Updated: Avian flu funding heads to negotiations

A provision Democratic senators added to avian flu funding legislation resulted in House Republicans rejecting it and forcing negotiations to resolve the differences.

The Minnesota Senate joined the House Tuesday afternoon in passing avian flu funding legislation, but with an unrelated provision that produced Republican objections. As midnight approached, the House took up the issue and opted to send the bill into House-Senate negotiations instead of accepting the Senate change.

Senators unanimously voted to provide $514,000 to the state Agriculture Department and $379,000 to the Board of Animal Health for state expenses in dealing with the outbreak. The House also was unanimous in passing its bill last week.

A provision in the Senate bill to change when officials report information on how much money is in the state budget reserve  drew strong opposition from Republican senators, who said it only would delay appropriating the emergency money. The provision would move the reporting date from January to August.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said that the House could not accept the unrelated provision, and late Tuesday other Republican joined him.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said that the report provision was innocent and by sending the bill to negotiations only leads to a delay in getting money out to state workers.

“We could solve this situation tonight,” Thissen said.

Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said the bill must be changed because the report provision has not been vetted by House committees. The delay, she said, is because senators added it.

“We have games being played in the Senate,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.

A Hamilton motion to send the bill to negotiators passed 73-58.

In the Senate, Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, offered an amendment to strip the bill of the report date change.

“It is only common sense to take this language off so it doesn’t slow down the emergency response to the avian flu virus,” Westrom said.

“We are the turkey producing capital of the United States,” Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria said. “We are in a real disaster right now; this has to be dealt with.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Senate needed to fix the funding bill already approved by the House, so the report provision was not the only addition. He said the House forgot to provide for a pass-through of federal funds that the Legislature must approve.

“The House sent us a bill that was not yet ready to go to the governor,” Bakk said.

Gov. Mark Dayton said that once he receives the funding bill he will sign it as soon as possible.

The governor also said that his chief of staff talked to the Arkansas governor’s chief of staff and convinced that state to not ban Minnesota turkeys. Apparently the only state considering banning Minnesota birds, Arkansas has reported an avian flu outbreak, too.

Health experts say there is no danger to humans eating turkeys and state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson says there is no way an infected bird will get into the food supply.

Also Tuesday, the state Board of Animal Health reported that 2.1 million turkeys have died of the flu or been euthanized to prevents its spread. There are 31 farms in 15 counties affected. The first case in central Minnesota was reported in a commercial turkey flock of 310,000 in Wadena County

Minnesota Senate passes avian flu funding, but with a hitch

The Minnesota Senate joined the House on Tuesday in passing avian flu funding legislation, but an unrelated provision in the bill could stall its final passage.

Senators unanimously voted to provide $514,000 to the state Agriculture Department and $379,000 to the Board of Animal Health for state expenses in dealing with the outbreak. The House also was unanimous in passing its bill last week.

A provision in the Senate bill to change when officials release information on how much money is in the state budget reserve  drew strong opposition from Republican senators, who said it only would delay appropriating the emergency money. The provision would move the reporting date from January to August.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said that the House cannot accept the unrelated provision, which he said could force the House to write a new bill or send the measure to a House-Senate conference committee to work out details.

Also Tuesday, the state Board of Animal Health reported that 2.1 million turkeys have died of the flu or been euthanized to prevents its spread. There are 31 farms in 15 counties affected. The first case in central Minnesota was reported in a commercial turkey flock of 310,000 in Wadena County

In the Senate, Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, offered an amendment to strip the bill of the report date change.

“It is only common sense to take this language off so it doesn’t slow down the emergency response to the avian flu virus,” Westrom said.

“We are the turkey producing capital of the United States,” Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria said. “We are in a real disaster right now; this has to be dealt with.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Senate needed to fix the funding bill already approved by the House, so the report provision is not the only addition. He said the House forgot to provide for a pass-through of federal funds that the Legislature must approve.

“The House sent us a bill that was not yet ready to go to the governor,” Bakk said.

