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Legislators spar over funds, offices

Area lawmakers disagreed Monday on whether Minnesota should implement universal public education for 4-year-olds any time soon. The controversy follows a proposal by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to spend $348 million of the state's $1.9 billion surplus o...

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Sen. Rod Skoe, right, talks about affordable worker housing during a town hall meeting Monday night with Reps. Steve Green and Paul Marquart and Sen. Kent Eken at Ecumen in Detroit Lakes. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham
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Area lawmakers disagreed Monday on whether Minnesota should implement universal public education for 4-year-olds any time soon. The controversy follows a proposal by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to spend $348 million of the state’s $1.9 billion surplus on universal public education for pre-kindergarten 4-year-olds. Sen. Rod Skoe, a rice farmer from Clearbrook, said he could not imagine the proposal being implemented in public schools anytime soon. He said it is more likely that the state will enhance existing programs for 4-year-olds at preschools, Head Start and daycares. “Don’t think this will be one lump program at your school, because it’s not – they don’t have the resources,” Skoe said. The question, from Leah Pigatti, executive director of Mahube-Otwa Community Action Agency, came at a town hall forum at Ecumen in Detroit Lakes sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters. Mahube-Otwa runs Head Start programs in the area, and Head Start in Minnesota has benefitted from generous funding from the state, she said. “Maybe there’s a way to look at community collaborative efforts in the pre-k bill,” she said. Rep. Steve Green, a Republican from Fosston, said he does not support the governor’s proposal, and that it could hurt the Head Start program by taking away the 4-year-olds. “There’s a real probability of damaging kids that aren’t ready” for five hours of school per day, he said. He believes young children are best educated by their families at home. Rep. Paul Marquart, a DFLer from Dilworth, said there is a place for Head Start even if the state moves ahead with universal public education for 4-year-olds. But in order to close the student achievement gap that has left low-income students and students of color behind, more 4-year-olds need to go to school, he said. It’s an investment, he said: Closing the achievement gap would raise the state’s gross domestic product by about 2 percent, or $5 billion a year. Senate office building In a question to legislators, Becker County Commissioner Ben Grimsley made a pointed comment about the multi-million dollar cost of the new Senate office building. That raised the ire of Skoe. Minnesota senators aren’t looking forward to the June 1 moving date, when they will have to give up their offices and move out of the Capitol building, he said. It was necessary because of a major capitol restoration project, and to provide more room to House members and the governor’s staff, he said. “We will have significantly more room for public spaces and there’ll be handicapped-accessible bathrooms,” he said. “The Senate is moving into a modest building across the street that will house the Senate offices.” “Believe me, senators don’t want to leave the capitol,” added Sen. Kent Eken, a DFLer from Twin Valley. “That’s the place to be. But the capitol was never meant to be offices for us; it’s a place for the people’s business.”
Green criticized the process for approving the Senate Office Building bill. “The funding never went through committees - that wasn’t right,” he said. Skoe angrily criticized “misinformation” about the senate office building bill, telling Green that the bill “was not slipped through in the dead of night.” The bill went through the Senate Tax Committee, which he chairs, and it sat on the floor of the Senate for a month. “If the House is not aware of that, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said. Welfare reform In answer to a question regarding welfare and penalties for working, Eken said he believes that it is “critically important to incentivize work, to make work pay.” Green would like to see the state “take those on public assistance, cut benefits and allow them to work before anything else is cut.” Marquart noted that the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, the state’s welfare reform program for low-income families with children, has been locked at benefits of $500 a month since 1986, although the governor has proposed a $100 a month increase. “No one’s getting rich off this program,” Marquart said. “I don’t think we should stigmatize people just because they’re on MFIP.” Finger-pointing The DFLers criticized Republicans over a bill in the GOP-controlled House that would eliminate state aid for fighting aquatic invasive species. Becker County received about $350,000 for that this year. “I hope you folks are active in your opposition to this,” Skoe said looking in Green’s direction. “Sen. Skoe worked really hard to get that funding for counties,” Marquart added. Green in turn criticized Democrats for not overturning a new law, championed fiercely by Gov. Dayton, requiring sprinkler systems be installed in twin homes and high-end residential construction. “You want more affordable housing? This isn’t the way to do it,” he said. The law is hitting border cities especially hard, Marquart said. “The governor is siding with fire departments on this,” he said. The law passed because Dayton was willing to veto the bonding bill over it, Skoe said. It’s rare to override a governor’s veto, it’s only happened about 20 times in state history, he added. The sprinkler issue is very important, Green said. “I would have let the bonding bill go down for that,” he said. “But I guess others don’t agree with that,” he said with a glance towards the DFLers. Other issues discussed at the forum included a 5 percent raise for nursing home and group home workers. All four lawmakers supported the idea, with Eken saying long-term care facilities shouldn’t be losing workers to higher pay at fast food restaurants, since caring for the elderly is one of the most important jobs of all.  