The Journal asked Minnesota Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, District 3, and Rep. Rob Ecklund, DFL-International Falls, District 3A, to answer three questions about the 2018 session.
Q: What are the biggest issues challenging the district and what will you do this session to address those challenges?
Bakk: Even years at the Legislature are considered bonding years. Regional and state assets are compiled into one large bill, called the bonding bill. I will be pushing for the state to take advantage of low interest rates and bond for the traditional amount this year of $1 billion. This size of bill would provide benefits and improve infrastructure across the state. Rep. Ecklund and I have visited or been briefed on a large number of local government projects all across the district. We will work to include as many as possible in this year’s bonding bill.
One of the first issues we’ll look at this year is federal tax conformity. The legislature normally conforms Minnesota’s tax system with federal tax changes to make filing much simpler for taxpayers. Most Minnesotans will see little benefit from the numerous federal tax changes, so conformity will be complicated this year. It’s important whatever decisions we make about conformity don’t break the budget – we need to make sure we can pay for any additional spending and end up with a revenue-neutral bill.
Ecklund: The biggest challenge facing the district is the lack of job diversification. The state of Minnesota is at the point where it is statistically at full employment, but rural Minnesota is still lagging behind. We need to do everything we can to bring diversity to our jobs portfolio. One of the ways I believe that this can be accomplished is by bringing true border to border broadband to the state. Appropriations need to be made, and provider companies need to be held to task to get this accomplished.
The second challenge is coming up with a better funding plan for transportation. Some of the counties in 3A have implemented the tools that the Legislature has provided them, and they are starting a robust county roads repair plan. That is one step, but we as a Legislature need to come up with a stable transportation plan that will be a long term benefit to the entire state.
We also need to bring stability to our existing industries, and expand them wherever we can, while making sure that all rules and laws are followed. Our region is blessed with great natural resources that are a great benefit to society, and they should be used to benefit society, as long as it can be accomplished in a manner that will not be a detriment to our region.
Q: How will national politics influence the coming session?
Bakk: This will be a big year for voters in the 8th Congressional District, especially in Koochiching County. I thank Congressman Nolan, Mary, and the whole Nolan family for their years of service to our region, and wish them the best in the next stage of their lives. Sen. Franken’s resignation triggered an unusual election this fall. Minnesotans will vote for two U.S. senators, eight members of Congress, a governor, all the constitutional officers, and the Minnesota House. That’s a lot at stake – it’s more important than ever for people to do their civic duty and vote their values this year.
The state Senate won’t be on the ballot until 2020, but the year of a House election always leads to a more partisanship at the Legislature. I expect the House elections to make finding bipartisan compromises on bonding and tax conformity more challenging than they need to be.
Ecklund: I think that there is getting to be a lot of similarities in what's happening in the Legislature that compares negatively to what is happening in Washington D.C. It seems like there is getting to be more and more partisan game playing going on. That being said, I always tell people to watch the committee meetings rather than the floor session. It is in the committees that the bills actually get hashed out, and there are less partisan discussions. All of the elected people are down there to advocate for their districts, and by the time a bill makes it to the floor for a vote, most people's minds are made up.
Q: How do you believe the Legislature should address a projected deficit? Is it time to panic?
Bakk: The next budget forecast, on Feb. 28, will show the figures we will budget around, but I don’t expect a deficit. Even though parts of our state aren’t experiencing the same positive growth, our statewide economy is strong and our unemployment is low. We’ve collected $568 million more than the budget we passed for the current biennium, and those are the resources available to address federal tax conformity, bonding, transportation, and other spending priorities in our communities. My primary concern this session is to make sure we do not cut taxes or commit new spending in a way that creates a deficit for the next budget. We need to be cautious about committing to additional spending in order to protect our state’s fiscal integrity.
Ecklund: I do not believe that it is time to panic on the projected deficit. The Legislature has set aside money for a rainy day fund; I do not think that we need to worry about tapping into that yet. The bigger concern that I see right now is what is going to happen when we pass a bill for federal tax conformity. At this time, it looks like revenue collections are going OK; the February forecast will give us a better indication. It appears that with tax conformity, we may be facing a bigger problem down the road with revenue collections.