Gov. Mark Dayton said that once he receives the funding bill he will sign it as soon as possible.

The governor also said that his chief of staff talked to the Arkansas governor’s chief of staff and convinced that state to not ban Minnesota turkeys. Apparently the only state considering banning Minnesota birds, Arkansas has reported an avian flu outbreak, too.

Health experts say there is no danger to humans eating turkeys and state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson says there is no way an infected bird will get into the food supply.

 

Minnesota GOP rolls out $2 billion tax-cut plan

Davids

Davids

Minnesotans deserve a $2 billion tax break, House Republicans say, while admitting they will not get their way.

A plan the GOP laid out Monday features a provision to give Minnesotans $539 million income tax cuts with another $453 million for beginning to phase out the statewide business and cabin property tax. The bill is expected to be in front of the full House in coming days, as lawmakers have less than a month to pass and then negotiate their final budget and tax bills.

The proposal contains a wide variety of tax cuts, including $131 million in credits for student loans, $61 million for farmers and other Minnesotans by reducing the state estate tax, $50 million to farmers by reducing their share of school district construction costs and $101 million to encourage businesses to increase research and development.

“State government has collected $2 billion too much from Minnesotans,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, declared as he and other GOP leaders announced their tax package.

Republicans did not touch the new tax Democrats added two years ago on the richest Minnesotans when they were in charge of the House, Senate and governor’s office. House Tax Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he knows Dayton, a Democrat, will not approve eliminating that tax, so he opted for tax cuts he thought would be more acceptable.

While Dayton’s spokesman said he is awaiting a Revenue Department analysis before commenting on the plan, House Democrats wasted no time attacking it.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said Republicans are misleading Minnesotans by saying their bill aims to help the middle class. He said it really helps big businesses.

The income tax relief could provide up to $1,500 a year tax savings for a family of four, Republicans say. Thissen, however, said an average-wage single tax filer would more likely get $50 to $70 a year.

The income tax change would last two years, while the statewide property tax phase out would come over a number of years.

Republicans say that the Twin Cities’ tax relief for next year would be $110 million from the property tax change, with greater Minnesota getting $132 million. Greater Minnesota would get far more relief for cabins, officially known as season recreational properties: $30 million vs. $860,000 for the Twin Cities metro area.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that eventually eliminating the statewide property tax (local property taxes would not be affected) would allow “our small business owners to survive and, hopefully, thrive.”

Aitkin County Commissioner Donald Niemi agreed with Drazkowski that the Republican plan could help small businesses. For one restaurant in his area, Niemi said, 400 pies must be sold to pay for the state property tax.

With stores closing across Minnesota, the commissioner said, any help like the phase-out helps.

Thissen agreed that at first small businesses may do well under the bill, but said as the phase-out continues the benefit would shift to big businesses and to the Twin Cities.

Davids claimed that 75 percent of the GOP bill is “targeted to the middle class and actual Minnesotans, not businesses.”

“I wanted to bring as many people into tax relief as I possibly could,” he said, adding that even though he hoped for Democratic support for some provisions, he knows the bill cannot pass as is.

Thissen compared the overall tax plan to a time in the early 2000s when Jesse Ventura was governor and rebate checks were sent to Minnesotans. Soon after the “Jesse checks” were sent, the economy went sour and the state budget faced numerous problems.

Dilworth Democratic Rep. Paul Marquart, an assistant minority leader, said he fears an $85 million cut to Local Government Aid to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis also would hurt other cities.

Democrats brought several Minnesotans to a news conference who said they would be harmed by the overall Republican budget.

Nancy Swanson, a server at the Green Mill restaurant in Willmar, said a bill up in the full House on Wednesday would affect her income. The provision would lower the minimum wage for some people who receive tips.

Swanson, married with four children, said that she does her best to serve customers, and in return they “give us nice tips. I’m going to be penalized for a job well done.”

The Republican tax bill also includes:

— $50 million for Minnesotans who pay more using MNsure than their previous health insurance providers.

