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Davids: We did some good things for rural Minnesota

Fri, Jul 11th, 2003
Posted in Features

Greg Davids

Journal Editor John Torgrimson sat down with Representative Greg Davids of Preston this week to look back at the recently concluded 2003 Minnesota legislative session. Here is a summary of Torgrimsons interview with Representative Davids:

Journal: Back in December, when we talked about the upcoming 2003 legislative session, you were quoted in the Journal as saying this is going to be the meanest, ugliest, roughest, rottenest session ever in the history of Minnesota state politics. The challenge was to deal with a $4.2 billion deficit. Was it the meanest, roughest, rottenest session?

Davids: Yes, my words were prophetic. This is my 7th term, 13th year, and I called it just exactly the way it turned out to be. And the reason it turned out that way is that we didnt have all the cards on the table. Normally when you go into a deficit situation you are looking at possibly making cuts in spending and raising revenue. And the revenue raising part was taken off the table. Which made it all that more difficult. With what we had to work with I think we came out as good as we possibly could have, because we didnt cut the classroom; we didnt cut the per student formula, in fact it was increased slightly, which is no consolation to schools with declining enrollments because they are going to lose money regardless. We held nursing homes harmless; we werent able to pump new dollars into nursing homes, but we didnt cut nursing homes. The one area that I was most disappointed in was the cuts to local governments, because in my mind if we cut local government we are in effect increasing taxes. I told several city leaders that if they get cut and have to raise taxes then they should blame the legislature.

Journal: Because of Palwntys no-new-taxes pledge you had to find revenue elsewhere, such as through surcharges and user fees. Taxes versus fees, isnt that really using smoke and mirrors when it gets down to it.

Davids: I didnt sign any no-new-tax pledges, and if there

would have been a reasonable compromise I could have supported it. But you play the cards youre dealt with.

There was a great debate on whats a fee and whats a tax. And while even the opposition party can say we didnt raise taxes, they can say, and rightly so, Whats a fee?

Well, the difference is a fee goes to someone who uses that item, while a tax is a general overall collection of revenue. So, while we didnt raise taxes we did raise fees, and whether it comes out of your right pocket or your left pocket, it still comes out of your pocket.

Journal: State Senator Dean Johnson used that argument with the Transportation Bill. He preferred using the Gas Tax increase rather than bonding to pay for transportation. His argument was that the Gas Tax is essentially a user fee.

Davids: That was another great debate. A gas tax, which could be called a gas fee or road user fee, because you only paid if you use it.

I supported bringing more transportation money out to rural Minnesota for roads and bridges. And with interest rates so low it (bonding) was quite an efficient way to raise revenue for roads.

Journal: What happens if the economy doesnt rebound and we have to go through this with the budget all over again?

Davids: The budget is set up and we hope that this is the low point, that we have hit bottom. The market fell from over 11,000 to 7,500; the state projected income of $9 billion through capital gains, we got $5 billion. Theres your $4 billion deficit.

So, if the stock market, which is starting to go up, and employment goes up, people will start spending money again and the economy will recover.

Back in December my three priorities were to protect K-12 education, nursing homes and local government aid. Two of them we held harmless. The third, local government needs, they took a hit. The hit wasnt nearly as bad as the governor proposed.

I voted for the Dorman Amendment that would have pumped more money into local government aids. I voted for that, it failed. The attempts were there so that our small rural cities didnt get hit.

Journal: With redistricting, there was a real fear that the legislature would be divided between cities and rural versus suburban. Did that pan out? Were the winners in this legislative session suburban cities, with their property taxes and growing school districts?

Davids: Back in December I talked about this. Again, looking into the future I am calling it the way it is. I said one of the biggest problems we faced was losing five seats in rural Minnesota to the suburbs.

These issues have nothing to do with party. Because when it comes to supporting nursing homes or your schools or your local government aid, those issues go more rural vs. metro. How is it going to effect the suburbs; how is it going to effect the cities; how is it going to effect outstate. And you have Republicans and Democrats voting together all of the time. It is more geographic than party.

A case in point. We were on the floor late one night and it had to do with the Transportation Bill. They wanted to change the funding formula, which presently favored rural Minnesota. There was a move by some suburban legislators to get rid of the old formula and take more rural money and put it into the suburbs. So, we had a fight on our hands. And without the help of some Republican suburban members, who could see what this would do to the members of our own caucus, it would have passed. They came to our aid and said, Lets not be doing this now. They could have rolled us on transportation right then and there. They had the votes, they could have taken us out.

The potential is there for that kind of thing to happen. The state has a huge metropolitan population, some say seven county metro, others say its eleven county.

Journal: It appears to me that everyone had to give a little, the ethanol subsidy was hit, the Iron Range, local government aid.

Davids: Were an agricultural community, agriculture is still number one. A symbol of that is the ethanol industry. Originally they were talking about wiping out the ethanol subsidies all together. Well, that wasnt acceptable. The governor came in at 10 a gallon, it had been 20. We were able to get it up to 13 a gallon and we put tails on it so that we can go back to the 20 when the economy turns around.

