Tired legislators take their holiday break with much done, much left

Schoen

By Don Davis

The looks on Minnesota legislators’ faces before they began a holiday break told the story: They are tired.

The 201 legislators put in long hours the past couple of weeks debating and initially passing pretty much every major bill of the 2014 session, often going well after dark just as spring presents Minnesotans with longer days.

When asked about what would happen after the Legislature returns on April 22 following an Easter-Passover break, Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, showed the exhaustion common to many as the House was adjourning Thursday night.

“My mind is not even there,” Schoen said. “My mind is so tired, I can’t even think straight.”

After pausing, he came up with a few issues he thinks need to pass, then added that some bills lawmakers already passed may need to be revisited because “in our tired, weary minds, we may have missed something that should be fixed.”

It is a different type of year for the Legislature. It came into session Feb. 25, later than most years, and lawmakers are trying to cram in more work than often occurs the year after a state budget is produced.

Lawmakers will have less than four weeks after the holiday break to finish their work before constitutional deadline of May 19.

Days after the session began, lawmakers passed a bill providing financial aid to Minnesotans with problems paying for heat during the intense winter. On March, after plenty of political posturing, they approved $443 million of tax breaks.

Two other major issues are set to take effect. One requires local school districts to write policies to prevent bullying or the state will force them to follow one it prepares. The other issue that has been decided is a higher minimum wage, which in three years will be $9.50 an hour for big businesses and $7.75 for smaller ones.

Otherwise, the House and Senate have passed differing versions of the major bills, such as one tweaking a $39 billion, two-year budget passed last year. Lawmakers dumped nearly all spending bills, and some that do not involve money, into the one massive bill.

Like most other remaining issues, the budget bills the House and Senate passed are different. So negotiators from both houses will sit down after the break and begin reconciling them, then sending them back for final votes.

One significant bill has passed the House, but not the Senate: a plan to move women toward equality with in the workplace.

Two hot-topic bills remain short of House and Senate votes.

Generally getting the spotlight in even-year sessions has been a bill funding public works projects around the state. In the House this year, it is a nearly $1 billion bill, funded both by borrowing money with state bond sales and some cash. It has made its way to near a full House vote, but the Senate measure will not be unveiled until soon after break ends.

Legislative leaders already agreed to spend $850 million, but many Democrats say they want to go higher. If so, they need Republican votes because Democrats alone do not have enough members to pass a bonding bill. Republicans are not eager to accept a higher figure.

The other big issue awaiting a decision is whether to allow marijuana, or an extract from the plant, to be made available to seriously ill Minnesotans, such as children suffering from seizures and cancer patients in great pain.

“We are trying to find ways to come to a solution,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said, but a compromise is needed with police and medical groups opposed to the medical marijuana plan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, gave the issue a kick ahead when he ordered a committee hearing on the bill, similar to one stalled in a House committee. There was no vote, but supporters say that if leaders allow the bill to proceed after returning to St. Paul, there are enough votes to pass it.

The question then would be if Gov. Mark Dayton would sign a bill that does not meet his main requirement: support by law enforcement and medical communities.

Bakk and Thissen said they will talk about the remaining issues some during the recess, although House leaders also plan to travel the state saying they already have shown a productive session.

Bakk said he could not predict if there will be any problems in the final few weeks of session. “I think it would depend on the governor’s engagement.”

Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, said he is not concerned. “With the time that is left, we should get it all done. It will come together.”

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Here is the status of some issues:

Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money mostly obtained by the state selling bonds. The House and Senate are looking at borrowing about $850 million, with additional cash from a state budget surplus. The House has a bill in play and senators likely will introduce their bonding bill soon after returning to St. Paul.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. The House and Senate have passed differing versions of a bill to tweak the budget and negotiators will work out differences after the recess.

Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed just before the recess to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.

Constitutional amendments: No constitutional amendments have made much progress so far this year, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, wants one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed.

Construction zones: Provisions have been folded into larger bills to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones. They have yet to receive final approval.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. Bills approving online registration are progressing.

Gender equality: Ways to improve women’s pay and other aspects of their lives are being considered. The House passed its version, with the Senate expected to take it up after break. The fact that women earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.

Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction could begin this summer. However, a lawsuit against the building remains to be settled.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been debated, but stalled in a House committee after the governor expressed misgivings because law enforcement and medical groups oppose it. A Senate committee heard testimony on it just before the break, but will not vote until after legislators return to St. Paul.

Minimum wage: Legislative leaders negotiated a compromise to raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically up to 2.5 percent a year to stay abreast with inflation. It will be law in time for the first step of the raise to begin in August.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups want to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. The issue has been debated in committees, but not in the full House and Senate.

Propane: Right out of the chute, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage brought on high prices. However, long-term solutions to propane price volatility have not moved forward.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators have made little progress toward agreeing on how to deal with the situation.

Synthetic drugs: Bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers have progressed and the House approved its bill. A Senate bill awaits a vote.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, with the second portion awaiting negotiations after the break. The bills cut income taxes and property taxes and overturn some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes appears to have failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work in the state budget surplus.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and better equipment for emergency personnel. The plans are included in an overall budget bill that remains to be negotiated.

