Republicans count on election to gain voice in House

House

By Charley Shaw

Republicans have been shut out of power in the Minnesota state Capitol for two years, and in next week’s elections are seeking to regain some of their lost clout by winning back control of the state House.

All 134 seats in the currently Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party-controlled House will be on Tuesday’s ballot, while the similarly DFL-dominated state Senate isn’t up for election until 2016. If DFL incumbent Gov. Mark Dayton, who leads Republican rival Jeff Johnson in polls and fundraising, wins next week, then the outcome in House races would be all the more crucial for Republicans’ ability to influence state policy for the next two years.

“For the last year-and-a half,” University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said, “folks in the business community and Republican circles were very clear that they had to break up the DFL monopoly and that their best option for doing that was to win the House.”

House Republicans need a net gain of seven seats to win back the majority they held for two years, until the 2012 election.

Control of the House has swung like a pendulum in recent elections. Republicans in 2010 swept into power in the midst of that year’s national wave of GOP victories. DFLers in 2012 won back the majority and established control of both the Legislature and governor’s office for the first time since 1990.

The outcome of this year’s House and governor’s races will set the stage for the 2015 legislative session that convenes Jan. 6. Lawmakers will have as their main item of business passing a budget for the next two years. Legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have also signaled that transportation funding needs to be addressed, among other issues.

After winning several close elections in greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities suburbs in 2012, DFLers this year have several tough seats to defend in their bid to keep control of the House.

There are nine House DFLers who represent districts where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won in 2012, giving Republicans hope.

Hamline University political science professor David Schultz noted that expected lower voter turnout this year compared to the 2012 presidential election poses another challenge for DFLers.

“They’re defending a lot of, let’s say, marginal seats in a year when they are not going to have the pull of a presidential election and a popular president to drive turnout,” Schultz said.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that turnout will be a key factor in determining whether his caucus retains the majority.

“There are a lot of races that are very close,” Thissen said. “It really is going to depend on who is going to show up on Election Day.”

While on the campaign trail, Thissen has highlighted DFL accomplishments in education. “Our education investments are clearly the top thing we’re talking about: All-day kindergarten, college tuition freeze and early childhood education investments.”

Among accomplishments related to Greater Minnesota, Thissen cited property tax relief and reducing the funding disparities between Greater Minnesota and Twin Cities-area school districts.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, however, disputed the numbers cited by DFLers that indicate improvements on property taxes and regional equity in school funding. He also criticized the health insurance exchange called MNSure among other policies supported by DFLers.

“Everything the Democrats have done from MNSure to unionizing daycares to increasing taxes has taken money out of the pockets and budgets of Minnesota families,” Daudt said.

Given another two years in the majority, Thissen said, transportation will be a major issue on the House’s agenda. “It’s going to be transportation that’s going to be the premier issue coming next year. It’s going to be roads and bridges, but also transit, and particularly transit in Greater Minnesota, which Republicans seem to want to entirely ignore.”

Daudt also said transportation will be a big issue if his side wins control of the House. Additionally, he said Republicans would try to improve the state’s business climate.

“We see every day that great Minnesota companies, while they aren’t leaving the state of Minnesota, when they grow, they grow in another state because our climate isn’t competitive,” Daudt said.

Whoever wins control of the House next Tuesday, it won’t have come cheap. In addition to spending by individual candidates’ campaigns, finance reports released Tuesday show independent groups have already poured $6.8 million into House contests.

2008 amendment offers buffet of outdoors, arts funds

Moose meeting

By Don Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Reporter Jane Moore contributed to this story.

