By Ivan Raconteur
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN The town hall meeting conducted by State Representative Ron Shimanski (R-Silver Lake) in Lester Prairie last Monday evening was marked by lively discussion and ran to nearly double the scheduled time.
About 15 people braved the cold and windy weather to attend the meeting. State Sen. Steve Dille (R-Dassel) had planned to attend, but was unable to be there due to dangerous road conditions.
The meeting was scheduled from 5 to 6 p.m., but ran to about 6:45 p.m. with a steady exchange between Shimanski and those in attendance.
Taxes, jobs, energy, and government spending were among the hot topics discussed.
Shimanski began the meeting by presenting an overview of the state budget and how it is divided.
State spending for the 2011-12 biennium will total $60.1 billion.
The largest sectors are health and human services, which accounts for $24.8 billion, and k-12 education, at $14.5 billion.
These two areas represent 41.3 percent and 23.7 percent of the budget, respectively.
Other budget sectors include:
• transportation, 9.3 percent.
• higher education, 5.1 percent.
• property tax aids and credits, 5.1 percent.
• public safety, 3.8 percent.
• environment, energy, and natural resources, 3.6 percent.
• debt service and other expenses, 3.2 percent.
• economic development, 2.4 percent.
• state government, 1.4 percent.
• agriculture and veterans, 1 percent.
Shimanski said the state’s projected general fund balance as of June 30, 2011 is projected to show a deficit of $1.2 billion.
“The state demographers have been saying for 12 years that we are on a course that is not sustainable,” Shimanski said.
He said state revenues are projected to be flat, if not decreasing, into the foreseeable future.
Shimanski also said the US is the second-highest nation in the world in terms of taxes, and Minnesota has the third-highest taxes in the US.
Some residents at the meeting expressed the view that their taxes are too high, and they cannot afford to pay more.
Shimanski agreed, saying that Minnesota is “over-taxed and over-regulated.”
He said jobs are being moved out of Minnesota, and part of the reason is the state’s 9.8 percent corporate income tax.
Shimanski said the governor has proposed cutting the corporate tax rate by 1 percent, but Shimanski suggested cutting the corporate tax rate in half.
“If we don’t have corporate income, we won’t have corporate income tax,” Shimanski said.
“We need to bring jobs back to Minnesota,” he added.
“If we don’t have jobs here, we are going to do a great job educating kids to have them go and work somewhere else,” Shimanski said.
Several people commented on the loss of jobs and on the devaluation of the dollar.
There was also the suggestion that government wants to build schools and jails at a time when the economy can’t support this.
“They want to build stadiums and schools,” one resident said. “We can’t afford it. We’re broke.”
Regarding the subject of education, resident Nathan Unseth brought up the state penalizing school districts $25 per student if the district did not settle with the teachers.
“Anywhere else, that would be called extortion,” Unseth said.
Energy was another area of concern for those who attended the meeting.
Shimanski said the 2007 renewable fuel standard is that it increases the cost of energy, and all costs go back to the ratepayers.
Unseth agreed. “An unintended cost of renewable energy is that we pay more for energy. It hurts the poor,” Unseth said.
The meeting was not without humor.
Shimanski said Minnesota is not energy self-sufficient. “We are on the 45th parallel, so solar is not a good option,” Shimanski said. “And Minnesota is not particularly windy.’
“When the legislature gets going, there might be some debate about that,” resident Harlan Wegscheid quipped.
Around the room, heads nodded in agreement, and residents laughed endorsed this opinion.
Wegscheid said the state needs to develop nuclear power plants. He said the state is already behind in doing so. He also passed around an article about mini nuclear plants that can be used to power homes.
Shimanski said he is in favor of ending the state’s moratorium on nuclear power.
He said Minnesota’s nuclear power plants are about 40 years old and use about 20 percent of the energy in the fuel rods, while other countries, such as France, are building nuclear plants with new technology that uses 80 to 90 percent of the energy in the rods.
He said one of the objections to nuclear power is safety, but more people have been killed by coal trains over the years than by nuclear power.
Some of those present expressed concern about accountability, some related to MnDOT specifically, and some to government in general.
“We want to be protected from those bureaucrats,” one resident said.
Fiscal responsibility was a big concern for those at the meeting.
“The state constitution says we have to have a balanced budget,” Wegscheid said, adding that this is not happening.
“Bonding is borrowing,” Wegscheid said. “We are borrowing debt.”
Residents agreed when Shimanski said the state needs to start repealing some of its mandates, but there was vigorous disagreement with his assertion that “we whacked all the frivolous stuff out (of the budget) two years ago.”
“I think there’s still some frivolous stuff in government, Ron,” one resident said.
Several others concurred with this assessment.
“You are trying to fool us by saying you are not increasing taxes, but you are not cutting, you’re shifting,” former Lester Prairie mayor Eric Angvall said.
He addressed Shimanski on the subject of cuts to local government aid, and said by cutting aid to cities, the state is forcing cities to increase taxes.
“It is hard for a city to budget 18 months out,” Angvall said. “The city makes a plan, spends the money, and then the state cuts the funding.”
Angvall also said the state’s analysis doesn’t make sense.
“The state says the cities have a surplus, but they are looking at a snapshot at the end of December when we just got our payment from the state,” Angvall said.
Shimanski suggested that cities should not include their local government aid in their budgets until they actually receive the money.
After nearly two hours of spirited discussion, Shimanski ended the meeting so he could get to another town hall meeting in Plato. He is visiting all of the cities in his district in preparation for the start of the legislative session.