Anti-bullying bill becomes law

Dayton signs

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton put pen on paper 15 hours after final legislative approval of an anti-bullying bill, enacting a new law requiring schools to have bullying prevention policies and providing guidance about how they would be written.

Dayton signed the bill late Wednesday afternoon in front of many legislators and dozens of the bill’s other supporters.

“Nobody in this state or this nation should have to feel bad about who they are,” Dayton said.

The House passed the bill 69-63 early Wednesday, following nearly 12 hours of debate. Senators passed it earlier.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, said the measure will let school districts write their own anti-bullying policies.

“Frankly, we’d rather that school districts engage their community and create new policy to limit bullying that we know is happening rather than use the state model policy that will be created with the passage of this bill,” Davnie said, adding that the new law “sets a high standard for defining bullying.”

But Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the new law creates a “one-size-fits-all mandate.”

“I trust the schools in our community to address bullying more effectively than politicians and bureaucrats in St. Paul,” Franson said. “Instead of empowering local school districts, this bill infringes on the rights of students, parents and locally elected school boards.”

Dayton to sign bullying bill

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton this afternoon plans to sign a bill written to prevent school bullying across Minnesota.

Representatives early today approved a bill 69-63 to require school districts to establish rules against bullying, better train staff on the issue and provide guidance about what must be included in local policies.

The bill representatives debated for nearly 12 hours is based on one they passed last year and was rewritten by senators this year. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign it into law this week.

“It provides students, teachers, parents, administrators a strong set of tools to write their own local school anti-bullying policy,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis.

If a school district does not write its own bullying policy, the bill requires the state to impose its own policy on the district.

Democrats had little to say about the bill, but Republicans laid out their opposition.

Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said Democrats pushing the bill were enacting the “big brother” concept featured in the book “1984.”

“If this isn’t a mirror image of ’1984,’ I don’t know what is,” Newberger said. “The only problem is (author) George Orwell is off by 30 years.

“If it has a battery, Democrats want access into your private life,” he said, because the bill would allow schools to monitor electronic messages and take action, even if the activity occurs away from school.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the bill is “fascist” and is “simply another attack on the Bible and on Christians.”

Davnie responded that the bill would help youths deal with “an increasingly diverse society.”

“The bill deals with behavior, not belief,” he added.

Existing state law devotes 37 words to bullying, which supporters of the bill say makes it the country’s weakest anti-bullying law. With so little state law, school districts have a variety of policies that supporters say should be more standardized.

Longtime teacher Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said that 93 percent of schools have adopted a six-page state school board association anti-bullying policy.

Republicans said local districts know their needs best and should be given freedom to make their own policies. Opponents also say the bill would create an unfunded mandate.

“Those of you who live in rural Minnesota know that this is one of the most hot-button issues this legislative session,” Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said, because voters are upset that the state is taking over writing policies that local officials should write.

There is not a bullying problem in rural areas, said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore.

“This is really a rift between rural and metro,” he said. “We are not hearing it out there.”

Davnie, however, said schools still will administer bullying policies. He said they can deal only with activities related to school.

The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act is a top priority for Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators and their supporters.

The bill is tied to a proposal that passed a year ago to legalize gay marriages. The measure, supported by many of the same people who backed the marriage proposal, specifies that students cannot be bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity and several other reasons.

Opponents argue that gives special protection to certain students, but supporters say specificity is necessary to ensure that all students are protected.

Marijuana proposal gets life

By Don Davis

Minnesota state legislators could face a decision this legislative session about whether to approve marijuana for medical use, even though a medical marijuana bill is stalled in the House.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, plans to offer an amendment that would allow medical marijuana. He wants it placed on an overall health bill.

While the health bill was scheduled for Wednesday debate, House leaders are postponing its consideration in light of the Garofalo amendment.

Meanwhile, a Senate committee on  Tuesday scheduled a Thursday morning meeting to discuss the issue.

The chances for a marijuana bill to pass are not clear since both House and Senate versions missed deadlines last month to clear committees. However, lawmakers always have the opportunity to amend provisions onto other bills.

A House committee passed the bill, which stalled in its second committee. No Senate committee has considered the measure this year.

A bill by Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, is stuck in a committee and Gov. Mark Dayton opposes allowing medical marijuana until law enforcement and medical groups support the concept.

“Support for effective medical marijuana legislation clearly spans the political spectrum,” Heather Azzi of Minnesotans for Compassionate Care said. “It is time to move forward with this compassionate and common-sense proposal. Seriously ill Minnesotans and their families have waited long enough.”

Medical marijuana supporters say it can help ease the pain of seriously ill patients and prevent seizures in children with certain diseases.

Dayton says he supports the concept, but cannot back Melin’s bill until doctors and law enforcement officers remove their opposition.

The governor proposed an extensive medical study of marijuana by Mayo Clinic and a separate study about how medical marijuana has worked in other states.

Opponents say marijuana has not been studied like medicines and that using it can be a gateway to using harder drugs. The federal government outlaws marijuana.

The Garofalo proposal differs from Melin’s in that he would ban smoking and Minnesotans growing the plant. Marijuana extracts could be used as medicine.

