(bright music) - Welcome to North Dakota Legislator Review.
I'm Matt Olien filling in for Dave Thompson this week.
My guest is Longtime Fargo, democratic Senator Tim Mathern.
Tim, welcome to the show.
- Thank you for having me.
Glad to be here.
- Well, Tim, you are one of the longest serving legislators that we have.
How does this session so far and we're almost done, we think, right, compare to previous sessions for you?
- Well, it's interesting Matt.
I think I've been in the full range of legislative sessions.
I first voted in 1986 when there was no money.
In fact, the governor then called us into special session right after the election because we didn't have enough money to pay our schools the foundation aid payment.
The bank was empty and we sat down, passed a number of cuts, passed a tax.
And that is completely opposite to today.
Today we came into the legislative session.
35 years later, we have more money than we've ever had.
So that is the most dramatic thing I've noted since 1986.
Now, we have money, then, we had none.
- And is having money, you would think a better thing.
But that means more people want things and there's always funding battles.
And how have those gone so far?
- Well, I think it's the same battles, but it's a lot easier when there's money, there's a lot less pain when you're cutting everything when there isn't enough money.
There's a lot of pain, a lot of suffering.
Essentially, government programs are really not just to feed a machine in Bismarck, it's really to provide services around the state.
So yes, there's a lot of consternation and a lot of people asking when you have a lot of money.
But it's still a lot easier than when there is no money.
So the process though, of coming to the final conclusion is still complicated.
It still has a lot of give and take.
It has a lot of people winning and losing.
And that's what it's all about though, is making those tough decisions.
- And as we head to the finish line here about maybe a week or so left to go, what are the stickiest issues left to resolve, Senator, in your view?
- In my view, it's the tax issue.
In light of the fact that we had dollars, there's a lot of pressure to increase the homestead tax credit, reduce property taxes, and reduce income taxes.
The challenge though is we have also gone through a period of inflation.
And so the cost of everything is higher.
So returning all of these, these income streams that we have in other areas is not a long-term solution because we need income for the next biennium and 10 years from now.
So if we give away all of the income streams in terms of taxes, we will be in a big bag of hurt in the future.
So that's the main challenge, I think is the tax structure.
And then we also have a big challenge now in resolving the Department of Human Service budget.
That's a big budget.
How many buildings we're gonna build around the state.
There are buildings that are universities.
There's a state prison for women, that we're talking about.
And so those are some of the big issues to resolve yet.
- Will there be income tax relief, property tax relief, Tim, or a combination of both and or will there be a tax rebate which doesn't look like that's going to happen but that was kicked around earlier.
- I think all three are on the table yet.
I believe we should focus on property tax homestead tax relief.
I think income tax cutting that is shortsighted.
That is a steady stream of income.
And North Dakotans don't pay too much income tax, our income tax is very small, but it's steady.
And in terms of taxes themselves, you don't really pay income tax unless you have income.
So really the more income tax you're paying, the more income you must be receiving.
So I wish we didn't do an income tax change at this point that we focus it on property tax, homestead tax credit.
But I suspect the compromise might be a tax income tax rebate for a session or for a year for two.
- For all North Dakotans or something like that?
- For all North Dakotans.
Because if we change the formula as a structure, then another day when we don't have high oil income or gas income or high agriculture, we won't be able to fund our schools properly.
- You mentioned the women's prison near Mandan.
I had a question about that.
I'll just get this up 'cause you mentioned it.
There was not supposed to be bonding in this session but this does have to do with bonding.
So can you speak to this and whether this is gonna happen or there are gonna be smaller facilities?
- Well, there really should be enough money to build with cash.
However, bonding is being considered at a hundred million dollars for a women's prison.
But the cost really of the prison is over 200 million.
So there's some cash in there, about 300 million I mean 30 million.
But we really need more to do it right.
And I really think to do it right means we need to be attentive to women's needs, which are different than men's needs.
Women come to prison pregnant, or women come to prison with children, women come to prison oftentimes with trauma, most of the women have either a mental illness, a substance use disorder or have extreme trauma.