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International mask

Projects, spending per fund

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

Clean Water Fund, 1,233; $533.9 million

Outdoor Heritage Fund, 141; $533.4 million

Parks and Trails Fund, 238; $228.9 million

Subject of projects

Agriculture-forestry-mining, 72

Archeology, 3

Arts, 6,261

Arts access, 5,113

Biological diversity, 121

Cultural heritage preservation, 1,409

Education outreach, 2,269

Historic preservation, 270

History, 733

Natural areas and habitat, 284

Legacy spending by county

Statewide, 414

Aitkin, 176

Anoka, 467

Becker, 214

Beltrami, 313

Benton, 205

Big Stone, 124

Blue Earth, 446

Brown, 252

Carlton, 180

Carver, 350

Cass, 254

Chippewa, 132

Chisago, 249

Clay, 193

Clearwater, 146

Cook, 218

Cottonwood, 131

Crow Wing, 270

Dakota, 609

Dodge, 167

Douglas, 159

Faribault, 181

Fillmore, 263

Freeborn, 172

Goodhue, 325

Grant, 104

Hennepin, 2,082

Houston, 165

Hubbard, 184

Isanti, 208

Itasca, 260

Jackson, 118

Kanabec, 114

Kandiyohi, 236

Kittson, 95

Koochiching, 126

Lac qui Parle, 123

Lake, 199

Lake of the Woods, 108

Le Sueur, 265

Lincoln, 111

Lyon, 151

Mahnomen, 82

Marshall, 123

Martin, 148

McLeod, 203

Meeker, 188

Mille Lacs, 144

Morrison, 253

Mower, 209

Murray, 87

Nicollet, 297

Nobles, 116

Norman, 88

Olmsted, 436

Otter Tail, 294

Pennington, 119

Pine, 166

Pipestone, 95

Polk, 192

Pope, 140

Ramsey, 1332

Red Lake, 82

Redwood, 138

Renville, 158

Rice, 364

Rock, 86

Roseau, 155

Scott, 325

Sherburne, 283

Sibley, 190

St. Louis, 809

Stearns, 544

Steele, 197

Stevens, 125

Swift, 109

Todd, 215

Traverse, 67

Wabasha, 186

Wadena, 169

Waseca, 169

Washington, 472

Watonwan, 135

Wilkin, 95

Winona, 279

Wright, 340

Yellow Medicine, 119

 Source: www.legacy.leg.mn

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Minnesotans advise North Dakota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Legacy’ has different meanings

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

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

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

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Creek change

Other money joins legacy funds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farmington leaders offer to host special legislative session

Pitching Farmington

By Don Davis

Leaders of the southern Twin Cities suburb of Farmington Thursday offered to host a special legislative session to fund flood recovery.

“Minnesota has a proud tradition of coming together to provide relief for those in need following natural disasters, and Farmington would be a unique and well-suited location to host any upcoming special session given the current state of the Capitol,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.

The invitation came as much of the Capitol building is closed for a $273 million renovation. However, state officials say the House and Senate chambers and some meeting rooms will be available if Gov. Mark Dayton needs to call a special session.

While the governor’s office and House speaker did not reject the Farmington proposal, neither did they give it much hope.

“It is an intriguing idea,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “However, there are questions in terms of costs and feasibility.”

Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson said a special session, which is not a certainty, would need agreement among all four legislative leaders and the governor.

“While Rep. Garafolo’s idea is an interesting one, the additional costs incurred by holding a special session outside the Capitol would need to be considered…” Swenson said. “Gov. Dayton’s primary concern is ensuring Minnesotans affected by this summer’s flooding get the help they need as quickly as possible.”

Floods that affected more than half of Minnesota’s counties likely will bring a presidential disaster declaration, but even though the federal government would pay for most flood recovery costs, the state would be on the hook for 25 percent. That probably means the Legislature will need to convene to appropriate the money.

Most disaster recovery funding sessions last less than a day and are routine.

Farmington residents said they can offer lawmakers a home away from Capitol construction and it would give them a chance to toot their own horn.

“We are small town Minnesota nice, but with big city dreams,” Farmington High School student Natalie Pellin said.

School officials proposed using iPad technology they already have in their 5-year-old school to record votes.

“Farmington High School has the space and technology to host a legislative special session, and this is a chance for legislators to see firsthand the technology our students are using to help improve our education outcomes in the classroom,” Chairwoman Tera Lee of the Farmington School Board said.