Minnesotans could have up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana to deal with debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, glaucoma and AIDS.

A doctor or physician assistant would be required to authorize marijuana use.

Organizations wishing to grow marijuana would need state approval and submit to state regulations.

While legislators prepare for a possible marijuana vote, the Compassionate Care organization returns to the airwaves with television commercials featuring Patrick McClellan, a Bloomington man who suffers from a rare form of muscular dystrophy.

“I don’t understand why Gov. Dayton is blocking a bill that would allow (medical marijuana) for people like me,” McClellan says in the commercial. “I am a patient, not a criminal. We deserve better; Minnesota deserves better.”

Dayton told reporters Tuesday that lawmakers “have hidden behind their desks” and allowed him to take the brunt of criticism on the topic.

The governor urged legislators to take a vote on the issue.

Legislative notebook: TV commercial blasts Dayton medical marijuana stand

A group supporting medical marijuana is buying television commercial time to attack Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s opposition to a bill stalled in the Legislature.

The spot features a St. Paul mother and her 5-year-old son who suffers from seizures that medical marijuana advocates say could be eased if the plant were allowed to be used.

The commercial by Minnesotans for Compassionate Care was scheduled to air during Wednesday’s “Tonight Show” and “Late Show,” then to be on some Thursday morning shows.

The organization on Thursday plans to deliver a petition to Dayton’s office signed by more than 4,900 Minnesotans calling for him to allow the medical marijuana bill to advance.

The bill by Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, stalled in a legislative committee after Dayton said he would not sign a bill allowing plant marijuana to be used to treat seizures and extreme pain, two things advocates say marijuana could ease.

Dayton said he cannot support Melin’s bill until law enforcement and medical organizations back it.

Law enforcement groups oppose the bill because it would allow the marijuana plant to be used. They say they could back the bill if it were changed only to use chemicals from the plant as medicine.

Medical groups oppose the measure because marijuana has not undergone extensive scientific tests as required by other medicines. Dayton proposed that Mayo Clinic conduct such an extensive study to see how a marijuana extract affect 200 children with seizures.

The commercial can be seen at http://youtu.be/vdn5NO2s0Nk.

 

Bill passes to protect data

Minnesota senators unanimously passed a bill to crack down on public employees who improperly use individuals’ private data, such as driver’s licenses.

“It does provide some accountability,” Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said, before the 66-0 vote.

The Senate-passed bill is slightly different than one the House passed 132-0 last year, so the House must reconsider the bill before it heads to the governor for his signature.

Dibble’s bill follows reports about various public employees with access to driver’s licenses looked at information when with no official reason. Many of those accused of improperly calling up the data were men who looked at private information of well-known women such as television news reporters.

While the Dibble bill would increase penalties for improper access, he added that “more work is going to have to be done at some point in the future.”

The measure requires that private data only is available who need it for their jobs, and they can only access it while on duty.

 

Retirement funds would get aid

Minnesota legislators are looking into ways to help two teacher retirement funds.

An overall pension bill that nears a full House vote would provide $15 million a year to ensure a successful merger of the financially troubled Duluth Teachers Retirement Fund Association and the Teachers Retirement Association, an organization serving teachers across the state. The bill also would provide $7 million annually to keep the St. Paul Teachers Retirement Fund Association fiscally sound.

The money involved with the Duluth fund would continue for 24 years. Leaders of that fund have told lawmakers that a better financial picture is doubtful because more retirees are getting benefits than there are current teachers to fund the system.

 

Disability aid part of big bill

Rep. Rod Hamilton lost a Wednesday effort to allow Minnesota representatives to vote on raising state aid to people who care for the disabled.

On a 68-59 vote, the House rejected the Mountain Lake Republican’s proposal to immediately debate and vote on the plan to increase funding 5 percent for home health care providers. That means the provision will be voted on Thursday as part of a budget bill that updates a $39 billion, two-year budget lawmakers passed a year ago.

The Thursday bill includes all budget changes, such as increasing funding for transportation, education and other programs.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said that the usual way to alter an already-passed budget, including when Republicans controlled the House, is to lump all budget changes in one big bill.

“Let’s have a clean vote,” Hamilton responded.

Republicans generally support the 5 percent increase, but could be tempted to vote against the budget bill because they oppose much of the new spending it contains.

“We are being forced to choose whether or not we can support every word in a 600-page bill simply because we support people with disabilities,” Hamilton said.

Political notebook: Medical marijuana keeps producing controversy

By Don Davis

Medical marijuana is a story that is not going away.

A bill to legalize the plant to help people with extreme pain and children with seizures stalled, and Gov. Mark Dayton said he could not sign a medical marijuana bill if it did not have the support of law enforcement and medical organizations. They generally do not back the bill.

With most bills, all of that would have killed the measure. Not with this one.

Parents of children who suffer seizures gathered reporters for an emotional Wednesday news conference. With tears, they complained that Dayton is delaying help for their kids.

