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Legislators talk education, housing, FEMA and taxes

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake (far left), answers a question during Friday morning’s legislative breakfast at the Travelodge Hotel in Worthington as Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne (from left), moderator Chad Cummings and Rep. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, listen. (Aaron Hagen/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- Talking on topics ranging from taxes to housing to ice storm recovery, the three state legislators from Senate District 22 met Friday morning for an informal discussion on the last session and ongoing needs in the community.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, and Reps. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, and Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, met with a group of nearly 30 people at the Travelodge Hotel for a legislative breakfast, which was sponsored by the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce.

With representatives from Minnesota West Community and Technical College and District 518 in attendance, issues pertaining to education were brought up early.

"The legislature passed education basically the last hour," District 518 school board chair Linden Olson said. "Part of what was in there was the local equity funding and some local referendum funding.

"I was at a meeting where (Director of School Finance for Minnesota Department of Education) Tom Melcher was at to explain to the local boards and superintendents on what the implications were for local schools," Olson explained. "What he said after he explained it all was, 'You better hire an attorney and a bond person to tell you how it's going to affect your local school districts.' My question is, why can't the legislature pass some bills that the local school board members and superintendents can understand?"

"The next question is, why doesn't the legislature pass some bills that the legislators actually understand?" Weber quipped. "The department has to get its act figured out. For those items that are passed, there has to be a very clean understanding from the state, so they can tell local school boards what they need to do."

After a comment on the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System, Hamilton then turned the subject to storm recovery.

"Another question I have is, as far as after the storm, we passed legislation to accelerate LGA to help us out on that as well and got additional dollars to help offset some of that cost," Hamilton said. "It's something we negotiated with the governor's office in the final hours of session. How are we doing?"

"Is the $250,000 we're going to have coming our way truly coming our way?" city council member Scott Nelson asked.

"You're going to have to apply because that's for the area," Hamilton said.

Weber mentioned some of the rural electric companies who may be out $4-5 million worth of damages.

"Everything that you heard about the dysfunctional nature of FEMA, I can attest is very true," Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain said. "The issue is, starting out, FEMA sends their lead person in here that says 'this is how things are going to work.' Then, that person goes to the next disaster because they are just kind of the opening act. The next person that comes in changes the rules and they leave. The third person that comes changes the rules. It became very apparent to me early on that really the only FEMA opinion that matters is the last one you hear."

There is potential for more money coming to southwest Minnesota in relation to the storm.

"When I submitted the bill going after the dollars and talking with communities -- not only Worthington, but others -- I submitted $500,000," Hamilton said. "The governor's office came back and said, 'Well no, the dollar amount they had was like $100,000 or something.' I don't know who was submitting the information into the governor's office. I said it won't even touch it. I'm sitting in my office on my cell phone negotiating this thing.

"Can we get more money? Not if we don't ask," Hamilton continued. "I think collectively, let's figure out where we're short and I'm talking not only here, but in the five counties. Let's figure out where we're short, and we'll submit that."

Another issue discussed was the housing need in Worthington.

"We still have this massive deficit that we have to attack at some point -- we can't grow in the community," JBS Human Resources Director Jenny Andersen-Martinez said. "We have less than four percent unemployment rate. Even if we could get student housing -- really anything we can get to increase the housing stock."

Schomacker talked about a program the governor had proposed and unveiled in East Grand Forks.

"I grew up in that area -- they've got housing, we don't," District 518 superintendent John Landgaard said. "With 37 new teachers coming in, I get where Jenny is coming from. We get a secret list we pass out and we're fortunate. But we still have folks who have a hard time finding housing."

"It's worse than hard," Minnesota West President Richard Shrubb said. "When Julie and I moved here five years ago, we moved into a place with no bathroom and no kitchen. I stayed in a hotel while the owner put in a bathroom because that was the best we could do."

A proposed dorm at the college could be an answer, according to Shrubb, who asked the politicians to help push that through. Adding those rooms would alleviate some of the pressure on other housing in town.

The final few minutes were dedicated to taxes.

"The state government, in their wisdom, passed over $2.1 billion worth of new taxes to fix a $600-and-some million shortfall," Weber said. "In short, for us in this part of the state, it was probably one of the most damaging tax bills that's been passed in a long time."

He was also critical of the tax on smokers.

"If you ask the state government, why did we approve that, it's to stop smoking," Weber said. "Well, no, it's to increase tax dollars. Quite frankly, if we were successful in stopping every individual from smoking, the state bureaucracy wouldn't quite know what to do with the loss of revenue. It would give a whole new meaning to nicotine withdrawal syndrome."

Schomacker said it could have been worse.

"Even though the Democrats controlled everything, they didn't get everything they wanted," he said. "It could have been much worse. The governor's first proposal was a good highlight of that."

Hamilton, the veteran among the group, said it was a tough year in the legislature.

"You do what you can working from the minority perspective," Hamilton said. "I've always prided myself with working with all sides on the issues up there. It was a different tone this year. Hopefully we can regroup next year. I think the powers at be are hearing from all across the state, and hopefully it will be a different tone next year."