By Mark Fischenich
Free Press Staff Writer
— State Sen. Julie Rosen has been in the Senate for a decade, but her prominence reached a pinnacle last spring when the Fairmont Republican ushered a bill through the Senate to build a new $975 million football stadium.
Diehard fans of the Vikings, who expected the team to leave Minnesota as soon as next year without a new stadium, applauded Rosen (and House stadium sponsor Morrie Lanning and Gov. Mark Dayton) for leading the bill through a legislative minefield. Her fellow lawmakers offered mixed reviews.
“It is vastly improved for the taxpayers of Minnesota,” a Minneapolis Democratic senator said on the Senate floor. “... You’ve done a marvelous job keeping this on track.”
Republican Sen. Al DeKruif, R-Elysian, had a very different view of the process by which the legislation moved through the Legislature: “I don’t know if they were broken, but there certainly were rules that were bent.”
As Rosen runs for a fourth Senate term, though, the high-profile stadium bill isn’t emphasized by her or her opponent — rural Eagle Lake Democrat Paul Marquardt. The stadium bill was only the grand finale of 48 bills Rosen sponsored and passed during the 2011-12 legislative session.
“It was a very productive last two years,” said Rosen, who credits her work ethic, her personality and her experience for her legislative success. “You have to build relationships and learn how to get things done.”
Marquardt isn’t critical of the stadium bill (other than Rosen’s failure to get a more iron-clad guarantee that the Vikings would keep their training camp in Mankato). His primary complaint isn’t even with Rosen herself as much as with the Republican majority she supports.
“They got hung up on constitutional amendments that were just a complete waste of time and taxpayer money,” said Marquardt, a retired union plumber. “... They created no jobs. And on top of that, we lost our homestead credit.”
Compromise and politics
Although Rosen portrays herself as a strong voice for outstate Minnesota, Marquardt said she too often backed her party over the best interests of her rural district.
“Where was your voice when we lost our property tax credit?” he said. “... At some point, you have to get out of your partisan voice and lead.”
Marquardt said he wants to go to St. Paul to work on common-sense legislation — with a special emphasis on protecting the middle class.
“You get sent up there to work together and pass decent legislation that’s fair to everybody,” he said, suggesting Republicans are pushing too much of the tax burden on to people making $50,000 a year and less. “I think they’re just getting completely out of touch with how people live out here in the district.”
He describes himself as “a guy that’s worked long hours my whole life, lived the American dream, retired at 55, kept my nose clean, worked hard ... ”
After serving in the U.S. Army at the start of his career, Marquardt said he’s ready to help in another way now: “I feel at the end of my career, I can serve as well.”
Rosen said the tidal wave of Republican votes in the 2010 election, which gave her party control of the Senate for the first time in nearly four decades, brought some fringe members into the Republican caucus. The same thing happens, however, when Democrats win big.
“Whenever you flip into a majority and add a bunch of people, you’re always going to have people who are from the far left or the far right,” she said. “... Trust me, you only have to go back two years and you can say the same thing about the DFL caucus.”
Part of Rosen’s challenge was explaining to her new colleagues — especially conservative Republican freshmen from the Twin Cities metro area — about serious issues facing rural Minnesota communities, farms and institutions.
She said she’s performed well — during eight years in the minority and two years in the majority — because she can work with Republicans and Democrats to get legislation passed.
“At some point, you have to decide: Where’s the common ground?” Rosen said. “And there has to be some compromise in your blood.”
Taxes and budgets
One place where Rosen won’t compromise is on Dayton’s proposal to create a new fourth tax rate for the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners. That one makes Rosen’s blood boil.
“It’s totally unacceptable,” she said. “... That’s ridiculous. We’re going to have people flocking out of here.”
Taxation and budgeting are where differences between Rosen and Marquardt really become clear.
Marquardt is deeply critical of the Republican-controlled Legislature’s performance leading up to the three-week partial government shutdown when they and Dayton couldn’t reach agreement on a new two-year state budget. Dayton compromised on his tax proposal by reducing the number of wealthier Minnesotans impacted by his tax hikes and by agreeing to additional spending cuts.