— $47 million for families with children by increasing education deduction.

— $35 million for families by establishing a larger child care tax credit.

— $21 million by repealing sales tax on digital products such as downloaded songs.

— $20 million for pre-kindergarten student deductions.

— $40 million to let families deduct contributions to Minnesota College Savings Plan.

— $237 million to phase out tax of Social Security payments.

— $52 million to eliminate income tax on military pay and pensions.

— $10 million to provide tax credit for saving for long-term care costs.

 

Bonding: Dayton for big spending as GOP backs little, if any

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

Hallock city officials in northwestern Minnesota want the state to borrow $255,000 to help replace a fire station, $360,000 to replace a swimming pool and $400,000 for sewage system improvements.

In southeast Minnesota’s Red Wing area, requests for state money include $14.8 million for a railroad overpass, $4.5 million for a downtown “renaissance,” $16 million for port improvements, $550,000 for Minnesota State Southeast Technical College repairs and $935,000 for the Minnesota correctional facility in Red Wing.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday said he wants the state to fund those and nearly 180 more projects across the state by selling $842 million in bonds. Republicans and the Senate leader were not on board, but even GOP legislators who have talked against a 2015 bonding bill did not completely rule one out.

Dayton said that his proposal would help Minnesota’s economy by allowing the state to “do what every smart business does, to lay the foundation for a better a better future.”

The Democratic governor said that now is when the state should sell bonds to finance projects with low interest rates. “What better time do we have to make these investments?”

Even Dayton admitted that it is a stretch to think legislators will grant his wish, given Republican reluctance to borrow the money. However, in the hours after Dayton announced his bonding proposal, Republicans gave bonding supporters some hope.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Republicans have no plans to pass a bonding bill this year but didn’t shut the door entirely.

“We are open to listening if the governor thinks some of these projects are timely,” Daudt said. “But we certainly are not planning for one right now.”

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said that he would consider a bonding bill, even if many Republicans want nothing. “I have been here nine years and I have never seen zero yet. This is pretty normal.”

The senator added: “Give it a little time to digest and see what happens.”

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that he fears if a big bonding bill like Dayton wants passes this year, the governor will push another big one next year (Dayton said that if his passes this year, he may propose a $200 million to $250 million one next year).

“I don’t know that we are going to see anything, but if there is (it must be) very, very modest,” Hann said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he has instructed bonding Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, to draw up a basic bonding bill that includes statewide needs such as college repairs, but not local projects such as Hallock and Red Wing officials hope to see.

“That is not the real work of this session,” Bakk said about a major bonding bill. “The budget is our priority for this session.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he was happy to see Dayton included $48 million to complete southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system. He said that Lewis and Clark should be in a bonding bill unless lawmakers and Dayton opt to pay cash for it.

Lewis and Clark is the largest single project Dayton put in his plan. The proposal also includes $65 million to build four railroad overpasses or underpasses in Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community, Moorhead and Coon Rapids, places where trains transporting crude oil travel.

Dayton’s office said that $360 million of the projects would be in greater Minnesota, $321 million in the Twin Cities and $161 million for statewide programs. A quarter of the money would go to education facilities.

Dayton said that his office received $1.9 billion in project requests and many items that he included in his plan could use more money. “We could spend $800 million on rail safety,” Dayton said.

“This bonding bill addresses high-priority needs,” Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and budget said.

Dayton said that projects like the Hallock pool and the southwest water system are important: “It makes a lot of difference to the people.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Doug Belden contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

 

Transportation funding comes down to new taxes vs. no new taxes

Kelly, Daudt

Kelly, Daudt

The announcement of Minnesota Republican legislators’ transportation plan Monday sets up the debate about how to fund road, bridge and transit programs: increase taxes or use existing revenue.

Republicans and Democrats agree that some transportation money should be borrowed, but differ beyond that. Republicans would use budget surplus funds and money that Democrats would spend on non-transportation programs. Gov. Mark Dayton and other Democrats build their transportation plan on a new gasoline tax that would cost about 16 cents a gallon at current pump prices, higher transportation-related fees and a Twin Cities transit tax.