Jessica Hauser of Woodbury told reporters that Dayton suggested she buy marijuana illegally in Minnesota or go to another state. On Friday, Dayton gave “no” as his answer to a question about whether he told her to buy marijuana illegally.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say about medical marijuana,” Dayton added. “You had statements. You asked questions. … I’m just not going to discuss it further.”

He then talked about it some more.

Other drugs go through exhaustive testing before the public can access them, Dayton said. Since he must govern for all Minnesotans, he said, he wants the chemical from marijuana that may help control seizures to undergo the same test.

In a lengthy conference call with reporters earlier in the month, and something he repeated Friday, the governor said he “is told” that marijuana is available on the street in every Minnesota city.

While he has said he does not advocate breaking the law, he also has said he understands a parent’s desire to do anything possible to ease a child’s illness.

Another tax bill ready

Getting through one tax bill was taxing, and now the Minnesota House is ready to consider a second one.

“Our second tax bill will focus on ways to make further reductions in property taxes for homeowners, renters and farmers,” said House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington. “We believe this is a responsible way to continue expanding our economy from the middle out while maintaining our stable budget into the future.”

The first tax-cut bill was enacted a little more than a week ago, reducing income taxes for many Minnesotans as well as eliminating some sales taxes businesses pay.

The new House bill would reduce taxes $45 million.

Both tax-cut bills come after the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor last year approved more than $2 billion in tax increases.

Democrats are focusing on property tax relief in the phase 2 bill. They have campaigned for years on property tax increases they blamed on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP lawmakers.

The biggest single property tax relief provision would be $18 million to homesteaded farms. More than 90,000 farmers would be affected, with the average getting $460 lower tax bills.

About 500,000 other homeowners would receive $12.1 million in cuts, with renters getting $12.5 million in a 6 percent refund increase.

The full House is to vote on the measure in the next few days.

It’s a rushed session

All Minnesota politicians, and those who follow them, probably can agree on one thing: This year’s session is moving faster than any other.

“This session has been a mad rush to everything,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

He recalled the days, not that long ago, when the even-year session (also known as the election-year session) was reserved for approving a list of public works projects and fixing any urgent issues, such as dealing with economic changes.

That concept has changed dramatically, with pretty much any subject fine for debate.

“More is never enough,” Dayton said about politicians’ mentality.

The session, just over a month old, gets into some of its basic issues in the next week. House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said a bill making tweaks in last year’s $39 billion, two-year budget, will be up for a vote near the end of the week. So will a tax-cut measure.

The rush has brought up some tension among lawmakers, prompting Chairman Tom Huntley, D-Duluth, of the House health and human services finance committee to remark near the end of one long meeting: “I think we are so tired that we can’t get mad at each other any more.”

The great space debate

Minnesota politicians have delighted in arguing about space, specifically space in the Capitol and a proposed Senate office building.

All six Republican governor candidates, and most others in the GOP, have come out against the proposed $63 million building and a nearby $27 million parking garage. The House in general has been skeptical of the need for something on that scale.

Senate Democratic leaders, however, say that so many other agencies are growing during a Capitol renovation that they do not have enough space left for senators and their staffs.

The Senate space would drop from today’s 86,372 square feet to 48,025. At the same time, the governor’s office space would soar from 9,055 to 16,630, which Gov. Mark Dayton says is to give the lieutenant governor and staff space.

Historical society space would double, journalists would get more room and so would the Supreme Court. Public space, including for dining and exhibits, would grow.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Capitol building renovation is a good time to build a new facility because it would save the state from paying for temporary space to house senators and their staff for a year or two when their Capitol offices will be closed.

The decision about whether the new building is constructed rests on the House rules committee, which is looking into space needs and is expected to take a vote in April.

State advice: Don’t file income tax returns this weekend

Bakk, Dayton

By Don Davis

Minnesotans who have not filed their state income tax returns should wait until next week.

State Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said that will give tax officials time to provide more specific advice about how a tax-cut bill legislators approved Friday will affect taxpayers. He said Minnesotans who already have filed returns, about half of taxpayers, will be notified if their taxes fall because of the newly minted law.

“If you have not filed your tax return yet, I would advise you to wait until Monday,” he said.

People who have yet to file may want to learn what tax breaks could affect them, Frans said, but warned: “Regardless of the little delay, they have to meet the April 15 deadline.”

He said some returns can be modified by the department with no further action by taxpayers. In other situations, Frans’ department will notify taxpayers who need to file an amended return to take advantage of the tax breaks.

Frans plans to announce more specifics Monday, but on Friday said that taxpayers especially may want to delay filing returns if they may have deductions or credits related to mortgage insurance and education. Up to 16,000 more families who earn up to $45,000 a year also may qualify for an expanded Working Family Credit.

During the weekend, Frans’ department will make adjustments to account for the changes. The Revenue Department also will work with tax preparers and tax software companies to help them make needed changes that they hope will be incorporated by April 1.

The scramble is needed because Minnesota legislators approved $443 million of tax cuts Friday, 10 months after they raised taxes more than $2 billion and less than a month before the tax deadline. Many of the tax breaks, which could affect up to 500,000 Minnesotans, can lower taxes on returns now being filed.

Senators approved the bill 58-5, with the House following 126-2.

Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, D-Minneapolis, said she voted against the bill because she favors more education spending instead of the tax cuts.

The votes came a day after Republican senators delayed debate on the bill, saying they only received the bill an hour before debate was to begin.

Even before the Thursday delay, senators waited two weeks after the House passed its tax bill.

“We took a little bit of time to look at the ramifications so we could make some improvements,” Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said. “And we did.”

More cuts may be coming. “We are not done yet,” Skoe said, adding that he expects a second tax bill.

Skoe argued against deeper tax cuts now, and in favor of putting more in the state budget reserve, because the last time the state was in good financial condition then-Gov. Jesse Ventura led the charge to send tax rebate checks to Minnesotans. Soon after that, Skoe said, the state began running into financial problems.

The chairman’s provision adds $150 million to the state budget reserve, which Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said is important. He said it “assures fiscal stability for the state going forward.”

The tax bill rewrites some state tax laws to conform to federal law, which would lower thousands of Minnesotans’ income taxes. That will save taxpayers more than $200 million.

Saving businesses more than $200 million are the canceling of business sales taxes approved last year as well as a warehousing tax that was to take effect April 1. The sales taxes included those placed on farm equipment and other commercial repair work and on some on technology sales,.

“I call it a good start,” said Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, who like many Republicans wanted more taxes lowered.

Republicans frequently reminded Democrats that they increased taxes more than $2 billion last year, but only want to cut taxes $443 million this year (a figure that grew slightly Friday as last-minute changes were made to the bill).

“It is not often that we get a second chance to recover once we have jumped off the ledge,” Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said, adding that many mistakes were made last year when business taxes were increased.

Senate tax bill holds for a day

Skoe, Bakk (Senate Media Services photo)

By Don Davis

Tax cuts may come to those who wait.

Democrats who control the Minnesota Legislature were fired up and ready to cut taxes Thursday, but Senate Republicans refused to allow a $432 million tax-cut bill come up for a vote, saying they and the public had not had time to read it.

“I think as a senator, I have the right to read the bill,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, saying he first saw the bill an hour earlier when the 62-page bill still was hot off the copy machine.

“Folks, they want us to do it and do it right,” Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, told fellow senators about the desire of Minnesotans that lawmakers know what is in the bill before voting. “We need more than a couple of hours; Minnesotans expect that.”

Both senators and representatives are expected to vote on the bill today.

Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said his department had been working on making the many changes needed as more and more taxpayers file returns ahead of their April 15 deadline, but that work stopped Thursday when the tax bill stopped.

“Every day matters,” Frans said, adding that he could not give specifics about how the day delay will affect taxpayers.

About 40 percent of Minnesota taxpayers file their income tax returns between April 1 and April 15, and on Thursday, Frans said so many changes in tax laws are contained in the stalled bill that his department, tax preparers and software companies face a mountain of work to keep up.

Minnesotans who already have filed returns may need to amend them if they want new tax cuts contained in the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, suggested that taxpayers who think they might benefit from the changes should wait until next week to send in their returns. Frans and Gov. Mark Dayton refused to make any such recommendations.

Most cuts in the Senate bill center on two areas:

– Rewriting some state tax laws to conform to federal law, which would lower many Minnesotans’ income taxes.

– Overturning business sales taxes last year’s Legislature approved, including those placed on farm equipment and other commercial repair work, some on technology sales and a warehousing that was to take effect April 1.

House and Senate bills would make more than 50,000 low-income families eligible for larger benefits under the Working Family Credit designed provide work incentives. More than 280,000 students would qualify for new student loan deductions.

The legislation would provide tax breaks for adoptive parents, homeowners facing foreclosure and teacher classroom expenses.

During a hastily called news conference, Dayton thanked Bakk and Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, for trying to pass the tax bill Thursday, which was a day after a deadline the governor had given lawmakers.

Two days earlier, Dayton chastised Democratic Senate leaders for delaying the bill. He said Bakk refused to bring up the tax bill until lawmakers approve a new Senate office building.

On Thursday, Bakk accompanied Dayton to the news conference as they criticized Republicans for delaying the bill.

A two-thirds majority of senators was needed to suspend the rules, and without GOP votes, there were not enough Democrats to begin the tax debate. The vote was 38-28.

“There are provisions in this bill that some of our members have not seen…” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said. “We think tomorrow is just fine.”

The Senate is to take up the tax bill when it convenes at 9:30 a.m. today, and if it passes, the House expects to take it up later in the day. House Republicans gave no indication they plan to delay the bill.

The Senate Taxes Committee passed the bill Thursday morning, minutes before the full Senate convened.

Skoe said that the bill balances a desire to trim taxes with the need to increase state budget reserves.

“The state is in the best financial state it has been in since 1999 and I do not want the state to return to the financial uncertainty of the 2000s,” Skoe said.

Skoe also has been part of a Senate effort to increase state budget reserves $150 million to provide a cushion in case there are fiscal problems.

The House passed a $503 million tax cut on March 6 and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wanted them cut $616 million. Another tax bill is expected yet this legislative session, which must end May 19, and it could include deeper cuts.

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Key points of a Minnesota Senate tax bill include income and business tax cuts.

