By Gabby Landsverk, Staff Writer
Education, nursing homes and rural business growth were among priorities for local legislators in the most recent session, according to Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, and Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls,
About 30 people showed up to hear Gazelka and Kresha summarize the most recent legislative special session, address important current events and field questions from local residents.
Among the accomplishments at the Capitol was a 2 percent funding increase for the next two years, Kresha said, and a total of more than $1 billion more in the budget for education.
In addition, a large portion of funding was allocated to long-term care facilities.
“We’ve got an aging population that paid a substantial amount of taxes and have paid their dues as citizens. Now they’re going into the later stages of their lives and we’ve got to make sure we’re there for them,” Kresha said.
Scott Allen of the Little Falls Care Center spoke at the meeting to thank Kresha and Gazelka for their work.
Gazelka said the Senate had worked to make funding rates consistent for nursing homes across the state to reduce disparities between rural and metro facilities.
“It was a huge win for rural nursing homes,” Gazelka said.
Other legislation passed by the Senate included allowing gun owners to purchase a suppressor, which reduces gun noise but is not the same as a silencer, and “easing up” on environmental regulations Gazelka said were prohibiting the growth of industries, particularly the mining industry.
“We had to help them. I know some environmentalists thought that was not the right approach, but I really do believe we’re trying to find the balance of environment and job growth and I think we hit that,” Gazelka said.
He added that the updates from the Capitol also include what was not accomplished.
“It’s also important to say what we did not do,” Gazelka said.
Among these were included the gas tax increase and universal pre-kindergarten and agricultural buffer regulations, which the legislators opposed due to lack of popular support.
“Those, I think, are some wins,” Gazelka said.
He added that other items that weren’t addressed would be prioritized in the next session, such as transportation funding for roads and bridges and tax reductions.
Kresha hopes the next session will see more progress on his work to attract broadband providers to rural areas.
“I didn’t get as far as I’d like on broadband,” Kresha said.
Among the comments expressed by local residents were concerns about undocumented immigrants obtaining driver’s licenses as well as refugee resettlement, and how that might create tension in the local community.
“Refugee resettlement is a tough issue,” Kresha said. “It creates real problems for communities that wrestle with that.”
Kresha acknowledged the concerns, but said going through the Capitol was likely not the best solution to the problem.
“I’m not going to pass legislation to keep a subset of the population from coming into communities. It’s not going to happen,” he said. “I don’t believe the solution is just to say ‘go away’ … there needs to be a path to citizenship to make them a part of the community. Too often we’re lumping everyone into the same category. We need to be more understanding and find solutions instead of just beating people down. … These are good people.”
Gazelka addressed questions about recent major events, including the Supreme court’s decision to legalize gay marriage nationwide.
“This is without a doubt a collision course of two cultural ideas way opposed to each other,” Gazelka said.
At the end of the regular session, Gazelka had introduced a bill known as the Freedom of Conscience Bill to allow vendors to refuse services to gay and lesbian weddings due to religious or other objections.
“The government is punishing people for their beliefs,” Gazelka said. “My legislation is trying to find a place to allow both sides to live as they please.”
Gazelka referenced a lawsuit from 2009 in Morrison County in which a local business was sued for refusing to provide services for a gay wedding. The business was ordered to pay $9,000 for the wedding to be held at another venue.
Gazelka was also asked about the recent debate concerning whether the Confederate flag should be prohibited from being flown at government buildings. While Gazelka said he didn’t have enough experience with the issue to have an opinion, he did commend the peaceful response of the nation’s leaders and the South Carolina community to the recent shooting in Charleston.
“The response to that, choosing to forgive him, that’s amazing grace,” Gazelka said. “There were no riots and protests. That’s a great example of using our faith and following Christ.”
The next legislative session for the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives begins in March 2016.