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Mid-session update: Sen. Kent, Rep. Xiong talk state budget, MNLARS, paid family leave

Rep. Tou Xiong (left) and Sen. Susan Kent at a mid-session legislative update March 15, 2019, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Oakdale. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

OAKDALE — With the state legislative session at the halfway point, Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-District 53, and Rep. Tou Xiong, DFL-53A, appeared in front of a crowd of about 20 constituents Friday morning at the Hilton Garden Inn in Oakdale to provide an update on key issues.

Kent said the Legislature's "number one job" is coming up with a budget for the next two years.

"We don't get to act like Congress — we have to balance our budget," she said.

The budget would go into effect July 1.

As a new legislator, Xiong said he was "following Susan's leadership" when it comes to what bills to support and what legislation would be most important to their constituency.

Xiong also highlighted an effort in the Legislature to make the lawmaking process more transparent by putting an end to "past-midnight meetings where the public isn't even aware of what we're discussing."

Asked about her working relationship with Gov. Tim Walz, Kent called it is "really great."

"But more importantly ... what I keep hearing is my Republican colleagues talking about that they feel like they have a good relationship with him," she said.

Kent called a recent discussion with Walz and other legislators about fixing MNLARS, the state's vehicle licensing and registration system, "very productive."

When asked about the price tag, Kent said she didn't know.

"But we're getting really close and we're making a lot of progress," she said.

Kent pointed out that a business in the private sector the size of MNLARS, which she said does over $1 billion in sales in a year, would normally spend 4 percent of its budget on IT — a figure she said MNLARS is nowhere close to.

Kent and Xiong also warned against getting too excited about a surplus in the budget because the state is "already in a deficit situation" for the upcoming biennial budget. Kent attributed this to commercial property and Social Security tax cuts from several years ago designed to increase over time.

"I'm not arguing about (it), I'm just saying this is math," she said.

Paid family leave

One of Kent's main projects is a bill offering paid leave for employees of small- and medium-sized companies.

The bill proposes a system where employers and employees would contribute to a pool of money that employees would be able to pull from if they need to take maternal or paternal leave, major illness or injury leave, or care for a close family member.

As Kent explained it, if an employee needed to take leave, the employer would stop paying them during that time and the employee would receive partial pay out of the pool of money. The employer would then be able to afford overtime pay for current employees, for example, to help fill in the gaps.

Kent said there would be an option for businesses to opt out if they were able to show they could provide comparable benefits.

She said she is "working through" how the bill would include self-employed people.

Transportation and gas tax

Prompted by an audience question, Kent addressed current efforts to repair the I-94/I-494/I-694 interchange and bridge.

"I hope everybody knows that's not a fix — that's a Band-Aid," she said. "It'll help with some of the merging situations ... but we really need to rebuild."

Kent said she and Xiong are working on a $210 million bonding bill to tackle the issue, though she said even that amount of money may not be enough.

"We know it has to be done — I've been banging pots and pans on that one for years," Kent said.

When asked if she supports the 20-cent per gallon gas tax increase over two years proposed by Walz, Kent said she was "still looking at the numbers."

Xiong added that "the gas tax isn't a long-term answer, but it's something that we need now" for road and bridge repairs.

Coming up

Kent and Rep. Steve Sandell, DFL-53B, will hold a listening session alongside Attorney General Keith Ellison from 6-7:30 p.m. Monday, March 25, at Central Park in Woodbury. It is free to attend and open to the public.

Hannah Black

Hannah Black is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. She is a proud graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. Outside of reporting, she enjoys running, going to museums and trying new coffee shops. Her favorite thing to do is spend time with her dog, Wendell.

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