BC, BP politicians head citizen town hall

From left: Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center), Sen. Chris Eaton (DFL-Brooklyn Center), and Rep. Mike Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) took questions during an April 1 town hall meeting at Brooklyn Center Community Center. (Sun Post staff photo by Christiaan Tarbox)
From left: Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center), Sen. Chris Eaton (DFL-Brooklyn Center), and Rep. Mike Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) took questions during an April 1 town hall meeting at Brooklyn Center Community Center. (Sun Post staff photo by Christiaan Tarbox)

A trio of Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park elected officials headed a special weekend town hall meeting to answer questions and address concerns of their constituents.

During an April 1 panel at the Brooklyn Center Community Center, Sen. Chris Eaton (DFL-Brooklyn Center), Rep. Mike Nelson (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) took questions from Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park residents revolving around issues affecting their lives. A variety of issues were broached during the meeting, notably the topic of health care.

One couple in attendance mentioned the difficulty in having a choice for an insurance carrier. They said they paid $14,000 to have insurance, with a $6,500 deductible. When asked what Minnesotans can do to protect health care, Eaton said the main goal is to ensure that everybody has health care.

“I think eventually we need to go universal care, where the insurance industry can get paid by the state,” said Eaton. “I think that we’ve put these middlemen in there that are making a lot of money off of people’s health, and I think health care should be a right, and not something that we have to beg for.”

When asked if there was a timeline for such a system in Minnesota, Nelson noted that it was currently up in the air in the Legislature.

“A lot of what we can do is dictated to us by the federal government, and until they fix it there or change it there, that’s the uncertainty … because we don’t know what the federal government’s going to do,” said Nelson. “They tried to get rid of it last week, and they failed, so now we don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not MNsure that makes the payments and sets the rates – it’s the insurance companies.”

“These insurance companies are required to maintain reserves,” Eaton added. “But those reserves come out of our tax dollars that have been given to them for the insurance products. If they go to for-profit, they can just take that money… and go.”

Also brought up during the town hall was a query on how the state planned to fund the state pension plan. Nelson, who formerly served on the Legislature’s pension committee, said Minnesotans need to make sure that they’re paying for future liabilities.

“The people that are working now are paying for their future liabilities, but … what happens is that the market goes up and down, and that’s where 70 percent of the money that pays your pension plans … goes up or goes flat,” said Nelson. “For 2008, most of our pension plans were near 100 percent funded. When the market crashed, our funds went down.

“The pension commission’s working at whether there’s a bill this year to fix that,” he added. “The more you put off fixing the problem, the bigger the problem gets.”

Hilstrom said that the House is currently debating whether or not the state should change the tax rate for the income of Social Security paid by taxpayers.

“In the tax bill, there is a provision to reduce the taxes that you pay to Minnesota based on your Social Security,” said Hilstrom. “I don’t know if that will become law, but those are the discussion points that we’re having.”

Another question raised by a constituent was what the state government was doing to curb tobacco use by young people. Eaton said that she had a bill ready to raise the legal smoking age to 21, but was convinced to put it on hold when a number of minority communities expressed worry that police would take advantage of it to profile minority youth.

“We got rid of some of the loitering laws so they weren’t harassing some of the younger black males in particular,” said Eaton. “They’re afraid that if they saw somebody who looked under 21 smoking, then (police) would have an excuse to harass that person. I don’t know what to do about that. The organizations that work on that issue have asked me to hold my bill until they finish negotiating with the different groups.”

Public safety was likewise broached, especially the issue of gun control and constitutional carry laws for handguns. Hilstrom, the lead Democrat on the House Public Safety Committee, noted a proposal this year to bring a Stand Your Ground law to Minnesota.

“It was laid over, and we were told we would not see it again this year,” said Hilstrom. “However, the folks who are in favor of it gave so much pressure to the chair … (that he) decided that he had to pass that bill out of his committee. I do anticipate that it will come to the House floor, but the Senate is not hearing it, and I do not anticipate that it will become law this year.”

The second proposal Hilstrom mentioned reaching the Legislature was a constitutional carry bill, which would allow citizens to carry a gun without a permit.

“What you need to know is I worked on this issue before, and in Minnesota, we do have a requirement that in the background check, they look to see if you are not competent,” said Hilstrom. “In Minnesota, law enforcement will know… whether or not you have been found not competent by a court. If you have been found not competent, you cannot get a gun permit here in Minnesota. So whatever they do federally, you need to know that we have put in the protections in Minnesota law.”

Hilstrom, a lawyer who has prosecuted those who have illegally sold or used firearms, said that she didn’t personally fear law-abiding citizens owning guns, but believed that conflicts arise when both sides fail to compromise.

“The folks who believe in your right to carry a handgun, they are not opposed to background checks,” she said. “What they’re opposed to is when you actually require them to go to a federally licensed firearms dealer to transfer any gun, because they believe that puts them in a database. And when they say that’s a ‘gun registry,’ that’s the part they’re talking about. If we just started actually listening to one another, we probably could actually get to some compromise that both sides could agree with. The problem is we’ve stopped listening to one another.”

Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected]