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State legislators visit with constituents in Worthington

WORTHINGTON — The Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee hosted a Legislative Coffee on Saturday morning during which District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, District 22A Rep. Joe Schomacker and District 22B Rep. Rod Hamilton reported on their recent activities, fielded questions and listened to constituent concerns.

One major topic of discussion was the use of Minnesota’s $1.5 billion surplus.

Weber advocated for revisiting bills that were vetoed last year, as well as examining the 3,500 currently under review. He said that between those two actions, the surplus would likely be exhausted.

Schomacker pointed out that having a surplus doesn’t mean that legislators should spend it frivolously. He’s in favor of going through the books carefully and allotting money only where it’s needed.

Hamilton added that education, as well as health and human services, usually account for the bulk of budget spending, so it’s likely the surplus will be spent there, he said.

All agreed that’s too early to tell for sure how the state will use the surplus.

Another primary theme was health care reform.

Schomacker, who serves on the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, acknowledged the complicated nature of health care. He explained that lowering costs is ideal, but also expressed his view that simply making medical care less expensive would hurt hospitals.

Weber agreed with Schomacker that medical professionals might bear the brunt of lower health care costs. He also asserted that government is partially responsible for exorbitant health care expenses because of regulation.

Hamilton saw health care reform a little differently, describing the current system as “legalized theft” and getting visibly emotional while describing a personal encounter with his health insurance provider.

Hamilton lives with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological condition that’s expensive to treat. He described an occasion in which he’d been pre-approved for treatment that would cost $7,500 per month but, after the fact, the health insurance company rescinded its coverage. When Hamilton called to see what could be done, the insurance company learned about Hamilton’s political office and consequently agreed to cover his treatment. Hamilton expressed frustration that he was only able to get his medical treatment covered because of his status. Any average Minnesotan who doesn’t hold an elected office might not receive the same benefit.

“We need complete transparency in the system,” Hamilton said. “Once we have that, we will be able to make the changes each and every one of us needs and deserves.”

Each legislator expressed his opinion about legalizing marijuana. They are all opposed to recreational marijuana but support medical use.

Weber based his “no” vote on evidence that since Colorado legalized recreational marijuana, the state has experienced a surge in other problems, such as traffic violations and DWI charges.

Schomacker cited a conversation he had with a Colorado epidemiologist who explained that it’s estimated that it will  take 20 years to build trustworthy data about the long-term public health effects of legalizing recreational marijuana.

Hamilton explained that he was initially opposed to medical marijuana, but changed his mind after hearing the plight of some of his constituents who battle chronic illness. However, his support comes with the caveat that it be labelled “medical cannabis” rather than “marijuana.”

He is concerned that the term “medical marijuana” sends a conflicting message that might condone the use of recreational drugs. Prescription opioids are chemically similar to heroin, he pointed out, but are not called “medical heroin.” Hamilton wants the language to distinguish prescriptions for a legitimate medical purpose from recreational drug use.

Constituents also had questions about the status and schedule for commissioner confirmation; training and policy changes that might encourage rural emergency volunteer registration; state approval of the local half-cent sales tax; and a possibility of subsidizing technical school training for students who agree to work in-state for a certain amount of time following graduation.

Hamilton, Schomacker and Weber listened to each concern and invited constituents to contact their offices via phone or email with any further input.