Farmington Mayor Todd Larson said that holding the session in his community would showcase his entire community.

Garofalo said he is concerned with technological issues during a special session in the Capitol because some recording systems have been removed. He also expressed concerns about the public’s safety in a construction zone.

However, even though the Capitol will remain mostly closed next year, he said that he does not have the same concerns during next year’s regular session that begins in January and could last into May.

Garofalo admitted that the Farmington suggestion could set off a competition among cities around Minnesota to host the session. Soon after Farmington leaders talked to reporters, Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, tweeted that his area would be a good location.

“This is purely to showcase the accomplishments of Farmington,” Garofalo said.

Ex-lawmaker Otremba dies

Otremba

By Al Edenloff

Mary Ellen Otremba, a popular and soft-spoken state legislator who represented areas of central and west-central Minnesota for 13 years, died Thursday. She was 63.

Otremba, a Democrat, was known for working across party lines for greater Minnesota issues, as evidenced by Republicans praising her service in the hours after her death.

In 2010, Otremba announced that she wouldn’t seek an eighth term. At that time, she issued a statement saying it had been “an incredible privilege” to serve the citizens of District 11B in the Minnesota House.

“There is no greater honor in a democracy than to be selected by one’s fellow citizens to represent them in the halls of government,” Otremba said in her statement. “I will always be grateful for the years I’ve had to serve in our beautiful Capitol, working to enhance the quality of life for all Minnesotans.”

She said her father “brought me to my first precinct caucus. Since that day, I’ve never stopped working to shine a light on the wonderful things than make greater Minnesota’s quality of life so special.”

After Otremba retired, Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria defeated the DFL-endorsed candidate in Otremba’s district, Amy Hunter, in the 2010 election.

“My hearts mourns for Mary Ellen and the family she leaves behind,” Franson said. “Mary Ellen was a dedicated public servant who represented the heart and soul of our community well.”

Another Republican also praised the Democrat.

“Rep. Otremba was widely respected in the Legislature and known for her passion for Todd County residents,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. “Party politics didn’t play into her thinking; instead, her integrity and strong desire to represent Todd County drove her legislation.”

Otremba was first elected in a November 1997 special election after the death of her husband, Rep. Ken Otremba, two months earlier.

She chaired the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Ways and Means Committee. She also served on a variety of committees dealing with agriculture, rural development, veterans affairs and health and human services.

She was an assistant House minority leader from 2001 to 2004.

Otremba graduated from Long Prairie High School and attended the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, where she received a degree in home and community service. She later attended St. Cloud State University, receiving a master’s degree in child and family studies. She worked as a nutritionist for the Todd County Department of Public Health from 1984 to 1989, as a teacher in the Freshwater Educational District from 1986 to 1989 and as a teacher at Eagle Valley High School in Clarissa from 1989 to 1997. She also taught family and consumer science at Swanville High School and was a substitute teacher there.

Minnesota farmland taxes expected to rise

By Don Davis

Many Minnesota property owners could see some tax relief this year, but farmers can expect higher taxes for at least the next two years.

“What I am hearing is it is making it much more difficult to do business as a farmer,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said of agriculture property tax increases.

Still, he said, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor’s office have slowed increases that have occurred for more than a decade.

A new, nonpartisan Minnesota House report shows that property taxes as a whole should fall $49 million this year, a 0.6 percent drop, although the cost for each property owner will be different. The tax cut may not be seen on property tax bills because the House figures in tax refunds that Democrats increased.

In 2015, property taxes should go up $238 million, a 2.8 percent increase, the House report predicted.

In both years, farmland property taxes are expected to rise: 8.1 percent this year and 4.7 percent next year.

Researchers emphasize that they are working off their best guess because they cannot predict factors such as how much local governments may raise property taxes and how much property may be worth.

The two major parties waged a news release battle soon after the property tax figures were released. Democrats emphasized this year’s predicted drop in most types of property taxes, while Republicans focused on the 2015 increases.

