U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips spent Wednesday learning about the Hennepin County Board’s proposed federal legislative wish list, promising to be a vocal advocate for the county’s light-rail projects, health care, the opioid crisis and homelessness.
“I was here to learn, listen, understand and explore,” said Phillips, a Democrat who defeated Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen in last year’s Third District election. “I view Hennepin County as a laboratory,” he said. “I want to take its best practices back to Washington and possibly expand them into national models and bring some federal ideas back to the county as well.”
County Commissioner Mike Opat called the hourlong meeting with Phillips “a breath of fresh air.” It was the first time in many years, he said, that the person representing Hennepin County’s western half in Congress has wanted to listen and try to help.
The County Board will vote Thursday on the legislative package, which includes requests for $179 million for two light-rail and two highway projects, $3 million for teenage pregnancy prevention, $10 million for a Hennepin Healthcare renovation project and $750,000 for an emergency homeless shelter program.
Phillips spent a good amount of time discussing the county’s teenage pregnancy prevention program. Hennepin and several other counties won a lawsuit last year to restore federal grants that President Donald Trump tried to eliminate because the program didn’t focus on abstinence. Opat said the county is outperforming the nation in efforts to combat teen pregnancy, and the board wanted to showcase its success in hopes of receiving additional funding.
On the topic of homelessness, the congressman underscored the importance of looking beyond the Band-Aid approach of providing more shelter space and instead treat the issues that lead a person to become homeless to begin with. He accepted an invitation from Commissioner Angela Conley to tour homeless shelters.
Other issues among the county’s priorities ranged from welfare reform to the restoration and preservation of tax cuts and tax credit programs. The legislative agenda also addresses easier access to mental health services, affordable housing through federal investments, reducing economic disparities and immigration reform.
“We need to get more federal dollars flowing into the county,” said Phillips. “This is a joint effort. We aren’t working in silos.”
County Administrator David Hough, County Attorney Michael Freeman and other county leaders were in attendance.
Opat said Phillips made it clear that he wants to be a “very outspoken advocate” for the Southwest and Bottineau light-rail projects, which require federal money.
County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene said it was easy for the board and the congressman to find topics of mutual interest. She said that Phillips left the meeting knowing that the county is leading the nation in several areas and that county leaders support him as a regional advocate.
“This felt like a different kind of relationship,” said Greene. “He knocked on our door for a meeting instead of the board having to come to him.”