a Legislative Town Hall hosted by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
State Rep. Paul Marquart and Senators Kent Eken and Paul Utke spoke for a little over two hours on topics ranging from aquatic invasive species to private school vouchers. Rep. Steve Green, who was originally slated to attend the forum, bowed out late Monday afternoon, citing illness.
Despite the fact that Utke, a Republican from Park Rapids, and his Democratic colleagues Eken and Marquart - from Twin Valley and Dilworth, respectively - differed sharply on a few issues, they did agree that the Legislature still has a lot of work ahead before the session ends in May.
"Before we started the Easter recess the Senate and the House both finished all of our committee bills," said Utke. "So after the recess time, that's our project now. The conference committees are going to start to merge both versions of the bills together... it's been a real busy session so far."
"It's a critically important time during the session," Eken added. "As Sen. Utke said, the conference committees are going to start kicking up now. All the budget bills have been passed by the Senate and the House, but there's differences between them that need to be worked out before they move on to the governor - and it's a two-year budget year, so we're setting the budget for the next two years. It's going to be a 45-46 billion dollar budget that we're dealing with, so it's really important that we're hearing your input at this critical time, so we're making the best decisions possible for the next two years.
"There's going to be a couple of major bills that didn't get done last year that I'm hopeful we're going to get done this year - a tax relief bill, and also a bonding bill," he added. "There's a lot of projects in that bonding bill for our area, including the the wastewater treatment upgrade here in Detroit Lakes."
"There are three main goals for me this year," said Marquart. "One of them is that agricultural bond credit passed and right now the good news is it's 40-50 percent in every bill, and the governor's proposal. Number two is to get a bonding bill done this year - we've got the $36 million Detroit Lakes wastewater treatment plant, we've got the Heartland Trail, we've got just a number of big projects that we need to get done.
"And then always, to make sure that two other areas, education - we've got some good proposals out there right now - and still fighting to make sure we can get some dollars for the health care home workers."
All three legislators talked about how the $1.4 billion state budget surplus is really a "phantom surplus," especially in light of potential federal budget cuts that will put a bigger burden on individual states to fund environmental, social services and arts programs, to name a few.
"We expect some large cuts from the federal end of things, which is one of the reasons we have such a conservative, cautious budget," Utke noted.
"We're bracing ourselves, we're preparing ourselves for possible cuts that we might see coming down the pike," Eken said. "It is going to create some real challenges for us here at the state level... We're having trouble just holding things steady, let alone filling in gaps that are coming from cuts at the federal level."
"It could have huge impacts," Marquart said, noting that while "we're looking at that closely, we really haven't put any contingency plans into action (yet)."
Some of the questions asked by audience members during the meeting dealt with aquatic invasive species prevention, transportation and how to address the statewide teacher shortage. A link to the YouTube video of the full Town Hall Meeting has been posted to the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters' Facebook page.