“We knew farmers and rural landowners were going to be hit hard with property tax increases, but now it appears that homeowners in all tax brackets can expect to pay more despite promises the Democrats made over the past two years,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. “Make no mistake, hardworking Minnesotans from all corners of the state are going to feel the impacts of this property tax increase.”

A news release from Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers showed a different side, explaining that when Republicans were in charge, property taxes soared $370 million in 2012.

“The DFL-led Legislature made property tax relief a priority in our budget and, in particular, made direct property tax relief a priority,” the DFL reported, adding that Democrats approved $178 million in property tax relief in the past two years and more than 300,000 homeowners should receive larger property tax refunds.

Marquart, long an outspoken supporter of lowering farm taxes, said that at least agriculture taxes are not rising as fast as they would have under the policies in effect when Democrats took over in early 2013.

The rising taxes still bother him: “I don’t like that, but I think we are getting ag property taxes under control.”

Marquart said the main reason farm property taxes are going up is that farmland value is rising. While home values recently have gone up 6.8 percent, ag land is up 13.3 percent, he said. That shifts property taxes from homes to farmland.

Farmers complain that while land prices are rising, they do not benefit unless they sell their farms.

Marquart said farmers in his western Minnesota district report taxes that not long ago were $14 to $15 an acre now are $30 to $40. “It really has impacted the cost of production.”

Marquart said he does not have the answer to how to fix ag taxes, but said the Legislature and governor must tackle the issue next year.

“We still have a lot of work to do, absolutely,” Marquart said. “But we are moving in the right direction.”

Legislature clarifies farmer market requirements

By Charley Shaw, Session Daily

Minnesota’s food safety laws would be specifically tailored to address farmers markets under a bill headed to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Lindstrom, and Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, was passed 129-0 by the House late Wednesday. Senators passed it 55-0 Thursday.

“There are over 100 (farmers markets) in our state, probably every county in the state,” Barrett said. “They’re a good community resource to us.”

Barrett introduced the bill after constituents who run the Chisago City Farmers Market sought clarity to state laws that govern how food is handled at their market.

The bill would create a new section devoted to farmers markets in Minnesota law that deals with licensing food handlers. It would specify how food samples and cooking demonstrations at farmers markets should be regulated.

Farmers would be required to provide regulatory agencies with information upon request such as the source of the food and the equipment used to prepare it.

The bill was amended in the House to address food safety regulations for chili cook-offs. The chili amendment was crafted in response to cook-off contestants who were denied participation because they couldn’t fulfill food preparation rules.

In an amendment successfully offered by Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, organizations would be exempt if they follow rules including being approved by the local municipality and developing food safety rules.

Shaw writes for the nonpartisan Session Daily (www.house.leg.state.mn.us/sessiondaily) in the Minnesota House Public Information Office.

Politicians remember former Sen. Win Borden’s good, bad times

Borden in 2008

By Mike O’Rourke, Brainerd Dispatch

Win Borden, a former state senator whose career included both great success and serious setbacks, has died at age 70.

In recent years he lived, farmed and wrote from the 1929 wood-heated farmhouse he was raised in near Merrifield, north of Brainerd.

A fellow freshman senator with Borden was Roger Moe of Erskine, who served as DFL Senate majority leader for more than 20 years. “He was well-prepared and a very effective legislator,” Moe said of Borden. “Within relatively short order he became an assistant majority leader under (then-Senate Majority Leader) Nick Coleman.”

Borden’s first win at the polls was in 1970, when he upset 26-year-old Sen. Gordon Rosenmeier of Little Falls.

After winning re-election in 1972 and 1976, Borden surprised many by resigning to accept a leadership role with the Minnesota Association of Commerce and Industry, a forerunner of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

Former lawmaker Don Samuelson of Brainerd said he thought Borden was disappointed when he failed to win the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party endorsement for the U.S. House when Rep. Bob Bergland, D-Minn., was appointed secretary of agriculture in the mid-1970s.

While serving the chamber, Borden hosted a daily radio program heard on more than 80 Minnesota stations.

