Minnesota Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls explains his higher education funding bill Sunday, May 17, 2015, in the state House. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Minnesota lawmakers and agriculture interests reached a compromise on buffer strips around water that delays requiring the 50-foot buffers the governor sought, but problems remained Sunday night and negotiations continued.
“I am absolutely working on buffers hard,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Sunday night. “I think we are getting close.”
However, he said that he “does not know how the governor is going to react to the latest offer.”
Torkelson, who has worked with Gov. Mark Dayton on the issue, said he expected an agreement among legislators late Sunday.
Buffer provisions were folded into an agriculture and natural resources funding bill.
“It definitely needs to be improved,” Dayton told reporters.
Part of the reworked legislation was to require the state to do a better job of enforcing existing law that protects water from pollutants. Dayton said he does not think landowners need to be given five to seven more years to obey the law.
The bill requires 50 foot buffers around most water in five years and seven years for other areas of water.
“Water quality is going down…” Dayton said, adding that “it is sad they want to give them five to seven more years. … What a joke.”
Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said the new language was “a step” in the right direction.
Dayton this spring made buffer strips a key part of his legislative agenda.
Many students attending state-run colleges and universities should prepare to pay higher tuitions next year.
The package freezes tuitions at two-year schools in the next school year and reduces them a percent the next year. The bill also provides a tuition freeze in 2017 for four-year Minnesota State College and University system schools.
“We put students first,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “There hasn’t been a tuition reduction in recent history so I am pleased we can finally provide one.”
A final agreement the Senate and House passed Sunday on higher education spending does not include as much money for tuition freezes as sought by the University of Minnesota and MnSCU systems, leading to the limited freeze in the bill.
The University of Minnesota will get $22 million and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities receive $100 million to hold down tuition.
The bill boosts $2.9 billion spending in the current two-year budget to $3 billion in the two years beginning July 1.
Sen. Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, was critical that the House forced the final bill to favor MnSCU over the U of M. He called it “short sighted.”
A bill providing $19 million to help battle avian flu is expected to pass the Legislature.
An agriculture bill contains the funds, with much going to a low-interest loan program for farmers whose flocks were infected with the flu, which has taken nearly the lives of almost 6 million turkeys and chickens in the state.
Farmers, mostly in western Minnesota, have seen their flocks wiped out by the flu. Federal funds reimburse farmers for euthanizing birds to prevent the flu’s spread, but not for birds that die of the flu. The loans are designed to allow farmers repopulate their flocks.
The avian flu decision was made by the House-Senate agriculture-environment conference committee, which also removed language that would have required manufacturers or distributors of children’s products that contain potentially harmful chemicals to notify the Pollution Control Agency, which would then make that information available to the public.
And an amendment, offered by Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, that would have included language allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license or learner’s permit was defeated on a voice vote.
A $100 million public works funding bill that passed a House committee Saturday night was scrapped Sunday.
Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, received a message from House leaders to “start from scratch” and see if he could build a new bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds, before lawmakers must go home for the year at midnight Monday.
The Torkelson bill the Ways and Means Committee approved included money for disaster relief, a northeastern Minnesota jail to repair meat processing facilities and to upgrade a Willmar turkey testing facility.
The bill was drawn up without Democratic input and Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said he does not see support in his party for the bill. A bonding bill needs more votes than either party can provide, so Democratic input could help pass the bill.
Gov. Mark Dayton and the Senate bonding bill chief, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, met about bonding Sunday night.
Dayton said he holds out hope that a bill could pass that includes money for railroad crossings in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. The crossings now are at the same level as roads, but Dayton wants to convert them to overpasses.
“We are going to continue working on the bonding issue,” Torkelson said. “Whether it is going to come to the floor, I have not decided or been told.”
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, started the legislative session saying that a major transportation-funding bill might not happen until 2016.
Then things quickly gelled and House Republicans produced a 10-year multi-billion-dollar road and bridge construction proposal funded by money taken from other state programs.
But in the past week, that plan and one by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats that would have added a new gasoline tax pretty much disappeared in late-session budget talks.
The Legislature late Sunday was poised to pass a transportation funding bill, tiny in comparison to the ones nearly everyone wanted. Still, Kelly said, the bill would provide $5 million for rail safety issues, money that could be used to study the situation so solutions can be included in a major transportation bill next year.
Railroads were ready to help fund safety projects, Kelly said, but he did not provide specifics before being whisked away to a meeting.
Kelly said the decision came down to “a tax increase or tax cuts.”
Republicans wanted to cut taxes $2 billion, while Democrats wanted the new gasoline tax. Both were controversial and were dropped when neither side could agree to the other’s plan.
The transportation package will be in front of House-Senate negotiators when legislators return to work on March 8 for their 2016 session.
The Legislature overwhelmingly approved a plan to fund courts, prisons and public safety programs on Sunday.
Despite the 55-9 Senate vote and the 116-15 House vote, the measure did create some intra-party difficulties.
The push to restore felons’ voting rights was left out of the compromise public safety bill negotiated by DFL Sen. Ron Latz and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, due to stiff Republican opposition.
Minnesota felons lose their right to vote until they’ve completed their sentences. Felons released on parole or probation are still unable to vote.
Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis and a fierce supporter of felon voting, was upset by the abandonment of the provision, especially because the final measure included gun rights provisions strongly opposed by liberal activists.
“I do not want us to dirty up the word compromise,” Champion said in the wee hours Sunday before a joint House-Senate committee approved the measure.
Latz said he struck the best deal he could and pointed to extra money for public safety programs such as youth intervention and public defenders that he secured in the bill.
License plate data
Data from automatic license plate readers would have to be destroyed after 60 days, unless part of an ongoing investigation, under a compromise the Legislature approved.
That splits the difference between the House version, which destroyed that data after 30 days, and the Senate version, which had a 90-day lifespan.
Privacy activists say databases of automatic license plate reader information invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens and have argued for the data to be deleted immediately if not related to an existing investigation. Law enforcement officials say license plate readers are an invaluable tool that can identify the locations of suspects — and that the need for a particular hit often doesn’t become clear for months.
The compromise legislation makes the existence of automated license plate readers’ public information, audits every two years of license plate reader programs and limits on the use of the readers to track specific individuals without a warrant.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press and Session Daily contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner. Session Daily is a nonpartisan Minnesota House news service.