Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Ben Lien is leaving the State Legislature at the end of the month … but he hasn’t really had a chance for a proper goodbye.
Since March 15, he and the rest of Minnesota’s representatives and senators have conducted the state’s business from a distance. After two and one-half months of normal face-to-face sessions and meetings, COVID-19 caused dramatic changes to business as usual. The Legislature completed its regular five-month session in May via online video streaming. After four terms in St. Paul, he closed up his Lowertown apartment near Mears Park with little fanfare and has performed his duties from his Moorhead townhome, his rescue dog Lexie – a Labrador-cattle dog mix – at his feet.
It’s a subdued way to bid farewell to eight years of striving to meet the needs of his neighbors in Moorhead. But as his legislative colleagues wrap up a record seventh special session this week, he says he’s entirely comfortable with his decision not to run for a fifth term. He made up his mind late last year: “I realized I had accomplished a lot of my goals and priorities. It was time to take a break.”
Lien, a graduate of Moorhead High School and Minnesota State University Moorhead, rates his work on the Border Cities Enterprise and Development Zones the biggest accomplishment of his tenure. Beginning in the 2015 session, he was chief author of the 2019 bill that added funding for the equalization bill to the state’s permanent budget. As part of the DFL majority in 2019, he was able to achieve a longtime goal – to make the appropriation a permanent part of the state budget instead of requiring authorization year after year.
Moorhead now received annual funding, along with East Grand Forks, Crookston, Dilworth and Breckenridge, Minnesota, to enable their businesses to better compete with their North Dakota counterparts. The bulk of the local share of $520,000 is used for credits to offset Minnesota’s higher workers compensation rates.
He is equally proud of the $110 million secured for the Department of Natural Resources’ assistance in flood mitigation efforts, including the levees that now protect most of the city. “Since Oakport was added, we still have a little way to go to complete that,” he notes. Some funding was included in the bonding bill passed earlier this year, though not enough to finish work on the north side. “The needs are never-ending,” he says. “The whole state came up short. There’s growing pressure now on southern Minnesota along the Minnesota River watershed. The state need to put more money behind those needs because they’re never going away.”
He and the rest of the District 4 team – Sen. Kent Eken and Rep. Paul Marquart – have worked as a team to represent Moorhead and Clay County’s interests in bonding years. During Ben’s terms, that has included both the 20/21st Street railroad underpass that’s nearing completion and the newly funded 11th Street crossings. Another that he’s especially satisfied with is funding the Clay County Solid Waste Transfer Station, a city/county project to replace the small and badly outdated transfer station on Highway 10. “It’s going to reduce overall costs for the county,” he notes. “Long overdue!”
In his first term, the Moorhead man carried the LGA bill – Local Government Aid – that restructured critical aid to outstate cities. During his final term, as part of the House Taxation Committee, he was able to see passage of tax cuts for working families. He points to mental health parity as another plus; the legislation requires insurance companies to cover mental health services at the same level as physical health.
He leaves with concerns, though, about the future of funding for higher education. “That’s the one committee I’ve served on since the beginning. It’s all about the students and faculty,” he says, adding that universities and colleges are critical to the economic health of the economy as well as students and parents themselves. “I’m concerned that the state needs to fund our campuses more strongly. They were cut so much during the Great Recession. Then falling enrollments have impacted them. Now, with the pandemic, that may grow worse. It’s going to be tough to weather this storm.”
His years in the House have been good ones. “The common theme of politics, from the public’s point of view, is the fighting,” he reflects. “That’s what they see in the news. What they don’t see is how bipartisan relationships really shape most of what we do. Working together is how things get done.” Even within one’s own party, personal values dictate some sharp differences. “Kent, Paul and I don’t always see eye to eye, but we’ve been a great team together. They have such common sense. They’re just good people. On the big things – education,health care, housing, a strong economy – we’re all passionate. I think we’re liked on both sides of the aisle.”
Public office was in the back of Ben’s mind as a young adult. A political science major in college, he went to work with The Village Family Services after graduation as a financial resources counseling, working with clients to lay out monthly budgets, handle credit cares and prevent foreclosures. He volunteered with the Clay County DFL organization. “People started asking if I was interested in running. I figured maybe I should consider it.”
When he announced his candidacy in early 2012, it seemed something of a long shot. The seat seemed securely held by former Moorhead Mayor Morrie Lanning. But then Lanning decided to retire, and the outlook changed. Ben won his seat with 54% of the vote. He was reelected in 2014 with 57%. In 2016 and 2018, he says, “I cracked 60%.
“But I never intended to make it my whole career,” he adds.
What next? “People keep asking, but I honestly don’t know,” the 37-year-old insists. “Get a job. Pay the bills. It’s going to be quite a switch from voting on billions of dollars and making decisions that change people’s lives to going to work at a regular job every morning.” While he’s fielded inquiries about lobbying, he says he’s going to pass.
“I’m looking forward to a break from St. Paul. That will be okay.” With just a touch of relief, he adds, “I’m very much at home with this decision.”