Session Success Or Flop For Greater Minnesota?

A bipartian group of state leaders works together to serve turkey burgers in May 2015 in front of the Minnesota state Capitol. From left are Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
A bipartian group of state leaders works together to serve turkey burgers in May 2015 in front of the Minnesota state Capitol. From left are Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Republicans took control of the Minnesota House this year by ousting 10 greater Minnesota Democrats in last November’s election, and immediately promised to make 2015 the greater Minnesota legislative session.

The session has ended and rural Republicans think things went well.

“I’m happy,” Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria said.

Do Democrats agree? Not so much.

“When you look at those high expectations, I thought it was a big flop,” Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart of Dilworth said.

As Franson and Marquart show, the session received mixed reviews from those outside the Twin Cities.

Figuring out how greater Minnesota did during the legislative session is inexact given the fact that the Legislature will be back in special session to pass an education funding bill and deal with some unfinished business. While in St. Paul, lawmakers may be asked to make other changes, which could affect greater Minnesota.

Greater Minnesota Republicans and even Democrats like Marquart say that the biggest victory for those living outside the Twin Cities came in the health-care bill, which added $138 million to nursing home aid, allowing the facilities to raise wages and keep nurses and other staff that more and more have used rural nursing homes as training grounds before moving on to better-paying jobs.

The same legislation would require all nursing homes to receive the same state aid level as those in the Twin Cities. Current law provides less money for rural homes.

“That’s incredible,” said Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, a third-term lawmaker in charge of increasing nursing home aid.

Greater Minnesota residents should be happy, he said. “They will see the doors staying open on their local facilities.”

Many nursing home operators were waiting to see what legislators did this session before deciding whether the homes would be open or closed. The added money is expected to keep most open.

The issue that best illustrates difference between Republicans and Democrats this year may have been transportation, perennially a prime greater Minnesota issue. Lawmakers only could pass a basic transportation funding package instead of one that would have spent billions of dollars over the next decade.

Most Democrats wanted to tack a new tax onto fuel sales to fund the work. It would have added 16 cents a gallon to gasoline at first, then gone up as fuel prices rose.

“It is going to take more revenue,” Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

But many Republicans said their biggest accomplishment was killing the gas tax plan.

“Minnesotans won by not having more money taken out of their wallet by gas tax,” Franson said.

Added suburban Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury: “Minnesotans do not want a gas tax.”

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said the issue will be awaiting lawmakers when they return March 8 for the 2016 session. Some legislators want it to be debated during the special session, but it appears the general feeling is that it will wait until next year.

Even without the multi-year, multi-billion dollar transportation funding bill sought by Democrats and Republicans alike, some new road and bridge money came out of the Legislature.

Cities of 5,000 or fewer population will split $12.5 million in road aid. They have not received such state aid before.

Marquart said his community, Dilworth, likely only will receive about $50,000, not enough to put a seal coat topping on many streets.

The bill also spends $5 million on greater Minnesota transit, $5 million for railroad safety and nearly $1 million to put emergency response teams in Duluth and St. Cloud.

Democrats sharply criticized rail safety funding, saying they support Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to build railroad crossings with overpasses in Moorhead, Willmar, Coon Rapids and the Prairie Island Indian Community to reduce the chance of car-train collisions and to reduce congestion caused by long oil trains. Some hope those crossings will be part of a special session public works funding bill.

The parties worked together to get $19 million to help fight the bird flu that has resulted in 8 million turkey and chicken deaths in the state. The help includes a low-interest loan program for farmers to repopulate their flocks and mental health help for farmers whose flocks were affected by the outbreak.

One little-noticed provision in the vetoed education bill, which likely will be part of new legislation in a special session, would allow school boards in all sizes of districts to approve a levy for money to maintain and repair school facilities. Only about the half-dozen largest ones have that power now.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said that is a major way to keep big and small districts on equal footing. Small districts have been able to take the levy request to voters, but have a tough time passing them, Kresha said.

The vetoed legislation would have provided $32 million for school facilities.

One of the issues that failed was farm property tax relief.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, had proposed lowering farm taxes on school construction projects, but it disappeared for the year along with the GOP’s hope to cut taxes $2 billion when the tax bill failed to advance.

“There is no doubt the biggest issue was the rural property taxes in Minnesota,” Marquart said.

“Property taxes are going to go up, there is no doubt about that,” Marquart said, because of the failure of the Drazkowski bill as well as lawmakers not increasing state aid to cities and counties.

While House Democrats opposed many of the eight budget bills, and say greater Minnesota got few wins, Senate Democrats and Republicans in both chambers generally voted for the bills.