Republicans say they could fund all 607 Minnesota road and bridge projects Dayton and other Democrats propose, but without tax increases.

Republicans on Monday announced a $7 billion, 10-year plan. Dayton calls for $6 billion in more taxes and fees over a decade, part of a nearly $11 billion transportation proposal.

“We’ve been listening,” House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said, adding that Republicans heard from Minnesotans that they do not want higher taxes.

Existing vehicle-related taxes such as sales tax on car parts and rental vehicles would be sent to an account dedicated to transportation funding under the GOP plan. That would produce $3 billion over 10 years.

Republicans propose borrowing another $2.5 billion during the decade, starting next year, a bit more than Dayton would, and require the transportation department to trim $1.2 billion from its expenses. Another $228 million would come from the surplus.

Republicans did not say from what programs they would take General Fund money, but House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said there is enough revenue to cover transportation needs.

Daudt complained about Dayton’s willingness to raise taxes. “His fallback position is always to increase taxes.”

Dayton said he is glad to have a GOP proposal to examine and that the plan looks ahead a decade. But, he added, he needs to see what programs might suffer under the proposal.

“They’re siphoning some $3-plus million out of the General Fund and transferring that to transportation needs, which means that $3 billion over the next decade is going to come out of other needs and other programs, so the question is what’s the trade-off,” the governor said.

Like Dayton’s plan, the Republican proposal could be changed by lawmakers and governors any year.

Republicans used a Star Tribune poll released a few hours before their announcement as evidence their plan is what voters want.

The newspaper survey showed Minnesotans statewide oppose the Dayton plan 52 percent to 45 percent and about 60 percent of greater Minnesota residents disagree with the governor’s proposal.

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

— $282 million for roads in cities smaller than 5,000 population.

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

For the most part, the GOP plan leaves finding new money for Twin Cities transit improvements up to agencies running transit programs. Democrats propose increasing Twin Cities sales taxes for transit needs.

Daudt said that he expects the House to approve its transportation bill by the end of April.

Kelly said a separate bill to fund rail safety improvements eventually will merge into the overall transportation plan.

Rachel Stassen-Berger of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a media partner of Forum News Service.

GOP presents $7 billion, 10-year transportation plan with no new taxes

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

Legislative Republicans say they can fund all 607 Minnesota road and bridge projects Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton proposes, but without tax increases.

Republicans this morning announced a $7 billion, 10-year plan that relies on money that Dayton would spend on other programs, as well as borrowing money. Dayton calls for $6 billion in more taxes over a decade, part of a nearly $11 billion transportation proposal.

“We’ve been listening,” House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said, adding that Republicans heard that Minnesotans do not want higher taxes.

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

— $282 million for roads in cities smaller than 5,000 population.

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

Vehicle-related taxes such as sales tax on car parts and rental vehicles would be sent to an account dedicated to transportation funding under the GOP plan. That would be $3 billion over 10 years.

Republicans propose borrowing another $2.5 billion during the decade, starting next year, a bit more than Dayton would, and require the transportation department to trim $1.2 billion from its expenses. Another $228 million would come from money the state already has in the bank.

The governor’s plan would add a new gas tax and increase some transportation-related fees.

Like Dayton’s plan, the Republican proposal could be changed by lawmakers and governors.

Republicans used a Star Tribune poll released a few hours before their announcement as evidence their plan is what voters want.

The newspaper poll showed Minnesotans oppose the Dayton plan 52 percent to 45 percent. However, about 60 percent of greater Minnesota residents opposed the governor’s proposal.

“It’s a fundamental shift and it’s what Minnesotans want,” Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said about the GOP proposal.

Political chatter: North Dakota gun law leads to Minnesota committee shootout

Minnesota legislators often discuss North Dakota, usually in relation to its oil wealth and usually the talk is accompanied by envy.

