Political notes: Options for rural ambulances approved

Rural volunteer ambulance services that have trouble getting personnel to respond to calls would have a couple options under a bill the Minnesota House passed 130-0 Monday and is making progress in Senate committees.

Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, said his bill would allow an ambulance service to contract with a neighboring ambulance organization to provide service when shorthanded. It also would let a first responder with less training than an emergency medical technician drive an ambulance.

“This bill will help to ensure that our communities in rural Minnesota have the capabilities to respond to an emergency situation in a timely manner,” Backer said.

Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, said the bill will help a lot of rural services. “There are ambulance services that during the day are just abandoned because no one (on the service) is in town.”

Backer, a Browns Valley volunteer EMT, is a new lawmaker and the unanimous vote came on his first bill.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, sponsors the Senate version.

Legislative budget office sought

Legislative leaders offer legislation that would take the power of estimating costs of bills away from the executive branch.

“We kind of feel it is a violation of the separation of powers for those of us in the legislative branch to rely on the executive branch for fiscal notes,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Monday.

Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, are the prime sponsors of the bill.

“We don’t think it is going to cost anything,” the speaker said.

The bill comes as the House is debating a price estimate, called a fiscal note, on a bill that would reduce school districts’ reliance on senior in retaining teachers when layoffs are needed.

Speaker: Give back ‘vast majority’ of surplus

Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt says he expects the House Republican budget plan to include tax breaks with “the vast majority” of the $1.9 billion state budget surplus.

On Friday, shortly after the surplus was announced, the Crown Republican delivered several phrases indicated that at least half of the surplus should go back to taxpayers via tax cuts. On Monday, he used the “vast majority” term.

Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey said he thought all of the surplus should be returned to Minnesotans.

Daudt said the exact amount of tax breaks the GOP will seek will be included in the budget proposal to be released in about three weeks.

Teacher bill moves forward

The Minnesota House Ways and Means Committee on Monday moved a bill dealing with teacher layoffs back to the full House.

The bill, which could receive a full House vote this week, would require school districts to use already-required teacher evaluations when deciding who to lay off. Current law is mostly based on seniority.

Republicans said they did not think the bill would cost the state, but the Education Department and Board of Teaching estimated its price tag at $850,000. With that, the House removed the bill from its Thursday agenda last week and sent it back to the Ways and Means Committee to consider the costs.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, D-Brooklyn Center, said she is concerned that with the change, a district could lay off a teacher because of favoritism, gender, race or other issues.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, denied that Hilstrom’s fears would be realized. She said that her bill adds a hearing option for a teacher who does not agree with layoff decisions.

Study shows drug courts work

A new study shows Minnesota drug courts are reducing crime and lowering judicial costs.

The special courts, which often keep drug users out of prison, are 4 years old and the state courts survey showed that people who go through them are less likely to reoffend.

Drug court participants spent 74 fewer days in jail or prison on average compared to similar offenders not in drug court. That equaled a $4,288 average savings per participant.

Bank to pay $155,000 over discrimination

Bank of America is to pay $155,000 to resolve a discrimination charge dealing with a hearing-impaired customer.

The Minnesota Human Rights Department found that the bank probably discrimination against Kathryn Letourneau, who had a home loan with the bank.

“All businesses that serve the public must ensure that they are providing reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities,” Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said.

In her complaint, Letourneau said that she requested the bank communicate with her only by email because of her hearing problem as she tried to negotiate a $140,000 loan modification. But before negotiations concluded, the bank stopped using email, the Human Rights Department ruled.

Klobuchar, Franken fight invasive species

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, both Minnesota Democrats, are co-sponsors of legislation to help stop the spread of invasive carp and other species.

The bill would give federal agencies authority to take more actions than they now can.

“We can’t overlook this issue any longer, and that’s why I helped introduce this legislation to take both immediate action and a long-term coordinated response to stopping the spread of invasive carp in the Great Lakes region,” Franken said.

Klobuchar singled out invasive carp, which she said “threaten Minnesota’s strong recreation and fishing industries, which are critical to our state’s economy. We must do everything we can to protect our waterways, including moving this legislation forward to help stop the spread of invasive carp.”

Minnesota firearms permits down

Fewer Minnesotans sought, and received, handgun carrying permits last year.

Sheriffs reported to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension that law enforcement officers issued 41,493 permits in 2014; Minnesotans applied for 43,315.

Since licenses were first required in 2003, the new figure means 181,402 permits are held by Minnesotans.

The 2014 issued-permit number was down from the 60,471 issued in 2013, but much bigger than earlier years, which ranged from 17,240 in 2010 to 31,657 in 2012.

Hennepin County lead with the number of permits issued last year, 5,279. Four other counties followed with 2,200 to 3,000: Anoka, Dakota, Ramsey and St. Louis.

Political Chatter: White House touts Minnesota exports

Minnesota exported $21.4 billion of goods last year, the White House has announced.

President Barack Obama talked Thursday about his economic plan, which he said resulted in an American record $2.35 trillion in exports. Part of the White House push included highlighting state trade.

Obama’s team said that Minnesota’s exports supported 106,000 jobs in 2013.

“On average, jobs in these export-related industries pay up to 18 percent more than non-export related industries,” the White House reported.

Minnesota exports were boosted by the Obama “Made in Rural America” initiative, the White House said.

The report emphasized Obama initiatives including the White House Rural Council, which hosted a series of workshops to “connect rural leaders and businesses with resources to expand exports and to identify barriers to exporting for rural businesses.”

Feedback from those conferences resulted in actions to help export rural products.

Minnesota’s exports came from a number of areas, the White House reported, led by computer and electronic products ($3.8 billion); machinery, except electrical ($3.2 billion); and transportation equipment ($2.6 billion).

The state exported $10.2 billion of good to countries around the Pacific rim and $4.2 billion to the European Union.

“Minnesota has a diverse and robust export economy, with more than 930 different products going to 192 countries in the fourth quarter,” Commissioner Katie Clark Sieben of the Department of Employment and Economic Development said.

Poll shows mixed message

A new poll shows Minnesotans are split about Gov. Mark Dayton’s performance, but don’t like his highly publicized boost in commissioner pay.

SurveyUSA’s poll 600 Minnesota adults for KSTP-TV indicated that 46 percent approve of the job Dayton is doing, while 42 percent oppose, with a 4.4 percent margin of error.

At the same time, 70 percent of Minnesotans oppose the Dayton move to give raises of up to $35,000 a year to his commissioners. Nineteen percent approved the raises, with 11 percent not sure.

