• New congressman presents first bills in hopes of expanding veterans’ access to health care, improving transportation safety
by Eric Hagen and Jim Boyle
Sixth District Congressman Tom Emmer made appearances in Blaine and Otsego last week to give local citizens and business leaders a chance to see where he has come out swinging in his first few months in office.
The featured speaker at a March 31 Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce-sponsored luncheon in Otsego spoke mostly about national issues but also addressed transportation legislation he introduced before spring break.
Similar to the Corridors of Commerce funds authorized in Minnesota, he has recommended grants for construction projects that improve safety of intersections or interchanges on highways like Highway 10 and Interstate 94.
The bill would allow states and local governments to compete for $250 million in federal highway funds each year. The legislation would direct the Department of Transportation to set up a program that issues grants for construction projects that improve intersections or interchanges on highways that are used by an average of at least 50,000 vehicles per day and are in “immediate need for improvement with respect to safety.”
The bill is one of the first two bills he put forward. The other bill would expand veterans’ ability to get health care in the private sector rather than at Veterans Affairs facilities.
At a town hall meeting on April 1 in Blaine, Emmer said he has spent a lot of time with an important first step of building relationships with other members of Congress. Even if the task is simple, such as trying to ensure that 93-year-old Blaine resident and World War II veteran Calvin Prince gets his Bronze Star plaque, knowing all the players in Washington, D.C., is key.
“You build the relationships so that you can perform and hopefully facilitate good results for the people that you work for,” he said.
In late March, Emmer introduced his first two bills in Congress.
The Keeping Our Promises to Veterans Act modifies the Veterans Choice Program that went into effect Nov. 5, 2014. The program gives veterans an option of receiving care from a non-VA health care facility.
Currently, a veteran residing within 40 miles of a VA health care facility must go there for services. Emmer’s bill reduces the distance requirement to 20 miles. Emmer also does not want veterans who meet the distance requirement to be told the wait list at a VA facility must be at least 30 days before they can look at a non-VA facility. He believes 15 days is more reasonable. Emmer’s bill would also require the VA to prove that one of their facilities could provide the care required and it would force the VA to come in line with the Prompt Pay Act.
Emmer hopes the future of transportation funding allows the states to keep more money at home and does not agree with the U.S. Highway Trust Fund helping to pay for transit, trails and ferries projects. He said the focus should be on roads and bridges, and if needed “other revenue streams” should be looked at other transportation needs.
“I think the local people have a better idea of what their needs are,” he said.
A Blaine resident named Steve asked Emmer for his take on how the United States provides security. Emmer said a discussion needs to be had on how effective the different agencies are. He would like to have a broader discussion about how many agencies should truly fall under the funding umbrella of Homeland Security.
Emmer also said an emphasis must be made on engaging those who are at the highest risk of being “radicalized.” He said this typically includes men ages 15 to 35 who may feel “hopeless and disengaged.”
“We’ve got to find a way, not just through the security of protecting ourselves, but we’ve got to engage these people,” Emmer said. “We’ve got to find ways to make them part of the community and give them some hope and an opportunity for the future because that’s how we’ll solve the bigger problem.”
Ken, an Andover resident, said it “drove him nuts” that former 6th District Congresswoman Michele Bachmann supported the Patriot Act whenever it came up for renewal and asked Emmer if he would support the Patriot Act the next time Congress votes on whether to renew it.
Emmer does not know how he will vote, but acknowledged he had questioned Bachmann’s support for the Patriot Act.
“I didn’t agree with some of those votes, but perhaps my predecessor knew more than I did,” Emmer said. “My biggest concern is we can become prisoners of our own safety. The government has a job to do, but the job is protecting us from outside forces, not protecting us from ourselves. I’m very disturbed when I find out that a federal agency is spying on U.S. citizens. I’m very concerned when I find out that a federal agency is purposely targeting conservative groups with different requirements and audits.”
Lori Higgins, president of the MetroNorth Chamber of Commerce, asked what Emmer could do to support small businesses.
Emmer said he hoped to be appointed to the agriculture and transportation committees so he could have the biggest impact for his district. He was appointed to the agriculture committee, but got foreign affairs instead of transportation. After initial disappointed, he saw this could be a blessing since he could help address trade issues. He touted how Minnesota was fourth nationally in agriculture exports in 2012 and is usually in the top 20.
A Ramsey woman named Jeri asked Emmer how he is “going to assist in getting the EPA off our back,” regarding the Sherburne County Generating Station. Also referred to as Sherco, this Becker facility is the largest power-producing plant in the state and produces electricity through the burning of coal.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is studying emissions from Xcel Energy’s Sherco plant in response to a federal lawsuit by environmental groups that claims the EPA is not enforcing the Clean Air Act’s provisions that protect air quality in pristine natural areas. The groups claim that the power plant’s emissions are affecting Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. The National Park Service in 2009 said haze at these natural areas is attributable to Sherco.
If the National Park Service findings are confirmed by the EPA, Xcel would be obligated to make significant emissions reductions improvements that the EPA would have significant say in.
Emmer said he does not like that federal agencies have so much power to make rules. He believes elected officials should ultimately decide what rules should be in place, whether it has to do with energy issues or environmental protection. Emmer said that since he has only been in office for three months, he is a little ways away from being able to push for this but said there are many other legislators with a similar mindset.
Emmer said when he and Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan had a discussion about the northern long-eared bat, they wondered, “Who is making the decisions that these animals or plants are endangered and suddenly stop us from doing anything?”
“It’s regulation reform ultimately, but in the meantime we’ve just got to keep fighting every step of the way because our quality of life depends on efficient, affordable and abundant energy, and coal is a big part of the answer,” Emmer said.
Rod, a Ramsey resident, took exception to Emmer’s comments about the long-eared bat.
“Those regulations are being put out by biologists, by people who study long-eared bats, and I don’t think that politics has a role in that,” Rod said.
Emmer said this should be a more transparent discussion so people have time to raise objections.
“When it comes to this, I’m sorry, sir, but I firmly disagree that a biologist who is unelected, no matter how great an expert he or she is, gets to make the rules,” Emmer said. “That’s not the way this constitutional republic was created and by abdicating that responsibility, Congress has literally given away that authority, and look what happens. There has to be a balance, and I don’t think there is a balance at all. That’s what the elected officials are there for.”