The last time the Minnesota House of Representatives met outside the city of St. Paul was in 1997; Republican Arne Carlson was governor, the Red River brought recording flooding, and 15-year-old Ivanka Trump had appeared on the cover of Seventeen magazine.
Starting Wednesday, the tradition of legislative jaunts to greater Minnesota is being revived as lawmakers sweep through Rochester, Austin and Winona and other southeastern communities on a three-day “mini-session” that’s part listening session, issues forum, fact-finding mission and country tour.
There will be no bills to vote on, nor any formal hearings. But a message will be sent after a 22-year-hiatus that a growing number of lawmakers want to pay more attention to greater Minnesota.
“It gained traction now because we have heard, particularly those of us in greater Minnesota … that the Legislature tends to be too metro-centric,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, a Democrat who has represented Winona for more than three decades and was involved the last time his city hosted a legislative gathering 30 years ago.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, offered another reason: It’s a chance for deeper dives into policy issues, removed from the pressures of daily legislative sausage-making during the regular session that will resume — barring a special session — in February.
Pelowski said he will be watching to see if the fall gathering sets the stage for a more productive session next year.
“We certainly have not been able to get our work done in the 120 days over two years that we’re allotted,” he said of the regular session. “I’ve made the argument that we should use the interims to better understand what we did, and then to plan better what we’re going to do.”
Organizers of the event, which centers around Winona and is expected to draw more than 100 legislators, say the hearings and tours might jump-start policy changes and build common ground across political divides. Others fear it could be a waste of $100,000.
But the partisanship that often leads to inaction during the regular session will likely be on display this week. Republicans have criticized the DFL’s decision to leave out a discussion of the management problems and whistleblower complaints that have surfaced this year at the state Department of Human Services.
“If we’re all getting together at some large expense, I think we have to talk about the biggest issues and controversies since the last time we met,” said Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
Also absent from the agenda are DFL priorities such as gun control and emergency insulin legislation, the topic of a potential special session if Gov. Tim Walz, the Republican-led Senate and Democratic House leaders can come all come to terms. However, House members said they will likely touch on insulin during a broader discussion about prescription drugs Wednesday.
The idea of a mini-session did not come up when Republicans were in the House majority in 2015 through 2018, Daudt said. But he said individual committees held hearings outside of St. Paul — a practice that continued under Democratic leadership this year.
“If we actually dig in and we’re trying to work together to solve some problems then it’s probably a bargain and money well-spent,” Daudt said. “If it’s all a dog-and-pony show and we don’t actually talk about the biggest issues that are facing Minnesotans, then it really wasn’t worth it.”
Daudt said the agenda has been “light and late to come to us.” Local leaders in southeast Minnesota helped shape the workload, and the agenda was still being tweaked the week before the event. Even Tuesday, the topics of a discussion at the Prairie Island Indian Community had not been decided.
Some lawmakers will tour the Mayo Clinic in Rochester and talk about prescription drug costs. Others will visit universities, technical colleges and high schools in Austin and Winona that are trying to plug graduates into local workforce gaps and stem the migration to bigger cities. One committee will listen to property tax woes in Caledonia.
A test run
As in years past, the event only involves the House. More than three-quarters of the membership is slated to attend. The Senate has no plans to hold its own version, but Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said in a statement that bringing the Legislature to people outside St. Paul is a great idea. He noted the Senate’s bonding committee currently is in northwestern Minnesota on its second tour and the jobs committee visited several communities since the last regular session.
Both Pelowski and Hortman described this week as a test run that will determine whether the House continues the tradition in different regions of the state. Hortman said the House will probably survey legislators and the public afterward about whether the event was worthwhile.
A 46-person planning committee of community leaders, from sheriffs to business executives, have been gathering throughout the summer to come up with a plan for the mini-session. They worked out logistics and talked about topics to cover.
For businesses, a major issue is how to find employees amid the statewide workforce shortage, said Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom. She said she has also heard about the need to allow immigrants, regardless of their legal status, to get driver’s licenses so they can drive to work. House Democrats have been pressing for that change, so far without success.
Winona City Manager Stephen Sarvi hopes seeing and hearing about the city’s needs could translate to state dollars for trail systems, port development and workforce housing. The legislators’ firsthand experience will create shared reference points and a deeper understanding of the issues residents will bring to the Capitol next year, said Winona State University President Scott Olson, who co-chaired the mini-session planning committee with Pelowski.
“There’s a richness to walking our campus and walking our community,” Olson said. “That means the next time I’m up there telling a story they will snap right in and I can say, ‘Hey, remember when you were in Winona and you met that student who was talking about their challenges with food insecurity or their need for state support?’ ”