The Legislature approved and Dayton signed a bill temporarily rolling back the raises, but allowing Dayton to reinstate them — or other sizes of raises — on July 1. Beginning July 2, any raises would need legislative approval.

SurveyUSA’s poll showed 74 percent wants the Legislature to have that final approval.

The poll also shows that Dayton may face problems in passing his $6 billion, 10-year transportation plan. Fifty-one percent oppose the plan, with 43 percent in favor.

At the same time, a preliminary Republican plan to spend $750 million on highways and bridges received 75 percent support. However, the poll did not tell respondents that the GOP plan is just a temporary one, with a full proposal expected in coming weeks.

Peterson backs pilots

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a pilot, has introduced Pilot’s Bill of Rights legislation to increase protections for pilots.

The Peterson bill would reform the pilot medical certification system and make it easier to provide no-cost transportation for patients receiving medical treatment to assist in disaster relief.

“The Pilot’s Bill of Rights II takes important steps to strengthen the rights of general aviation pilots and address burdensome government regulations,” the western Minnesota Democrat said. “The bill will promote safety while reducing barriers to pilot certification and protecting volunteer pilots who support the public good.”

Franken hails FCC vote

U.S. Sen. Al Franken was thrilled with the Federal Communications Commission took a vote backing up his feeling about the Internet.

The FCC adopted new “net neutrality” protections meant to ensure that the Internet remains open and free for all.

“This is an enormous victory,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “This is the culmination of years of hard work by countless Americans who believe, just as I do, that the Internet should remain the free and open platform that it’s always been.”

One part of net neutrality is preventing charging Internet users who want faster access. Franken said that such charges would allow the rich better internet access than others.

Trafficking bill heads to vote

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s anti-sex trafficking bill is heading for a full Senate vote.

The Minnesota Democrat’s legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, is modeled after a Minnesota law that helps to make sure minors sold for sex are treated as victims, and not prosecuted.

The U.S. House already has passed a version of the Klobuchar bill.

“Sex trafficking isn’t just happening in some far-away nation, it’s happening in our own backyard,” Klobuchar said. “In Minnesota, we’ve already recognized that kids who are sold for sex are not criminals who need jail time; they are victims who need support.”

Page leaving

The best-known Minnesota Supreme Court justice is retiring.

Alan Page, who gained fame in the 1970s as a Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle, reaches the mandatory retirement age of 70 this year and leaves the court at the end of August.

Gov. Mark Dayton has asked the Commission on Judicial Selection to review candidates for the Page position and any others that open this year. Justice Wilhelmina Wright has been recommended for a federal post, which could produce another opening.

Dayton asked that applications be made by April 10.

Tax rebate not favored

Senate Finance Chairman Richard Cohen of St. Paul followed Friday’s announcement of a $1.9 billion surplus with his opposition to sending rebate checks back to Minnesotans as occurred when Jesse Ventura was governor.

Cohen recounted that his “Jesse Check” was for $250, which paid for about half of an airline ticket to New York City. He said that while he enjoyed the trip, he paid for it “over the next decade with higher property taxes, higher fees.”

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, wants to send much of the surplus back to Minnesotans in the form of tax cuts.

When asked if he would like to send “Kurt Checks” to Minnesotans, he quickly responded “that’s a good idea,” but just as quickly said he was joking.

 

Updated: Minnesota surplus rises $832 million

Frans

Frans

Minnesota’s real budget debate began today when state finance officials announced a $1.9 billion surplus, an increase of $832 million from a report less than three months ago.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he has been told it is the largest-ever state surplus, but Minnesota Management and Budget officials worked to confirm that this afternoon.

The governor, a Democrat, said that he will propose using the new money for education and transportation programs, along with adding to nursing home funding and providing money to make payments to borrow $850 million for public works projects.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, appeared to say he wants at least $900 million of tax cuts, as well as increasing spending on some programs such as nursing homes. He was not specific about tax cuts.

“Today’s news is very good news,” Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget said in announcing the surplus. “Over the last few years, we have righted the ship.”

Added Dayton: “This surplus comes from more Minnesotans working than any time in Minnesota’s history.”

The surplus did not influence Dayton to reverse his desire for a $6 billion, 10-year transportation plan, funded in a large part by a new gasoline sales tax.

“They are still proposing a huge tax increase on Minnesota families in the form of a gas tax increase,” Daudt said. “I am going to challenge Democrats in the Legislature and the governor to take this off the table.”

Instead of raising taxes, Daudt promised to push a plan to lower them. However, he had no specific proposals.

The surplus will allow lawmakers and the governor to spend more money, use it to cut taxes or increase the state’s reserves — or a combination of them. State legislators and interest groups already have announced desires to increase spending on a variety of programs.

Dayton said that spending for education and transportation “will pay off for Minnesota for years to come,” and it makes sense to spend the money in good economic times because it will not last forever.

Revenues are expected to be $616 million higher than expected in December and spending is predicted to be $115 million less. Other changes add $107 million more to the surplus, Minnesota Management and Budget reported this morning.

Dayton released his first budget proposal Jan. 27, based on an early December budget prediction showing a $1 billion surplus. Now he will tweak that $42 billion, two-year plan about how to spend state tax revenues to reflect today’s refined numbers.

Also, today’s announcement gives legislative leaders information they need to write their own budget plans, which will come out in the next few weeks.

Legislators have until May 18 to write a two-year budget and send to Dayton for his signature.

Today’s report was based on national economic forecasts and altered to fit anything different in the Minnesota economy.

Minnesota’s economy has shown good signs in recent months, including a lower unemployment rate than the national average. It is doing better than rival Wisconsin, which faces a $2 billion budget deficit this year.

After releasing his budget plan on Jan. 27, Dayton told reporters that if more money were available, nursing home funding would be at the top of his list for increased spending.

When state officials announced their budget forecast in December, they said that the $1 billion surplus would be eaten up if inflation were factored in. However, Dayton said that he would expect things such as higher salaries to be handled by his commissioners within existing budgets, not in higher budget requests.

Surplus up to $1.9 billion

Minnesota’s real budget debate began today when state finance officials announced a $1.9 billion surplus, an increase of $832 million from a report less than three months ago.

The surplus will allow lawmakers and the governor to spend more money, use it to cut taxes or increase the state’s reserves — or a combination of them. State legislators and interest groups already have announced desires to increase spending on a variety of programs.

