Legislative Notebook: Senate Backs Gasoline Tax Hike

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

Minnesota senators voted Friday to raise the state gasoline tax 5 cents in the next few years.

After the Senate Transportation Committee in recent weeks removed a gas tax increase when Gov. Mark Dayton said he cannot support it, senators voted 34-26 to increase the tax 2.5 cents in each of the next two two-year budget cycles. The amendment came as a surprise, especially to Republicans who are in the Senate minority.

The Senate passed the overall transportation funding bill 35-27 Friday night.

A House transportation funding bill does not include the gas tax increase. Dayton said he cannot back the hike because it would affect poor Minnesotans more than rich ones.

Republicans voted against the tax. A GOP staffer indicated the tax, which would bring in $1 billion over four years, would cost each family $500 annually.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, complained that the tax increase never passed a Senate committee, but suddenly popped in during full Senate debate.

“This is not the way to pass a bill,” she said.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said transportation and mass transit need more money after years of neglect.

“If you have a hole in your roof, you figure out a way to take care of it,” Kent said. “You realize that the problem gets more and more expensive if you don’t take care of it.”

The Senate tax bill also would allow each county to levy a $10-per-vehicle tax annually through 2016 and $20 a year after that. Also, a half-percentage Twin Cities sales tax increase is included for transit.

The tax increases were part of an overall $5.6 billion transportation finance bill. Negotiators are to work out differences in the two bills next week.

Legacy bill advances

The House approved 70-55 a bill to spend nearly $540 million in sales tax receipts for outdoors and arts projects.

Debate on the measure, called the legacy bill, included Republican accusations that Democrats told Republicans if they offered amendments to fund projects in their districts, the projects would not only be left off the legacy list but a separate public works projects list as well.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said “the bill goes too far” because bill sponsor Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, did not pay enough attention to committees established to advise lawmakers about spending.

Kahn said her bill divides funding between the Twin Cities and the rest of the state, but Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said much of the money would be headed to Minneapolis, St. Paul and other Twin Cities projects.

Money to fund the projects comes from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008.

Funds the bill appropriates for the next two years include:

— Outdoor heritage, $148 million.

— Clean water, $191 million.

— Parks and trails, $84 million.

— Arts and culture, $115 million.

The Senate is expected to take up its legacy bill in the first half of next week.

Senate approves solar

The Minnesota Senate approved a bill 37-26 that its author said will help move Minnesota toward solar power.

Bill sponsor Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said solar energy costs are going down, while other energy production costs are increasing.

Solar power is more expensive now, Marty said, but fossil fuel money goes out of state.

“We ship that money out of the state, never to return … and replace that with technology, which means jobs for Minnesota businesses and workers,” Marty said.

The bill would require 1 percent of utilities’ power generation to come from solar by 2025.

It also includes incentives for Minnesota-made solar equipment.

“We want to get the solar industry in Minnesota started on the way forward,” Marty said. He said the bill is a stripped-down version of the original, but is a good start.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he is concerned the cost to utilities will be passed on to ratepayers.

Mining and paper mill companies, industries that use a lot of energy, would be exempt from additional costs from the requirement.

Some senators said that exception is unfair because only certain organizations benefit.

“Nothing is right about that, nothing is fair about that,” said Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne.

The Minnesota Clean Energy and Jobs campaign said the bill is a “good first step forward in the effort to create good jobs, to make solar energy more affordable and more accessible, and to protect Minnesota’s air, land and water for generations to come.”

The House passed its energy bill earlier this week.

‘It feels late’

Minnesota’s legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton have been talking budget numbers, but have reached no overall agreement about how to spend and raise $38 billion in the next two years.

“It feels late,” former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said about the process.

The state constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn May 20.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook; House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis; and Dayton met late Thursday and again Friday morning. But spokesmen said they had not agreed to major spending and tax decisions.

Dayton left at midday Friday for his fishing opener in Park Rapids, and talks were not expected during the weekend. A Bakk spokesman said the senator plans to spend Mother’s Day with his 90-year-old mother.

High noon debate

The Minnesota Senate returns to session at noon Monday to take up a bill to allow same-sex marriages.