– Total net tax cuts: $432 million.

– Change state tax law to match federal law and increase Working Family Tax Credit: $226 million.

– Repeal business tax cuts passed last year: $232 million.

– Repeal gift tax and increase estate tax threshold: $30 million.

Note: Individual tax cut figures do not add up $432 million because bill also includes some minor revenue increases.

Hann

Senate tax bill arrives after Dayton lobs stalling complaint

Dayton

By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday used his first public appearance since Feb. 8 to accuse fellow Democrats who lead the Senate of stalling a tax-cut bill until they won approval for a new Senate office building.

An hour and a half later, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook and Tax Chairman Rod Skoe of Clearbrook showed off a tax bill they hope senators pass Thursday, without a building agreement. They denied that Dayton’s comments changed their plans.

Dayton, who has been in a body cast since Feb. 10 hip surgery, walked to a podium aided by crutches Tuesday afternoon and began to rip Bakk for telling him and House Democratic leaders that he would not allow a tax bill to pass until the House rules committee approves a new Senate building.

“I’m very, very, very disappointed they would not pass a bill,” Dayton said.

The House passed a $500 million tax cut March 6. It would stop three sales taxes businesses pay as well as conform to federal tax laws.

Dayton and Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said that tax cuts needed to be finished by today or Minnesotans would struggle to get tax breaks that come from matching state and federal laws.

Skoe had been saying that senators wanted more time to investigate implications of various tax provisions, and they would wrap up a bill by month’s end.

Democratic and Republicans senators must agree to suspend Senate rules before the Thursday vote will occur.

When Bakk and Skoe sat down with reporters after Dayton’s comments, they began talking about the tax bill, not mentioning Dayton. Bakk did not directly answer the question, asked multiple times, about whether in meeting with Dayton and House Speaker Paul Thissen he linked the tax bill with a new building.

Thissen, D-Minneapolis, agreed with Dayton that Bakk linked the two.

“We have all along urged the House rules committee to act …” Bakk said when asked about the tax-building link. “We don’t understand why the House rules committee hasn’t acted.”

The only action needed before a new Senate office building is constructed is House rules committee approval. However, House members have joined Dayton in expressing reservations about the building.

Bakk said it is needed.

Due to an extensive Capitol renovation project, Bakk said, senators will not have offices or a chamber in which to meet in 2016 if something is not done. Construction will continue at least through 2016.

The renovation is stealing space from the Senate, and doubling what the governor’s office occupies, and there will not be enough room for senators and staff in the finished building, the majority leader said.

Bakk said the Senate will lose 38,000 square feet to renovation.

While representatives have not decided whether a new building is even needed, Dayton said he thinks a modest one should be built. But he was not happy that Bakk linked lower taxes with it.

Dayton said he returned to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on Monday to have the body cast removed, a week earlier than planned, because he needed to get back to the Capitol to fight for the tax cuts. “It was time for me to come back because of the deadline.”

“I can’t kick any field goals for a while,” he said, but other than using crutches most of the time he is doing well.

He may not be kicking field goals, but he kicked senators’ tactics. “These are DFL legislators, I’m sorry to say. … It’s just inexcusable.”

Dayton said an entire half-hour meeting earlier Tuesday was about the Senate building because the Senate insisted on discussing it before taxes.

“I need to take this to the people of Minnesota,” Dayton said, adding that he plans to start meeting with legislators about taxes today.

Thissen said Bakk wanted to include Senate building approval in the tax bill. Skoe and Bakk said there is no mention of the building in their bill, which they would not give to reporters Tuesday night.

Bakk said that taking up the tax bill by Thursday would be an “extraordinary accomplishment.” A second bill, including some tax cuts, is expected before lawmakers adjourn for the year in May.

The Senate bill will would cut taxes nearly $70 million less than the House, but would add $150 million to the state budget reserve, Skoe said.

Bakk, Skoe

Judge wants change, Minnesota sex offender program remains same

By Don Davis

A federal judge’s pressure on Minnesota officials to change how the state deals with sex offenders does not appear to be producing results.

Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday that he does not expect this year’s Legislature to act on the situation, and legislative leaders Friday showed no indication the governor is wrong.

That comes after Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a court order: “The time for legislative action is now.”

If state leaders do not take action, Frank could take control of the Minnesota sex offender treatment program, where serious sex offenders are kept in prison-like settings after serving their prison sentences. Former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and others who are urging lawmakers to act say Frank could order changes in the program — changes that could result in much higher costs to the state — or he could order release of at least some sex offenders.

Just one sex offender has graduated from the program, leading to a lawsuit by others who say the program is more prison than treatment.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, downplayed the possibility that Frank will take over the program. He said that Frank’s order for the state to fund four experts’ study of the program should take some time, and lawmakers may not need to act right away.

However, he and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said they hope for a bipartisan agreement on the issue.

That does not appear close. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he thinks the current treatment program is constitutional, although he could support some changes.

Since Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office, Daudt said, they are the ones who should lead on the issue.

Murphy said that state leaders not agreeing on the solution hurts their efforts.

“When people chose to politicize this issue, it tends to confuse Minnesotans,” she said.

