Westrom, Ingebrigtsen discuss budget, rural policy during Morris visit
MORRIS, Minn. - Rep. Torrey Westrom and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen were in Morris last Friday for a town hall meeting at DeToy's Restaurant where they discussed the state budget forecast, the debate on the voter ID amendment and upcoming concerns for rural Minnesota.
"Two days ago we had the February forecast, which is always what we kind of use as the final budgeting tool for the state," Westrom told a gathered crowd of about 30 local residents. "We had very good news, we feel. ... We have a $1.2 billion surplus, unlike a year ago when Bill and I were here and we were talking about the $5.2 billion deficit."
The $1.2 billion surplus reflects a $323 million projected surplus released by state finance officials this week added to an $876 million surplus predicted in November.
"We've worked hard to live within our means; we've had to re-prioritize, repurpose government and how things were done," said Westrom. "The bottom line is when you hold the line on spending and refocus it's a lot like family budgets and business budgets - good things can happen."
"The economists that reported to us [about the budget] the other day said folks are more comfortable in Minnesota," said Ingebrigtsen. "There's that feeling that we can spend a little bit more money ... and there were some significant cuts in the bill last year that are certainly helping out the budget."
However, Westrom said the money from the surplus has already been dedicated to replenishing the cash flow account and rainy day funds and repaying schools after delaying payments.
"We set in the law as part of our conclusion last year that we aren't even going to wonder about what should be paid back first," said Westrom.
Because the state set a budget last year, this session is focused more on policy and bonding bills said Westrom. Priorities for the Republican Caucus are outlined in their Reform 2.0 plan, which can be found online at www.reform2.mn.
One issue working through the Legislature is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require Minnesotans to produce photographic identification before voting. One member of the crowd asked about how the voter ID bill would impact rural areas, where voters in small precincts may not need (or see the need) for requiring photo identification to vote or be able to absorb the cost of the machines.
Westrom said the mechanics of implementing photo ID would likely be worked out after the bill passes. The constitutional amendment that voters may be asked to decide on this fall won't have all the details, he said.
Ingebrigtsen said there was a funding mechanism in a voter ID bill that was passed in the Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Dayton last year that would help fund ID cards for those who can't afford it that would likely be implemented in a new bill.
"It's not the intent of the Legislature to disenfranchise anybody," said Ingebrigtsen. "There's been a lot of talk that we're doing that. ... They seem to target the senior citizens and, quite frankly, it's an insult to the senior citizens. They're not the ones creating the problems here. They've taken their voting very serious over the years, they'll continue to do that, and if they have a problem finding some form of an ID, there's going to be a mechanism to help them."
When asked about work being done specifically to support rural Minnesota, Ingebrigtsen mentioned a bonding bill that has money for highway overpasses and work last year to increase funding for rural parks.
Westrom said he was working on a bill to get rid of state-wide property taxes for businesses and mentioned his recently-introduced bill that would allow coyote hunting from aircraft.
Westrom and Ingebrigtsen's stop was part of a rural Minnesota tour that included stops in Elbow Lake, Evansville, Alexandria, Hoffman and Chokio.