If it passes, as expected, Gov. Mark Dayton plans to sign the measure Tuesday, making Minnesota the 12th state to allow gay marriage. It would be the first Midwestern legislature to approve same-sex marriages (the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a gay marriage ban in that state’s law).

Gay marriage supporters continued their push Friday.

“We’re halfway there, but we can’t stop now,” Communications Director Jake Loesch of Minnesotans United wrote to supporters Friday. “Before the Minnesota Senate votes on marriage on Monday, we must do everything we can at the Capitol and throughout the state to encourage our senators to vote yes.”

Loesch asked for contributions to his group, the state’s major pro-gay marriage organization.

The Senate debate may be viewed at tinyurl.com/SenateTV.

BPA ban passes

The House passed its final bill banning bisphenol-A from children’s food containers 114-13 Friday, sending it to the Senate, where it also is expected to pass.

The House and Senate earlier approved versions of the bill, and a conference committee worked out differences. If the Senate passes the revised version, it will head to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk for his signature.

It extends current law that bans toxic BPA from children’s bottles and cups. The new bill prevents infant formula and baby food from being sold in containers that have BPA.

“This is a simple bill to give parents the peace of mind that the food they are feeding their children does not contain BPA,” said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. “It’s just common sense to protect our children from dangerous chemicals, and I’m pleased the bill received such broad bipartisan support.”

Hospitals to report

A new law requires Minnesota hospitals to develop nurse staffing plans by Jan. 1.

The bill Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law also requires those reports to be published on the Minnesota Hospital Association website for public viewing.

Also, the Health Department will convene a working group to use information from those plans to investigate if there are connections between staffing levels and patient outcomes.

The bill is a watered down version of a proposal that originally would have required certain staffing levels. Hospitals said that would be too much of a burden, especially for rural hospitals.

More state money

The state brought in about $153 million more than expected in April, Minnesota Management and Budget reported. General fund revenues totaled $1.7 billion for the month.

The state now has $298.3 million more for the year than a February forecast predicted.

The extra funds came from individual and corporate income taxes, while sales tax brought in less than expected.

The office cautioned that swings in the numbers can be caused by one-time changes or other factors and that the data “should be interpreted with great caution.”

Gas payment options

Senators voted 56-3 to prohibit cities from making rules about where customers pay for gasoline.

Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, said some cities have required payment outside at the pump.

“It’s up to the operator to make that decision,” Metzen said.

Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said many gas station owners rely on customers coming inside to purchase other items.

Unionization hiccup

The drive to allow child care workers and personal care attendants to join unions hit a snag when two Democrats joined Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee to defeat the bill.

A couple of days later, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, switched her vote and joined colleagues to send the bill to the full Senate.

It remains a divisive issue.

“Everyone wins when we come together and work together to improve our lives and profession,” said Lynn Barten, an Alexandria child care provider. “It’s time to help Minnesota’s licensed and unlicensed family child care providers do the same.”

Unionization opponents argue that those who would be affected by House and Senate bills are independent organizations that have no business being in unions to negotiate with the state.

A personal care attendant “union wouldn’t even have negotiating authority,” Kristin Novotny of Zimmerman and Anne Ripka of Blaine wrote in an opinion piece. “Unlike state employees, whose union contracts are negotiated within the confines of the state budget, PCA payment rates are set in statute.  Even if the PCA’s union negotiated a contract with the state, it would not be binding upon the Legislature.”

Kluwe still kicking

Chris Kluwe no longer is a Minnesota Vikings punter after the team released him a few days ago, but he still was kicking as he left the state.

In a tweet, he said he lobbied Rep. Pat  Garofalo, R-Farmington, to vote for a bill allowing gay marriage. Garofalo did.

Kluwe also sent an email to gay marriage supporters to seek financial donations for their cause.

The punter has been open in his support of gay marriage.

Gov. Mark Dayton, another gay marriage supporter, told reporters he is not happy the Vikings let Kluwe go.

The Vikings drafted a new punter, and within days handed Kluwe his walking papers. But Dayton said the Vikings should have at least kept Kluwe and new punter Jeff Locke through the fall exhibition schedule to see who does best.

The governor will not call the Vikings and give his opinion.

“They don’t give me political advice and I don’t give them coaching advice,” he said.