Revenues are expected to be $616 million higher than expected in December and spending is predicted to be $115 million less. Other changes add $107 million more to the surplus, Minnesota Management and Budget reported this morning.

Details of the budget report are due out later today.

Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party credited lawmakers and the governor of his party for the good news.

“DFL leaders have made it a priority to improve the economy, create jobs and invest in education,” Martin said. “We’ve seen great progress, evident in today’s budget surplus, but we know more work needs to be done.”

One of the first Republican reactions came from Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, who said the surplus means both parties will look at the surplus to fund transportation.

“Jump in surplus kills attempts at raising gas sales taxes,” he tweeted. “Both sides will move toward dedication general fund revenue for transportation.”

Gov. Mark Dayton released his first budget proposal on Jan. 27 based on an early December budget prediction showing a $1 billion surplus. Now he will tweak that $42 billion, two-year plan about how to spend state tax revenues to reflect today’s refined numbers.

Also, today’s announcement gives legislative leaders information they need to write their own budget plans, which will come out in the next few weeks.

Legislators have until May 18 to write a two-year budget and send to Dayton for his signature.

Today’s report was based on national economic forecasts and altered to fit anything different in the Minnesota economy.

Minnesota’s economy has shown good signs in recent months, including a lower unemployment rate than the national average. It is doing better than rival Wisconsin, which faces a budget deficit this year.

When state officials announced their budget forecast in December, they said that the $1 billion surplus would be eaten up if inflation were factored in. However, Dayton said that he would expect things like higher salaries to be handled by his commissioners within existing budgets, not in higher budget requests.

 

Legislative notes: Budget forecast due Friday

A report that gives Minnesota’s governor and legislators information they need to write a two-year budget will be released Friday.

The so-called budget forecast will look at the economy and revenues coming to the state and predict funds available in the next budget cycle.

Gov. Mark Dayton already has released his budget plan, as required by law, but will tweak it after the Friday report. Legislative leaders will develop their budget based on the Dayton plan and Friday’s forecast, likely with considerable differences from the governor.

An early December forecast predicted the state will have a $1 billion surplus, but good economic reports since then have led many state officials to predict better news Friday.

The actual surplus numbers will be a tightly held secret until Friday morning.

Hemp legalization bill advances in Minnesota House

An effort to legalize hemp in Minnesota continues.

A state House committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, to allow limited hemp growth. Hemp farming has been illegal in Minnesota since shortly after World War II.

Franson’s bill would allow hemp as a crop if the producer is licensed by the state Agriculture Department and follows federal law, which now only allows researchers to grow the plant.

Hemp is used for products ranging from ropes to clothes.w

It was declared illegal due to its close relationship with marijuana, although using hemp would not make a person high.

Franson said Minnesota hemp farming has a lot of potential and her bill would develop “on a very small scale” the beginnings of a hemp industry in the state.

A similar Senate bill passed its first committee test last week.

Phasing out Social Security tax on seniors considered

A Minnesota House committee dealing with aging Minnesotans voted Wednesday to phase out the tax the state charges on Social Security benefits.

The House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee sent five bills to get rid of the tax to the Taxes Committee.

If Social Security were not taxed, the average Minnesota senior citizen would save $600 a year, the committee heard.

Most states do not tax Social Security.

Supporters of the bills testified that getting rid of the tax would help Minnesota’s elderly afford to live in their own homes longer.

The bills vary on how long it would take to phase out the tax, with two taking 10 years and the others less time.

Education-focused Dayton budget covers a wide range of issues

Dayton

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s two-year budget plan would pump more than a half billion dollars into education, increase the number of food inspectors by 26, add facilities at some parks, fund better supervision of child abuse programs, improve railroad crossings and provide hundreds of other changes.

He would do it without a general tax increase.

Dayton’s increased spending, which would bring the budget that begins next July 1 to about $42 billion, comes from a $1 billion surplus.

The surplus, announced late last year, normally would have been taken up by state agencies paying for higher wages, utility bills and other inflationary costs. However, Dayton said, he wants agencies to absorb most of that inflation by taking money-saving measures such as leaving jobs open.

Dayton surprised no one by making education his top fiscal priority, as he has since he ran for governor in 2010. He proposes setting aside $418 million of the budget for education through high school and $93 million for higher education.

“Minnesota’s future success — and health of our families, the vitality of our communities and the prosperity of our state — will depend upon our making excellent education available to all Minnesotans,” Dayton said. “That is exactly what my budget proposal aims to do.”

Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and Budget said the state is in better fiscal state than it has been for years. Many state officials expect a new state revenue report due in a month to show a larger surplus, and thus giving legislators and Dayton more money to spend.

The budget continues a modern-day trend, broken just once, of increasing the budget each year. The current two-year budget is $39.6 billion.

After Dayton, a Democrat, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature raised taxes $2 billion two years ago, there was little change in taxes in this Dayton budget.

“We are in a position where we can meet the needs without a general tax increase,” Dayton said.

The governor’s budget plan will be used at the basis for legislators to draw up their own spending plans. However, those will not come until after a new report on the state’s economy and expected tax revenues, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 27. Dayton also will revise his budget proposal after the report and propose a public works bill funded by the state selling bonds.

One item not in the Dayton budget drew the ire of nursing home advocates and Republicans.

The Long Term Care Imperative, representing facilities such as nursing homes, issued a statement saying members were disappointed that Dayton did not include more funds for their cause.

“As 60,000 Minnesotans will turn 65 this year, and next year, and until at least 2031, the demand for care will continue to grow,” the imperative statement said. “We need to start the conversation immediately about how we are going to address the care of aging Minnesotans.”

House Republicans won the majority in November’s election by winning Democratic seats in rural areas, where the most nursing home fiscal problems are found. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he was not happy that Dayton skipped increasing funding for them.

Dayton said that nursing homes have received $93 million in new founds in the past four years, so opted not to include new funding in this budget. However, he said in response to a reporter’s question, nursing home funding will be near the top of his priority list if the Feb. 27 report shows a bigger surplus.

Overall, Republicans were critical that Dayton wants to increase spending as much as he does.

Daudt said that if Dayton’s budget were to be adopted, its increased spending would cost every Minnesotan $1,244.

Democrats were happy with the Dayton plan.

“Gov. Dayton’s budget proposals reflect the values and priorities all Minnesotans share,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said. “I am pleased his budget proposal funds a comprehensive transportation plan, invests in our youngest learners, supports economic and workforce development initiatives, and maintains the balanced budget in the years ahead.”

Dayton took the rare step of withholding new money from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system until a dispute between faculty and the administration is settled.

