COTTAGE GROVE - Ahead of the start to the legislative session, legislators from Washington and Dakota counties joined the League of Women Voters of Woodbury, Cottage Grove Area on Jan. 5 for a panel discussion on goals and priorities for the upcoming session.
In attendance were state Sens. Susan Kent (DFL-District 53) and Karla Bigham (DFL-54) and Reps. Tou Xiong (DFL-53A), Steve Sandell (DFL-53B) and Anne Claflin (DFL-54A). Rep. Tony Jurgens (R-54B) could not attend because of a scheduling conflict but answered questions during a conference call with League leadership.
The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan national organization with local chapters that support citizen participation in government.
What follows is a selection of questions asked during the panel and legislators' positions on these questions.
Some states have adopted special commissions of citizens that draw legislative and congressional maps during the redistricting process. In Minnesota, some elected officials have discussed a panel of five retired judges drawing the maps. Do you support one or both formats? (Currently, the Minnesota Constitution assigns the responsibility of drawing legislative districts to the Legislature.)
Sandell said he isn't sure that a panel of five judges is the best way, but said "any scheme will have an inherent bias." He said a commission could be good idea and suggested it be made up of a large group of people with a variety of opinions and a smaller group within that would hold voting power.
Bigham, Claflin, Kent and Xiong agreed that a commission of citizens could be the best way to handle redistricting.
"We've all seen just egregious examples across the country of really partisan gerrymandering and it's clearly breaking our overall system, and I think it's one of the most crucial issues we are facing as a country right now," Kent said.
Claflin added that districts drawn by judges aren't necessarily fair in all cases.
Jurgens said the people he has talked to in his district are not concerned about redistricting.
"We must be cautious about who will appoint whom to ensure nonpartisanship," he said. "There will always be some partisanship. The Legislature can be held accountable, not so sure about a panel."
Jurgens added that he has not given the subject a lot of thought and that he needs to learn more about the process.
Policy experts have expressed concern about the lack of funding and preparation for the federal census in 2020. Would you support supplemental funding being allocated in the state budget for census activities in Minnesota?
Bigham said that although she includes unfunded mandates among her pet peeves, she supports additional funding through the state to ensure accurate counts.
"I think the state is going to have to put additional money into the census because it is such an important issue," Bigham said. "Everyone wants to be counted. We can't afford to lose a federal seat."
Kent agreed, saying: "Every single Minnesotan should agree that that would not be healthy. We should have as many votes as possible representing us in Washington D.C., and yet it's become a partisan issue to undermine the census, and I do not understand that."
Claflin and Xiong also emphasized the importance of a reliable census and counting every Minnesotan to ensure adequate funding for programs.
Sandell agreed that a reliable census count is important but said he would like to know how current funding is being used before endorsing the use of state money.
Jurgens said the census is federal responsibility and "no funding should be appropriated at the state level."
Automatic voter registration is a system in which eligible citizens who interact with government agencies are registered to vote unless they decline. Would you support this type of system?
Bigham, Claflin, Kent, Sandell and Xiong all voiced strong support for automatic voter registration and any efforts to increase voting accessibility.
"I would especially make sure that we are advocating the same-day voter registration in Minnesota," Claflin said of the existing policy. "That is one of the gold stars that gives Minnesota such a great turnout and participation."
Sandell even suggested having high school graduates register to vote on their way down the ramp at their graduation ceremonies.
"The goal to increase voter participation is something I support, of course," he said.
Jurgens disagreed with any push toward automatic registration, saying: "Minnesota had the highest voter turnout in the country. We must be doing something right. No changes need to be made based on the current results."
The Legislature has been passing laws in fewer, larger omnibus bills every year since the 1970s. Some believe that these large omnibus bills violate the single subject clause of the Minnesota Constitution. Additionally, negotiations between the legislative leadership often stall, leading to last-minute deals behind closed doors. What is your opinion on these practices?
All of the legislators agreed there should be greater transparency within the lawmaking process, including a ban on late-night votes on bills. They cited the failure of the 2018 tax conformity and budget bills as reasons to slim down legislation packages.
Xiong said that giant omnibus bills are "unacceptable." Sandell said his frustration with the failed 2018 bills was one of the reasons he decided to run for the Legislature.
"Omnibus Prime, which took on its own name ... was unacceptable and embarrassing to our process," Bigham said of the bills.
"We can't read a 900-page bill in nine minutes and go vote on it at three in the morning and tell you that we're doing a good job," Claflin said, adding that public input should be a priority.
What is your position about what can and should be done to assure we have safe, clean and properly tested drinking water?
Bigham said the state needed to make sure its water sources would be sustainable, with Xiong adding that long-term planning is key.
Sandell recalled the first time he visited the Boundary Waters as a child and reaching over side of his canoe to scoop up water to drink. He said he wants to make sure future generations don't miss out on experiences like that.
Claflin echoed Sandell's sentiment.
"We are the land of 10,000 lakes - yeah, we have to think about our water," Claflin said. She emphasized the funding of wastewater treatment plants and preventing the contamination of surface and groundwater with de-icing salt.
Kent questioned if the "patchwork" of agencies working on water safety within the state was the most effective way to manage the issue.
Jurgens mentioned his efforts to make sure money from the 3M settlement stays in the east metro. He also said he wants to secure funding to replace filters 20 to 30 years down the road.