On Wednesday, March 27, Minnesota District 16B Rep. Paul Torkelson and District 16 Sen. Gary Dahms, visited with constituents on their Easter break to hear what concerns and issues are affecting the community of Sleepy Eye.
Early on it became clear the two main issues that are most concerning residents in Sleepy Eye are the proposed cut in funding for the Health and Human Services budget and legislation on utilities that could affect the cost of energy across the state.
Legislators have recently proposed cutting $150 million from the Health and Human Services budget, shrinking the governor’s proposed $11.3 billion budget for Health and Human Services to $11.2 billion.
The Health and Human Services budget serves some of the sickest, poorest and oldest Minnesotans and the agencies, hospitals and nursing homes that care for them.
What isn’t sitting well with administration in the Health and Human Services agencies in Sleepy Eye is that while their budget is being slashed, almost all other budgets saw increases.
“Our challenges are finding staff and paying competitive wages,” Volunteers of America (VOA) Sleepy Eye Senior Living Campus Administrator Pam Adams told Dahms and Torkelson. “There have been no wage increases for the past eight years. This is a physically demanding occupation. Who will stay without a wage increase and how will we recruit staff?”
Brenda Forbrook, Director of Adult Day Services said she has been in the nursing industry for the past 42 years and the director of the Adult Day Services in Sleepy Eye for the past 11 years. She explained that throughout the years she has seen a lot of changes, but this year is disappointing.
“We are passionate about the work we do for the elderly. We assist people who are citizens of this country and we care for vulnerable adults.” she said. “Let’s take care of our elderly. If these homes close, thousands of dollars will be lost in our community.”
Rep. Torkelson explained that of the 19 small towns in his district many times the nursing homes are the largest employers of those communities.
“When nursing homes and Human Services are the biggest industries in small towns and they are having funding difficulties, it affects the whole community,” he said. “This is a big issue for us in southern Minnesota. Leadership in the House is all metro which makes it hard for us to be treated fairly. We are alarmed at what is going on.”
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Sen. Dahms added there is a bipartisan rural caucus for health care that has prompted movement on bills and allowed greater Minnesota to have a voice and be heard.
“We will be putting a lot of push-back on the budget decrease,” Dahms said, adding that once the bills are heard, e-mails to those committees who have heard the bills can make a difference.
Discussion then turned to a renewable energy standard.
The state’s first solar energy targets are the centerpiece of a broad omnibus energy bill approved by a House Energy Policy Committee aimed at ramping up the state’s green energy efforts. The bill, comprised of several energy policy bills, includes provisions that would increase the required level of electrical retail sales from renewable energy sources the state’s utilities are required to make, upping the standard from 25 to 40 percent.
The bill also proposes Minnesota’s first targets for the amount of solar-generated energy the state’s utilities must provide, setting a standard of four percent by 2025. It would require those utilities to pay a higher rate to private businesses and homes that generate solar energy to the electrical grid. The bill also proposes a 1.3 percent fee on utilities to help pay for the solar incentives.
Bob Weiss, Chairman of the Sleepy Eye Public Utilities Commission, said that the prospect of requiring public utility companies to buy into solar energy will cost consumers more and will likely not offer any benefits.
Torkelson explained he is aware of the bill.
“I’m not against solar power, but I’m against making people pay for it.” he said, adding that this could also be bad for Minnesota’s economy because prospective businesses looking to locate in Minnesota are also looking at the cost of energy. Solar energy, he said, is only about 15 percent effective in Minnesota.
Elmer Guggisberg, Brown County Rural Electrical Association (REA) board director added that utility companies already have the ability to provide the energy that is needed for the community and increasing reliance upon more expense, less reliable forms of energy and would lead to higher utility costs for ratepayers.
Marcia Heiling of REA agreed.
“All mandates force people to pay more. We are a co-op of 4,000 members. This would have an effect on rural Minnesota,” she added.
Dahms and Torkelson wrapped up the hour long meeting encouraging those with concerns to contact them.