The money would have gone to allow MnSCU continue a tuition freeze. The governor proposes to give the University of Minnesota $93 million more to continue its freeze.

The MnSCU controversy centers on an initiative, Charting the Future, established by Chancellor Steven Rosenstone. Seven faculty organizations have passed “no confidence” votes against Rosenstone for the initiative, which is designed to streamline the system.

MnSCU leaders on both sides of the dispute said Tuesday that they are working toward an agreement.

Youth-related programs and health and human services spending account for 75 percent of Dayton’s new proposals.

Featured in his education funding plan is providing free pre-kindergarten programs to 4-year-olds.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the programs will be voluntary for school districts, and local officials could decide what schools would offer the programs.

Dayton also would put more money into general public school needs and he wants $100 million available for child-care tax credits that can be used for working families.

The Dayton budget plan also would spend:

– $30 million to improve broadband Internet service, mostly in rural Minnesota.

– $33 million gained from a railroad assessment would help improve rail safety, mostly on tracks that carry North Dakota oil. He also plans to ask legislators to approve borrowing $43 million for rail safety (mostly to improve rail crossing in the Prairie Island Indian Community, Willmar and Moorhead).

– $10 million to buy two used airplanes for state use, replacing two aging ones that need more maintenance than they are worth. He said the state will reduce the number of airplanes and helicopters it owns.

– $2.5 million to improve oversight and training for county public health workers dealing with child abuse. Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said more money may be needed after a series of recommendations is released in March.

Also folded into the budget is money for more Agriculture Department food inspectors: 11 wholesale food inspectors, 10 retail inspectors and five meat inspectors.

Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said parks and trails would receive $7.2 million more, going to things such as new facilities at state parks.

The budget plan Dayton released Tuesday is for state programs funded by general tax revenues. However, when transportation, federally funded state programs and other initiatives are considered, the all-accounts budget can nearly double the state taxpayer-funded portion.

—-

Some examples of two-year budgets over the years:

– 1964-1965, $770 million

– 1974-1975, $3.5 billion

– 1984-1985, $9.8 billion

– 1994-1995, $16.7 billion

– 2004-2005, $28.1 billion

– 2006-2007, $31.5 billion

– 2008-2009, $33.9 billion

– 2010-2011, $30 billion

– 2012-2013, $35.3 billion

– 2014-2015, $39.6 billion

– 2016-2017, $42 billion

—-

How the governor’s proposed budget funded by general tax revenues would be spent:

– Public school education: 42 percent

– Health and human services: 28 percent

– Property tax aids and credits: 8 percent

– Higher education: 7 percent

– Judiciary, public safety: 5 percent

– Other: 10 percent

Notes: Property tax aids and credits include programs such as aid to local governments. Most transportation funding comes from other sources not included in the state’s main budget.

Legislative notes: Species tag repeal attempted

An effort is being made to repeal a new law that mandates an aquatic invasive species boat trailer decal.

As of July 1, the decal must be placed on trailers after owners pass 30 minutes of training about the dangers of invasive plant and animal species.

Joel Carlson said the Congress of Minnesota Resorts that he represents at the Capitol want the law overturned because it could inconvenience resort visitors. He said the law is overkill in the fight against invasive species.

Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, is among those sponsoring bills to get rid of the law.

“After speaking with constituents, sportsmen and women, other legislators and interested groups, it has become clear there are many concerns about this particular law,” Miller said. “It’s critical we continue to raise awareness about invasive species and while this provision was well intended, we can find better and more productive solutions to provide training and information.”

Minnesota revenues up

Minnesotans paid more in taxes than expected the last two months, Minnesota Management and Budget reported Monday.

The state finance agency said tax collections were up 6.4 percent over November projections. Individual November and December income taxes were nearly $1.6 billion, up from the previously estimated $1.4 billion, to lead the increase.

The total increase was $212 million over all taxes.

If the increase continues, it is good news for lawmakers crafting a two-year budget expected to top $41 billion.

MMB officials warned that the increased income tax revenue could be due to the timing of tax payments rather than more money being paid. However, they reported that lower gasoline prices and other improved economic news is good for the state.

Vets hiring bill back

Minnesota state Rep. Anna Wills, R-Apple Valley, has brought back unsuccessful legislation she authored two years ago to give a tax credit for hiring a military veteran.

She said that would help lower veteran unemployment.

“With thousands of Minnesota veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, now is the time to ensure our servicemen and women have good-paying jobs to come back to as they transition back to civilian life,” Wills said. “This bill is a win-win for Minnesota veterans and Minnesota employers; it helps address the unemployment rate for Minnesota veterans who served our country, and helps Minnesota businesses lower their tax burden by hiring highly skilled and qualified employees.”

Veteran unemployment is much higher than for the overall population.

A separate bill, by Sen. Paul Gazelka and Rep. Josh Heintzeman, both R-Nisswa, would exclude retired military members from state income taxes.

“The unfortunate fact is that Minnesota has consistently ranked in the bottom half of states to retire as a veteran, Gazelka said.

Inflation eats away surplus

Lots of charts

The Minnesota state budget surplus sits at $1 billion, but not really.

While state officials said a Thursday economic and budget report was good news, Minnesota’s top finance official said that inflation will eat up what many called a surplus. Still, political leaders agreed that the added money, unlike deficits they often have been dealt, will make budgeting easier when legislators return to St. Paul Jan. 6 and that no overall tax increase will be needed.

“Inflation is essentially everywhere,” Commissioner Jim Schowalter said of the state budget, and the $1 billion “surplus” mostly will be used to counteract it in the state’s two-year budget that begins next July 1.

“Yes, if you add in inflation, it evens out,” his boss, Gov. Mark Dayton, said.

However, Dayton and most other political leaders said Thursday’s report was good news and the governor insisted there is a surplus.

After raising taxes more than $2 billion in 2013, Dayton said that he sees no need for a general tax increase. On the other hand, the Democratic governor said that some type of new revenue is needed to inject needed money into road and bridge budgets.

House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said that he does not think higher taxes will be needed for transportation, although all ways to increase transportation funding “are on the table.”

Dayton said that what he called a “surplus” could help fund some child care tax credits, increased broadband facilities across greater Minnesota and other needs.

As soon as the $1 billion surplus was announced, groups ranging from the University of Minnesota to those representing nursing homes said they need some of that money.

Part of the $1 billion is $373 million that is not being spent in the current budget and can be spent in the next two years. State law automatically requires another $183 million to remain in the reserve and not be folded into the next budget.

