Minnesota’s District 4 legislators recap session highlights, future opportunities
COVID-19 relief, keeping border communities competitive and future opportunities dominated the discussion among District 4 legislators Sen. Kent Eken and Reps. Heather Keeler and Paul Marquart.
MOORHEAD — Local Moorhead area legislators Sen. Kent Eken and Reps. Heather Keeler and Paul Marquart gathered Thursday, July 22, at the Hjemkomst Center to discuss Minnesota's recently-completed legislative session .
While the biggest talking points of the session surrounded the COVID-19 pandemic, the trio of legislators struck a positive tone when discussing legislative wins secured for rural Minnesota.
Those victories are especially important in 2021 as a redistricting process looms in the state. Marquart, who represents District 4B, noted that rural Minnesota stands to lose from the redistricting, while the Twin Cities area will likely gain. While Moorhead itself may ultimately become its own district, Marquart said, the rest of western Minnesota may not fare as well. “Rural Minnesota is going to lose seats and the metro and the suburbs are going to gain seats,” the Democratic-Farmer-Labor representative and Dilworth resident said.
A major highlight of the legislative session for rural Minnesota communities was securing local government aid. According to Marquart, 65% of the $564 million allocated to local government aid is sent to rural Minnesota. “Local government aid is the lifeblood for rural Minnesota cities. That is the great equalizer,” he said. “That is a huge economic driver.”
Certain rural cities, Marquart reported, stood to lose money using the local government aid formula, though he said those cities were kept from financial harm. Still, Marquart proposed a slight increase to local government aid funding. “It’s extremely important and a program we absolutely need to keep strong,” he said.
COVID-19 at the center
To respond to COVID-19, Keeler reported that the Legislature had to listen to businesses. “I think the biggest thing is that we listened. It was really nice that our business community reached out to us,” she said. “I know that some of us suffered, but at the end of the day we did a really good job here in the community. It’s important that we were able to keep businesses open and provide those services.”
Keeler credited Marquart’s work in reducing businesses' tax burden in response to the pandemic. One of the highlights, Marquart said, was offering complete tax forgiveness on the Paycheck Protection Program. “It was very valuable to those businesses and we’ve exempted every dime,” he said.
Another key development was raising the exemption on statewide property taxes for businesses to $150,000. “Typically that represents 40% of a business’s property tax, so that can be very significant,” Marquart said.
Overall, Marquart reported that the Legislature took a targeted approach to providing relief from the strain of the pandemic. “One thing we found out with COVID-19 is that it hit businesses and people disproportionately,” he said. “We know the service and hospitality industry, that industry got hit the hardest by far. Some areas did very very well.”
Eken, the third-term Democratic-Farmer-Labor Senator from Audubon, expressed excitement regarding the state’s $250 million “hero pay,” which is earmarked for front-line workers who Eken said have been “bearing the brunt” of the pandemic. “That was something we felt needed to be addressed,” he commented. "They were not being adequately compensated for all the stress, extra work and dangers they had to put themselves in.”
With a budget surplus and a state economy which is out-performing expectations, Marquart said the state is well-positioned to emerge from the pandemic and provide tax relief for Minnesotans. “One thing we have found out is the economy overall in Minnesota is doing very, very well, which I think shocked a lot of people,” he said. “We will have a supplemental budget and part of that is going to be tax relief.
Both Keeler and Marquart co-authored H.F. 1402 , a bill which would have exempted Moorhead, Dilworth and other border cities from Minnesota’s minimum-required frost footing. In Clay County, that requirement is five feet, however the bill, which did not pass, would have allowed border municipalities to lower the requirement to three-and-a-half feet.
Keeler said the bill is important because it would help make Moorhead and Dilworth more competitive with Fargo, which does not require any frost footings for decks. Minnesota’s five-foot requirement can be a cumbersome cost burden for home-buyers, Keeler said. “The biggest importance is we want to be competitive in our housing,” she said. “When the exact same home can be $10,000 or more affordable across the river, it makes the decision really difficult.”
In other border city-related issues, Eken was pleased that the Legislature secured locked down funding for the Border-Cities Enterprise Zone Program . “The good news is that we still have the base funding for the enterprise zones,” he said. “That allows the program to continue building up funds necessary to attract businesses and keep businesses here.”
The program, which includes Breckenridge, East Grand Forks, Dilworth, Moorhead, Ortonville and Taylors Falls, has been an ongoing priority for District 4 legislators. Eken believes the base funding will allow for more possibilities down the road. “We definitely do have a big foot in the door now, having gotten that base funding. Prior to that, we would have to replenish it from time-to-time,” he said. “It was hard to know what was going to be there in the future.”
Eken advocated for further work in reducing tax and regulatory burdens along Minnesota’s border with North Dakota. “I think we’ve got to look at this in the context of just leveling the playing field with the Fargo side to make sure that our businesses are just as competitive and we’re able to attract just as many businesses and families,” he said.
'Wave of the future'
Eken, Keeler and Marquart also shared future legislative priorities during the discussion.
Eken said the Legislature made “significant progress” in the realm of child care assistance, adding $8 million to its grant program. “There’s definitely a recognition that this is a huge problem,” he said. “The pandemic only added to that crisis. It was a crisis on top of a crisis."
Keeler called for more improvements to affordable housing and higher education in the state. Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson , moderating the discussion, noted that higher education is of critical importance to the city, which is home to three colleges.
Marquart called for a $100 million investment in improving infrastructure, providing grants to blue-collar businesses and funding career academies like Moorhead’s, which he called the “wave of the future.”
“I think we’ll have the dollars to use on a program that brings communities, businesses and schools together to promote, train and hire blue-collar workers,” he remarked. “I think that would be a great benefit to not only rural Minnesota, but the state’s economy overall.”