The two incoming leaders of the Minnesota Legislature made their first appearance on MPR’s Midday today. Sen. Amy Koch is the new majority leader of the Senate. Rep. Kurt Zellers is the new speaker of the Minnesota House.
Here are the highlights from the question-and-answer session with host Gary Eichten and members of the Minnesota Public Radio audience. I’ve eliminated the questions and discussion about political strategy.
Q: How is that Minnesota voters elected Republicans to the Legislature, but two out of three voters who voted for governor did not vote for a Republican?
A: (Koch) The Legislature holds the money. What an interesting way for the voters to go to give the fiscal conservatives the purse strings! It was very wise and smart of the voters.
(Zellers) It fits with us. We’re a prairie populist state. The vast majority of localized races were talking about jobs, the economy, and spending. Divided government isn’t always a bad thing. In the ’90s, the House had Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton in the White House.
Q: To bring in revenue, we need jobs. Minnesota companies have expanded in other states. What are other states doing to attract businesses? I’d rather see spending on getting jobs, rather than education.
A: (Zellers) You start by asking business owners. We heard time and again, “If I’m going to build a building in Minnesota, it takes me 8 months. If I build in South Dakota, it takes 6 weeks.” It’s not things that show up on the evening news. We have a truncated building season. We heard time and again, “Can you please stop?” Whether it’s taxes or regulations. We’re going to calm the waters for the business community.
Q: Will you extend the JOBZ program?
A: (Koch) We have to look at everything. It’s not just one program; we have to look at everything we do and how it affects businesses. It’s corporate income tax, it’s energy policy in this state.
Q:Mark Dayton has talked about passing a bonding bill. Would you go along with that?
A: (Koch) My focus is the private sector; it’s where the jobs coming from. I’m not going to say “absolutely not,” but I want to make sure it’s focused on infrastructure and transportation. But there’s a lot of other things to be done first.
(Zellers) We have a lot of unused bonding authority out there. If government spending on projects really worked, and the government sprinkled stimulus money, if it worked we wouldn’t be at almost 10 percent unemployment. We’re not going to have giant spoons with cherries. These things are going to have to be critical.
Q: Will early childhood education be a priority?
A: (Zellers) Sure. It’s incredibly critical. Education is critical, but we need to make sure it’s focused in the classroom. We’re not in an economic situation where we can try new things. We’re in a time of necessity; we’re going to have to stick to what works.
(Koch) We have to be cautious when we move forward that we’re not reinventing the wheel. There are a lot of early childhood facilities out there that are working just fine. The best thing you can do for any child is to make sure mom and dad have a job. We can work on some reforms that will improve the quality of education.
Q: How should people measure whether you’re on the right track in terms of creating jobs?
A: (Koch) Are we going to turn the ship around immediately? I’m not going to promise that, but you’re going to see a laser-like focus on that. It will take time and work.
(Zellers) When business owners say, “I’m ready to buy the new truck now.” If you start to see occupancy rates start to go down… (I think he meant vacancy rates). A lot of this came back to the bankers not lending the money, but a lot of businesses were just waiting to see if there would be a cap and trade policy.
Q: Will commercial property taxes go down?
A: (Zellers) Especially at the local level, there’s very little we can do at the state Legislature, and many of these decisions need to be made at the local level. Our commitment is we’ll do everything we can.
(Koch) Unlike residential property taxes, we do as part of consumer and industrial property taxes, we do have a role and the state takes taxes from that. I know of a commercial property owner in Albertville who is losing businesses in his building, and he pointed to the property taxes. It’s just another piece we have to look at.
Q: Critics say “that’s a focus of the no-new-taxes policy”
A: (Koch) Local governments need to do exactly what businesses and families need to do.
(Zellers) We’ve put in place a cap on local property taxes. It’s not something I prefer, but if locals are saying the state is why we have to raise property taxes, the local voters are more savvy than they’re being given credit for. They’re not going to buy that it’s Tim Pawlenty’s fault that property taxes go up. We’re still going to spend a boatload of money.
Q: If Tim Pawlenty stays on as governor, will you push through a budget, and redistricting plan. True or false?