The news gives Dayton a benchmark as his administration works on a budget proposal that he plans to give legislators Jan. 27. The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate will draft their own budget plans, most likely based on the Dayton budget, after another revenue report in late February or early March. Dayton will tweak his budget after that report.

Thursday’s report, known as a budget forecast, takes a look at the national and state economies and predicts how much is available to spend on state programs.

The state general fund budget has grown from $31.5 billion in 2006-2007 to $40 billion now. It is expected to top $40 billion for the two years beginning next July 1, a figure state lawmakers and the governor will work out in the legislative session that begins Jan. 6.

The general fund budget is that part of state spending funded by Minnesota taxpayers. When federal and other funds are included, the state’s total spending can be twice the state-funded total.

While Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature and governor’s office the past two years, were celebrating Thursday’s report as good news, Republicans had their doubts.

Daudt said that the state is bringing in more money, but Minnesotans’ personal budgets do not appear to be improving.

The Minnesota economy is closely tied to national trends, State Economist Laura Kalambokidis said. That includes a worse-than-expected housing market, which affects industries across greater Minnesota such as lumber and window makers.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that he hopes the budget cushion announced Thursday gives lawmakers a chance to work on one of greater Minnesota’s most pressing issues: housing.

Industries located in communities from Roseau in the north to Jackson in the south say they have jobs available, but need housing for workers, and in many cases potential workers need more training.

Most of the state’s key political leaders specifically said after Thursday’s budget forecast that it means no overall tax increase will be needed. However, Dayton emphasized what he sees as the need to raise revenue for transportation.

While he said he is open to ideas about how to raise that revenue, one possibility he has discussed would be to add a tax on gasoline at the wholesale level. The current gas tax is added at the pumps.

Daudt, whose Republican candidates this fall campaigned on improving roads and bridges, said he is not convinced higher taxes are needed. He and other Republicans have said they prefer to cut other state programs that may not be needed and transfer those funds to transportation.

In general, state political leaders were waiting for the budget forecast to draw up specific proposals.

Besides transportation, Dayton specifically mentioned the need to fund expansion of high-speed Internet, known as broadband, across the state.

Broadband, he said, is “crucial for economic development over the state.”

Dayton and legislators this year approved a down payment for improving broadband access, but some projections indicate that billions of dollars more are needed to bring greater Minnesota to the same level as the Twin Cities.

 Key budget numbers

in next two-year budget

$1.037 billion: More money expected than earlier projections

$412 million: Lower revenues expected than earlier prediction

$502 million: Expected drop in overall state spending

$443 million: Less spending needed than expected in health programs

$2 billion: Expected gain in individual income tax receipts

$598 million: Expected increase in sales tax collections

Bakk

Dayton

Daudt

State economist

$1 billion state budget surplus predicted

Minnesota legislators and governor will have a bit more to spend in the next two years.

State officials announced this morning that better-than-expected revenues are expected to give the state budget $1 billion more than previous predictions. Revenues are expected to be up compared to a February version of the revenue report.

A summary of a report due out later today shows that total revenues are expected to be $41.9 billion, 4.8 percent higher than the current budget.

Part of the $1 billion revenue expectation is $373 million not being spent in the current budget and can be held over for the next budget. State law automatically requires another $183 million to remain in the reserve and not be folded into the next budget.

The news gives Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton a benchmark as his administration works on a budget proposal that he plans to give legislators Jan. 27. The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate will draft their own budget plans. Another revenue report in late February or early March will lead to tweaks in early budget plans.

The report, a short summary released two hours before the full report was made public late this morning, takes a look at the national and state economies and predicts how much more is available to spend on state programs.

November budget forecasts in recent years have had their ups and downs, with mostly deficits in the first 10 years of the 2000s and mostly surpluses since then. At times, budget forecasts in late February or early March have shown dramatically different results, and those reports are the ones used to develop final state budgets.

The state general fund budget has grown from $31.5 billion in 2006-2007 to $40 billion now. It is expected to top $40 billion for the two years beginning next July 1, a figure state lawmakers and the governor will work out in the legislative session that begins Jan. 6.

The general fund budget is that part of state spending funding by Minnesota taxpayers. When federal and other funds are included, the state’s total spending can be twice the state-funded total.

Political Chatter: It will be an orange cone session

By Don Davis

The orange cone, that construction icon, could be featured during the upcoming Minnesota legislative session.

An extensive ongoing renovation projects has all but taken over the state Capitol.

“It is going to be like a major highway project,” Gov. Mark Dayton said about the disruption Minnesotans visiting the Capitol will experience.

Just how big a problem it will be is anyone’s guess, he added. “I don’t know if anyone fully grasps it.”

Dayton was describing the disruption from his temporary office at the other end of the mall from the Capitol, talking to Capitol press corps reporters who more than a year ago were ousted from their Capitol basement offices to a building a couple of blocks away.

“It will be a very different experience … but we will make it,” he proclaimed.

During the 2015 legislative session that begins at noon Jan. 6, the House and Senate chambers will be open. But just three of six Senate committee rooms will be available, likely forcing schedulers to plan earlier and later meetings, as well as some on Fridays and Monday mornings that often are reserved for senators to travel home and back.

All House committee rooms are in another building and not affected by renovation work.

Representatives of both parties and Republican senators are in the other building, so will not be affected by construction work. But Democratic senators are housed in the Capitol and since most of that building is closed they and some staffers will be crammed into a much smaller space.

Many staffers have been moved to other buildings.

The big impact for the public will be, quite simply, lack of space.

In other years, groups rallying for or against some legislation, or just a general principle, often have gathered inside the Capitol and then dispersed to lobby lawmakers. There will be no space large enough for rallies next year, and probably not even enough room for large crowds to move around.

It is typical for the Capitol to host hundreds of people for committee meetings dealing with controversial topics such as gun control or abortion. It is not clear how those throngs will be handled next year.

In 2016, the theory is that the Senate chamber will be closed and action will move to a controversial office building now being built across the street. Senators are supposed to be housed in the new facility by then and a large committee room could replace the Senate chambers that year.

The only part of the Capitol open in 2016 likely will be the House chamber.

The normally ornate Capitol today features a good many plywood walls after construction workers isolated much of the building, including the rotunda where many events were held. The Great Hall, another favored location, also will be under construction and closed.

Forecast a biggie

Thursday likely will come and go with Minnesotans noticing little.

But their state officials will be neck deep in numbers that will tell them how much money they can spend in the next two years.

