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Legislative breakfast hosts fired-up lawmakers, public

Greg Raymo (from left) talks with Rep. Rod Hamilton, Sen. Bill Weber and Rep. Joe Schomacker at the beginning of Saturday morning's legislative breakfast at the fire hall in Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- A robust audience of about 45 constituents greeted three area legislators bright and early Saturday morning in the meeting/training room of Worthington's new Second Avenue fire station.

Fresh from their first three weeks of the 2013 Minnesota legislative session, the trio of Republicans -- District 22 Senator Bill Weber, District 22B Representative Rod Hamilton and District 22A Representative Joe Schomacker -- shared their thoughts on current actions and issues in the state while also fielding questions and concerns from the attendees.

"I was sworn in on Jan. 8 and sworn at on Jan. 9," joked Weber, who just began his first term as senator.

Weber is assigned to four senate committees: E-12 Education Finance; Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development; Environment and Energy; and Economic Development and Agriculture Division Finance.

"I'm in my second term in the state House, and have now risen to assistant minority leader in my caucus," said Schomacker in his introductory remarks. "It's an honor to get that respect from my caucus, and I can tell you from my internal interactions with the Republicans, there are disagreements within the party.

"It's not always as friendly as you would think," he revealed. "No one is in lock-step up there."

But Hamilton and Schomacker, at least, appear to be working in concert to provide the best possible representation for greater Minnesota, including Worthington, Luverne and the surrounding area.

"I want to be a strong voice for greater Minnesota within the caucus," assured Schomacker.

Hamilton concurred, saying, "We in rural Minnesota used to go along to get along, gosh shucks, but my friend, [former Democratic] Senator Jim Vickerman, advised me to hold my ground but still be approachable.

"When 29 of the 22 committee chairs are from the metro area, and after you consider Rochester and Duluth, only four chairs are from greater Minnesota, we have to make our points and advocate strongly for this area."

Hamilton mentioned he and Schomacker try to cover as many areas between them as possible, citing their representation on Health and Human Services Finance and Policy and Housing Finance and Policy committees (Schomacker) and Agriculture Policy, Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance and Transportation Finance committees (Hamilton).

"I want to make sure they finish these road projects," said Hamilton of his Transportation Finance committee presence.

District 518 Superintendent John Landgaard was the first to express a concern Saturday, questioning the new state directive for public school principal and teacher evaluations.

"It was approved in its entirety, with an estimated cost of $83-83 million, and no funding provided for implementation," said a dismayed Landgaard. "The legislature calls for approval of the evaluation procedure by the teachers' association, and without that approval, it falls to the state default model.

"There are flaws in that, including that the teachers' associations have the right to approve who the evaluators are," he continued. "When you have a ream of paper that tells us how we have to evaluate our teachers, that is wrong. Nowhere in the business world is that done."

Landgaard said he will need to hire up to three additional people to complete the evaluation process as dictated, because each evaluation could take 10 hours of time to complete.

"How can we fund this?" he posed. "And how do we resolve the issue of taking away managerial control from each district?"

Hamilton responded, "This is an example of great intentions with unintended consequences."

Landgaard shot back, "The elephant in the room is teacher tenure. Nobody will talk about that. Teacher tenure protects the poor teachers, and schools that are already not doing the job aren't willing to do the work it takes to get rid of the poor teachers."

That process, Landgaard said, typically takes up to two years and can involve more than $200,000 in staff time and attorney fees.

"There is a problem with imposing things on school districts without providing the funding," agreed Weber.

Moderator Mike Peil introduced other questions, including one on the lack of tax-exempt status for ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response) costs, thoughts about the extreme disparity between metropolitan and rural appropriations, health care costs, LGA (Local Government Aid) payments and Gov. Mark Dayton's budget that was released last Tuesday.

"We want fair and equitable funding," confirmed Hamilton. "It's not about Republicans versus Democrats, but about rural versus metro. Some legislators came out here to discuss issues with us some time back, and they ran out of gas because they didn't realize the distance between towns here.

"We have many of the same issues they have in the metro, but the more we can get them out here to see us and understand that better, the better off we'll be."

Schomacker attempted to explain some of the ongoing discussions at the Capitol regarding health care exchanges, saying he had sat in on a four-and-a-half hour hearing on the topic earlier in the week.

"I'm concerned that insurance agents are not just being squeezed out of the process but are being squeezed out," Weber said. "If I had the choice to get rid of Obamacare, I would do it."

Hamilton suggested that education and prevention were key elements to keeping health care costs down in the long run, and directly addressed the question of nursing home costs, rate increases and reimbursements.

"It's an absolute shame what individuals in our neck of the woods receive for caring for people who have difficulty caring for themselves," Hamilton said. "I was vocal on that in the last session, on the increased funding disparities, and it must be addressed -- it's a shame.

"In Jackson, some nursing home employees told me they could make more working on a hog farm than caring for elderly or disabled people, and while agriculture is noble work, this needs to be addressed."

Seven employees of Worthington nursing homes sat together in the front row, wearing bright yellow T-shirts in solidarity of their position.

One of them was Cindy Handy, a dietary supervisor-in-training at Crossroads Care Center, who after the meeting adjourned, said she made the effort to be present that morning because she feels both nursing home employees and residents are ignored.

"Nursing home residents deserve quality care, and everyone's job is important," said Handy, who previously worked for 17 years serving disabled children. "We need better financing for nursing homes. We have good ideas for activities, but don't have the money to do things, and the residents need to be well cared for.

"When it's your own family, you might feel different about it. We see good people leaving for better job opportunities and higher pay all the time."

Added co-worker Amanda Versluis, "Nursing homes have the highest employee turnover rate of almost any industry. The money isn't there, so people leave for jobs that pay better."

And did the legislators hear Handy and Versluis's concerns?

"I think they're starting to listen, and starting to hear our voices," she nodded. "That's why we came this morning."

As did a local dentist, community college president and banker, all of whom came forward with questions for the legislators, who interacted with constituents until they had to depart for a 10:30 a.m. meeting in Slayton.

Teased Minnesota West Community and Technical College President Dr. Richard Shrubb, "Unlike those from the metro area, we know how long it really takes to get to Slayton."