A: (Zellers) False. The February budget forecast doesn’t come out until March 2. Running in and throwing a bunch of stuff on the governor’s desk would be disrespectful. We need a fair discussion of the issues and then vote. It’s the respectful way to work.
(Koch) There’s no move to cram things through. We have a job to do and we need to start the discussions to keep government moving. The issues are all still there; the problems are all still there. The function of the Legislature will move forward but there’s no appetite to do some games playing.
Q: Will the Legislature finish the work on time?
A: (Koch) Absolutely.
Q: The Bush era tax cuts have been around for 8 years and have failed to produce jobs. The middle class is the engine of the economy and businesses don’t have the demand.
A: (Zeller) I agree. If there isn’t someone out there to buy your product, you’re not going to be able to build anything. I think if we can calm the waters, there are a lot of business owners out there ready to expand. The tax cuts were passed by a bipartisan vote, what we’ve seen is a little bit better opportunity and a very good fall.
(Koch) It’s largely a federal issue. We can talk about a lot of things that contributed to what happened in 2008 and 2009, but there is this idea that businesses and consumers have uncertainty with health care and cap-and-trade — all this government stuff — that people have been leery. Businesses aren’t investing and homeowners aren’t buying because they’re just not certain what’s going to happen. We have to get the demand going and get people comfortable with buying again. That’s the goal.
Q: I hear the budget needs to be reduced by 20 percent and that schools and Medicaid will take a big cut without an increase in taxes. How will you reduce spending on seniors and nursing homes? Is it possible?
A: (Koch) The budget projection for the next two years is going to have an increase of about 7 percent. Spending is projected to increase by 18 percent. Education, and protecting vulnerable Minnesotans, is a top priority. Are there some reforms? I’d like to look for them.
Q: But aren’t you talking about big cuts?
A: (Zellers) If folks in Minnesota want an example what it’s going to be like, how did things go in the last couple of years? Did you see something in your local government that made you think the government was going to shut down? That’s at $30 billion. We’re at $33 billion next year. When you get to $37 or $39 billion, that’s where you see the increases. A lot of things government pays for have actually dropped in cost.
We are committed to education, nursing homes, developmentally disabled; that’s our top priority. Yeah, there’s going to be tough decisions, but there’s also the other side where we can redesign how we deliver things.
Q: What about social issues?
A: (Zellers) If it doesn’t have anything to do with business and jobs, it shouldn’t be our first priority. If you don’t have a job, it’s hard to be involved in an abortion rally.
(Koch) There’s a lot of important issues and we will get to them. But the priority now is the budget, jobs, and the economy.
Q: What about a state-sponsored casino or expansion of gambling?
A: (Koch) I voted for a racino. We’ll get a mood of the caucus. We need to look at the spending side of the ledger first.
(Zellers): We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem. It’s one of those hot-button social issues. Gambling has already expanded in Minnesota already. I think that’s on the revenue side; we’re looking at the spending side.
Q: What about a Vikings stadium?
A: (Zellers) They improved their chances yesterday. There are some proposals that don’t include public money. If there is a way — seat licenses — if it’s something that’s tied to the game, that has possibilities. It can’t include the state of Minnesota writing a personal check.
(Koch) It’s so nice to have both houses together on this. We’re looking at a deficit, so that’s not a discussion we can have. But we’re willing to look at proposals. We’d like to see the Vikings stick around.
Q: We’ve been looking for child care and we can’t afford it and have my wife work at the same time. Is there any way the government can help us out?
A: (Koch) Quality child care is a top issue for many families. We have some programs in place. It’s hard to know what can be done, not knowing your situation.
Zellers: There are several sliding-scale programs out there or a voucher program.
Q: Why is the cost of higher education going up?
A: (Zellers) I paid for my college by playing football and when I got hurt I paid for it out of my pocket. It’s a personal thing for me because I paid for my college. Customers need to start asking what they’re getting for their services.
(Koch) If higher ed facilities haven’t received what they think is needed, they have another avenue: tuition hikes. I think there’s a lot of avenues for higher ed institutions to look at their costs.