Thursday is when state finance officials release what they call a “budget forecast.” That is a report looking at the state and national economies and how it could affect state revenues, such as taxes.

The report forms the foundation of a two-year budget, probably in the $40 billion range, that Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators must adopt before July 1.

Dayton told reporters that preliminary indications some time ago were that the state will have a $635 million surplus for the next two years. However, he added, state rules forbid finance officials from telling him in advance what the Thursday forecast says.

Countrywide, economic projects show a slower economy than was predicted at the last budget forecast in February, but Dayton said that Minnesota is doing better than that.

While his staff and commissioners have been working on the budget, Dayton said he will not go at it “full bore” until he returns from a Thanksgiving trip to see family in California.

He promised to meet his Jan. 27 deadline of presenting a budget proposal to lawmakers.

New faces?

It appears a safe bet that some key aides soon may be missing from the Dayton administration second term.

“I asked most to stay,” the governor said about his commissioners and other keystones of the administration.

When a reporter asked if that meant he asked some to leave, he said that “if I didn’t ask them to say,” then let reporters’ imaginations take over.

While promoting the state’s turkey industry, Dayton revealed that Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson is sticking around another four years. Commissioner Tony Sertich of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board was the first to announce he is leaving the administration after Dayton was re-elected to another term.

Dayton said that he was thrilled that Lee Sheehy will continue to be chairman of the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection, a board that recommends judicial candidates to the governor.

Dayton did not talk about specific potential changes. “There is a degree of flux.”

2008 amendment offers buffet of outdoors, arts funds

Moose meeting

By Don Davis

The moose population in northern Minnesota’s forests is dwindling, but a tax that voters raised in 2008 could help save the giants.

“All of us came together on this project, Minnesota Moose Collaborative, to do what we know would work for one element to improve the moose’s existence: improving habitat,” President Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association said.

The $3 million the organization has received is being used to clear areas of forest of brush, some of which was 20 feet tall, to make way for better grazing areas. It also is being used to plant trees to give shade from the warm summer sun.

“From a moose’s standpoint, it is like we renewed the buffet,” Johnson said.

“Buffet” may be a good way to describe where the moose project received its funding, because like a food buffet gives a diner lots of options, a large variety of funding opportunities came in the “legacy amendment” voters approved in 2008.

In what is known as the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, Minnesota voters approved a constitutional change to increase the state income tax three-eighths of a percent. In the first six years of funding, including money legislators approved this spring, about $1.5 billion has been split among four funds: outdoor heritage, clean water, parks-trails and arts-cultural.

Revenue voters raised in 2008 provides money for projects as varied as $334 so the Becker County Historical Society could microfilm newspapers to $36 million for one of several projects to protect the state’s forests.

Nearly 10,000 projects have received funding from the state funding buffet.

The amendment requires that all money be spent on things the state otherwise would not fund. The sales tax increase ends after 25 years.

In the program’s sixth year, which is just beginning, $378 million is being spent on projects that otherwise would not have received money.

Pam Aakre, a Clay County Fair Board member, credits a mural painted on the back of the grandstand to the funds.

“We would not have been able to do it without legacy funds,” she said, a comment heard across Minnesota from funding recipients.

A handful of other states have looked into expanding outdoors-related spending, and a few did by raising taxes, but Minnesota lawmakers found they needed to include money for arts and culture projects, such as theaters and artwork, for the measure to get enough legislative votes. The amendment faced relatively mild opposition once in front of voters, and indications are it passed mostly to boost outdoors program spending.

“Minnesotans feel so strongly about our great outdoors, when given the choice they are willing to pay for it,” Executive Director Brett Feldman of the Minnesota Parks and Trails Council said.

And it happened during a recession. It allowed Minnesota to increase spending in the four areas at a time when the economy forced other states to cut back.

“I think it is just phenomenal,” state Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said of the first five years.

“We are in the early stages of constructing a house,” Landwehr said, illustrating why he and others think it is too early to declare the legacy amendment a total success.

Those involved with legacy funds generally agree the biggest problem has been geographic balance, especially in parks spending.

“One of the most disappointing aspects to us is our systems had to battle one another for limited resources,” Feldman said about state, greater Minnesota and Twin Cities parks.

Creation of a greater Minnesota parks organization has smoothed things out, but “as long as there is money, there always are going to be battles,” Feldman said.

Minnesotans cannot get a full handle on geographic distribution of the money because most projects cover more than one county and determining how much each county benefits from each project is next to impossible.

Data compiled by the Legislative Coordinating Commission show each of the state’s 87 counties got a piece of the pie, with counties with more people getting more projects.

In northwest Minnesota, Mahnomen County got the fewest projects, 82, while the state’s largest county, Hennepin, led the way with 2,081 projects that used legacy money.

There have been attempts to shift money from urban to rural and vice versa, but the battles have fallen far short of fears. Lawmakers retain final say over how money is spent after committees for each fund make their recommendations.

Some lawmakers, mostly Republicans, question land the state is buying with legacy money, saying it should be left in private hands. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said that while overall legacy funds are “doing so many great things,” there needs to be more discussion about land purchases.

“How are we going to deal with the cost?” he asked about ongoing expenses such as management and fire protection.

McNamara, Landwehr and others said they worry about the costs of creating new programs and suggested more work needs to be done so budgets do not balloon to take care of legacy projects.

Landwehr worries that the public could expect too much from legacy funds. They cannot solve all problems, he said.

In the clean water arena, for instance, Landwehr said that even though it gets nearly a third of all legacy money, all Minnesota water will not be clean when the legacy program ends in 2034. There are just too many problems with the water, he said.

Even with potential problems, interviews with people involved in legacy funding showed most consider the amendment a huge success. Few naysayers could be found.

The biggest success so far may be spending $36 million to protect large blocks of forest in northern Minnesota ($6 million more came from other sources).

Landwehr called it a “stellar example of a project you never would have seen” without the legacy amendment.

Other forest land near Brainerd and in southeast Minnesota also was protected, and legacy money helped leverage federal funds to clean up land along the St. Louis River near Duluth.

Compared to the forest work, the Worthington International Festival is a small-dollar user of legacy funds.

In past years, the festival often has received $5,000 for the annual mid-July festival.

This year, Rod Sankey, a Worthington City Council member, said he liked the International Festival approach because it offers a venue for Worthington’s diverse residents to mix and mingle.

“I think even more people should come down here because it’s a good way to begin understanding other cultures instead of just having negative attitudes about our diversity,” Sankey said.

