Walz, Flanagan discuss housing, health care and more at Duluth listening session
More than 200 people packed into the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center's Horizon Room to share their hopes and concerns with Minnesota Gov.-elect Tim Walz Monday afternoon. And they had a lot to say.
What was scheduled to be a one-hour "listening session" stretched into more than 90 minutes of discussion, as more than 60 people peppered Walz and his soon-to-be lieutenant governor — Peggy Flanagan — with questions and pleas.
The discussion covered plenty of ground, touching on housing, health care, the environment and transportation, to name just a few of the issues raised.
Several speakers raised concerns about access to health care, including the preservation of Minnesota's Health Care Access Fund.
An emphatic Walz made clearly shared that priority, saying: "I want to be very clear. Elections have consequences, and we won by over 300,000 votes. And from the beginning of that campaign to the end, we talked about keeping the Health Care Access Fund in place and expanding MinnesotaCare buy-in to all citizens.
"The citizens of Minnesota voted in record numbers. We had a record turnout, and they knew exactly what we stood for. So I would expect the legislators who may be listening and who hear this to know: there is an expectation for you to follow the will of the people of Minnesota and to re-up the Health Care Access Fund and expand MinnesotaCare," Walz said.
Access to mental health care and help overcoming addiction also were a recurring theme.
Walz pledged: "We'll do everything we can to make sure that we decriminalize mental health issues and addiction issues and move those into the light."
Richard Gehrke, who works for Lutheran Social Service's emergency shelter program for homeless youth in Duluth, said: "On any given night, there are 175 homeless youths out on the street."
"It is critical that we expand low-income and affordable housing for all citizens in the state of Minnesota," he said.
"It is critical that the programs that work with these at-risk youth have adequate funding and adequate resources to do our job, to make sure that homelessness is a one-time, rare and short-term occurrence. I'm asking you, Tim, to put me out of a job today," Gehrke said.
Nancy Cashman, who works for Center City Housing, said many Duluth continues to deal with many homeless families. "We have a lot of them here in the state of Minnesota. Half of the homeless people are children, and most of of those are under the age of 6," she said, noting that homelessness continues to be a problem, despite historically low unemployment rates.
"We have a lot of children that aren't getting the services they need," she said. "We see those kids go from being in our program with their families to being teenagers and young adults in homeless programs to being older and ending up in jail and then struggling to find housing. So we need to figure out how to help that most vulnerable group."
Walz said how the state allocates its resources says a lot about Minnesotans' values.
"Budgets are fiscal documents and reflect our responsibility to be good stewards of every single taxpayer penny. But budgets are also moral documents that are a reflection of the things we value," he said.
Walz said his administration is "talking to taxpayers about these investments that in the long run, not only improve and enhance the quality of life, not only let us meet our moral obligations to our fellow human beings, but they're also smart in the long run, in terms of economic growth."
Kathy Heltzer said that when Walz picks his next commissioner of transportation, "I'm hoping they're all about fixing the streets in the city of Duluth, because Duluthians overwhelmingly voted to raise our own taxes."
She pointed to a referendum in which more than three-quarters of Duluth voters indicated their support for a plan to increase the local sales tax to pay for street repairs and asked Walz to support that effort.
Walz praised Mayor Emily Larson and the people of Duluth for tackling a difficult issue on their own and said: "The city of Duluth had to do that because there was no courage and no vision and no capacity of folks in St. Paul to do what needed to be done by fixing roads, because as Duluth goes, so goes Mankato, and we're in this together."
"The reason that had to be done was an abject failure, especially in the statehouse. This election again has consequences. I said we need to invest in our streets, our roads, our bridges, light rail, passenger rail, transit — things that improve our state and look to the next generation — and Minnesotans said: Yes."
Walz said the Minnesota Legislature demonstrated tremendous "audacity" when it failed to sign off on the proposed local sales tax last session despite the convincing referendum vote and pledged: "Those days are over. That's what I have to say."
In the wake of a frightening refinery fire in Superior, Ginger Juel asked Walz to join Mayor Larson in pushing for Husky Energy to cease a processing method that involves the use of a dangerous chemical called hydrogen fluoride. She warned that an accidental release of hydrogen fluoride could result in a disaster along the lines of the chemical release from a Union Carbide facility in Bhopal, India, in 1984, an event that killed more than 3,700 people.
"The refining industry is lucrative. ... They have the money to install a better alternative," Juel said, warning that the chemical poses a danger to public health when it is in transit to the Superior plant, as well.
Walz said he would call for full disclosure of the potential risks associated with the use and transport of chemicals, such as hydrogen fluoride.
"Citizens have the right to know what chemicals are coming by their house, what is being produced, what their children are eating or drinking. That is a basic human right, so our commitment is to make that easier."
Several speakers, including Carl Sack, suggested the risks of allowing for the construction of new oil pipelines or new copper-nickel mining facilities in the Northland were not worth the risks involved.
"I feel strongly that those of us living downstream of projects like PolyMet, which we know is the tip of the arrowhead for dozens of potential sulfide-mining projects ... have not been adequately listened to and considered," he said.
Sack also spoke out against a proposed pipeline, saying: "Here we have a river of the dirtiest fossil fuel in the world coming straight through the top tier of our state, and we had the Public Utilities Commission ignore the state's Department of Commerce in approving the Line 3 Pipeline, which is not needed. So I hope your administration could put pressure on the PUC to reverse that decision."
But Craig Olson, president of the Duluth Building and Construction Trades Council, said skilled workers are up to the task.
"Give the men and women of the building trades a chance to build precious metal mining and transportation pipelines. And we'll build it right. We'll build it union. We'll build it correct," he said.