Trouble came to Borden’s life in 2004, when he was sentenced and later served one year at a minimum security federal prison in Yankton, S.D., for failing to file federal income tax returns.

In an editor’s note in Borden’s book, “Ruminations — Memories and Tales of a Furrowed Mind,” Pete Holste wrote that Borden’s problems with the Internal Revenue Service were preceded by mental health problems and a pattern of alcohol abuse.

“Obviously, there were some difficulties in his life,” Moe said. “I think, though, he tried to come to grips with that. I enjoyed his books that he wrote later in life. He was a bright guy. Whatever he took on, he took on with real zest.”

In a 2008 interview with the Brainerd Dispatch, Borden reflected on a career in which he met such luminaries as Hubert H. Humphrey and Charles Lindbergh. He also summed up thoughts about his own political future.

“Thoroughly enjoyed it,” he said. “Never want to repeat it.”

‘People have a right to expect lower property taxes’

By Don Davis

The future of state aid that many local Minnesota governments depend on may be at stake in the next few weeks as property taxes appeared to be headed up.

By mid-December, city, county and other local officials decide how much property tax they will collect. Those decisions come on the heels of the Democratic Legislature and governor sending them large bundles of new money in the name of property tax relief.

If taxes go up, local governments may see less state aid in the future. That could lead to service cuts or property tax increases, much like Minnesotans have experienced for a decade.

“People have a right to expect lower property taxes,” state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.

But many Minnesotans probably will not see lower bills.

A state Revenue Department report earlier this month indicated that property tax levies statewide could rise nearly 2 percent statewide. Cities expect to raise tax levies 2.1 percent, counties 1.5 percent, townships 2.1 percent, schools 2.6 percent and other taxing districts 2.3 percent.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and others are concerned that the preliminary numbers show 63 percent of cities and 77 percent of counties plan higher property tax levies.

Democrats did not think that would happen. They thought that millions of dollars in additional state aid they sent to local governments would result in property tax cuts.

“There will be a number of legislators who seize on any increase as evidence that local governments are (big) spenders and they will take every dollar and spend it and get more and more and they will take every dollar they can get,” Dayton said. “So they are going to undermine the case we have been making.”

With Dayton saying that increases will “seriously undermine our case,” Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans plans to talk to local government leaders who propose raising tax levies in the hope that they will trim their tax levies.

The latest Revenue Department numbers come from preliminary property tax levy decisions local officials have made. Each governing body needs to make a levy final decision by mid-December. State law does not permit preliminary levies to go up, only stay the same or shrink.

Statewide, preliminary levies always are higher than the final ones. They usually fall a percentage point or less, which if it happens this year tax means levies would rise a bit.

The preliminary levies are a mixed bag, Dayton said. “We reduced property tax increases, but our goal was to reduce property taxes.”

Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said that even if levies increase, “the average property taxpayer probably will not see an increase.”

A higher levy does not always mean higher homeowner taxes. For instance, if business property value increases more than home value in a community, businesses would pay a higher percentage of taxes and home property taxes could fall. The situation is different in each community.

Frans and Dayton said that, despite their concerns, they understand the need for higher taxes.

Frans said that in Ada, for instance, he learned that when Local Government Aid was falling in the past 10 years, the city decided to buy a new police car every six years instead of every five years. With higher LGA coming, city officials plan to return to the old purchase schedule to try to prevent equipment problems.

Even if property taxes rise, Gary Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities and those representing other forms of local government say that new money is needed after 10 years during which state aid often fell, or at least did not keep up with inflation.

The levies announced this month, at less than a 2 percent increase, easily could have been 6 percent or 7 percent hikes without the additional state aid, Carlson said.

Salary freezes, hiring caps and other cuts have hampered local governments, Carlson said. “At some point, and maybe it already has started, there is some pressure to fill some of those jobs, to undertake some of those projects, to kind of get back to the traditional flow of services.”