Like the International Festival, the Clay County Fair has received smaller legacy grants.

In addition to the $10,250 the fair received for the grandstand mural, it got about $15,000 in two years to bring in singers, square dancers, a puppeteer and artist to offer family activities the fair otherwise could not afford.

“With this money, we are able to spend maybe a little bit more just to get some more quality arts and entertainment,” Aakre said.

 Reporter Jane Moore contributed to this story.

 —-

International mask

Projects, spending per fund

Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, 7,345; $317 million

Clean Water Fund, 1,233; $533.9 million

Outdoor Heritage Fund, 141; $533.4 million

Parks and Trails Fund, 238; $228.9 million

Subject of projects

Agriculture-forestry-mining, 72

Archeology, 3

Arts, 6,261

Arts access, 5,113

Biological diversity, 121

Cultural heritage preservation, 1,409

Education outreach, 2,269

Historic preservation, 270

History, 733

Natural areas and habitat, 284

Legacy spending by county

Statewide, 414

Aitkin, 176

Anoka, 467

Becker, 214

Beltrami, 313

Benton, 205

Big Stone, 124

Blue Earth, 446

Brown, 252

Carlton, 180

Carver, 350

Cass, 254

Chippewa, 132

Chisago, 249

Clay, 193

Clearwater, 146

Cook, 218

Cottonwood, 131

Crow Wing, 270

Dakota, 609

Dodge, 167

Douglas, 159

Faribault, 181

Fillmore, 263

Freeborn, 172

Goodhue, 325

Grant, 104

Hennepin, 2,082

Houston, 165

Hubbard, 184

Isanti, 208

Itasca, 260

Jackson, 118

Kanabec, 114

Kandiyohi, 236

Kittson, 95

Koochiching, 126

Lac qui Parle, 123

Lake, 199

Lake of the Woods, 108

Le Sueur, 265

Lincoln, 111

Lyon, 151

Mahnomen, 82

Marshall, 123

Martin, 148

McLeod, 203

Meeker, 188

Mille Lacs, 144

Morrison, 253

Mower, 209

Murray, 87

Nicollet, 297

Nobles, 116

Norman, 88

Olmsted, 436

Otter Tail, 294

Pennington, 119

Pine, 166

Pipestone, 95

Polk, 192

Pope, 140

Ramsey, 1332

Red Lake, 82

Redwood, 138

Renville, 158

Rice, 364

Rock, 86

Roseau, 155

Scott, 325

Sherburne, 283

Sibley, 190

St. Louis, 809

Stearns, 544

Steele, 197

Stevens, 125

Swift, 109

Todd, 215

Traverse, 67

Wabasha, 186

Wadena, 169

Waseca, 169

Washington, 472

Watonwan, 135

Wilkin, 95

Winona, 279

Wright, 340

Yellow Medicine, 119

 Source: www.legacy.leg.mn

 —-
Minnesotans advise North Dakota

Minnesotans entering their sixth year of a fund that pays for a variety of outdoor projects have some advice for their North Dakota neighbors who this fall may decide to implement a similar fund: Work out spending details early.

One of the few major problems encountered in launching the Minnesota legacy fund, with money coming from a sales tax increase, was vague language about how parks and trails money may be spent. That issue only arose following a mostly harmonious campaign to get the constitutional amendment passed.

“One of the lessons that was learned in Minnesota is if you don’t identify and advance the process on allocating funds, you will have a lot of agreement before the ballot (vote), but a bloodbath after the ballot,” Minnesota Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said.

While the constitutional amendment Minnesota voters approved in 2008 specifically divided the new tax money among four funds — outdoor heritage, clean water, parks-trails and arts-culture — it left specifics alone, which became an issue when it came to the $30 million to $40 million parks and trails receive each year.

The feeling before the 2008 vote was “we will play nice in the sandbox,” Landwehr said about parks and trails advocates. “Now it is this annual bloodbath among the metro (Twin Cities) parks, the regional parks and the state.”

The addition of a commission to look after park interests outside the Twin Cities has helped, the commissioner said, since state and Twin Cities parks already had organizations.

A broad-based coalition opposing the North Dakota amendment touches on the issue: “This measure would commit 5 percent of North Dakota’s oil extraction tax — at least $300 million per biennium — to a new massive conservation fund with no clear idea of how the money would be spent.”

The amendment North Dakotans will consider is different from the Minnesota one in several ways.

Most importantly, the Minnesota fund divvies up the new sales tax money four ways: 33 percent to clean water, 33 percent to outdoor heritage, 19.75 percent to arts and cultural heritage projects (something not included in the North Dakota proposal) and 14.25 percent to parks and trails.

The Minnesota Legislature has final say over spending money, but various boards made recommendations, which lawmakers generally follow. In North Dakota, a 13-member citizen board would recommend spending to a commission composed of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, which would have the final spending decisions.

Minnesota Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, said he knows a bit about the North Dakota issue, which “seems to have a much more organized campaign against it than we did.” The opposition coalition includes members from farm, business, local government and energy organizations.

Saxhaug, Landwehr and others suggested that one thing North Dakotans should consider is how to fund ongoing operating costs after the state buys more land and starts programs with the new money. Such costs usually fall into the regular state budget, which may not be able to take on the added costs.

But President Mark Johnson of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association had just one bit of advice: “North Dakota, jump on it.”

Johnson said that despite what many people think, “if they wait 20 years, the money is not going to be there. … If they want to keep their standard of living, from a natural resources standpoint, now is when they need to be doing it.”

‘Legacy’ has different meanings

Minnesota and North Dakota may be neighbors, but they do not always speak the same language.

In Minnesota, “legacy fund” means revenue from an increase in the state sales tax that voters approved in 2008. The money goes to outdoors, clean water, parks, trails, arts and culture programs.

In North Dakota, voters approved a measure in 2009 they know as the “legacy fund” to use revenues from the state oil and gas tax to build up a budget reserve in case it is needed for any reason in the future. The state calls its proposed constitutional change, similar to the Minnesota 2008 one, the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment.

 —-

Creek change

Other money joins legacy funds

The “legacy amendment” usually is blended with other money to fund nearly 10,000 projects around Minnesota.

One of the most complex projects fell on the shoulders of Myron Jesme, Red Lake Watershed District director in northwestern Minnesota, to implement. He cobbled nearly $12 million from about a dozen federal, state and local sources to fix problems caused in 1904 when a straight channel was cut to replace six miles of the meandering Grand Marais Creek from near Fisher to the Red River.

