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.

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.

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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

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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.

Speaker’s gavel a reminder

Nicholas Daudt and uncle

Nicholas Daudt stood at the ready, holding a large white oak gavel, awaiting his uncle’s orders.

When uncle Kurt Daudt told the 7-year-old, the gavel fell, notifying Minnesota House members that an action was official.

Opening day of the 2015 legislative session on Tuesday included some personal touches, like the elder Daudt — still young at 41 — giving his nephew the duty of pounding the new gavel minutes after becoming the youngest House speaker in decades. The Crown representative’s family had a front-row seat and his minister offered the opening prayer.

One thing that will endure, besides memories, is the gavel, made from an oak tree on the Daudt family farm, where the speaker lives.

Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, a woodworker, “offered to make the gavel for me…” Daudt said. “It came out just beautifully.”

Since Daudt will use the gavel every day the House is in session, he said, “it is a great reminder of where I came from and who I represent.”

When Daudt was elected speaker, his family gave him big hugs, but so did the woman who served as temporary House clerk Tuesday: Rep. Sondra Erickson of Princeton. She was Daudt’s English teacher.

Dayton looks for unity

Dayton gets directions

Uniting Minnesota is one of Gov. Mark Dayton’s goals as he begins his second, and final, term as the state’s chief executive.

“What helps some Minnesotans usually helps all of us,” Dayton said in his Monday inaugural address to about 400 invited guests. “So let’s cheer each other’s successes, not resent them.”

The governor, who at 67 has said he will not run again, complained that Minnesotans divide themselves up into camps: “There’s greater Minnesota against the metro area. Central cities vs. suburbs.  Urban schools against rural districts. East metro vs. west metro. Cities, counties and townships compared to other cities, counties and townships.”

The former U.S. senator, state auditor and economic development commissioner called for state residents to become “one Minnesota.”

“Someone always believes that someone else is getting a better deal,” Dayton said in his speech at St. Paul’s Landmark Center. “Those rivalries are not going to disappear. However, they cannot be permitted to blind us to the larger truth that we are all one Minnesota.”

The Democratic governor’s comments came a day before Republicans take control of the state House The GOP credits its November ballot box win in a large part to a Democratic-controlled Legislature and Dayton ignoring rural needs the last two years.

Dayton did not specifically mention the GOP taking over the House, but encouraged policymakers to look at things his way: “What binds us together is much more important than what pulls us apart.”

“Economic growth in one area pays for property tax relief in another,” Dayton added. “Good farm prices in southern Minnesota boost sales and revenues in metro stores. Shops in Duluth do better when the Range is at full production. “

Republican leaders did not attend the inaugural. The man to become House speaker today, Rep. Kurt Daudt of Crown, said he was in a couple of long-scheduled fundraisers before during the ceremony. He said he tried to call Dayton Monday morning to congratulate him and attempted to connect with him after the inaugural.

Daudt said that he and Dayton have a good relationship, but said his colleagues are concerned about rural Minnesota.

“We are very sincere that rural Minnesota was left behind,” Daudt said.

While GOP leaders were absent, so was Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, who was interviewing potential Senate employees.

Monday’s inaugural, which lasted less than an hour, was an all-Democratic affair.

Along with Dayton, new Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and just-elected Secretary of State Steve Simon were sworn in. Also taking oaths were Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto, both starting their third terms.

Smith, a former Dayton chief of staff, replaces Yvonne Prettner Solon, who opted not to seek re-election.

Simon, a Hopkins resident, served 10 years in the Minnesota House before winning his first statewide office. He takes over from Democrat Mark Ritchie, who decided not to run again.

The new secretary of state, who appeared emotional when talking about voting rights, promised to make it easier for Minnesotans to vote.

“As secretary of state, I’ll work with anyone, of any political affiliation, from any part of our state to secure and strengthen our right to vote in Minnesota, to help make our democracy worthy of our best traditions,” Simon said.

Dayton emphasized education, but like most governors in inaugural addresses, offered no specific proposals.

He long has said that he wants to increase education spending in every state budget while he is in office. However, he said, he will not seek more money just to do the same things now happening in schools.

Legislators last year funded all-day, every-day kindergarten and Dayton said he wants more early child programs.

“Additionally, some children’s needs go beyond early education,” Dayton said. “They must be better-protected from neglect and abuse.”

He added: “I will dedicate the next four years to regaining our state’s position as a national and global leader in education excellence.”

Smith also promoted education, crediting a good school system for Minnesota inventions from Bisquick to Twister, from water skies to supercomputers.

“The heart of invention beats in every corner of our state, from the apartment buildings in Cedar Riverside to the farms and small towns across Minnesota,” Smith said. “Let’s make sure these inventors and creative people have the tools they need to make their ideas fly.”

Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea gave the oath to Dayton, Simon and Swanson, while Dayton appointee Justice David Lillehaug swore in Otto and Smith. Justice Alan Page was master of ceremonies.

Elderly, disabled care top priorities

Schomacker

This is one of a series of stories previewing the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. It concentrates on Republicans’ policy initiatives as they will retake control of the House. The Senate and governor’s office remain in Democratic control.

The top priority for many rural Minnesota legislators is to improve state funding sent to elderly and disabled care programs.

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, puts that in his top three priorities — along with transportation and education — and most rural members agree.

Not only are such programs good for the people they serve, but lawmakers say nursing homes and other care programs are among the biggest businesses in many rural communities.

Rural nursing homes, which are closing in increasing numbers, often serve as training locations for nurses, Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said. Once trained, nurses leave for bigger cities and more money.

Schomacker, who will head the House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, said a priority should be changing that trend.

“We are greatly underfunding these programs,” Schomacker said of nursing homes and other programs for the disabled and elderly.

Rural programs are especially hurting, many legislators said, because they receive far less money than those in the Twin Cities.

“A senior is a senior in Minnesota,” Schomacker said.

Finding money for the elderly and disabled could be difficult.

“It’s a priority for everybody until it is time to write the check,” Schomacker said.

While legislative leaders of both parties and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton agree no general tax increase will be needed next year, there is talk, even from some generally anti-tax Republicans, that higher taxes could be needed to help nursing homes.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, proposes several initiatives to improve funding by increases in taxes.

For elderly and disabled care provided in the home, he suggests a Minnesota tax that would kick in above the level of federal Social Security tax. This year, that would be above $117,000.

Although he said that he does not expect that idea to pass as he proposes it, he wants it to begin a conversation about funding the programs. “It is a good starting point for starting discussions.”

Nursing homes did not want to be included in the bill for home-bound care and plan to offer their own plan to boost state funding.

The Long Term Care Imperative is looking to reform funding next session for nursing homes, assisted living communities and home-and-community-based services that serve the elderly.

A spokeswoman said the group is in the final stages of preparing its plan, which not only would boost funding but improve quality of care.

Rural legislators have varying stories about nursing homes in their areas, from districts that have experienced homes closing to those where nursing home administrators report they are in financial trouble and barely able to stay open. The problem is much less in the Twin Cities.

“If legislators would take the time and visit with the individuals (residents) from the nursing homes … they would understand they have been underserved,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.