MANKATO — Abdi Sabrie asked about ways to focus attention on East African students. Beth Proctor was concerned about legislative efforts to prevent pollution regulators from enforcing water standards. Colin Chambers asked for a raise for group home workers. And Glen E. Peterson wanted the legislators to get behind a University of Minnesota study to improve the Affordable Care Act.
Though they responded to these questions at Saturday's town hall meeting, the legislators — Reps. Jack Considine and Clark Johnson and Sen. Kathy Sheran — had messages of their own.
Focusing on the premier issue of the session, Johnson and Sheran said some transportation spending can come from the projected $1.9 billion surplus. But the Democrats don’t want a pile of cash to sap the political will for a long-term spending proposal.
Sheran said: “There can be a kind of belief system that we really don’t need more revenue because we have this surplus.”
But that money will only last two years, she said, while infrastructure demands will last many years.
Considine, also a Democrat, focused on a request from the state’s nursing homes for $200 million to raise their workers' wages. Low pay has caused high turnover, he said, as high as 100 percent in just a year for one nursing home.
Considine, who said he was impressed by the care his recently deceased mother received in a nursing home, said workers there are caring and compassionate.
“I don’t think they should be worrying about how to feed their own children,” he said.
From the public, aside from a question about medical transportation, there was not a word about roads, bridges or buses. Instead, the Intergovernmental Center crowd of a few dozen asked about topics they have clearly been thinking about for years.
Sabrie, a former school board candidate, said the state's classification of race doesn't do enough to engage the East African, especially Somali, community.
"Of course, we are African Americans, but we have different needs," he said. "We just don't exist, statistically."
Proctor, a Minnesota State University professor who in recent years has sought to strengthen regulations of a frac sand mining operation just noth of Mankato, asked about mining regulations. Bills under discussion at the Capitol would require legislative approval of water-protection standards. These standards have been controversial because they add to the cost of some Iron Range mining projects.
Considine sits on a mining and outdoor recreation committee and said the political reality there is that nine of its members are Republicans and four of its six Democrats are from the Iron Range.
"Quite frankly, there's a race to the microphone to tell mining companies how great they are when they're doing their pitches," he said. He acknowledged that Polymet, which is trying to build a large copper mine, is "trying to go in the right direction" regarding water quality.
But he was skeptical that a sulfide mining operation — where the ore is extracted from sulfide, which can create acid when exposed to air and water — can ever be environmentally safe.
Johnson said he opposes requiring legislative approval of water quality standards, which he called an attempt to "politicize water quality standards in the land of 10,000 lakes."
"Imagine the political pressures associated with (approving a water quality standard)," he said. "We’re in flush times now. It might be easier to do that now. We won’t always be in flush times."
Glen E. Peterson advocated for bills that would fund a University of Minnesota study that seeks to let Minnesota figure out how to improve upon the Affordable Care Act. That law was the best Congress could do, he said.
"I do not believe at all that the ACA was the best Minnesota could do," he said. Considine and Johnson are co-sponsors of the bill.
Colin Chambers, a program director at REM Heartland, which operates group homes and provides other services for people with disabilities, wants some of that surplus to give a raise to group home workers.
Last year's 5 percent increase was "enough to stop the bleeding," but not enough to provide a living wage. Before that, staff went five years without a cost-of-living increase, he said.
Some overnight staff make minimum wage, he said, and the increase enacted last year provided a new cost to group homes without any extra money.
Sheran suggested that Walmart's hiring of 400 workers at more than $16 an hour would also put upward pressure on wages in this area.