ST. PAUL — Members of the Minnesota House of Representatives are set to travel across southern Minnesota this week to tour area businesses, hold listening sessions and weigh policy changes.
Lawmakers will fan out across the southeastern corner of the state visiting the Hormel plant in Austin to see how Spam gets made, touring the Mayo Clinic in Rochester after talking with doctors and patients about prescription drug prices and ending in Winona, where local officials and residents will sit down with legislators to talk about various topics.
They won't be able to take any action on policy proposals as part of the trip, billed as a mini-session, but lawmakers hope the experience will help them gain fresh perspective and drop their partisan labels.
The last time state lawmakers took their show on the road for a mini legislative session was in 1997 to Willmar. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said she hoped to pick up the tradition to connect with people who might not otherwise be able to access the Legislature and get first-hand information from them about how policy and state spending could impact them.
Breaking out of the capital city could also give lawmakers more space to come up with bipartisan solutions, Hortman said.
"It seems like whenever we get on a bus and we get out of St. Paul, suddenly we're not Democrats and Republicans anymore, we're legislators on a road trip. And there's something really positive about that," Hortman said.
Hortman said state Rep. Gene Pelowski, D-Winona, was involved in the last mini session and offered to host this year's meetings in his district. Other members in the region volunteered to hold hearings or listening sessions on health care, education, the court system, environmental issues and taxes.
“The hearings, tours and presentations being held in Winona and the surrounding communities aim to highlight the economic needs of southeastern Minnesota," Pelowski said. "I look forward to sharing our city with my colleagues.”
Others weren't as optimistic about the visits, set to take place in Austin, Caledonia, Harmony, Preston, Rochester, Rushford Village and Winona between Wednesday, Oct. 2 and Friday, Oct. 4. Some lawmakers will also meet with members of the Prairie Island Indian Community on Friday.
“I’m not sure why they're doing it,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said. “We have other processes to build information, committee hearings, etc. It sounds expensive, but it’s the House’s prerogative to do whatever they want to do. We’re focused on paying attention to getting the Senate ready for our next session.”
Hortman defended the funds needed to transport lawmakers and house them in Winona, saying the trip would provide invaluable information. A committee trip to the Mille Lacs Lake area earlier this year helped legislators better understand the impact opioid addiction and overdose deaths were having in Native American communities.
"Does it cost some money to get all our committee members on the bus to go up to Mille Lacs? Yes. But does it add something being in the community with people who know and were directly impacted?" Hortman said. "You can't really put a price on the value of that."
Lawmakers are set to return to St. Paul for the 2020 legislative session on Feb. 11. Prior to that, legislative leaders have said they hope to strike a compromise on legislation that would provide low-income individuals with access to free insulin in urgent and emergent situations.