Martin Co. seeks aid for new jail

FAIRMONT — Officials from Martin County recently testified at the State Capitol, seeking funds to help with construction of a new justice center.

Martin County is asking the state for $20 million as it contends with deficiencies at the law enforcement center and courthouse, both in Fairmont. State Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, and state Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, are sponsoring the county’s request, which could be incorporated into a state bonding bill, if a bonding bill is approved this year.

Last year, the local Justice Center Study Committee identified several options that include renovating existing sites or constructing new buildings. These came with cost estimates ranging from $18 million to $41 million.

A study by the committee identified security issues; and the need for more space, including for two full jury courtrooms, and more room for the Sheriff’s Office and Fairmont Police Department. Also, the courthouse roof is nearing replacement age; historical windows need to be replaced; the parking lots are in need of repairs and resurfacing; and there are some remaining lighting and efficiency upgrades needed.

Then there’s the jail. According to the study, projections support an increase from the existing 32-bed facility to about 64 beds. In addition, transport and staffing costs continue to climb, and current jail spaces no longer meet state Department of Corrections requirements.

Gunther believes the county could get $10 million from the state if the county’s request makes it into a bonding bill. That is one hurdle. Another is whether the House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, and the state Senate, controlled by Republicans, will agree on a bill. A third is how Democratic Gov. Tim Walz will approach the issue.

Gunther also is sponsoring a $400,000 outlay for the Martin County Veterans Memorial that would be built in Fairmont. Work on the project has moved forward, but the bulk of the project has not been completed.

The legislative session began in January and will wrap up in May, so it is near its midway point. Gunther said lawmakers still face a lot of work, and there is no certainty how any issue will play out.

Gunther, who is serving his 13th term, is adjusting to a new reality in St. Paul, where he was pushed into minority party status last fall, when Democrats scored election successes in suburban metro districts. Having forged many relationships across the political aisle over his tenure, Gunther said he is getting help from “old-timer” Democrats who are letting their younger colleagues know it is worth working with him. Worth it because when Gunther served as a committee chairman in the majority, he treated all of his colleagues fairly.

As he awaits answers on the bonding bill, Gunther has been plenty busy otherwise. One issue that cropped up last week was disaster relief, as the massive piles of snow in southern Minnesota began to melt, and then it rained.

Gunther is supporting a bill that will refill the state’s currently empty Disaster Relief Contingency Account. The bill would put in $20 million this year and another $20 million in 2020.

“There were three natural disasters last year in my district alone,” he wrote in a recent letter to the editor. “We had floods, straight line winds and tornadoes. We need to do a better job of preparing for what is going to be an eventuality, and we don’t want disaster relief funding to get caught up in the inevitable end-of-session negotiations.”

Gunther has kept his pen busy since January, writing letters objecting to many new tax and regulatory proposals from Walz. A big one is the 20-cent gas tax hike that the new governor has proposed. Gunther calls it a “massive 70 percent increase — vaulting Minnesota’s gas tax to fourth-highest in the nation.”

“I think it’s time we gave the people who are paying the taxes a little tax holiday,” he said last week, noting a $1 billion state surplus. “We don’t have to raise any taxes this year.”

Gunther also objects to two gun control measures working their way through the House. The first tightens regulations on background checks for gun sales while the second would allow people to report others as potentially dangerous, possibly leading to the seizure of weapons from those who are reported. Gunther says background checks will only create more headaches for those who are law-abiding, while cirminals will not care. He finds the second bill, known as a “red flag” measure, particularly egregious.

“This bill effectively treats people as guilty until proven innocent, which goes against the principles of our legal system, violates due process and will not stop those who are intent on doing harm to others,” he wrote. “Our forefathers thought it was a right of people to own and bear arms. Let the law-abiding citizens have their guns, we’re safe. Take them away, we’re in trouble.”

On other issues:

Health care — Minnesota has a “reinsurance” program that helps stabilize prices for those buying health insurance on the individual insurance market. Gunther noted action taken by the last Republican-controlled Legislature helped lower premium costs by double digits. He believes lawmakers must act again, rather than wait. However, he said Democrats are not moving forward despite a possible hefty hike in premiums on the horizon.

Education — Gunther supports giving more aid to school districts so they can improve security, for overall student safety.

Federal tax conformity — Gunther supports aligning the state tax code with the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. This is something lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton were not able to accomplish as they feuded during the last legislative session.

Child care — Gunther supports a tax credit for employers so they can help their employees with their daycare costs. He has introduced legislation to that effect.

Marijuana — Gunther opposes a bill to legalize recreational marijuana use. He sides with law enforcement officials, who have told him that marijuana is a gateway drug, and worse than alcohol for its negative effects on society.