April to be for state budget

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

The Minnesota Legislature is famous for deciding major issues near the end of each year’s session.

Expect 2013 to be no different.

So far, Gov. Mark Dayton has signed just one major bill into law, and eight others, out of 3,172 that the 201 lawmakers have introduced. That means there will be a lot of public and private debate by the Legislature’s constitutionally mandated May 20 adjournment date.

“The budget will be the big push,” said Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

The budget, in fact, is the Legislature’s major job in odd-numbered years.

For nearly two dozen years, governors and legislators of different parties were forced to compromise as they worked on two-year budgets. This year, however, Democrats control the House and Senate, joining their fellow party member Dayton.

Those Democrats generally agree on a budget of about $38 billion for the two years beginning July 1, and their overall spending outlines look similar. Legislative committees that begin meeting when they return from an Easter-Passover break today will delve into tax and spend specifics.

“It actually will progress more smoothly,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said of budget work that in the past decade led to a couple of state government shutdowns. “Our focus in April is getting the budget out.”

The budget will be front and center while committees form it and the full House and Senate debate it. Legislative leaders say that in late April or early May, when House and Senate budget bills head to reconciliation in conference committee, contentious gun regulation and gay marriage bills may join other nonspending bills for full debate.

Many do not expect Democrats to show serious budget differences.

“Obviously, they have come to consensus among themselves,” said Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne.

Once a tax-and-spend deal is reached among the House, Senate and governor, a budget bill will return for final passage before lawmakers go home May 20 or sooner. Legislative leaders promise they will not need a special session to finish work.

Republicans, while they have little say in what passes this year, will talk a lot about DFL plans to boost taxes.

“I worry about the message we send,” Weber said about the plan to raise income taxes on individuals with at least $150,000 in taxable income and couples earning $250,000 or more.

He said a Minnesota company moving to lower-tax South Dakota is an example of what could happen.

While few bills have become law, the legislative pace thus far has been hectic, said Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley.

Like many lawmakers, he said that when he sees full budget plans, he will look for “creating jobs and economic vitality.”

Adding $700 million to schools in the next two years, as legislative Democrats suggest, is one of the best economic development projects the state can offer, Thissen said.

From what Faust has seen so far, “areas like mine will be big winners,” he said about proposed budgets.

For instance, his district has only about 50 people who would be taxed at the higher rate, he said, so that plan would have less impact than in other areas.

Reinstating some version of the homestead property tax credit, as Democrats expect, should help his homeowners’ property tax bills drop, Faust added.

For many, a public works bill funded by the state selling bonds is considered a job producer. Dayton plans to ask for $750 million in bonding, including a large chunk of the $200 million-plus needed to renovate the state Capitol building. Many legislative Democrats are shooting for an $800 bonding bill.

Republican Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville said he does not support a sizeable bonding bill this year.

“I personally think we can wait,” he said. “We’ve gotten in a bad habit of doing it every year.”

Typically, lawmakers set the state budget and craft a public works borrowing bill in opposite years of a two-year session.

Thompson said he is open to funding Capitol renovation.

“I’m not focused on a bonding bill right now,” said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. “I’m focused on making sure job providers have the tools necessary to succeed.”

Franson said she is concerned about a potential increase in the state’s minimum wage. Most provisions making their way through the Legislature suggest raising the current state minimum wage of $6.15 an hour to more than $9.

“That will hurt greater Minnesota,” she said. “It will be a major problem for the hospitality industry, bars, restaurants.”

Dayton, on the other hand, regularly says that a family deserves to earn enough to remain above the poverty line.

There are differences among Democrats.

House DFLers, for instance, want to put an income tax surcharge on the richest of the rich to be able to quickly repay schools the money the state borrowed from them in recent years. Dayton and Senate Democrats are content to let existing plans go ahead and repay the money over a few more years.

Thissen promised that the surcharge would last no more than two years.

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Here is where some issues stand as the Minnesota Legislature enters its home-stretch before a May 20 or earlier adjournment:

Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton plans to announce his proposal for public works projects soon. He says he will suggest bonding for $750 million, including some for state Capitol renovation.

Border cities: At a recent town hall meeting in Moorhead, the governor said more help is needed to combat lower North Dakota taxes, but he has proposed little change from current local government aids to a few cities near the border.

Budget: the governor, House and Senate Democrats suggest spending about $38 billion in the next two years. The three plans are similar, but House and Senate committees still must produce details.

Capitol renovation: More than $200 million is needed to renovate the state Capitol building. The governor is expected to recommend at least $100 million of that to be in this year’s bonding bill.