Jesme said that about $3 million in legacy money was the key, especially a $2.32 million allotment from the outdoor heritage fund.

“We needed this $2.32 million to put the gas in the car and start driving,” Jesme said. “Once we got that money, the federal government came in.”

Other agencies began joining the project, too. Each has its own reason, but combined they are funding flood reduction, erosion control, water quality improvement and habitat restoration along the creek.

After a multiyear effort, the hope is to have water flowing through the original channel by year’s end, keeping the shorter straight channel for flood relief when that is needed. Putting water through a curvy creek will keep 700 tons of sediment out of the Red River each year.

Restoring the last six miles of the 45-mile-long Grand Marais Creek has many benefits, Jesme said, by returning aquatic and related ecological systems to how they were before the 1904 channel was changed.

Legacy money often provides the seed funds to attract other projects. In that way, it is like the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. That fund has nothing to do with the legacy amendment, but it gets a lot of attention on a Web page otherwise devoted to legacy funds and has been around longer than the legacy amendment.

The Legislative Coordinating Commission reports that the fund, which gets revenue from the Minnesota Lottery, attracts nearly as many page visits as its legacy home page. The arts and cultural heritage fund gets about a third of the page visits, slightly more than a page about the clean water fund.

The Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, which recommends to lawmakers how to spend the lottery money, recently compiled a $45.8 million list of 64 projects for consideration next year.

The list includes items ranging from a University of Minnesota research center aimed at slowing the spread of invasive plants and animals to researching animals including bats, turtles, elk, loons and white pelicans to improve preservation efforts.

Such projects are similar to some of the outdoors-related ones that get legacy money, and the two pots of revenue often are confused.

Here are some examples of projects at least partially funded by legacy money:

– Becker County Historical Society, $334, to add 12 rolls of microfilmed newspapers to broaden public accessibility to primary records.

– Goodhue Soil and Water Conservation District, $105,450, to construct seven grade stabilization structures in Minneola Township to reduce erosion and sedimentation to North Fork of Zumbro River, protect public roads, retain water, create wildlife habitat and increase groundwater recharge.

– Stevens County Water Quality Initiative, $84,000, to establish up to 12 miles of buffers along the Pomme de Terre River and its tributaries and install up to five rain gardens within the cities of Morris and Chokio.

– Clay County Fair, $10,250, to create a mural on the back of the grandstand that embodies the activities and spirit of the Clay County Fair.

– Friends of Lake Bronson State Park (Kittson County), $5,050, for the Woodcarvers’ Festival.

– Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District, $329,750, to improve the water quality of Little Buffalo Creek, a tributary to the Mississippi River.

– City of Kandiyohi, $6,114, to install new doors and windows to the well house, purchase and install six wellhead protection signs.

– Farmington Elementary School, $13,603, for all students at Farmington Elementary to work with artists using the European and American folk song and dance, Ghanaian drumming, West African dance and puppetry.

– Beltrami County Historical Society, $6,896, for Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News: Early Healthcare, an exhibit on early county health care drawn from primary records in local and state repositories.

– Minnesota Public Television Association, $6.2 million, for production and to buy programs.

– Minnesota Discovery Center (St. Louis County), $4,829, to create an exhibit on the history of the Iron Range as told through personal narrative of 10 residents.

– Nobles Soil and Water Conservation District, $22,346, to test waters needing data for impairment listing in the Rock River and Little Sioux watersheds.

– University of Minnesota, $4.4 million, to establish an aquatic invasive species research center to fight species such as Asian carp and zebra mussels.

– Park Rapids, $8,058, to test wells water and aquifer.

– Boys and Girls Club of Morrison County, $4,500, to invite a resident artist and arts educator, Jodi Legeros, to conduct fine arts programs at the Little Falls club location.

– Carlos Township in Douglas County, $28,000, to evaluate alternatives to fix failing sewage treatment systems.

– Wadena-Deer Creek School District, $11,836, to create works of art and learn creative problem solving strategies.

– Cottage Grove, $6,500, for spill response plan and well survey.

– Woodbury, $10,000, for well site study, ordinance review and public education.

– Dakota County Historical Society, $6,183, for 20 interviews about the history of the Hastings State Hospital, 1938-78.

– Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District, $130,055, to develop the watershed restoration and protection, while also enlarging and sustaining public participation.

Capitol notebook: Minnesota budget reserve up

By Don Davis

Minnesota officials bumped up the state budget reserve $150 million Tuesday, the first increase in 13 years.

Legislation that took effect Tuesday altered the $39 billion, two-year state budget lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton adopted a year ago. The reserve increase included in this year’s budget tweak leaves the budget cushion at $811 million, the biggest in state history.

“This action is a substantial step towards additional budget stability and prudent financial management for the state,” Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget said.  “Increasing the budget reserve helps the state manage economic risk and is viewed positively by the state’s bond rating agencies.”

Dayton said the reserve increase shows that “Minnesota has finally turned the corner on a decade of deficits that shortchanged our students and stymied needed progress for our state.”

Abortions down in Minnesota

The number of abortions dropped in Minnesota in 2013 for the seventh straight year.

The 9,903 abortions is the lowest number since 1974 and a 7.5 percent decrease from the previous year.

Tuesday’s Minnesota Health Department report confirms the success of laws that provide abortion information and alternatives, the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life anti-abortion group said.

Still, MCCL Executive Director Scott Fischbach said, the abortion rate could have been lower.

“As governor, Mark Dayton has vetoed seven protective measures, at least four of which would have protected women and further reduced the number of abortions last year,” Fischbach said. “Dayton’s defense of the abortion industry has been at the expense of unborn babies and their mothers, who are nonetheless rejecting the self-destruction, dehumanization and death that result from abortion.”

Minnesota health spending slows

Minnesota health-care spending increased by 4 percent from 2011 to 2012, a slower rate than in the past.

The state Health Department reported Tuesday that the most recent numbers show a nearly $40 billion increase in public and private health-care spending.

Minnesota spending growth was about the same as the national rate. But the state’s per-person spending of $7,403 was lower than the national figure.

“By historic standards, Minnesota saw low growth in health care spending in 2012,” Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said. “However, projections of future spending highlight that we must continue to focus on disease prevention and creating healthy communities if we are going ensure sustainability of health care costs over the long term.”

Ehlinger’s department credited several factors for the slower increase, including a waning recession, shifting costs to consumers, slower development of new medical technologies and legal requirements that insurers spend a certain percentage of premiums on health care services.