MOORHEAD — Legislators from the Moorhead area discussed their plans to assist border cities and their businesses in advance of the legislative session which begins Monday, Jan. 4.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, and Rep.-elect Heather Keeler, D-Moorhead, joined Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher in the roundtable discussion, which was hosted by the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce.

The legislators unanimously agreed that the state should adopt a regional-based plan to address issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eken said the Legislature's Twin Cities-focused approach fails to take into account the difficulties greater Minnesota communities face.

"It's a one-size-fits-all policy approach that doesn't fit in many of our greater Minnesota communities, especially not on the borders where we have such a disparity in the regulatory environments of our two communities," Eken said.

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Eken advocated for reducing the regulatory burden on border communities such as Moorhead, Breckenridge and East Grand Forks while still focusing on maintaining Minnesota's quality of life.

Cities and businesses along the Red River face significant differences in taxes and regulations, Marquart said. Whereas North Dakota's top tax rate is 2.9%, he said, Minnesota's is 9.85%.

While acknowledging Minnesota's reputation as a high-tax and high-services state, Marquart said the differences on either side of the river are worth noting.

"You have to be cognizant of the fact that there is this tax difference, so that's why we try to make sure we're using these dollars efficiently," he remarked.

The difference in property taxes between Fargo and Moorhead also "isn't quite was it used to be," he added, saying that North Dakota has put distance in between its neighbor by using money from its general fund to buy down taxes.

Marquart was optimistic the Legislature would be able to assist border cities in dealing with the pandemic because in 2019 the state's Border Cities Enterprise Zone was made a permanent appropriation of $750,000 for border cities Breckenridge, Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Moorhead and Ortonville.

Some Moorhead businesses, however, were unable to benefit from aid that was disbursed during the state's special session. Aid for businesses came with a residency requirement, meaning Moorhead business owners who lived in Fargo were left out.

"We should be looking at where the businesses are located because the aid is going to help the business and those who work in those businesses," Eken argued. "The loss of a business in Moorhead — it doesn't matter whether the owner lives in Moorhead or Fargo — it's still a devastating blow to the community of Moorhead."

Gov. Tim Walz announced an extension of an order to keep in-person dining closed statewide Wednesday, Dec. 16. The order was originally put in place on Nov. 18, meaning bars and restaurants have been closed for roughly a month, though hundreds across the state have said they would defy an extension.

Marquart expressed his disappointment that the closure was extended statewide rather than regionally as he had hoped it would be.

While Walz was "receptive" to the distinct challenges border cities face, Eken said, the statewide closures of bars and restaurants means establishments in border cities are losing out on the opportunity to build a customer base and loyalty.

Keeler also suggested taking a regional approach since businesses and customers could both move to Fargo, hurting Moorhead's economic growth.

"I think we can all agree that we really want Moorhead to be a place that people want to move to, live in and thrive in," she said.

The first-term representative called for a grading system to assess how businesses are following COVID-19 precautions. Restaurants with high marks could be allowed to open for a few hours while also showing consumers that they can go out safely, she explained.

The shutdown of restaurants and bars in border communities doesn't stop residents from going out, Keeler added. "If we don’t provide places for them to eat here, they're going to go over to the bigger community, come back and share any exposure they may have had," she said.