Town hall topics get touchy
State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, has a long to-do list in a new political landscape when the Minnesota Legislature convenes this week.
At a Jan. 3 town hall meeting that drew about 40 people to Traveler's Inn in Alexandria, Ingebrigtsen went over his priorities and answered questions about a wide range of topics — border security, welfare reform, taxes on charitable gambling, raising the age to buy tobacco products to 21, legalizing marijuana and more.
The first few questions concerned immigration. Ingebrigtsen was asked if Minnesota could become a sanctuary state, which would limit the state's cooperation with the the federal government to enforce immigration laws.
Ingebrigtsen said the state's new attorney general, Keith Ellison, is open to the idea, which the senator strongly opposes. Ingebrigtsen, a former sheriff, said police officers "aren't built to look the other way" if they see someone who is in the country illegally.
Ingebrigtsen, tongue in cheek, suggested a pilot project — making the seven-county metro area a sanctuary district and have it report back in three or four years on "how that was going."
A couple of others in the crowd were worried about protecting the country's borders and asked if there were ways to stop sharia law, Islam's legal framework, from being implemented in America.
Ingebrigtsen said when people move to Minnesota, they must assimilate into the state's system of laws. As a senator, he said he represents all Minnesotans.
A woman in the crowd, after noting she was a DFLer, told Ingebrigtsen she was disappointed with his response. She said America has become too divided and it was time for people to stop smearing others and spreading fear.
Ingebrigtsen said Minnesotans should not be alarmed by Muslims and others who enter the country legally. He added one thing everyone should agree on is that a wall needs to be put up to protect the country's borders.
Two topics touch a nerve
Two topics at the town hall drew strong words from Ingebrigtsen — child care fraud and legalizing marijuana.
The senator noted several child care centers in Minnesota are suspected of stealing millions of dollars in subsidies without caring for any children.
"That just sickens me — that money being stolen," he said. "People need to care about this and someone needs to answer for it. Maybe it's the old sheriff in me, but these kinds of scams are a big deal."
He said the state needs to keep the scammer's "feet to the fire" and recoup the money.
Ingebrigtsen also spoke strongly against any move to further legalize marijuana in the state — something Gov.-elect Tim Walz supports.
Minnesota allows marijuana for specific medical reasons. Allowing it for recreational adult use, which 10 states have done, would only lead to more problems, Ingebrigtsen said. Although overdoses are rare, he called marijuana a gateway drug that can lead to more serious addictions and death, and wondered why the state would want to add another "killer" of young lives.
Other major issues that Ingebrigtsen talked about during the town hall included:
• Tobacco 21. A public health worker noted that both Otter Tail and Pope counties approved ordinances to raise the age for buying tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21. She asked if Ingebrigtsen would support such a measure statewide. He said he wouldn't sign such a bill, saying it would be too much "big government." He added, however, that local school boards should address the underage e-cigarette problem with stiffer penalties and suspensions.
• Gas tax. Ingebrigtsen doesn't favor increasing that gas tax as Walz wants to do. Minnesota, Ingebrigtsen said, has a state gas tax of 28 cents, which ranks as the 24th highest in the U.S. He added, however, that finding money for roads is tough and will be "an issue to grapple with" in the upcoming session.
• Welfare reform. A town hall attendee asked how Minnesota should deal with people who move here to collect welfare. Ingebrigtsen said they should have a job or be looking for work before receiving benefits. He said Tony Lourey, the new head of the Department of Human Services, should be given the chance to crack down on welfare abuse.
• Gov. Mark Dayton. An attendee asked if Ingebrigtsen thought Dayton was successful in his two terms. "No, but he was true to himself," Ingebrigtsen said, adding that government spending has been too high.
• Child care regulation. Government over-regulation of small child care centers drove many centers out of the industry, Ingebrigtsen said. He blamed Dayton for starting the over-regulation by wanting them to unionize — an option that was voted down by providers.
• Charitable gambling. A member of a service club in Carlos said charitable gambling operations are being over-taxed in Minnesota, taking up 27 percent of their gross sales. He asked Ingebrigtsen to fight for the mostly all-volunteer organizations and reduce the taxes. Ingebrigtsen said he is looking at legislation and would be willing to "go into that fight."
• End-of-session confusion. An attendee asked how the Legislature could prevent the chaos that occurs at the end of a legislative session when many unrelated bills are lumped together and voted on. Ingebrigtsen said it's not unusual to have large bills introduced in the final days of a session, but that it was important for both sides to work together and compromise. He said bills dealing with single issues should be resolved in the early part of the session.
Changes in power
Ingebrigtsen outlined how the Legislature has changed since the last session.The DFL now controls the house, 79-59, while Republicans still control the Senate but by just one member, 34-33. A DFLer was elected to succeed a DFL governor. Waltz is in the process of appointing more than 20 new department heads, Ingebrigtsen noted.
"It's going to be quite a changeover," he said, adding that he worked with the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources, Tom Landwehr, for eight years but he's now being replaced by Sarah Strommen.
Ingebrigtsen added he is optimistic about working with Strommen on issues such as groundwater.
Ingebrigtsen listed five priorities for the next session:
• Mental health — making sure the state has resources and infrastructure to treat people with mental illness.
• Tax conformity — simplifying tax forms and making them conform to the new federal forms.
• Protecting the elderly and disabled from abuse, and protecting their wages.
• Transportation — focus on roads and bridges, not Metro Transit projects.
• Fighting fraud and wasteful spending.