Way over half the women that are in prison now have been terrorized in some way, raped, deal with other issues like that.
So the prison for women should really be different than the traditional prison.
And in fact, I don't think we should build a prison for all of the women incarcerated in North Dakota.
You bring all these people together in one place.
You break their relationships, you break their relationships with their family.
- Outside world.
- Outside world.
With their church, with the school, with a potential employer.
You break those relationships, their ability then to reenter as a tax paying productive citizen gets reduced dramatically.
Second reason, it's a lot of research that says if women don't get the proper services in prison and in fact if they're in prison the chances of the children becoming incarcerated go way up.
Children identify with their mother in a much stronger way than they do with their fathers in this culture.
And we have found now that children of incarcerated women tend to end up incarcerated.
So we need facilities closer to home so these women can see their kids, so their kids can get services, so that we can break that cycle of incarceration.
So I think we should build a smaller prison, but we should also build some other smaller units closer to where the women come from.
You know, we have women right now out in New England.
They have kids that's 250 miles away from Fargo, right?
Most of our prisoners are coming from Fargo.
We ought to have a facility there.
So that's one of my concerns about the prison.
- When this session started we heard a lot about workforce development and childcare.
What's been done, what hasn't been done?
I think something was passed, correct?
As Senator for Workforce Development, just talk us through these things.
- Well, we had in, in the Senate, we actually created a committee on workforce.
So that's been a new way of looking at this, giving a little more attention.
And the House has worked on it too, but they've addressed it more through their other committees.
But we've put some money into workforce and the Department of Commerce, we've put some money into our colleges that relate more to technical education.
We have passed an immigration bill.
I authored a bill to have an office that's attentive to getting more people.
Bottom line is in North Dakota, we have the governor talks about 40 billion, $46 billion of capital that wants to come to North Dakota to do projects.
- But they need workers.
- But we need workers, we need citizens.
We need, just like we did over a hundred years ago when we had after the Homestead Act and we had a lot of counties without people.
We needed help to get people here.
And those people probably are your ancestors of mine that came, settled the land and now three generations later we're still here.
Well, we need the same thing.
We also need other people coming.
And it's not just our neighbors anymore.
They're all looking for people not just Minnesota, South Dakota, Canada, and Montana.
We need people from around the world.
And so that's been a workforce issue.
So there has been attention to workforce.
Those things have kind of gone through the system.
Commerce isn't passed yet, but it's pretty close.
But childcare is still kind of sketchy.
The money in childcare in the Department of Human Services and Senate Bill 2012 has sort of been reduced.
Now there's a delayed bill that's come in with some dollars in it for daycare.
So that's not yet finished.
But we need more daycare services.
- Behavioral health was talked about at the start of this session too.
Where are we at with that?
And I know that goes into the human services budget correct?
You know, we have what I think are a lot of wonderful concerns about behavioral health.
And our governor talks about it, our legislative leaders talk about it but we really haven't properly funded behavioral health.
It is still not a service available to everyone.
For example, part of the budget right now looks like it's gonna cut Medicaid expansion but what is Medicaid expansion?
That is more money to hospitals.
Well, more money to hospitals helps 'em do things that are on the periphery of being funded.
There's a lot of things in healthcare that are funded very well except behavioral healthcare.
And I think in many ways it's because there's a stigma yet negative stigma about getting that kind of healthcare.
So we don't really have a decent behavioral healthcare on Dickinson, Williston.
We have some in Minot, not good enough in Devil's Lake.
Not good enough in Grand Forks, not good enough in Jamestown.
So those private hospitals should be reimbursed in such a way that they can provide behavioral health.
Right now they aren't, I mean we're funding a lot of things like peer counseling and those kinds of things.
However, behavioral health on one end is acute care.
That means people need to be in a hospital to stabilize their crisis to figure out how to serve them next.
So the outpatient, I think we're growing some but we still need acute care in many of our cities around the state.
And that needs more funding than it's getting right now in the bills that we have before us.
- The higher education bill right now still contains a tuition freeze.
Is that a good idea or not?