Local governments have held down property taxes for years, said Beau Berentson of the Association of Minnesota Counties. “We are still dealing with a decade of underinvestment, under funding.”

Skoe said his area is a good example of county-to-county differences.

Beltrami County’s preliminary 2014 levy is the same as the current one. But next door in Clearwater County, officials decided to sell a hospital and have related debt that needs to be paid, leading to a preliminary 14 percent levy increase.

One factor influencing higher taxes is that unexpected local aid cuts over the years have made local officials leery about trusting state government to come through with money that was promised.

“I have had that specific conversation on many occasions,” Frans said.

Given that lack of trust, some local budgets are built without counting on full state aid, possibly triggering larger-than-needed levy increases.

With increases looming, some say, there could be a fight to keep Local Government Aid and County Program Aid as is.

“I do think it makes it harder for local governments to make the argument that LGA is about property tax relief,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Local Government Aid was created in 1971 to give cities without much property wealth (and, thus, a harder time collecting property taxes) the ability to provide fundamental services such as police and fire protection. It has become critical for many cities, such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and Greater Minnesota communities.

A formula designed to determine financial need means most Twin Cities suburbs receive little, if any, LGA. Suburbs generally have more property wealth than communities that receive LGA, so they can collect more property taxes.

“A lot of suburban legislators are going to have doubt,” Marquart said. “’Is that the right investment to make?’ I’m going to be honest, that is a fair question.”

If the final levies next month show increases, Marquart said, the news will “send a very clear message and determine the future of Local Government Aid.”

“The state of Minnesota is watching,” Marquart warned.

Democrats “came through” for local governments, said Larry Jacobs from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, “and the taxes still go up. I think this was an overreach on the part of local governments. I think they might have lost an ally in the Capitol.”

Most importantly for local governments, Jacobs added, “this could be an end to what had been a pretty nice gravy train.”

 

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New money the governor and Legislature approved sending to local Minnesota governments next year:

– $140 million in homestead credit refunds and renters’ credits, which goes directly to Minnesotans

– $129 million in sales tax exemptions for cities and counties (a figure cities and counties say actually will be half that size)

– $80 million increase in Local Government Aid, raising the total to $507 million in 2014

– $40 million increase County Program Aid, raising the total to $105 million next year

– $10 million in township aid, a new program

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Property taxes, mostly levied by local governments, increased from $4.4 billion in 2002 to $8.3 billion this year.

Issues Sjodin case raised need answers a decade later

Magnuson

By Don Davis

Dru Sjodin’s kidnapping from a Grand Forks, N.D., shopping mall 10 years ago this week began a discussion about what Minnesota should do with sex offenders, a discussion nearing a time for decisions.

The question is whether those decisions will be made by state officials or by a federal judge who in following the federal Constitution may not do what Minnesotans would prefer.

At issue is a Minnesota law, similar to one in a few other states, that allows a state judge to commit a sex offender who has served his prison sentence to a jail-like treatment center until he graduates from the program.

“Can you box someone up for a crime they haven’t committed,” former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson said is the question a federal judge is considering.

At least part of the answer is available. The federal judge expects a task force Magnuson heads to draw up proposals for how Minnesota can release sex offenders who are treated after prison in “civil commitment.” Then, the Legislature must enact legislation.

Magnuson, whose task force is due to release its ideas in a couple of weeks, said the lawsuit by sex offenders that is in front of the judge could result in mass releases, although Magnuson said that he cannot read the judge’s mind.

The former chief justice’s comments came Monday as a state Senate committee caught up on latest developments.

The committee did not note Friday’s upcoming anniversary of Sjodin’s kidnapping, but did acknowledge that her case was the beginning of a surge of sex offender civil commitments, the time sex offenders spend in a jail-like facility after serving their prison terms.

Alfonso Rodriguez Jr. of Crookston, Minn., was convicted in federal court of Sjodin’s kidnapping and death in 2003. Earlier that year, he had released from the Minnesota prison system after serving a sentence on a sex offense.