Skoe pointed out that big Republican budget cuts proposed for the Health and Human Services budget would make a 5 percent raise virtually impossible. All four supported pipelines over moving oil by rail, with the DFLers saying the pipeline route must be carefully chosen to minimize environmental risks. Green said that the Sandpiper would replace an older pipeline and so it would improve safety. For all the skirmishing between the House, Senate and governor, Skoe said he sees a path for the Legislature to finish its budget work and adjourn the session in May. Tweets by @DLNewspapersArea lawmakers disagreed Monday on whether Minnesota should implement universal public education for 4-year-olds any time soon.The controversy follows a proposal by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton to spend $348 million of the state’s $1.9 billion surplus on universal public education for pre-kindergarten 4-year-olds.Sen. Rod Skoe, a rice farmer from Clearbrook, said he could not imagine the proposal being implemented in public schools anytime soon. He said it is more likely that the state will enhance existing programs for 4-year-olds at preschools, Head Start and daycares.“Don’t think this will be one lump program at your school, because it’s not – they don’t have the resources,” Skoe said.The question, from Leah Pigatti, executive director of Mahube-Otwa Community Action Agency, came at a town hall forum at Ecumen in Detroit Lakes sponsored by the Detroit Lakes Area League of Women Voters.Mahube-Otwa runs Head Start programs in the area, and Head Start in Minnesota has benefitted from generous funding from the state, she said. “Maybe there’s a way to look at community collaborative efforts in the pre-k bill,” she said.Rep. Steve Green, a Republican from Fosston, said he does not support the governor’s proposal, and that it could hurt the Head Start program by taking away the 4-year-olds.“There’s a real probability of damaging kids that aren’t ready” for five hours of school per day, he said. He believes young children are best educated by their families at home.Rep. Paul Marquart, a DFLer from Dilworth, said there is a place for Head Start even if the state moves ahead with universal public education for 4-year-olds.But in order to close the student achievement gap that has left low-income students and students of color behind, more 4-year-olds need to go to school, he said.It’s an investment, he said: Closing the achievement gap would raise the state’s gross domestic product by about 2 percent, or $5 billion a year.Senate office buildingIn a question to legislators, Becker County Commissioner Ben Grimsley made a pointed comment about the multi-million dollar cost of the new Senate office building. That raised the ire of Skoe.Minnesota senators aren’t looking forward to the June 1 moving date, when they will have to give up their offices and move out of the Capitol building, he said.It was necessary because of a major capitol restoration project, and to provide more room to House members and the governor’s staff, he said. “We will have significantly more room for public spaces and there’ll be handicapped-accessible bathrooms,” he said.“The Senate is moving into a modest building across the street that will house the Senate offices.”“Believe me, senators don’t want to leave the capitol,” added Sen. Kent Eken, a DFLer from Twin Valley. “That’s the place to be. But the capitol was never meant to be offices for us; it’s a place for the people’s business.”
Green criticized the process for approving the Senate Office Building bill. “The funding never went through committees - that wasn’t right,” he said.Skoe angrily criticized “misinformation” about the senate office building bill, telling Green that the bill “was not slipped through in the dead of night.” The bill went through the Senate Tax Committee, which he chairs, and it sat on the floor of the Senate for a month. “If the House is not aware of that, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.Welfare reformIn answer to a question regarding welfare and penalties for working, Eken said he believes that it is “critically important to incentivize work, to make work pay.”Green would like to see the state “take those on public assistance, cut benefits and allow them to work before anything else is cut.”Marquart noted that the Minnesota Family Investment Program, or MFIP, the state’s welfare reform program for low-income families with children, has been locked at benefits of $500 a month since 1986, although the governor has proposed a $100 a month increase.“No one’s getting rich off this program,” Marquart said. “I don’t think we should stigmatize people just because they’re on MFIP.”Finger-pointingThe DFLers criticized Republicans over a bill in the GOP-controlled House that would eliminate state aid for fighting aquatic invasive species. Becker County received about $350,000 for that this year.“I hope you folks are active in your opposition to this,” Skoe said looking in Green’s direction.“Sen. Skoe worked really hard to get that funding for counties,” Marquart added.Green in turn criticized Democrats for not overturning a new law, championed fiercely by Gov. Dayton, requiring sprinkler systems be installed in twin homes and high-end residential construction.“You want more affordable housing? This isn’t the way to do it,” he said.The law is hitting border cities especially hard, Marquart said. “The governor is siding with fire departments on this,” he said.The law passed because Dayton was willing to veto the bonding bill over it, Skoe said.It’s rare to override a governor’s veto, it’s only happened about 20 times in state history, he added.The sprinkler issue is very important, Green said. “I would have let the bonding bill go down for that,” he said. “But I guess others don’t agree with that,” he said with a glance towards the DFLers.Other issues discussed at the forum included a 5 percent raise for nursing home and group home workers.All four lawmakers supported the idea, with Eken saying long-term care facilities shouldn’t be losing workers to higher pay at fast food restaurants, since caring for the elderly is one of the most important jobs of all. Skoe pointed out that big Republican budget cuts proposed for the Health and Human Services budget would make a 5 percent raise virtually impossible.All four supported pipelines over moving oil by rail, with the DFLers saying the pipeline route must be carefully chosen to minimize environmental risks. Green said that the Sandpiper would replace an older pipeline and so it would improve safety.For all the skirmishing between the House, Senate and governor, Skoe said he sees a path for the Legislature to finish its budget work and adjourn the session in May.Tweets by @DLNewspapers

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