- I think it is a good idea.
We are getting to the point where our population of students is going down.
We have a lot of draw and a lot of promotion by businesses.
Well just come to work.
You can get your training here.
And we have our neighbors starting to say, hey, we may not charge any tuition.
We've been getting a lot of wonderful students from Minnesota and they're not only great students, they become citizens.
And so we are competing now with other states in that tuition angle.
So we need to do that and it's going to be a way to drive our universities to look at this a little differently.
So, but it should not be a permanent thing.
I think we should continue to have tuition, but I think putting the brakes on it at this point makes sense.
- Let's talk about some of the governor's vetoes, where he has kind of clashed with the Republican majority on some of these things.
Specifically the Fargo ranked choice voting.
And do you believe that's, as he said a legislative overreach to try to monkey with how Fargo elected city commissioners?
- It's totally an overreach.
He's right on the money.
And it's actually approval voting that we have an-- - Approval voting, right, right.
- Fargo, we don't have.
- Wrong word, wrong choice.
- But you know, that is reminds me in terms of your question about some of the themes here in this legislative session.
We have a lot of people talk about local control but the actions of this legislature are not local control.
And I hand it to the governor for vetoing that bill that's taking away local control and wasn't just taking away from Fargo, it's taking away from every city every county, every township to figure out how they want to vote.
And so that is a very strong push of state control and it's been happening in other bills.
And that's a unique thing.
We have a lot of Republican legislators, particularly who speak about local control, but they're taking away a lot of control in this session of the legislature.
- I know this won't be your decision but I've heard Mayor Mahoney suggest there could be a court challenge to this.
Do you expect that to happen?
- Well, we did sustain the governor's veto.
- Okay, okay.
- So unless it comes up again here.
- I wasn't sure if that one had been overridden or not.
- Yeah, we so many we sustained that, which means he vetoed.
And the Senate agreed with his veto which means Fargo can have approval voting and any other city in the state can develop their own voting pattern.
Now, some of these people might come up with a initiated measure or something like that to try to stop this.
It's really one of those issues that somebody in the national level it's cranked up about and they feed it to these local legislators.
And it was not controversial at all but some of these national groups got people riled up about it and brought it to the session.
And a lot of bills come from elsewhere and don't really reflect what our citizens want.
So right now, Fargo is safe from state control and any other city is safe.
- I asked this question last week of Jeremy Olson from Arnegard Republican.
Kind of a devil's advocate question for him, because you know, when you read some editorials around the state that are left-leaning in your Democratic caucus the view of this session is quite different than if you're a Republican.
So, you know, what I've heard in some editorials is this session has been anti LGBTQ, anti-worker, anti-public school.
Is that fair, Tim, from your caucus, how do you how do you view that and quantify that criticism?
- Well, it's really not just from our caucus it's from the citizens.
It's the citizens who were saying that and I think it's accurate.
I mean, there's like 10 bills on LGBTQ issues.
- The pronoun bill was sustained, right?
- Yeah, well there's another one, right?
There's another bill that, that, that addresses those kinds of issues that was signed by the governor yesterday.
And that's regarding medical care.
Medical care for persons dealing with those issues that was signed.
So there's a number of those and it's really another group of people that are coming forward and saying, you know we wanna be recognized as having the same rights and abilities of everybody else.
And now there are all these bills to kind of crack down on those things.
So are Democrats supportive?
Yes, we basically are supportive because we believe that each person has intrinsic worth.
We need to figure out how each person no matter some of these qualities whatever they are, they're a person and they need to have the same rights as everybody else.
- Which lead to me to my next question.
And that is the Democratic minority which seems to get smaller and smaller every session.
And you've been doing this since 1986.
How frustrating is that to get things done?
As I said, you know, the governor did veto some bills that you were right, pleased that he vetoed.
But how frustrating is it and how do you and Merrill Piepkorn and Josh Boschee and all these people work through this?
- Well, it's a reflection of society and I try not to take it necessarily personally.
I've actually gotten elected through these times and I see it as the nationalization of politics.