The case raised a public outcry, which politicians met over the years by increasing prison terms for sex offenders. Gov. Tim Pawlenty also led a movement to commit more sex offenders to treatment after they finished their prison terms.

That effort resulted in the state Corrections Department suggesting in December 2003 that 235 imprisoned sex offenders be committed for treatment. In the entire rest of the year, just 14 offenders had been recommended, and since a commitment law began in 1995, the most recommended for commitment in any one year was 58.

Since 2003, the number of commitment referrals has varied from 88 to 170 a year.

The number of commitments has raised the number of sex offenders undergoing state treatment from 181 in 2002 to nearly 700 today.

One man was released from treatment, but quickly returned. One other man was let out and Robin Benson of the Human Services Department said that he is doing well.

It is that lack of graduates that apparently bothers federal Judge Donovan Frank, who has strongly signaled that the state needs to take action soon. In other federal cases, judges have taken over state programs that they determined were unconstitutional.

“Treatment is the linchpin,” Magnuson said.

Without treatment and the ability for sex offenders to be let out of the state program, which is behind razor wire fences, state officials’ fear is that Frank will take over the treatment program after finding that civil commitment is the same as a life sentence.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, said that dealing with the 700 sex offenders now in treatment is only one part of the issue legislators face.

Also on next year’s agenda, she said, should be how to handle sex offenders now in prison. Many of the most serious ones normally would be committed to the treatment program, but that might not be possible if Frank gets involved.

The third issue lawmakers must tackle, but Sheran said there probably will not be time to do it next year, is how to deal with future offenders. Among thoughts on that is to provide more treatment while sex offenders are in prison, reducing or eliminating the need for them to be committed after their prison terms end.

Sheran and the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault said lawmakers also need to look into ways to prevent sex abuse and to intervene earlier when it does occur. They said that would save victims and money.

Chairman Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, urged his colleagues to encourage House members to join senators in passing a bill giving sex offenders a chance to graduate from treatment. The Senate earlier this year approved such a measure, but the House did not take it up.

“We don’t have the luxury of time,” Latz said.

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Officials say patients in the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program in Moose Lake are about evenly divided between those who came from the Twin Cities and those from the rest of the state.

All but eight of Minnesota’s 87 counties have sex offenders in the program. Those eight counties are Houston, Renville, Lac qui Parle, Big Stone, Stevens, Grant, Red Lake and Cook.

Knoblach sues over Senate building

Knoblach

By Don Davis

A former Minnesota House member who headed the public works committee is taking the state to court seeking to prevent construction of a new Senate office building.

Former Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, announced today that he is filing the suit because the measure lawmakers passed in May funding the building violated a constitutional provision requiring each bill to contain only one subject.

The $90 million for the office building and Capitol-area parking facilities was contained in a tax bill that included more than $2 billion in tax increases. Knoblach said there is no better example of a single-subject violation than combining construction spending and tax revenues.

“It was buried deep in the tax bill and passed on the chaotic last day of session,” Knoblach said.

Knoblach’s attorney, Erick Kaardal of Minneapolis, pointed to a couple of recent court decisions that overturned provisions judges thought violated the single-subject requirement. However, court insiders say the trend of Minnesota judges has been to let the Legislature define the single-subject issue.

Kaardal said he thinks the case could be decided in district court within half a year, which Knoblach said would allow legislators to pass a new tax bill that does not violate the state Constitution in their session next year.

While Knoblach said he is not asking the courts to overturn other parts of the tax bill, he said judges could do that. If that happens, tax increases and a major Mayo Medical Center project in Rochester could be stopped.

The office building still is in the planning stage, and is set to be completed in 2015. It would house some Senate offices, while others would remain in the Capitol building. Now, the majority party (currently Democrats) has Capitol offices, while the minority party is housed in the State Office Building across the street.

The new building is to be built across University Avenue to the north of the Capitol, closer than the State Office Building.

It is to include an inside parking ramp and meeting rooms, as well as offices.

Timing for building the facility is tied to a $270 million Capitol renovation project. Planners hope the building can be occupied in 2015, so senators and staffers can move out of the Capitol, making way for work on their areas.