Dayton blamed House Republicans for failure to come together, adding, “I don’t think anything else is going to happen this session.”

“It is not going to proceed without broad bipartisan support,” Dayton told reporters Thursday. “It is just not going to happen now. … We will come back next session, if I am still around.”

However, he added, Frank could take away Minnesota’s options before next year.

Daudt said Democrats may not have come up with a plan, but he thinks he knows their desire: “They seem set on letting these people out.”

Frank issued his latest order five days before the Legislature convened last month.

“If the evidence requires it, the court will act,” Frank wrote. “But it is the Minnesota Legislature that is best equipped to develop policies and pass laws — within the limits of the Constitution — that both protect public safety and preserve the rights of the class.”

How to deal with sex offenders has been a major state Capitol issue since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall on Nov. 22, 2003. The next April, her body was found near Crookston, Minn. A sex offender who had served his prison time was convicted of her kidnapping and murder.

The crime set Minnesota politicians on a quest to find ways to keep sex offenders behind bars longer. One of the ways was to make more use of an existing program that allows county prosecutors to ask judges to put offenders into the treatment program.

The program is housed at state hospitals in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

Political notebook: Dayton ponders politics in body cast

By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has had a lot of time to think in the past month.

The 67-year-old governor is stuck at his official state residence in a body cast, recovering from hip surgery he underwent at Mayo Clinic just over a month ago. While he meets in person and by telephone with staff and commissioners, he cannot get out to political, social and official events. He said that he cannot even go downstairs.

That leaves him bunches of time to ponder state policy and politics.

Capitol reporters learned that Thursday as he answered questions in a conference call for 55 minutes, ending the chat only because the time had come to invite in some medical marijuana proponents. Dayton said that he was open to another conference call the next day if reporters wanted one. It never happened.

Among things Dayton said in what can only be described as a wide-ranging conversation:

– A just-released report showed Minnesota with more than 2.8 million jobs, the most in the state history. That is 150,000 more than when Dayton took office in 2011.

– Legislators need to pass a tax-cut bill by Wednesday in order for Minnesotans to reap $57 million “in immediate tax savings,” he said. Later, to a reporter’s question, he admitted that taxpayers still could get those benefits if they file amended tax returns. He also said that maybe lawmakers have another day or two beyond Wednesday to pass the measure.

– Discussions about whether to enact tax breaks to attract the Super Bowl are “very preliminary.” He said he has talked to Democratic legislative leaders, and plans to get Republicans involved in the next few days. On Friday, GOP leaders said they had not received an invitation and have not seen him since the surgery.

– Even though House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, had said he wanted to approve a bill to raise the minimum wage in the first two weeks of the legislative session (which has passed), Dayton predicted it will not get done until the end of session, which must come by May 19.

– He wants “almost all of the Senate offices moved out of the Capitol” and into a proposed building across the street to the north. “I think it should be a modest building,” he added, unlike some early plans. “It needs to be a Minnesota-style building.”

The governor hopes his time trapped at home may be near an end. He is expected back at Mayo in the coming days to find out how his hip is healing.

Auditor: Councils inadequate

The legislative auditor says four minority councils the state created years ago do not have a clear mission and are not “adequately integrated into state policy making.”

The report the Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles’ office says the councils on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, Black Minnesotans, Chicano-Latino Affairs and Indian Affairs “have done a poor job setting specific objectives and identifying outcome measures to assess the impact of their activities.”

Also, the report said, council members often do not attend meetings.

“Overall, there is little evidence that the state’s four minority councils have been effective advisers or liaisons to state policy makers,” the report concluded.

The Council on Black Minnesotans was strongly critical of the auditor’s report, and went on the attack.

The council said Noble’s office needs “to improve its understanding of African heritage people, their various cultures, and their history in Minnesota.” It suggests more “African heritage people as auditors and general personnel.”

While the Council on Black Minnesotans says there are numerous false statements and the auditor’s report should not have been released, the other councils reacted with both praise and mild disagreements with parts of the report.

City revenues up

State Auditor Rebecca Otto just released a report on Minnesota city finances that showed revenues were up 3 percent in 2012 compared to a year earlier.

For cities more than 2,500 population, revenues increased 2 percent, while smaller cities received 6 percent more money.

Total spending for 2012 was $5.4 billion, Otto reported, a 4 percent hike. Bigger cities upped spending 3 percent, while smaller cities’ spending rose 13 percent.

Over the past 10 years, the report indicated, city revenues actually went down 9 percent when dollars were adjusted for inflation. At the same time, actual money coming from property taxes went up 78 percent for cities statewide. Even when adjusted for inflation, property tax revenues were up 29 percent.

The proportion of revenue coming from property taxes grew during the past decade as state aid fell.

Transportation safety bill near

Chairman Frank Hornstein of the House Transportation Finance Committee said he expects to unveil a bill Wednesday to fund transportation safety measures in light of increased crude oil movements through Minnesota.

The Minneapolis Democrat said the bill likely will not include a tax he earlier proposed on crude oil transported through the state. However, he hinted an existing fee charged railroads may be expanded to allow the state to add to its one rail inspector.