“With divided government, neither party will get everything they want,” Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, said. “It’s about negotiating a reasonable balance between differing values.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the session was the most bipartisan he has seen and generally was happy with the outcome after he said before the session that he, like House Republicans, would look after greater Minnesota.

Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, was an example of Democrats who say they are disappointed with what the Republican majority delivered, or did not deliver, for his area.

“They did not deliver on this message and missed many opportunities to invest in broadband development, rail safety and infrastructure, Local Government Aid and direct residential and agricultural property tax cuts,” Lien wrote in a newsletter.

“As this session has progressed, one disappointment after another is setting back the progress we made over the last two years,” Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, said. “We could have used the $2 billion surplus to invest in families and kids and improve the economic climate in northern Minnesota, and fund the 5 percent increase for care providers.”

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities urges lawmakers to return to the drawing board before a special session.

“In failing to pass a tax bill during the regular session, legislators and the governor missed a rare opportunity to address crucial needs in greater Minnesota,” said Heidi Omerza, president of the coalition and an Ely City Council member. “Now with the special session, they have a second chance to pass a tax bill that includes an LGA (Local Government Aid) increase, workforce housing tax credits and meaningful property tax relief in Greater Minnesota. They shouldn’t let this opportunity pass them by.”

Issues important to greater Minnesota often passed with too little money, Omerza, such as for broadband and workforce housing grants.

Supporters of more funds for care of the elderly and disabled were disappointed that only nursing homes got a funding boost this year.

“The workforce crisis has already had a significant impact on services for people with disabilities and older adults,” said Jon Nelson, executive director of Residential Services Inc. in Duluth. “I know people with disabilities who had to leave their homes because providers could not recruit and retain caregivers. Existing employees have to work long hours of overtime to fill vacant shifts. It compromises the care when employees are overworked.”

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Here is a look at how some issues of special interest to greater Minnesota residents fared in the Minnesota Legislature after lawmakers passed a two-year, $42 billion budget:

— Nursing homes received a $138 million boost, which especially helps rural facilities that have been threatened with closing because of difficulty paying enough to retain staff. However, no new money was approved for other long-term care needs, such as workers who take care of people at home.

— MinnesotaCare will remain as a state-subsidized health insurance program, although costs will go up. It is heavily used in greater Minnesota.

— State payments to local governments will remain the same. Republicans wanted to cut aid to some big cities and the Senate Democrats sought to increase aid by nearly $46 million.

— Tax credits to help housing be built in areas with workforce shortages got no money because no tax bill passed.

— Grants to build housing will be $2 million a year, for all of the state, a fraction of what was requested.

— High-speed Internet expansion, known as broadband, ended up at $11 million, well below the $100 million advocates wanted.

— Job training programs, which rural lawmakers say are important in their areas, would get $900,000 each of the next two years, while supporters wanted $15 million for the two years.

— The only new money for transportation programs was $12.5 million for streets in small cities; transportation advocates wanted to commit billions of dollars over 10 years.

— $5 million will be spent on greater Minnesota transit.

— $5 million will go to make railroad crossings safer.

— Nearly $1 million will be used to establish emergency response teams in St. Cloud and Duluth. Among other incidents, they could respond to oil train accidents.

— No farm property tax relief passed. A plan would have eased property tax burdens by exempting farmland from school construction levies.

— Two-year state technical colleges will freeze tuitions, but tuitions will go up elsewhere.

— All school boards could be given permission to levy a tax to repair or maintain facilities. Large schools could do that in the past, but small districts needed to have the public vote.

— $19 million was approved for bird flu response, mostly for low-interest loans and mental health aid for farmers whose flocks were affected.

— With the tax bill collapse, no funds were approved for Moorhead, East Grand Forks, Dilworth, Ortonville and Breckenridge to provide tax breaks to companies that located there instead of North Dakota or South Dakota.

— Schools could start classes on Sept. 1 this year. Schools normally must start after Labor Day, but lawmakers approved the Sept. 1 provision since the holiday is late this year.

— Dentists will receive 5 percent more for taking care of poor patients, a far smaller increase than supporters wanted.

— Buffer strips around Minnesota water will need to be at least 16.5 feet except along private ditches. However, money to enforce the law did not pass during the regular session.

— Researchers may grow industrial hemp, but it will not be open for general farming.

— Firearm silencers, or suppressors, will be allowed.

— Money to reroute U.S. 53 in northern Minnesota was not approved since there was no major transportation bill. The highway needs to move because a taconite mine is expanding over the highway’s right of way.

— Six school districts on four-day weeks received permission to continue the schedule until 2020.

Note: This list includes some vetoed provisions, but they are expected to be approved during a special legislative session.