It is hard to talk long to any Minnesota official without hearing about North Dakota.
The reason? Oil that is, black gold, Bakken tea. The first thing you know, old North Dakota’s a billionaire.
All that money has Minnesota politicians envious and concerned.
From Gov. Mark Dayton on down, it is common to hear them wishing that Minnesota had a resource worth as much as that being pumped from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Then, almost without pause, a politician can pivot and complain that North Dakota’s oil makes Minnesota a more dangerous state.
So it was no surprise the other day when the Minnesota Legislative Energy Commission slipped, as if on an oil puddle, from talking about rail congestion slowing the delay of coal to power plants to the dangers of railroads transporting oil across the state. Rail safety is not in the commission’s portfolio, but over the past couple of years, the nine or 10 oil trains a day that pass through Minnesota has become an explosive issue in the Capitol.
Six or seven trains, each with at least 100 cars of oil, travel from Moorhead through the Twin Cities and on southeast each day, headed to Midwest and East Coast refineries. Fewer go from North Dakota, then south through Willmar and Marshall to Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.
So when Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation was telling the commissioner about rail congestion that many blame on North Dakota crude oil, questions arose about rail oil safety.
“Bakken fuel is very volatile…” Christianson told the legislators. “If there is a rupture or spill, it tends to ignite with any source of heat.”
Republicans, especially, long have argued that building pipelines would help fix the problem. Christianson said that if every pipeline proposed through 2025 is built, “we could empty all the oil trains being moved today.”
However, he quickly added, Bakken production is growing so fast that its output would be so big that pipelines could not handle it all and the same number of oil trains would be needed as are on the tracks today.
“Energy independence is a good thing,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo said, “but it creates new problems.”
The Farmington Republican, who next year will lead a House energy committee, said that oil trains are far more dangerous and costly than pipelines.
New tax eyed
The governor and most legislative leaders have said no general tax increase is needed in 2015, but a phantom surplus means some state lawmakers who want to increase spending are hatching plans to get around that attitude.
Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, says he is calling to close a “loophole” in proposing to enact a new tax on people with higher incomes.
Eken always has been a strong proponent of increasing funding for care given to the elderly and disabled. With a $1 billion surplus that state officials say will be devoured by inflation, he had a choice of taking money from state programs or add a new tax. He hopes his new tax is the answer.
The federal government taxes Americans to fund Social Security, but the tax is not on the full income for many taxpayers. This year, the tax was levied on $117,000 of income (it changes every year). So if someone made $200,000, the tax only was levied on $117,000 of the income.
Eken’s idea is to add his new state tax where the federal Social Security one leaves off. So this year it would have started at $117,000, meaning with a $200,000 income a Minnesotan would pay tax on $83,000 for elderly and disabled care. People earning less than $117,000 would not pay the Eken tax.
Eken said that early estimates show the tax could raise $600 million.
“I am not wedded to this idea,” Eken said, adding that he just wants to find more money for the cause and he does not expect his tax to pass as is.
More leaders named
House Democrats named three deputy minority leaders for the 2015 legislative session: from rural, suburban and urban Minnesota.
Joining already-elected Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis will be deputy leaders Paul Marquart of Dilworth, Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park and Erin Murphy of St. Paul.
Two years ago, Marquart challenged Murphy to be majority leader when Democrats controlled the House. His loss led to many Republican charges that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party caucus was controlled by urban Democrats.
Bakk raises money
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk a few days ago raised money for the disadvantaged instead of a political campaign.
His annual Stock the Shelves event brought in more than $100,000 for northeastern Minnesota food shelves. In the eight years he has hosted the Twin Cities event, the Cook Democrat has raised more than $600,000.
“Even with a recovering economy, job losses and rising food costs mean more families are stretched to the limit,” Bakk said. “We are doing our part to help, and I hope all Minnesotans will take time to help others this holiday season.”