Care attendants: In a bill that would allow child care workers to join unions is a lesser-known provision that also would allow those who care for the sick and disabled, including family members, to unionize.

Day care: Bills are moving through House and Senate committees to allow Minnesotans who care for children in their homes to join unions.

Education: Most attention to public schools this year has been to increase funding for the youngest students. Included in the initiatives are plans to fund all-day kindergarten; the governor’s budget plan would not fund every school district, but some legislative proposals would.

Gay marriage: Minnesota voters last November decided not to enshrine a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution and in about a month the full House and Senate are expected to vote on a proposal to remove an existing gay-marriage ban from state law.

Gun control: School and other shootings fanned a demand for gun control, but from early this legislative session it was apparent that banning so-called assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazine would go nowhere. The debate now is whether to expand background checks for gun buyers. There is widespread agreement that some measures are needed to keep guns away from people who should not have them.

Health care: Minnesota will be among a handful of states that operate a mostly Web-based marketplace where its residents can compare and buy health insurance policies. That is the only major law the governor has signed this year. In their budget plans, House and Senate Democrats call for cutting $150 million from health programs that serve the poor, elderly and disabled.

Higher education: The governor, House and Senate all want to raise spending for state-run colleges and universities, as well as a state student grant program, after years of financial struggles. The University of Minnesota hopes to receive enough funding to freeze tuitions.

Local aid: It always has been the suburbs vs. big cities and rural areas in local aid debates, but this year cities of all sizes and locations have come together on a new formula that would make state aid more predictable and, supporters say, more fair. Some suburbs that now get no state payments would get aid under the plan. Also, there seems to be an agreement among the governor and legislative leaders to increase money available to cities.

Lockouts: Bills are making progress to require companies that have locked out workers in labor disputes, such as one at American Crystal Sugar, to pay unemployment benefits for the duration of the lockout.

Mayo Clinic: The Rochester-based Mayo Clinic, with facilities across much of Minnesota, wants the state to borrow more than $500 million to help its home community improve infrastructure as the health organization undergoes a $3.5 billion expansion. The plan has faced strong bipartisan opposition, but remains alive in committees.

Methadone clinics: Hopes by some to increase regulation on clinics that prescribe the powerful painkiller methadone were dashed when no bills to do that passed by a March committee deadline. However, there still is a chance that a methadone provision could be inserted into a health and human services budget bill.

Minimum wage: Bills are progressing to raise the state’s $6.15 an hour minimum wage large employers must pay to more than $9 an hour. The proposal has the governor’s backing. Many Minnesota employers are governed by the federal $7.25 minimum wage.

Partisanship: Republicans admit they have little say in what happens since Democrats control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers for the first time in more than two decades. Democrats only need GOP votes if they are to pass a public works bill because selling bonds needs a super majority.

Rural Minnesota: House Republicans started the session upset that the speaker and majority leader are from Minneapolis and St. Paul and the person heading the committee dealing with agriculture spending is a strong environmentalist. Rural Democrats, meanwhile, could decide whether issues unpopular in their parts of the state, such as gun control and gay marriage, have a chance of passing.

Sand mining: Bills remain alive to study silica sand mining in southern Minnesota as well as placing a year-long moratorium on the controversial mining and processing plants.

Sex offenders: Measures are being considered to respond to a federal judge who has given Minnesota notice that it must change how it deals with serious sex offenders who have completed their prison terms. Now, many sex offenders are committed to a sex offender center that looks a lot like a prison, but bills offer ways for the offenders to be released to community facilities around the state.

Stadium funding: In a session when major stadium funding was not expected to be an issue, some legislators are not happy that electronic pull tab revenues so far have fallen short of promised made last year when they were picked as a funding source for a new Vikings stadium. But, so far at least, there has been no serious move to change the funding source.

Standard of care: Nurses came into the session hoping for a bill establishing a quota for how many nurses would be on duty at hospitals. After strong hospital opposition, bills dealing with the subject now center on studies of how many nurses are needed.

Sunday booze: Bills to allow Sunday sale of alcohol have gone nowhere, but supporters say a chance remains to insert a provision into other bills.

Taxes: Democrats want to raise more than $2 billion in new taxes in the next two years. It appears they have broad agreement among themselves to raise taxes on the top 2 percent of earners, but the governor’s plan to expand the sales tax to include most services hit a brick wall. House and Senate committees have yet to decide how they would raise taxes.

Wolf hunting: A five-year moratorium on wolf hunting remains in consideration.

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