I told them the only way we could accept going down would be if we can get it on the back end. And the ethanol industry signed off on it. I didnt want to cut it all, but realistically with a $4.2 billion deficit some things have to happen. Especially when you take K-12 and nursing homes off the table, then it makes it more severe for any other groups that are being funded by the state.

And I think it needs to be pointed out that we cut the budget $4.2 billion, but it is still the largest budget in the state of Minnesotas history. By a billion dollars.

In the past we have had something for everyone. Record tax cuts, record increases in education. You had it both ways. You didnt have it both ways this time.

Journal: Governor Pawlenty is putting together a commission to look at K-12 education. School districts are hurting: declining enrollments, laying off teachers. The future doesnt look good. What do you want to see happening?

Davids: In the past we were able to soften the blow somewhat of the declining enrollments. We even had ghost students, where the school would be partially funded for a student who was going elsewhere. That let school boards plan better for staffing. There are no ghost students any more. That is one of the toughest things for me, to sit here and say we didnt cut eduction spending per pupil, and, yet, money follows the student.

You look at schools around here that had a graduating class of 75 and an incoming class of 35 or 40, theres going to be cuts. Thats just cruel and hard and tough. And if youre losing $6,000 per kid and you lose 40 kids, youve just lost 240,000 bucks. You cant have the same staffing when the kids arent there.

I dont know if we can vary much from that funding formula.

Journal: Next year is a bonding year. What kind of public projects do you anticipate?

Davids: I am glad you asked that, because we have made all of these cuts people think there is nothing we can do. Thats not the case. Next year is a bonding year. We will have a bonding bill, probably a large one for two reasons.

Firstly, interest rates are so low we can do more with less. Number two, economists tell us a larger bonding bill can have an economic stimulus effect on the states economy.

I have had some folks in the area write me letters and send me proposals on bonding requests to finish some trail segments, and to do some different things at state parks. We have been successful in getting projects down here in the past.

I was frustrated last year. I wanted everything thrown on the table, the debate happens and we fund what we can support. But when you take away one of the legs off the stool (taxes) youre going to tip over. And thats exactly what happened. Because it didnt matter what we thought was important and how we funded it. What mattered was this is how much you have, now whats important? And thats not supposed to be the determination of the Executive Branch, thats supposed to be the determination of the Legislative Branch. And of course the Executive has the power to veto and you go through the Government 101 scenario. It was a tough session, but I have to tell you Im upbeat. What we had to work with, the things we did will set us up to do better in the future. We did some good things for rural Minnesota.

Journal: There were some hot button issues this session, Profiles in Learning, the 24 Hour Waiting Period, the Conceal and Carry Law.

Davids: Profiles of Learning. Again, being prophetic, I was one of the original 18 members in the House that voted against the Profiles. My theory was let our teachers teach. Let our local school boards determine what the curriculum will be. Profiles of Learning really got in the way of that. I have a lot of faith in our educators. That was Big Brother, the state, coming down and telling them this is the only way you can do it. It stifles creativity in the classroom.

I voted to repeal the Profiles every year since.

Conceal and Carry. People dont seem to realize that since the early 80s we have had Conceal and Carry in this state. If the new law did anything, it tightened some things up. Before, if you were permitted, you could go into the Metrodome, the MegaMall, into the churches. There were no limits. We tightened this up.

The reason this bill kept coming up was there was no uniformity in its implementation. We were told that the former sheriff of Ottertail County issued 25,000 permits - the joke was that with your Christmas Card from the sheriff you got your permit. In some counties you couldnt get one for legitimate purposes. That became a struggle between local law enforcement and the state.

We are the 35th state to pass a Conceal and Carry law. Law enforcement people I talk to tell me that we havent seen a surge in people applying for permits. I dont own a gun or carry one but I believe people should have the right to. The whole issue is uniformity of issuance.

Journal: Any final thoughts?

Davids: Last December, when I said that this was going to be the meanest, rottenest. I also said, that I couldnt wait to get started. Well, I could have waited.

Nobody likes to see someone lose their job or see a program thats working get cut back. One of my biggest disappointments the whole session was the decision the Minnesota Historical Society made to close Forestville. The legislature didnt do it. Most people realize the Historical Society did it. They could have cut a small piece of the new Mill in Minneapolis on the riverfront and kept Forestville open.

When I go back this next year, Forestville is one of my number one priorities. That should not have happened. I have expressed my displeasure to people in the society. They are not looking forward to meeting with the Chairman. And they have some explaining to do.

Its the old bait and switch game, where you get a legislator that is the chairman of a committee, you stick him and most of them come back and throw lots of money at something. And thats what they want. Well, I think the historical society at the state level acted inappropriately on this one and we are going to have discussions about that. I am very disappointed.

I applaud the efforts of the communities to come together to help Forestville, but they shouldnt have to do that. It is the states responsibility. I take my hat off to the county, the city of Preston, Spring Valley and Wykoff, any of the cities that helped out here, but it shouldnt happen. That was not right.

We generally let the historical society use great discretion. Theyve used wisdom in appropriating money fairly in the past. They didnt do it right this time. I think they made some big errors. When we go back in February, if we have to legislatively move them out of Minneapolis to Forestville, Ill have a bill to do that. I will legislate that Forestville stays open. Whether it passes or not, who knows, but thats how strong I feel about the decision made by the Historical Society.

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