Our main focus at the Capitol right now is advancing our bills which encompass a new state budget. We’re working to ensure our budget over the next two years can help workers, students, families, and small businesses not only emerge from this crisis, but truly have the opportunity to succeed once we’ve put COVID-19 in the rear-view mirror. The House Ways and Means Committee is spending a good deal of time examining the budget bills before we consider them on the House Floor starting tomorrow.
Hibbing Public Utilities has been in existence since 1895 and has served as part of the backbone of Hibbing. I had the honor to take a tour of HPU last week and spend several hours with new General Manager Luke Peterson, Commissioner Jeffrey Stokes, and multiple employees. There’s no secret the organization has experienced hard times, dysfunction and turmoil over the last several years. Under the new leadership, I was astounded to see how the work atmosphere and morale have drastically improved. I spent time with most of the female employees to share their perspectives from what had been a very male-dominated workplace for a long time. I got to sit in on a call with an energy expert in Iceland who’s working specifically with municipal utilities there and sees many parallels with HPU. I got to learn about their work to keep multiple energy options on the table to keep costs affordable and energy reliable, including natural gas, coal, and renewables and after a three-year shutdown, they are back to generating their own energy.
Much of our discussion centered on how the consequences HPU has faced due to the polar vortex which gripped the southern United States this February. When the polar vortex hit the southern United States, it wreaked havoc on energy systems that weren’t equipped to withstand the sudden cold. As a result, the price of natural gas skyrocketed over 70 times. A municipal utility like HPU simply doesn’t have the capacity or the cash flow to budget for such a massive price hike because their contracts and purchase agreements are so much shorter. Over a nine-day span, HPU experienced a $1.6 million increase in natural gas costs that – as a municipal-owned utility – get passed on to the owners, which are ratepayers.
I got to see how General Manager Peterson is being forthcoming and transparent in his communication with residents, and a payment plan has been made available. In Saint Paul, legislation is advancing in the House with $100 million of funding directly toward utility customers struggling to pay their bills and $15 million in aid to help municipal utilities with cash flow. We’re hoping federal dollars will be available for these purposes, and I continue to work with Representative Jamie Long, who chairs the House Energy and Climate Committee, the Commerce Department, and the Walz administration to explore ideas to get aid to help consumers with their bills.
Overall though, the visit was one of my highlights of serving in the Legislature so far. Last night, I also had the opportunity to share some comments with the HPU Commission, which you can watch here. To have seen how dysfunctional the utility had been just a short time ago, with terrible morale, to now being a vibrant workplace with positive attitudes, energy generation, and an understanding and commitment to the ratepayer has given me a renewed sense of “community” happening in Hibbing!
All Minnesota students deserve a world-class education, but COVID-19 has been an incredible struggle for students, parents, and educators. Communities are counting on honest investments that support students so they can get caught up after a difficult year. Our House DFL E-12 education budget stabilizes school investments with a two percent per pupil increase each of the next two years, with additional increases the following two years so schools can do long-term strategic planning and be confident that they will have the resources they need. Under the proposal, voluntary Pre-Kindergarten programming that would otherwise expire is protected for 4,000 of Minnesota’s youngest learners. House DFLers are also prioritizing the needs of students and teachers after an unprecedented year with funding for full-service community schools, and targeted aid for more rigorous coursework, individualized tutoring, and mental health support.
Additionally, we also recently passed a summer learning plan that aims to help students catch up and recover. The bill provides funding for summer programs, tutoring, hands-on learning, mental health services, and more.
Over three million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have now been administered in Minnesota. It’s important that we continue preparing for a post-COVID-19 state and that includes measures to remove restrictions and draw down certain emergency authorities from the Governor. We’re also examining Minnesota’s emergency management laws to determine how our handling of a future situation like a pandemic can be improved. I recently spoke with MinnPost about this important work.
Despite our progress in getting Minnesotans vaccinated we’re seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, fueled by highly contagious variants. While we’re not out of the woods, light is at the end of the tunnel. Get vaccinated when it’s your turn, wear a mask around others, and practice social distancing. Minnesota’s Vaccine Connector will alert you about vaccine opportunities; sign up here.
Please continue to contact me with your input, ideas, or if I can ever be of assistance. It’s an honor to represent you.