The issue became a hot topic after last year’s spectacular oil train derailments in Canada and North Dakota.

Two Harbors wants signs

Two Harbors officials want to allow business names to appear on signs along U.S. 61 that goes through the North Shore community.

A House committee has approved legislation to allow signs in Two Harbors like rural businesses can get. In rural areas, blue signs may direct motorists to nearby businesses, but that is not allowed in cities, where only major attractions and places like gasoline stations, restaurants and motels are allowed to be on signs.

“We’re looking for kind of a level playing field,” Two Harbors City Councilman Seth McDonald told the committee.

Department of Transportation officials were concerned that if the state changes its law, it could violate federal regulations on advertising signs.

Drink up at U

The University of Minnesota, the first Big Ten college to serve alcohol at its football stadium, earned a profit in the first two years of sales.

The legislative permission to drink is ending, so lawmakers are considering extending the program.

The university reports a nearly $181,000 profit last year.

Legislative notebook: No tax cut vote

By Don Davis

Minnesota senators will not rush to judgment on a $500 million tax cut the House passed last week.

On Monday, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, wanted senators to immediately take up the tax bill House members passed Thursday, but Democrats defeated the attempt 38-26.

Gov. Mark Dayton wants the tax-cut bill on his desk by Friday. Hann agreed.

“Thousands of Minnesota are in the process of filing their taxes and they deserve to know what we are going to do.,” Hann said

Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said that the tax cuts need more “contemplating.”

The House bill matches state law to many federal tax provisions, saving Minnesotans money as they file taxes this time of year. However, the “marriage penalty” that costs couples more in taxes was not included for taxes being paid this year. The penalty would be eliminated if state and federal tax laws matched.

Skoe said the marriage penalty is one of the issues the Senate needs to examine.

In an interview last week, Skoe said the Senate will cut taxes less than the House.

 

Lunch aid passes

Minnesota will increase its school lunch subsidy for poor students if a bill headed to a full House vote passes.

The issue arose after it was revealed that a majority of Minnesota public schools withhold hot lunches to students who could not pay. There also were reports that school officials took away meals from students in lunch lines and dumped them in the trash if they had no money in their lunch accounts.

A bill the House Ways and Means Committee approved Monday would spend $3.5 million to increase state support to hot lunches from 12.5 cents to 52.5 cents per meal. Federal money pays the bulk of the cost of lunches for poor students.

 

Pay increase OK’d

Minnesota state employees will receive raises, in some cases for the first time in years, if the House agrees with the Senate.

Senators Monday approved 43-22 pay raises of 3 percent this year and again next year for most state workers.

“More than half of our state employees received zero percent increase,” Sen. James Metzen, D-South St. Paul, said, because of a struggling economy. “These state employees helped us get through the recession.”

While workers will get more pay, Metzen said they also will pay more for health insurance.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said some private businesses have not recovered from the recession, indicating it may be too soon to give government workers more money while private firms continue to struggle.

A business in her community, she said, laid off people and cut existing workers’ pay. “Little by little, as the economy recovered,” the pay has increased, she added.

The bill also is moving through the House committee process.

 

Money aimed at obesity

A Minnesota senator wants the state to pay $65,000 to fund a study to find how to reduce and prevent childhood obesity.

Sen. Alice Johnson, D-Fridley, talked about her idea for a nine-month study on Monday. “Currently, when a doctor or school nurse identifies an obese child there are no intervention programs to refer that child to. The purpose of this study is to help develop such a program.”

The study would provide help to 80 children diagnosed as obese. Results of the study could influence future legislation.

The Minnesota Department of Health estimates that the effects of obesity cost the state $2.8 billion annually.

 

Broadband bill advances

A Senate committee unanimously voted to spend $100 million next year to boost rural high-speed Internet.

The committee deals with rural issues, and is composed mostly of rural lawmakers. The bill could face opposition in its next stop, the Senate Finance Committee.

Bill sponsor Sen. Matt Schmit, D-Red Wing, said there is “a drastic difference” between rural and urban Internet speeds.

A governor’s broadband task force set speed goals, and most rural parts of the state fall short.

Rock County Commissioner Jody Reisch said he has worked for an East Coast insurance company for 20 years, and now can meet on line instead of flying to New York.

However, he said, it is difficult to get broadband speed fast enough in rural Minnesota.

It is not just businesses that need the fast connection, he said.

“My kids no longer take textbooks home,” he added, but need to log onto web sites for their homework.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he supports high-speed broadband, but does not think there is a plan to expand the service to rural areas with enough specifics for him to support.

 

House turns down gifts

The Minnesota House wants to overturn a law passed last year that allows organizations to buy meals for lawmakers.

“They love us to come and eat their free food…” Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said Monday before the House passed his bill to ban such group feeds 123-3. “They want their agenda on our minds.”

Last year’s law allows organizations to treat legislators to a meal, as long as all legislators are invited. Winkler’s bill would leave previous law that banned the practice of giving lawmakers gifts.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom, D-Brooklyn Center, said that many groups “cannot afford the same access” as those who put on the legislative meals.

Winkler’s bill would take effect Aug. 1. A similar bill has not moved in the Senate.