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The word of the evening was compromise, and St. Cloud resident Don Bechtold struck the tone early. “You’re not in office to hold your ground and die standing, you’re here to compromise. I drove 10 miles to tell you that,” Bechtold said to GOP Reps. King Banaian and Steve Gottwalt and Sen. John Pederson, who hosted a town hall meeting Monday night. His comments triggered applause from nearly everyone packed tightly into the Haven Township Hall — more than 60 in all — while the legislators quietly nodded and took notes.

St. Cloud legislators take heat at town hall meeting

Rep. King Banaian and two of his GOP colleagues met with constituents on Monday. (Staff photo: Briana Bierschbach)

District could face more direct impacts than many others in a shutdown

The word of the evening was compromise, and St. Cloud resident Don Bechtold struck the tone early. “You’re not in office to hold your ground and die standing, you’re here to compromise. I drove 10 miles to tell you that,” Bechtold said to GOP Reps. King Banaian and Steve Gottwalt and Sen. John Pederson, who hosted a town hall meeting Monday night. His comments triggered applause from nearly everyone packed tightly into the Haven Township Hall — more than 60 in all — while the legislators quietly nodded and took notes.

With about one week to go before the July 1 deadline for a government shutdown, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican majorities remain stuck on how to solve a $5 billion budget deficit, the disagreement hinging on whether to raise taxes to help close the gap. Nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting, many of them employees at St. Cloud State University, carpenters, construction workers and some AFSCME members, put the blame on the GOP legislators.

“Shame on you guys,” said Darryl Cameron, a retired MnDOT employee from Sartell. “You tied your hands and went into budget negotiations and said you would not raise taxes. I see you in the newspaper getting thanked by businesses for what you’ve done, but you represent all of these people here tonight. Thank you and shame on you guys.”

The GOP legislators are under intense pressure in the district, where many employees working at colleges and other government facilities in the area could lose their jobs in the event of a shutdown. The district, which includes St. Cloud, Rockville, St. Augusta and Waite Park, leaned DFL in local races until the GOP wave of last fall. Pederson, a freshman senator, took over retiring DFL Sen. Tarryl Clark’s seat by less than a 2 percent margin, while Banaian, an economics professor at St. Cloud State University, defeated his DFL rival by just 10 votes last fall to claim an open seat. A constituent reminded Banaian of that fact at the meeting.

“You were elected in a district that is historically DFL by only 10 votes,” said Nicholas Snavely, who works for the Department of Natural Resources. “Don’t expect that to happen again.”

Banaian keeps his cool

Despite critical remarks, Banaian fared better than his two GOP colleagues as constituents railed on them over a whole gamut of issues, from the gay marriage amendment (authored by Gottwalt), higher education funding and Legacy Amendment dollars, to taxes, racino and photo identification at the polls. One person asked the legislators where they stood on the Vikings stadium issue, saying it was “hypocritical” for them to support millions of dollars in funding for a sports team while making deep cuts elsewhere.

While Pederson said he supported the stadium funding as long as it didn’t take dollars from the general fund, Banaian said he was a “dead-set no” on the project. “It’s a place where millionaires play and billionaires get richer,” he said to applause.

Banaian opposed Dayton’s tax plan but added that there are “other types of revenue we can find.” He cited revenue generated from slot machines at racetracks — or a racino — as an example. Earlier this session, Banaian also voted against the GOP’s so-called phase one budget bill because of the cuts made to higher education. His conciliatory tone was welcomed by people at the meeting.

Former DFL Rep. Larry Haws, whom Banaian replaced, said people in the district have viewed the freshman Republican as “surprisingly moderate.” “Most of the people in my district are moderate, and they think people should sit at the table and make decisions,” Haws said. “[Banaian has] listened to both sides and has brought some legislation specially for youth in the St. Cloud area and some of our poorer areas to help them in getting jobs and writing resumes. That will be good for him.”

But Banaian’s grip on the seat was “tenuous” from the start, said former DFL Rep. Joe Opatz, who held Banaian’s seat in the 1990s. And with the university butting up against a state government shutdown and possible closing, Opatz says Banaian is in an especially sensitive position balancing “issues at the Capitol and at home.”

“St. Cloud State and St. Cloud Tech are in his district,” Opatz said. “They have huge constituencies and provide a lot of employment. As a teacher, he understands the challenges facing higher education more than others. I don’t envy his situation.”

Anxiety over the unknown

Pederson, a former St. Cloud City Council member, was criticized for his votes to cut higher education funding under the Republican budget proposal. “Why do you have such disdain for educators in Minnesota?” one resident asked the first-term senator.

But Pederson instead started his speech by noting construction projects and money for a hockey center that he worked to bring to the area. Both Banaian and Pederson have supported bonding projects for the university’s science center and the St. Cloud Civic Center. Bonding projects, sources say, could be especially sweet deal-inducers for both lawmakers and voters in the area.

One person told the lawmakers that Dayton compromised, and now it was their turn. That prompted Gottwalt to interrupt. “No, he hasn’t,” said Gottwalt, who struck a more confrontational tone with meeting-goers than his GOP colleagues. “[Dayton] refuses to negotiate, he refuses to sign the bills, and he refuses to call a special session. There’s no compromise when there is no discussion.”

He continued: “I’ve got to tell you, those in the top 20 percent, those who make $190,000 or more, are paying over half of all taxes and 76 percent of the income taxes [in Minnesota],” Gottwalt said, to which someone in the crowd  interrupted and said, “They can afford it!”

Only one woman, Ruth Wollum, stood to defend the legislators’ position at the Capitol. She thanked them for all they had done and asked them to do what they could to “avoid negotiating with Gov. Dayton.”

Also on the legislators’ side, at least on their position to not raise taxes, was St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis, who also served as a Republican in the state Senate. But that doesn’t close the door to other types of revenue, he said. “In this fragile economy, raising taxes is the wrong way to go,” he said, noting that the city would construct a local casino “in a heartbeat” if legislation made way for a project.

For Kleis, most of the anxiety among residents stems from the uncertainty surrounding a government shutdown. “There has been no consistency on what could shut down if this happens,” he said, adding that it’s easier to go after the legislators than the governor if no budget deal is reached.

“The legislators are in each person’s hometown; the governor is remote,” Kleis said. “They go to your grocery store. They’re pumping gas where you are.”


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