BY GABE LICHT
MONTROSE, MN While new DFL Gov. Tim Walz supports recreational marijuana legalization and a gas tax increase, Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, and Sen. Bruce Anderson, R-Buffalo, said neither would happen in 2019, while speaking to about 40 people at a Jan. 3 town hall forum at the Montrose Community Center.
“The Senate has said we will not pass a gas tax increase,” Anderson said, referencing the two-seat majority the Republicans hold in the Senate. “It’s dead on arrival.”
McDonald said he was surprised Walz proposed a gas tax. He pointed to a $300 million influx of funds for roads and bridges, funded by taxes on vehicle-related items, which had previously gone to the general fund. Included in the $300 million of new money is $3.2 million for Wright County roads and bridges, McDonald said.
Regarding legalized recreational marijuana, Anderson said, “The federal government says it’s illegal. Going forward would break federal law.”
In addition to expressing their opposition to two of Walz’s positions, McDonald and Anderson addressed finances in depth.
Anderson said the state budget was $17 billion when he first became involved in the state legislature in 1995. He has seen that budget increase to $46 billion. McDonald has seen a $12 billion increase in his eight years as a representative, he said.
“A large chunk is for education and healthcare,” said McDonald, who served on the Health and Human Services Committee for eight years. “We certainly need to take care of the elderly, sick, and disabled . . . That’s where a lot of my focus has been, the disabled community, and offering bills and appropriation money for how best to serve those people.”
Regarding healthcare, McDonald said more competition and transparency amongst healthcare providers would drive costs down, and a bill introduced by Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, would aim to increase such competition and transparency. McDonald said some estimates peg the savings at 25 percent.
McDonald said he supports fully funding education.
Both legislators would like to address how funding is allocated to each district. McDonald estimates Wright County school districts receive between an average of $9,000 and $12,000 per pupil, while some metro districts receive at least twice as much.
McDonald also believes school districts should do more to help students who are struggling in school but may not need special education services.
“That’s where districts and the state can work together for those students who are just a little behind,” McDonald said.
McDonald and Anderson believe each state budget should utilize zero-based budgeting, in which the budget begins from a “zero base” and every function within an organization is analyzed for its needs and costs.
“A zero-based budgeting bill has been introduced, but has gone nowhere,” McDonald said.
“We never have had the ability to get all three sides to agree,” Anderson added.
Regarding the size and scope of the state’s budget, McDonald said “unfortunately, there is a lot of waste.”
He and Anderson pointed to a far-reaching case of daycare subsidy fraud in which tens of millions of state dollars were reportedly sent overseas, a case the Office of the Legislative Auditor is investigating, with a report set to be completed by the end of January.
On taxes and conforming to federal tax law, Anderson said tax reform should be included in the solution. McDonald said that Minnesota is the least tax-friendly state in the country, a claim backed up by Kiplinger rankings.
Both McDonald and Anderson support repealing the estate tax. Efforts to do so have been unsuccessful, but the threshold for the estate tax increased from $2.5 million to $5 million, conforming to the federal threshold.
McDonald said “$5 million is a lot of money, but it’s not a lot when you look at family farms or local manufacturing companies.”
Another tax they oppose is the provider tax on medical services.
“People say that will be millions of dollars of a hole left in our budget,” Anderson said. “We shouldn’t be this big anyway.”
An audience member asked McDonald and Anderson what should be cut from the budget.
Anderson said he would support a sunshine bill to evaluate each budget and determine what could be cut from it. An effort to pass such a bill was unsuccessful in 1998 or 1999, he said.
“We need to look at each budget, go in like a surgeon, and cut out the right thing,” Anderson said.
When pressed for specific items to be cut, Anderson said, “I don’t have anything at this time,” but later said he would move to eliminate the Metropolitan Council.
McDonald later said he would support eliminating Legacy dollars for arts and culture and put it toward paying caretakers more.
At the conclusion of the forum, Anderson and McDonald said sanctuary cities will likely be addressed and bills related to the Second Amendment will be debated.
“We’ll protect your Second Amendment rights,” McDonald said.
The legislative session began Tuesday and will run through Wednesday, May 20.