But the Minnesota House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee underwent a lengthy and spirited debate about a topic with even more firepower than money: whether North Dakota residents’ gun permits should be honored in Minnesota.

After a meeting split between morning and night Thursday, the committee cast a divided vote to allow Class I North Dakota permits to be legal. The next stop is the full House.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, is author of a similar Senate bill.

The argument came because gun rights groups do not agree with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s decision that the North Dakota gun permit law is not close enough to Minnesota law to allow reciprocity.

Current Minnesota law requires the state to honor gun permits from states with “substantially similar” laws to Minnesota. The BCA makes that decision and puts a list of those states that do not have similar laws on its Website.

The bill in front of the House would remove the word “substantially” from the Minnesota law, but also specifically requires the BCA to allow Class I North Dakota permits. Class I permits require more testing than North Dakota’s Class II permits.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s Website indicates that “holders of a Class 1 license have reciprocity in many more states than those who have a Class 2 license.”

Minnesota allows gun permit holders from 11 states to carry weapons in the state. The bill could nearly triple the number of states.

Lawmaker rejects immunity

Minnesota legislators have discussed for years whether they are immune to arrest during a legislative session.

Like in many states, there is a constitutional provision dealing with legislative immunity. Some say lawmakers cannot be arrested, while others disagree, so legislation often is discussed about clarifying that in most instances lawmakers can be arrested like anyone else.

The debate is back on the table in this year’s Minnesota legislative session, and it faces a tall hill to climb, but the issue arose in another state.

It came up this year in Kentucky, when state Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard was charged with drunken driving. At first, Smith claimed legislative immunity from arrest, but later withdrew a court motion requesting that because, he said, he did not want to look like he was seeking a special favor.

“Quite frankly I would have liked to have been arguing that today (in court) but he felt like he did not want to rely on that,” the senator’s attorney, William Johnson said, as quoted in The State Journal of Frankfort. He explained that it’s been embarrassing and difficult for Smith to carry out his legislative duties while facing these charges. “He felt you ought to go through the justice system and that’s what we’re doing.”

Smith, who lost his driver’s license because he did not obtain a lawyer by the Kentucky deadline, has pleaded not guilty and expects an April jury trial on the charge.

Spirited debates go nowhere

The two liveliest debates of the 10-week-old legislative session resulted in lots of talk but no bill moving forward.

Senators got into how schools should handle transgender athletes when Republicans tried to pull a bill out of a Senate education committee that did not appear to be going anywhere. The attempt to move the bill directly to the full Senate failed, but senators took plenty of time to debate transgender issues.

Representatives took part in a 90-minute debate about long-term care funding when Democrats tried to get an immediate vote on a bill that would increase senior care funding.

The colorful debate included Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, saying Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, wanted to be king and Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, saying House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was “acting like a dictator.”

Winkler’s comments came when Daudt ended the session for the day as Thissen was seeking a roll call for adjournment.

Lawmakers will get a break from each other when they take an Easter vacation March 28 to April 6.

Statues under scrutiny

First it was Christopher Columbus; now it is Leif Erickson.

A bill by Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, calls for a Columbus statue plaque on the Capitol grounds to be reworded from him discovering America to him landing here. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, D-Minneapolis, now has added a bill to make a similar change to an Erickson statue across the street from the Capitol.

Historians do not agree on who actually was first to land in what now is the United States.

Columbus is being attacked on another front, too.

With some cities opting to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, there now is a state House bill to do the same statewide.

Rep. Susan Allen, D-Minneapolis, introduced legislation to make the second Monday in October American Indian and Indigenous People’s Day “to acknowledge and promote the well-being and growth of Minnesota’s American Indian and Indigenous community.”

State of State April 9

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to deliver his annual State of the State address at 7 p.m. in the House chamber.

He originally was going to deliver it next Wednesday, but legislative leaders asked him to postpone it because of deadlines. Then he asked if he could speak on April 8, but House Republicans reported a scheduling conflict.