Many lawmakers were surprised to learn about the Senate building plans, which surfaced near the end of the legislative session in May. The building had received little discussion.

Senate, ex-staffer settle suit

By Don Davis

A longtime Republican activist agreed Thursday to drop a lawsuit claiming gender discrimination against the Minnesota Senate.

Former Senate GOP spokesman Michael Brodkorb will get $30,000 in severance pay in the deal, which already cost state taxpayers more than $300,000 in legal fees. He was fired after senators discovered he and then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, were having an affair.

Brodkorb said he was happy to end the suit because he “got my life back,” and Senate leaders said they were pleased to end the messy case.

“This agreement permanently dismisses Mr. Brodkorb’s claims in their entirety while providing the limited severance pay that was offered to him before he commenced litigation against the Senate,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

Brodkorb sued the Senate because, he said, female employees had not lost their jobs when they had affairs with male senators.

Bakk and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said the agreement with Brodkorb includes provisions that:

– Brodkorb acknowledges the sex discrimination lawsuit would not survive in court.

– No more claims against the state will be entered by Brodkorb.

– The Senate will not pay Brodkorb legal fees.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee must approve the agreement.

“We have said all along that the Senate acted appropriately in this matter,” Hann said.

Brodkorb’s attorneys have been interviewing senators and others believed to have been involved in past affairs. Brodkorb said he has a long list of such affairs.

Brodkorb ran a partisan Republican blog before he was hired as Senate Republican spokesman. When Republicans took control of the Senate in 2011, he became one of Koch’s top aides.

In the fall of 2011, word began to spread among Senate employees about the affair. In December of that year, some senators confronted Koch about the issue. Within a couple of days she resigned her leadership position and some Republican senators told reporters about the affair, without naming Brodkorb.

It did not take long for news stories to mention Brodkorb, and he followed with his lawsuit.

Brodkorb had sought more than $500,000.

Legislature OKs disaster aid

Westrom

By Don Davis

The Minnesota Legislature overwhelmingly approved disaster-relief funds today for 20 counties today during one of the shortest special sessions in recent years.

The Senate passed the bill 59-0, with eight absentees, followed by the House 127-1 as six members were gone. It took four hours for the formalities, committee meetings, floor debate and the vote.

Today’s action sends $4.5 million to 18 counties affected by June storms and floods and frees up $219,000 for Rock and Nobles counties and the city of Worthington to use to recover from an April ice storm.

Few spoke against anything in the disaster-relief bill, but Republicans used the opportunity to complain that the brief session did not take the opportunity to overturn the “man-made disaster” of tax increases the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton approved earlier this year.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said that the tax increases, including one on farm equipment repair, are driving business to nearby states. He talked about billboards declaring the Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota are “open for business.”

“Let’s make these signs go away,” he said.

Eight counties in the district of Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, will receive disaster-relief money, and he said he was grateful. “This was not a major disaster … but even small disasters in communities are important where they happen.”

However, he joined other Republicans in attacking tax increases.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said that his southwestern Minnesota communities sought $1 million more for ice storm recovery, but he did not fight for the money since legislative leaders rejected the idea.

“I know what the outcome is going to be,” he said before the vote.

The June 20-26 storms force power outages on 600,000 Minnesota homes and businesses, the largest loss of electricity in state history. Mudslides closed roads.

“Thousands of mature trees were uprooted,” said Deputy Commissioner Joe Kelly of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Counties to get money for recover from the June disaster are  Benton, Big Stone, Douglas, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Grant, Hennepin, Houston, McLeod, Morrison, Pope, Sibley, Stearns, Stevens, Swift, Traverse and Wilkin. The funds are to go to local governments, with no aid available to home and business owners.

Democrats and Republicans agreed that changes are needed in the disaster-relief procedure used by the state.

“I don’t expect that this special session is the end of the conversation,” Senate Finance Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said.

Cohen and other leaders said they expect the process to change next year.