With state legislative elections on the horizon, State Representative Chris Swedzinski (R) and State Senator Gary Dahms (R) held a town hall meeting on Monday, January 29 at the Granite Falls City Hall. Roughly a dozen residents in all attended the hour long meeting. Topics of conversation included infrastructure, housing, childcare, broadband, and buffer strip regulations. At the beginning of the town hall meeting, each representative gave a short introduction. Both men stressed the importance of 2018 as a bonding year, and anticipated more money going into transportation and other local projects. Senator Dahms predicted that the final bonding bill would be in the range of $800-$900 million -- well short of the $1.5 billion bonding request from Governor Mark Dayton (DFL). Representative Swedzinski said that there would also be a focus on policy, with particular emphasis on the environment, judicial reform, and tackling the opioid epidemic.

Swedzinski and Dahms answered questions regarding the shortage of mental health facilities in the region. “We don’t have near enough beds for mental patients,” Dahms admitted. The closed facility in Willmar was suggested by the audience as a possible solution to this problem. Dahms requested an outline of the redevelopment process, and promised to look into that option.

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski asked about grant programs to help municipal governments with the steep financial burden of infrastructure expenses. Both legislators lauded the financial assistance provided by the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority (PFA). Dahms said that overregulation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency made infrastructure projects more expensive and difficult to execute. Swedzinski agreed, and argued that projects should be non-partisan, joking, “you can be a constitutional libertarian or liberal, but when you flush the toilet, you want it to go away.”

The United Community Action Partnership Executive Director Nancy Straw asked what residents could expect in the way of childcare. Both legislators blamed cumbersome regulations, and the failed push by Dayton to unionize childcare workers, for the current shortage. Dahms said that any solution should focus on the needs of the family, not the school. He also recognized that a lack of childcare providers makes it difficult for small towns to attract and retain younger families.

Straw also asked about investments in housing for the upcoming fiscal year. Swedzinski explained that it was difficult for the state to subsidize increasing demand in both work force and low income housing. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that “a little bit of [public] investment can really make borderline houses livable,” and said he would prioritize preserving marginal homes before they became unlivable.

Another big ticket item that came up during the town hall meeting was the issue of rural broadband connection. Yellow Medicine County Administrator Peg Heglund, who has been an advocate for broadband at the county level, asked if local governments can expect more financial support from the state. Swedzinski began by stressing that Minnesota was already a regional leader in rural broadband investment, and said that future investments should strategically focus on extending service to rural residents who currently don’t have any internet connection. Dahms agreed, adding, “This needs to be treated like any other piece of infrastructure. We maybe should have done rural broadband like we did rural electric.”

Both Dahms and Swedzinski also addressed concerns from residents about the impact of the new buffer strip ordinance. They criticized the way in which the regulation was implemented, but said nothing would change so long as Dayton was governor. Dahms specifically criticized the way in which waterways were designated as either public or private, and said a lack of inspectors was stalling the regulatory process. He said that many Democrats have similar concerns, and hoped they would review the issue in a future legislative session.

The town hall event wrapped-up with a brief conversation about transportation. Swedzinski told the audience that “the needs are great” in Greater Minnesota and criticized the Metropolitan Council for demanding a larger share of transportation money. “We need to get our share out here,” Dahms added forcefully.

Dahms and Swedzinski thanked those in attendance for coming to the event. They also thanked Mayor Smiglewski and the City of Granite Falls for hosting the event.