As curious as it may seem, legislative Republicans are on defense. Even with majorities in both the House and Senate, a well-defined and disciplined agenda and public relations that go toe-to-toe with the bully pulpit of the governor’s office, Republicans are paying attention to the land mines buried on the paths back to their legislative districts.
Case in point: the Republican Rural Caucus that meets every Tuesday to hear from experts about public policy viewed through the lens of agriculture and small-town economies.
State Sen. Doug Magnus of Slayton acknowledges the pressure, if not pain, districts like his will experience, particularly from the budget cuts in local government aid and human services.
“With aging population and population declines, can we support the traditional health care industry?” he wonders. “And in my area, the southwest sector, nursing homes are keys to us because people want to come back and spend their final days.”
The policy sessions will touch on demographics, energy, business and health care. “I’m telling the members to keep this stuff in the file and look at it as you hear the discussion in the session,” Magnus said. “This will help you make some decisions down the road.”
The sessions also give rural Republican members a fighting chance for fair representation in the budget process. Dave Senjem, assistant majority leader who represents the Rochester area, uses school funding as an example. He notes that per pupil funding can be $2,000 to $3,000 less in rural Minnesota than in urban areas, often to compensate for diversity.
“But these formulas do not reflect the evening out of diversity,” he said. “Just look at Willmar, Worthington, Albert Lea. Times have changed since these formulas have been put into place. It’s worth looking at these changes.”
Dust-up over teacher pay
Changes in K-12 education always provoke strong response. State Rep. Keith Downey had one such dust-up in his legislative district in Edina, which prides itself on support of its K-12 school system. Downey was forced to respond to a district-wide email that he intended to introduce a bill to freeze teachers’ salaries. (That bill was introduced in the Senate by Dave Thompson of Lakeville.)
Downey, viewed as one of the keener minds on reform legislation, has authored several bills to modify controls on K-12 education, including one that prompted the email alert. The bill would prohibit teachers from striking over contract negotiations if the school board has offered a contract increase equal to the percentage increase in state funding to the school district.
“It was misrepresented as offering a teacher-pay freeze,” he said. “This just goes to show the communication problems.”
Downey responded with his own email in which he commented “how difficult it can be to pass fiscally sound legislation.”
Downey is aware of the major disagreements that loom as the session progresses and anticipates that “the governor and Democrats [will] portray what’s going on as cuts only,” he said.
So Downey, Magnus and other Republicans are arming themselves. “We are doing as a good a job as we possibly can to put the facts and true stories behind our bills,” Downey said.
Magnus said when he hears from voters who believe the solutions lie in tax increases, he tells them: “We’d be OK now, but what do we do in two or four years? There has to be a lot of reform. We just cannot sustain this level of spending.”
Downey calls it all “the pre-budget release messaging battle,” referring to the governor’s budget, which will be released Feb. 15.
Magnus, for one, is confident. “With that knowledge, we can sit down and have a discussion,” he said.
Downey agrees. “We honestly believe if people understand that, we will win.”