 

Education leads Dayton budget, with elderly care officials disappointed

Dayton

Dayton

By Don Davis, Forum News Service

and David Montgomery, St. Paul Pioneer Press

Gov. Mark Dayton proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending for education and families Tuesday, leaving some senior citizens’ advocates disappointed with what they said is a too-small increase.

The governor’s $866 million proposed budget increase would freeze tuition at state colleges and universities, start a new universal state-funded prekindergarten program and give more than $160 million to lower-income families. In all, Dayton is proposing to spend nearly 80 percent of the state’s $1.9 billion surplus on “Minnesota children, students and families.”

“I believe in these investments because Minnesota faces real challenges ahead,” Dayton said.

As Dayton updated his two-year, $42.5 billion budget proposal with new budget surplus funds, he added $25 million for nursing homes that complain state money does not allow them to pay enough to keep employees.

Nursing home leaders said the increase Dayton suggests in his revised budget is not enough, but said they are optimistic about a legislative funding increase plan that started at $200 million.

Dayton said he is open to spending more once he sees legislative proposals. He did not know how much his $25 million would raise nursing home workers’ wages, which is the main focus of the money.

“I anticipate the Legislature might very well want to go beyond that, and I’m certainly agreeable to doing so,” Dayton said.

Vice President-Senior Services Carol Raw of Morris-based St. Francis Health Services said the $25 million “is not going to solve our problems,” but added that it is a good sign that Dayton included anything.

President and CEO Mark Anderson of the Knute Nelson care center in Alexandria said he is hopeful the legislative proposal will prevail, but also appreciates that nursing homes are on Dayton’s radar.

While Dayton, a Democrat, concentrated funding on young Minnesotans’ education, Anderson said the reality is that by 2020, there will be more senior citizens than school-age children as 60,000 people turn 65 each year.

Administrator Deb Barnes of Lakeview Methodist Health Care Center in Fairmont said that for years, it seemed no one listened to nursing home needs. That is, until this year, when legislators decided “we need to look at grand reform,” she said.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the Dayton nursing home figure is too small, but predicted the final number will be smaller than what care facilities sought.

“Republicans have been talking for months now about how important it is to reform the way we reimburse nursing homes to make sure that we’re showing these folks the respect they deserve,” the speaker said. “We think that number needs to be probably closer to $160 million over the next biennium.”

A group feeling it didn’t receive enough attention, and is unhappy, represents those who care for the elderly and disabled in their homes. They are behind the 5 Percent Campaign, an effort to boost funding.

“Members of The 5 Percent Campaign are stunned that Gov. Dayton’s supplemental budget includes funding for nursing homes, but not a rate increase for home and community-based services,” said Bruce Nelson of the campaign. “It’s really a matter of fairness. It’s important that caregivers in home and community-based services are treated the same as those in nursing homes.”

About 19,000 American Indian students throughout the state, 93 percent of all Indian students, would benefit from $15 million more that Daytona folded into his budget, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said. The money would be used to improve academic achievement and reduce the dropout rate.

Dayton proposed spending $10 million to build 650 housing units in greater Minnesota communities that have job openings but housing shortages.

While Dayton had already announced his prekindergarten plan and tuition freeze, along with a tax credit for middle-income parents and caregivers, some of his welfare proposals were new.

The governor’s proposing $68 million to increase state assistance for low-income families. That aid that hasn’t been changed since 1986, meaning its value has plummeted due to inflation. A bill from DFL Sen. Jeff Hayden of Minneapolis and Republican Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria would implement a similar increase.

Dayton also wants to spend $83 million to expand eligibility for the Working Family Tax Credit, given to lower-income families, along with $11 million more to help parents buy school supplies and $50 million on child protection.

Leaders of the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems praised the governor’s budget for funding tuition freezes, while the teachers union Education Minnesota also backed it.

This is just the opening salvo in budget negotiations that are likely to last until May. A final state budget needs to be approved by Dayton, the Republican-run House and the DFL-controlled Senate.

