Before heading back to D.C. this week, U.S. Sen. Al Franken sat down with the News Tribune Editorial Board. He was asked about President Donald Trump, Duluth's crumbling streets, copper-nickel mining, how a federal budget deal can be reached, and other matters. Here's some of what he had to say in the exclusive interview.
News Tribune Editorial Board: After the August recess, Congress will be focused on federal budget negotiations and tax reform. Will we have a budget compromise?
U.S. Sen. Al Franken: "We're going to have to or we're going to shut down government, and I think everyone has figured out that doesn't do anybody any good."
EB: What do you hope happens with regard to tax reform?
AF: "I want to focus on small business, and I don't want to see tax cuts going to those who have been the ones doing well in the last 40 years, which is the top."
EB: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed cutting billions from public schools and shifting funding via vouchers to private schools and for-profit charter schools.
AF: "I'm against that. ... They measured the results of voucher programs in Indiana ... and they were markedly bad. They had not seen these kinds of numbers before. It actually was surprising to the people who study this stuff. ... I'm all for charter schools. I'm all for public charters. They're fine. ... You don't want to be sending public-school money - there are inequities as it is with real estate values and all that kind of stuff - so you don't want to exacerbate that by doing what she's talking about doing."
EB: What specifically concerns you about the Trump administration's proposal for education?
AF: "They would do things like take away 21st Century Learning Centers that keep schools open from like 3 to 6 (p.m.). And I've been to a number of schools in the state where becoming a 21st Century Learning Center has made all the difference in the graduation rate. ... The number-one determinant of whether a kid graduates is, 'Does he or she find something that she enjoys or likes (in school), whether it's a teacher or a sport or being in the band or just academics?' All these things happen after school: getting extra help from a teacher or you can be in a culinary class or you can be in singing in the rain or you can be in a play. You don't even have to be in it; you can be doing the costumes for it."
EB: If President Trump, for whatever reason, doesn't finish his term, will the nation be better off with a President Mike Pence?
AF: "They're just very different. I have a problem with Pence's ideology. And I think that's how you got your DeVos and (EPA Administrator Scott) Pruitt and (U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom) Price and (Budget Director Mick) Mulvaney, who are all sort of either House members who had a pretty right-wing ideological track record or had worked with (Vice President Pence) in Indiana. ... So I have problems with him ideologically. I have problems with Trump in terms of his personality. Part of the job of president is sort of being someone who brings people together, and I don't think he does a good job of that."
EB: What has to happen on health care?
AF: "I'd like to see competition increase. I would personally like to see public option so there can't be a county in the country that doesn't have an insurer, and right now we've seen a lot of insurance companies come in and fill those counties that didn't have someone. ... Also, we need to address pharmaceutical costs. We've seen a huge spike in the last three years. I have a very comprehensive bill to address that, one that would allow Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceuticals. ... We also need to be able to reimport drugs. We pay more than any other country for drugs."
EB: Duluth's mayor has proposed a half-percent sales tax to fix streets. Is there something the federal government can do to help municipalities and local governments keep up with infrastructure maintenance?
AF: "Yeah, if we had like a trillion-dollar infrastructure package (as Trump proposed without following through)? ... The one thing he said (in his speech on Afghanistan on Aug. 21), which I think everyone agrees with, and it was a smart thing to say, was that we're not nation-building (abroad anymore). And I think that had been decided as a country, that nation-building (abroad) was a bad idea. People want us to be paving our roads in Duluth and not in Kandahar. ... If we had a real (federal) infrastructure bill, (that) would have been a good first thing for the president to put forward."
EB: Northeastern Minnesota's debate over copper-nickel mining continues. Is the choice mining jobs or the environment?
AF: "It can't be either-or. We do mining here on the Iron Range, and we've been doing it for what, 125 years, and obviously iron ore is the mining we've been doing. I think copper-nickel is - as I've always said, we have to follow the science. And that takes a long time. The only thing worse than taking a really long time getting it right is getting it wrong. ... I think there is a distinction to be made between PolyMet and Twin Metals because Twin Metals is in the Boundary Waters watershed, the Rainy River watershed, and that's, again, we need to go with the science. But I don't want, it's crazy to risk the watershed there without doing the proper science and having some patience."