Minnesota politicians started 2011 talking about jobs, talk that faded during the contentious budget-dominated legislative session but is resurfacing as they look toward a new year.
Gov. Mark Dayton today convenes a jobs summit to find ways to expand employment, and on Monday some tried to get a jump on the summit: Transportation advocates, mostly those who earn a living building highways, suggested that more road-construction projects would bolster the job picture and Republican senators repeated their belief that lower taxes and fewer regulations would help.
Dayton’s summit, in downtown St. Paul, will bring together hundreds of Minnesotans to discuss ideas to produce more jobs and to examine some businesses that have produced results.
Members of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance on Monday said that the key to adding jobs to the state workforce is improving transportation, especially building highways.
“Today, we struggle to move goods and services to market because of crumbling bridges, congested roadways and obsolete ports,” alliance Executive Director Margaret Donahoe said. “The cost of delaying these projects further will risk putting our state behind further in the economic recovery, subject future taxpayers to additional costs and prevent getting hardworking Minnesotans back on the job.”
The alliance suggests specific highway projects across the state that Donahoe said are needed to help businesses grow.
The advantage of transportation projects, many of which would be financed by loans, would be two-fold, she said: First, it would put people in the hard-hit construction industry back to work. Second, it would fix highways and other transportation infrastructure that businesses need.
Donahoe said there is $30 billion of road work needed in the next 20 years.
The alliance called for more user fees such as another nickel-per-gallon fuel tax.
Donahoe said there is more chance that the federal government will increase gasoline taxes than will Minnesota. Republicans who control the state Legislature are strongly opposed to another gasoline tax increase.
Alliance members in the highway-building industry talked about high unemployment and low profits, but also lower costs to do the road work in the current economy.
While the alliance stood ready to suggest to lawmakers transportation projects they could approve, Senate Republicans repeated their standard jobs-producing agenda: lower business taxes and fewer regulations. GOP senators, led by Geoff Michel of Edina, said meetings they have held around the state confirm what they have said all along.
Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, used an example to show why tax law needs to be simplified. He said a house-cleaner told him she closed her business over tax confusion when told that she needed to collect sales tax when she dusted furniture, but not shelves that were attached to walls.
Michel complained that the same number of Minnesotans are employed now as were in 1998.
Fixing the job market will come up when legislators begin their regular session on Jan. 24, Michel said. “Minnesota is still a high-cost state to do business in. … We want to reduce the cost and uncertainty”
Among the ideas the GOP touted was to stop new state regulations on businesses. Michel also suggested forming a committee to find ways to free small businesses from oppressive state regulations.
Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said Republicans did not help businesses earlier this year when they passed and Democrat Dayton signed legislation that will result in $1 billion more home and business property taxes in the next three years.
Democrats say that the property tax change spurred by the GOP forced local governments to boost taxes, while Republicans said that was local officials’ choice.
Tomassoni also wondered how Republicans would cut taxes.
“The most notable element of their plan is a recycled attempt to cut corporate taxes with no guarantee businesses would use those tax cuts to create jobs, and no explanation for how they’d pay for a corporate tax cut during the worst financial crisis in our state’s history,” Tomassoni said.
In the meantime, the state Department of Employment and Economic Development reported Monday that a study found 45 percent of responding manufacturers consider a shortage of skilled workers to be a moderate or serious problem.
The study showed that production workers, as well as scientists and engineers, are in short supply.
“State manufacturers have openings, but Minnesotans who are looking for work often don’t have the right skills to fill them,” DEED Commissioner Mark Phillips said.