That people are kind of looking at Democrats and Republicans based on the national scene.
And the national Democrats are not the same as North Dakota Democrats.
But if you're seeing this on the news all the time about what's going on with national folks you tend to associate it with local folks.
So I think that's one of the issues going on.
And North Dakotans are more, I would say middle of the road.
I don't think they're extremist people on either end of the political spectrum, but they're constantly given this information which kind of tends to draw people that way.
Now how do we deal with it in the Senate in the house?
We just work harder.
I came late to the interview.
- That's okay, you're here.
- I was talking to folks regarding Senate Bill 2012 Human Services and how that affects Greg's steel and Trail County.
And so I'm involved in that.
I'm not just dealing with Cass County, you know people are calling us from all over the state.
Please would you help on this issue, help on that issue.
And so it's maybe a little bit more work for us.
We can't be to all of the committees.
So some things happen without us even being aware of it.
But it's part of the process and it's citizens who make these decisions.
And right now, you know, there's a big push to eliminate the retirement program for public employees.
- Right, that was my next question.
- And so part of it, you know, public employees you gotta make some decisions here.
If you keep electing the same people that wanna reduce your benefits, eventually you will have none.
- And what's gonna happen with that retirement fund?
Is this something that's gonna get resolved in the next week or not?
- Well, it's being deferred every day, every day.
And generally, from my experience, if it's being deferred the leadership is not getting what they want when they poll their members.
So I think leadership wants the deferred benefit plan defeated, but there aren't enough votes yet to do it.
So it's getting deferred over and over what's deferred every day.
This past week in the Senate and today, again, I thought for sure I was all prepared to give this great speech and it was taken off the calendar.
And so that's, that's one that it's gonna go to the end.
And it has so many features to it but it has a very dangerous feature to our future.
We have a contract, essentially with anybody who's on a retirement plan to meet the retirement objectives and their retirement years.
This could take us out 50, 80 years.
So if we eliminate this, we have to pay those bills and the new bills for the new retirement program.
I think it's foolish.
We gotta stay on that defined benefit plan give people an option if they don't want to be a part of it and have a defined contribution plan more like a 401k, something like that.
Well, let's give 'em that option.
And, but at the cost is too great to change.
So I hope we look at the actuarial issues.
We look at the fiscal issues and we get away from the political issues of this plan.
- We got about two minutes left.
A real positive thing, when I as I was driving to interview you today from Fargo to Bismarck, we drove through a snowstorm from about Tower City to Jamestown.
And I thought to myself, even with all this snow in late April, and there's more one thing is there's relative calm in Fargo and Grand Forks because flood control got done.
And that was, is that something to look back on a positive that that really got done with state and federal that there's really not a panic with all the snow melt.
You know, when we attend to infrastructure issues when we attend to common good issues, gosh it's great for everybody.
You know, you're right on.
Even myself, I'm not worried about rushing back to Fargo.
We got some walls, we got some sandbagging crews we got some dikes built, we got some things done.
We still have another decade to get the diversion done.
- The diversion, right, right.
- So we need, that's a good example.
So we need that income that diversion for the next 10 years.
- They need workers, right?
- And we need people to pay the bill that's bonded.
You know, so we need to make that payment each and every year.
And that means we need a stream of income.
And that is and should be the income tax.
- About 30 seconds left.
When does this session end?
Next weekend is what I'm hearing.
Like this Friday maybe.
- Well, I have my name in on the pool for April 28th.
That's next Friday.
- That sounds good.
- And it could spill over to Saturday.
We're gonna work in our committee this weekend in order to meet that deadline.
But it's the people's work.
It's important work.
And I appreciate your covering this.
I appreciate journalism.
We need more in journalism.
That's one of the things I'm concerned about that I've seen.
We used to have reporters all over the place.
Eyes and ears of the people.
We have fewer those.
That's not good for democracy.
We're out of time.
Thank you Senator Mathern for being here.
My guest has been Senator Tim Mathern, Democrat from Fargo.
I'm Matt Olien for North Dakota Legislator Review.
Thanks for watching.