WASHINGTON — It was Minnesota Day at the White House this week, drawing about 50 public officials, labor leaders and nonprofit executives from the state to thank the Biden administration for funneling federal dollars to their priorities, and in many cases, asking for more.
President Biden initiated the fly-ins last year. But many states have to share their special day under the “Communities in Action” program with other states. Minnesota’s response to visit the White House as so enthusiastic, it got its own day.
“I don’t know how many of these we have done. Maybe 20?” Mitch Landrieu told the DFLers who support Biden’s policies who were assembled in a cavernous room in the Executive Office Building next to the president’s residence.
Landrieu, a former mayor of New Orleans and a former Louisiana lieutenant governor, was tapped by Biden to be the transportation czar and oversee the implementation of a massive infrastructure bill the president counts among his top accomplishments.
Landrieu touted the billions in new federal dollars for roads and bridges Minnesota will receive under the legislation, as well as some of the other new programs funded by the bill, including high-speed internet for rural areas, an initiative that will be administered by the state.
“You all should be keyed into that (state) plan,” he told local officials in the audience. “You can also apply directly.”
There were plenty of other Biden administration officials who addressed the audience, and some took questions. They included perhaps the highest-ranking Minnesotan in that administration, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough, who apologized for having met with Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin right before the event. McDonough also made somewhat disparaging comments about “cheeseheads.”
McDonough touted administration efforts to tackle veteran homelessness and urged members of the audience to contact him – giving out his email and phone number – “if there are any problems” he could help with.
Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, gave a shout out to Becky Rom, who heads the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters.
Meanwhile during a question and answer session, Wayzata Mayor Johanna Mouton said she believed her father got teary eyed when she texted him a photo of herself under a White House seal.
Mouton thanked the administration – perhaps a little tepidly – for the money Wayzata received from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill promoted by Biden.
“We received less than we expected, but the $500,000 did save jobs,” Mouton said.
She also said “we look forward to applying for more” federal money to complete a lakeside boardwalk and for other projects.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey apologized for arriving at the event a little late, a consequence, he said of “being stuck in the security line.”
Like others, he thanked the Biden administration for its funding of local projects, including millions of dollars for low-income housing and public safety efforts.
“This administration has put out more money than any administration in my entire life,” said the 41-year-old Frey. “I can’t tell you how appreciative we are.”
The mayor said the pandemic and the unrest provoked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police resulted in a loss to the city of more than $200 million in revenue in 2020. Frey said he received a call from Biden in the spring of that year, when Minneapolis was at “rock bottom.”
The president asked Frey what he needed for the city and promised “we will deliver,” the mayor said.
Margaret Emery of Protect Minnesota, a group that fights gun violence, told MinnPost that she was grateful for the money a Biden-backed bill approved by Congress last year that provides $250 million in funding for community-based violence prevention initiatives.
“Obviously, there needs to be a bigger investment,” said Emery, who is hoping for an additional $1 billion for violence prevention programs.
Meanwhile, Amy Hewitt, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, told MinnPost she accepted the White House’s invitation because “it’s really important to give our federal officials concrete examples of how federal legislation affects peoples’ lives.”
As they departed the White House grounds, the group of Minnesota visitors were gifted with a small bag of Hershey kisses embossed with the presidential seal and urged to tell their stories about the impact of Biden policies to the media and others.
House GOP restricts earmarks
House Republicans this week opened a new front in their battles with Democrats by restricting the types of community projects – commonly known as earmarks – that can be secured in the 2024 federal budget.
The new head of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, has cut the amount of money the federal government can spend on the local projects. The cap on the total amount of money spent on earmarks would be cut from 1 percent to half a percent of the discretionary spending in the federal budget.
Granger’s new rules ban funding for memorials, museums, and commemoratives, as well as a requirement for members to provide “a written statement describing the federal nexus for each Community Project Funding request.”
In addition, the rules bar members from requesting earmark dollars in annual bills crafted by appropriations subcommittees for the departments of Defense, Labor, Education, Health and Human Services and other agencies that fund health and social programs.
Since they were reinstituted after a 10-year ban in 2021, Republican lawmakers’ request for funding of local projects lean heavily toward infrastructure projects, which would have no restrictions under Granger’s rules. Those of Democrats, however, are more varied and usually include money for health and education programs.
The new restrictions provoked a backlash from many Democrats, including Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th District, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
“The projects funded within these (appropriations) bills have a significant impact on the communities they serve,” McColllum said in a statement. “Now, by excluding these subcommittees, at least six of the 15 Community Projects successfully funded last year for Minnesota’s Fourth District would not be eligible under the new guidelines — including projects boosting workforce development, supporting opportunities for our youth, revitalizing small businesses, and funding specialty health care services for children with complex medical needs, among others.”
However, the Senate’s new earmark guidelines allow for a continuation of the current 1 percent cap on overall earmarked funds, so the final number for home-state projects could remain unchanged.
A House GOP effort to totally ban earmarks derailed because it could not attract enough support among Republican lawmakers.
Stauber, Ocasio-Cortez differ – courteously – over mining bill
Committee hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives have reached a new level of partisanship, including one held this week by Rep. Pete Stauber, R-8th District, as the new chairman of the House Natural Resources Natural Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.
The top ranking Democrat on that panel is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a progressive who is known to draw fire from Republican colleagues and give it right back.
But Ocasio-Cortez and Stauber could win medals for civility and cooperation during a hearing on Stauber’s “Permitting for Mining Needs Act of 2023,” a bill aimed at speeding up the permitting process.’
“While our policy differences may be very stark at times, I think conducting this committee hearing in a professional and courteous manner is what the American people deserve,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
That being said, Ocasio-Cortez led Democratic objections to Stauber’s bill.
She sharply criticized Stauber’s bill, saying it “would loosen our mining regulations for the most toxic industry in America” and allow mining companies to stake claim to public lands “without even having to prove that the earth below contains valuable minerals.”
Ocasio-Cortez also said Stauber’s bill would “limit environmental reviews” of new mining projects and “attack tribal communities” by “fast-tracking” tribal consultation processes.
Stauber, however, said it is imperative for the United States to produce more of the minerals the nation needs and that streamlining the permitting process is crucial to the nation’s economic development and national security.
“If the COVID pandemic has shown us one thing it’s that we must be self-reliant on our supply chain,” he said.
He also said U.S. mining companies have the technology and knowhow to make mining environmentally safe and that critical metals, such as copper for wind turbines, are needed to speed the production of clean energy.
Despite the differences over the permitting bill, Stauber and Ocasio-Cortez ended the hearing as politely as they started it.
Stauber thanked the New York Democrat for allowing a second round of questioning of witnesses, most of whom supported Stauber’s bill and another bill considered at the hearing that would aid oil producers.
“I really appreciate that when I was out of the room it was your decision to do so,” Stauber said.
Ocasio-Cortez nodded and beamed with gratitude in response.