In Marquardt’s view, legislative leaders just dug in their heels — a recurring theme of the party for several years.
“About the last four or five years, about all they’ve been doing is going up there and hitting the ‘No’ button,” he said. “You’ve got to work across the aisle and get some things done.”
Dayton was just trying to ease some of the budget impacts on average Minnesotans by asking the wealthiest to pay more, according to Marquardt.
“At some point we’ve got to be done pulling the wagon here and it’s got to be a shared sacrifice.”
Rosen said its inevitable that the most attention at the Capitol will go to the loudest voices involved in the surliest debates. But lost in the rancor was a lot of good work that was accomplished in a more quiet way.
“For the most part, I’m very pleased with what we accomplished,” she said.
The budget, after years of recurring multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls, is in better shape.
“You can’t dispute that we had a $6 billion deficit when we started two years ago and we have a $1 billion surplus right now,” Rosen said.
Not all is well. A $1.4 billion shortfall is projected for the next two-year budget cycle, not counting the cost of repaying more than $1 billion owed to K-12 schools due — an accounting shift that helped resolve the budget impasse and end the government shutdown.
“Is the school shift proper? No. Nobody likes to do that,” Rosen said. “But we had to balance the budget, and that was the most agreeable way to do that.”
Marquardt’s campaign includes a call for term limits for lawmakers and for streamlining permitting processes to get job-creating business expansions in place more quickly.
While those proposals have been offered previously by political candidates, Marquardt also has a novel job-creation idea of his own.
With corn selling at $8 a bushel, Minnesota’s ethanol plants are in danger of shutting down, he said. So why not let them add oil refining capacity so that petroleum from the North Dakota oil boom is turned into vehicle fuel at small refineries at ethanol plants around the state?
The oil could be moved from a pipeline planned for the eastern Dakotas via rail to ethanol plants, he said, because ethanol plants are built on rail lines.
“You’d have a bunch of mini-refineries, and you’d get farmers into the oil game,” he said.
Rosen talks about legislation she’s already gotten into law, and there’s a bunch. She successfully passed anti-methamphetamine legislation earlier in her career, which was credited for greatly reducing the epidemic of meth labs in rural Minnesota.
More recently, she ushered a community paramedic bill through the Legislature that allows paramedics to provide certain health care services that previously were provided after frequent and expensive ambulance trips to hospital emergency rooms.
“This one has gone almost viral across the U.S.,” she said.
Other legislation helped rural nursing homes, streamlined and fixed a grant program for renewable energy, strengthened public pension programs. There are dozens of other Rosen bills that became law — none prompting people to sing “Skoal Vikings” upon passage — but important to her nonetheless.
Personality and politics
Rosen is virtually never in the middle of the partisan warfare that draws TV time and other media coverage — an activity that appears to be a priority of some of her legislative colleagues.
“There’s a lot of energy wasted on things like that,” she said. “And I figure if you’ve got that kind of energy, why don’t you use it to get things done.”
Marquardt said he knows he’s a long shot against Rosen, who won 62 percent of the vote in 2006 and had no DFL opponent in 2010. He’s been doing door-knocking, participating in forums, running some radio ads in Blue Earth and Fairmont.
And he’s got his lawn signs — blaze orange with a target on the back — demonstrating his “pro-gun” beliefs.
“It’s David going against Goliath. I realize that. And I realized that going in,” said Marquardt, who wanted to make sure voters had an alternative after what he saw as a dysfunctional Republican-led legislative session. “I don’t believe in anybody running unopposed.”
Senate District 23 includes all of Blue Earth County, other than the cities of Mankato, Skyline and Eagle Lake and the townships of Lime and Mankato. It also includes Watonwan County, Martin County, southeastern Le Sueur County (including the cities and townships of Elysian and Waterville), the western half of Waseca County (including Janesville, New Richland and Waldorf) and most of Faribault County (excluding Kiester, Walter and Wells and nearby townships).