August 31, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — For many state legislators, the State Fair is a chance to talk to voters from around Minnesota. At the Minnesota Senate booth, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said she likes hearing about issues affecting people who come from outside her district. And one of the main topics of conversation this year is something that worries people across the state: rising gas prices. Pappas said there's not much the state Legislature can do about $3-a-gallon gas.
"I say, 'well, more of us are just going to have to walk and bike to get around.' With gas prices increasing like they are," Pappas said. "And of course, it brings up the point that we don't have a very good transit system, so we don't have that as an alternative to get around."
But Pappas said even if lawmakers don't have the power to reduce gas prices, the high price at the pump can affect the Legislature. She said it's going to be tougher to raise the gas tax to pay for the state's transportation needs.
Across the fairgrounds, U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman was also hearing about gas prices. Coleman, a Republican, said people want him to do something about the problem.
"There's things you can do and things you can't do, but it's not going to have an impact on what they're paying at the pump tomorrow," Coleman said. "There's some long-term things we can do, and hopefully some of them tie into things that Minnesotans are good at -- renewables."
Coleman isn't up for re-election for another three years, but said he always comes to the fair to find out what's on people's minds. He said the tone is less partisan in this non-presidential election year.
The fair also gives politicians a chance to show voters their lighter side. Some participated in a "celebrity" farm animal calling contest, Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau milked cows, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty served Sweet Martha's Cookies.
"It was either this or doing the bunjee jump," Pawlenty said. "Or cow milking with Molnau."
Pawlenty said Minnesotans expect to have access to their elected officials at the State Fair. Plus, he just likes coming here.
"We just try to have fun and we go on some rides, eat a lot of food and meet with people," Pawlenty said. "And almost without exception, people at the fair are in a good mood. They can agree or disagree with you, but Minnesotans by and large are pretty good-natured people, so even if they disagree, they do it in a good-natured way, and so it's a fun experience."
Pawlenty said the issue he's heard about the most at the fair is the Twins stadium. But he said there's been no consensus. Pawlenty says some people are adamantly opposed to a new stadium, and others want the Legislature to pass a stadium bill.
Legislators at the House and Senate booths are also finding stadium opinions all over the map.
"I've heard people in support, strongly in support, and I've heard people that say if we go back into special session, they're going to be down on the Capitol steps telling us to get out of there!" said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights.
Atkins said some fairgoers are still mad about the last special session, which ended in mid-July after an eight-day partial government shutdown.
"Well, there was one fellow that wanted to give me a good swift kick in the rear end for not getting our work done," Atkins said.
Several other legislators said they too heard negative comments about the protracted special session.
"We continue to hear the mantra, you didn't get the job done on time, and if that was me in my particular situation and I didn't get the job done, there would be ramifications," said Rep. Denise Dittrich, DFL-Champlin.
The first-term lawmaker said there will always be a black cloud over the 2005 session. She said people are tired of the partisanship, and leery of another special session to deal with stadiums for the Twins and the University of Minnesota. Some legislators said they're telling fairgoers about the positive things that came out of the special session, including more money for schools and health insurance for low-income Minnesotans.
While none of these elected officials is on the ballot this year, some politicians are already gearing up for the 2006 election at the fair. Several candidates running for U.S. Senate have fair booths, even though the Senate election is more than 14 months away.