If special session is called, Crookston Republican says agreement on light rail will likely need to be hammered out first

    Although to many it seems inevitable that Gov. Mark Dayton will soon call legislators back to St. Paul for a special session to pass major legislation involving transportation and capital investment projects across the state, District 1B State Rep. Deb Kiel says much work needs to be done before that happens.

    “People are saying we need a special session immediately, and I’m telling them to contact the governor and tell him to get us back together today,” the three-term rural Crookston Republican said in an interview at the Times Wednesday. “This is costing people; people have bids out (for projects included in the bonding bill that failed to make it to Dayton’s desk). We absolutely need to get going, so hopefully the governor has a plan.”

    Part of the problem for Dayton and legislators on both sides of the aisle is that if and when the governor convenes a special session, the session itself needs to be largely a formality; if the governor, DFL Senate leaders and Republican House leaders haven’t essentially reached a handshake agreement on transportation funding or a bonding bill before a special session is convened, there’s really nothing stopping it from ending in chaos in similar fashion to the regular session that adjourned last week.

    “We need to have an agreement before we get there,” Kiel said. “We need a lot of talks, a lot of meetings.”

    Communication between the powers-that-be on Thursday indicated how much work still needs to be done. An error in the omnibus tax bill discovered Wednesday was pointed out by Dayton’s office, and in a letter to House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Crown) on Thursday, Dayton said he felt that Daudt was accusing him of “holding the tax bill hostage” in return for getting a bonding bill that he wants, or, in other words, includes funding for the Southwest Light Rail Transit line.

    Kiel told the Times that she believes transit is a need, but said that the Southwest LRT line would cost $123 million a mile to construct, and $100 million to operate, numbers she said she feels are too steep. Improved bus transportation in and around the Twin Cities would be just as effective and makes more financial sense, she said.

    Kiel said that despite the high-profile legislation that didn’t pass, the legislature did accomplish some things during the regular session.

    On education, she cited a $900,000 mobile lab unit that will teach high school kids about welding and manufacturing, as well as increased early childhood education funding to be invested across the state. All the funding in the world won’t have much of an impact, though, Kiel said, until parents becoming more engaged in their children’s education from the time they’re toddlers until they’re well on their way in school. She also cited the high number of kids from single-parent homes, in her district as well as statewide. “I’m not trying to suggest what families and parents should do, but statistics show that kids do better when they have two active, engaged parents in the home,” Kiel said. “It’s very important for kids to have that stability.”

    Kiel also cited tax legislation that reduces taxation on retirement benefits for veterans in Minnesota, which she hopes will slow the trend of veterans moving from Minnesota when they retire to states that don’t tax their benefits. The tax bill also includes, she explained, a $1,000 tax credit for college students paying off loans. “We keep hearing from college graduates that they basically can’t afford to live their life because of all their loans,” Kiel said.

    She also cited $35 million in broadband investment across Minnesota, which includes a provision providing a stable cost for providers who need to access right-of-way controlled by the railroad. “Broadband needs to get where it needs to go,” Kiel said. “But it’s getting very expensive to be able to access the other side of the tracks.”

    Finally, Kiel noted legislation making certified community behavioral health clinics possible, which she said she worked on with Shauna Reitmeier, director of Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston. It will localize a pilot project established by the federal government to help people who need help with mental health issues and addiction who too often end up in hospital emergency rooms or a jail cell.

    “We can see the new thinking coming along, with sentencing guidelines being changed,” Kiel explained. “I think we need to keep looking at new ideas for people with mental health issues or drug addiction problems. It’s a problem that just expands to affect so many people and so many aspects of our society. We need to get these people help, and involve families.”

Tea party Republican?

    DFLer Erv Rud of Fosston, who’s seeking to challenge Kiel in the 2016 election, in an interview with the Times recently, called Kiel a “tea party Republican.”

    So, is she? Not really, Kiel told the Times. “I don’t really cringe when I hear that, but I don’t know how accurate it is,” she said. “Originally, tea partiers didn’t identify with Republicans or Democrats, they just wanted to protect their personal rights, like gun rights and free speech, and they were concerned about government running out of control.”

    Kiel said she realizes the tea party has become more synonymous with contemporary Republican views, and therefore said she’s not necessarily “offended” when the label is applied to her. “I would think, though, that if you looked at my votes you would conclude that they’re not always aligned with the tea party,” she said.