Legislative budget plans are due out next week.

While Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that he wants to raise state aid to local governments, Dayton did not include any in his Tuesday budget. Bakk said Monday that he expects some increase by the time lawmakers go home in May.

“By failing to support an increase in Local Government Aid, the message Governor Dayton sent to families and businesses in greater Minnesota is that even with a $1.9 billion dollar surplus the state doesn’t have the commitment, resources or will to invest in your community,” said Ely City Council member Heidi Omerza, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities president.

Nursing home leaders have been regular Capitol visitors this year as they try to get more money so they can pay staffs higher wages. They have told legislators that workers often go to higher-paying jobs at hospitals, or even fast-food places. Wages are determined by how much money the state provides.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” said Raw, whose Morris employer owns a dozen nursing homes around the state from Thief River Falls to Duluth to Renville. “I am feeling better than I have in probably the last 10 or 15 years.”

The $200 million in the initial legislation was what nursing homes need to meet their expenses, Raw said. “We need something that is sustainable.”

“We have critical, critical issues in our nursing facilities,” she added. “We are so far behind that we are desperate for whatever we can get.”

In Alexandria, Anderson said that with a rapidly increasing number of aging Minnesotans, nursing home funding reform is needed.

“Something needs to be done … to ensure that we are able to find sustainable funding sources for the care centers,” Anderson said.

Whatever is done, he added, requires the state to invest more money.

Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

Transportation brings together Bakk, Dayton

Dayton, Bakk

Dayton, Bakk

“Let’s create a photo op.”

With those words from Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, and a hug with Gov. Mark Dayton, the two most powerful Minnesota Democrats publicly made peace Thursday, after a nearly month-long spat.

The two were in Dayton’s office promoting their plans to raise taxes for a $6 billion decade-long transportation plan. When a reporter asked how the two were getting along, Bakk invited journalists to take his picture with the governor as he put his right hand on Dayton’s shoulder; Dayton tentatively put his hand on Bakk’s back.

They smiled at each other and declared all is well with their political relationship. Bakk said the two are doing fine and Dayton said they are doing their best to serve Minnesotans.

When the news conference started, the two stood awkwardly side by side, wearing serious expressions and not taking note of each other. That all changed when Bakk launched the photo opportunity.

It is a notable accomplishment because a month ago Dayton raised the salaries of his commissioners by as much as $35,000 a year, telling legislators about it weeks later. Bakk quickly sponsored legislation to delay the raises, prompting Dayton to launch into harsh criticism of the Senate leader.

Dayton said Bakk, D-Cook, connived and was a backstabber and said he no longer would meet with Bakk without a witness present. They since said they made up, but Thursday was the first public appearance they planned together.

The appearance came as Senate transportation leaders joined Dayton in promoting their similar transportation plans.

The event featured a large map showing 26 locations the administration has been to promote the transportation proposal.

When a reporter noted that just one of the visits came in the northern part of the state, Dayton immediately responded that he plans to visit Moorhead and Bemidji next week. His spokesman said timing and other details of the visits are to be worked out.

In Moorhead, Dayton likely will discuss the need to build overpasses to allow trains to pass through the city with less traffic disruption. In Bemidji, Minnesota 371 improvements are bound to be on the agenda.

The governor also plans to be in Willmar today.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said Transportation Commission Charlie Zelle plans to be in his city a week from today.

Reinert said greater Minnesota would be especially helped by the governor and Senate plans to increase transportation funding.

Dayton and other Democrats said the House transportation plan is inadequate and a volatile economy means the state needs stable and dedicated funding rather than relying on variable general tax revenues.

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, says he plans to continue to investigate the real transportation needs and will come up with a full funding plan later this legislative session.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was critical of Democrats for continuing to seek a tax increase.

“Over the last two weeks, we’ve heard bipartisan agreement that Minnesotans don’t support a gas tax increase, and it’s the wrong approach for Minnesota families especially in light of a nearly $2 billion surplus,” Daudt said.

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.