More money, but no full tuition freeze in Minnesota legislation

Minnesota Senate-passed legislation would increase state-run college and university spending slightly more than the House wants, but neither bill contains the money college officials seek to freeze all tuition.

“It is my strongest intention that they do keep tuition low,” said Sen. Terri Bonoff, the Senate higher education chairwoman.

Her bill, which passed 42-21 Monday night, and one by Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, that awaits a House vote, include less money than the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems say they need for tuition freezes.

Bonoff, D-Minnetonka, said she is confident there is enough money available to control tuition, but did not promise a freeze like both systems have done the past two years.

The Senate bill would provide $3.1 billion for colleges and universities for the next two years, while the House comes in at $2.9 billion. Gov. Mark Dayton wants $3.2 billion for higher education, enough to fund full tuition freezes for both systems.

Current higher education spending is $2.8 billion.

Included in the Senate bill is a provision by Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, that would give free tuition to many technical college students. The free tuition would come with conditions, such as being in a low-income family, maintaining a 2.5 grade point average and being involved in a mentorship.

Bonoff said that many people in technical jobs are reaching retirement age and there are not enough graduates to take their places, especially in greater Minnesota. Many manufacturers outside of the Twin Cities say they cannot find enough workers to fill job openings.

Bonoff’s bill includes $25 million for the Stumpf provision.

Senators voted 40-23 against a one-year MnSCU tuition freeze after Bonoff pleaded with them to keep the Stumpf provision instead of diverting money to the full freeze.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, argued that a tuition freeze would help more students.

The House bill requires a MnSCU college tuition freeze next year and limits MnSCU universities from raising tuitions more than 3 percent. In the following year, the House bill orders MnSCU to freeze university tuition and requires colleges to reduce tuition by at least 1 percent.

The House does not address University of Minnesota tuition.

Political chatter: It is an interesting time in government

Last week was a week that could be called, er, interesting in Minnesota government.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he would head north, paint can in hand, if his transportation department could not alter a sign. Also, senators decided they should look at the Senate president, not each other, during debate and they also banned water from the chamber.

The issues hit the national media, in most cases with a negative slant about Minnesota.

A sign outside of Lindström, north of the Twin Cities, lacked the two dots above the “o,” known as umlauts.

The dots disappeared when new city limit signs last were erected, but hometown folks wanted them back to show their Swedish pride.

A news report about the missing dots apparently did not set well with him, and he ordered his Department of Transportation to fix it, which workers did right away. He promised to paint the sign himself if needed.

A New York Times headline read: “Lindström Loses Umlauts on Road Signs, and the Town is Dotted With Displeasure.”

That was mild compared to reaction national media showed to senators’ decisions.

Rachel Maddow made fun of the Senate on her MSNBC show.

“The only person you are allowed to look at is the Senate president,” Maddow said, then turned to a photo of Senate President Sandy Pappas and added: “You are only allowed to look at Sandy Pappas. Whatever it is you have to say, stare at Sandy Pappas when you say it.

“Yesterday, members of the Senate tried to amend the rule to look at somebody else, anybody else, please.”

She also brought up the Senate’s defeat of a proposed rule change that would have allowed senators to drink water in the chamber.

“Hydrate on your own time bucko, you can’t do that at work,” Maddow said. “The Minnesota Senate is a weirder place than I thought it would be. If you have a problem with that, stare into the eyes of Sandy Pappas.”

Sandpiper debate continues

An administrative law judge’s recommendation to build an oil pipeline across northern Minnesota did nothing to calm a controversy, and may have fanned the flames.

In the hours after Eric Lipman released a 106-page document supporting the Enbridge proposal to ship North Dakota crude oil in the controversial Sandpiper pipeline, the two sides shot out responses that showed continued deep divisions.

The Friends of the Headwaters and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy groups said Lipman ignored state law “and the significant hazards posed by Enbridge pipelines through a watery route.”

The Public Utilities Commission does not have to follow the Lipman recommendation, which gave environmentalists hope.

“We are confident that the Public Utilities Commission will see that Enbridge’s proposed route is not in the state’s interest,” President Richard Smith of the headwaters group said. “It puts far too many of our natural resources at risk, when better, alternative routes are available.”

On the other side, a coalition of agriculture and business groups hailed Lipman’s recommendation as backing “the safest and most efficient way to transport North Dakota crude oil.”

Minnesota Ag-Energy Alliance spokesman Mike Franklin added: “Sandpiper has incredible support from agriculture, labor, business, local government and many other groups who have stood together to support this common sense proposal.”

The PUC will further consider Sandpiper soon, but regardless of its decision the issue could land in court.

GOP savings, spending

The Minnesota Republican Party has decided to save money by hiring a private telemarketing firm and also is considering upping Chairman Keith Downey’s salary.

New technology prompted the telemarketing decision.

“Telemarketing is increasingly difficult now given the way people use their phones, coupled with the move to online, and while these decisions are always difficult, it is the right thing to do,” Downey said. “We are very grateful to the many people who have made it a success over the years, but going forward it would be impossible to maintain a successful internal operation, especially when compared to the options available in the market.”

In the meantime, blogger Michael Brodkorb reported that Downey’s salary could rise from $50,000 annually to $85,000.

Brodkorb reported that the state party is $1.4 million in debt and owes vendors more than $300,000 for last year’s elections.

“On April 8, Downey acknowledged in an e-mail to party activists that the party ‘still carries too much debt,'” wrote Brodkorb, a former GOP official. “Three days later, Downey requested a 70 percent increase in his salary.”

Dayton speaks his mind

Gov. Mark Dayton has appeared to feel freer to say what he thinks since he was elected to his second term last fall, a term he says will be his last.

He called reporters to his office the other day, without saying why. But it soon was apparent as he went after Republican and Democratic education spending proposals as far too small.

While he was at it, he attacked Republicans who want to make changes in the Metropolitan Council, telling them to mind their own business; the Met Council, he said, is his responsibility.

“It’s my decision to make,” the Democratic governor declared.

“Too many (legislators) don’t want to make government better,” Dayton said. “They just want to muck it up.”

If legislators want to run the executive branch, he said, “they should run for governor.”

Dayton’s media availability lasted an hour, much of it featuring him lashing out at lawmakers, Republicans in particular.

Lots of local food links

It is easier than ever to find Minnesota-grown food.

The state Agriculture Department has produced its annual Minnesota Grown Directory, with 1,027 listings for local food and food products. The directory includes farms, farmers’ markets, berry patches, wineries, locally raised plants and other products.

Free printed copies are available by calling (888) 868-7476 and online at www.minnesotagrown.com.

‘Count the chickens’

Gov. Mark Dayton makes it sound that state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson has a cushy job.

He said legislative agriculture committees are known for getting their budgets done early. That means, Dayton joked, that “Commissioner Frederickson has nothing to do but count chickens for the last month of the (legislative) session.”

 

Political chatter: Dayton strongly fights Republican tax-cut wishes

It is impossible to listen to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton very long and not realize he hates Republican plans to disperse a state budget surplus by cutting taxes.

A surplus can “evaporate” quickly, he told reporters, adding that the surplus should be used to advance Minnesota.

Dayton said that Republicans’ idea of spending the nearly $2 billion state surplus on tax cuts is just wrong.

“If they insist on that, I will do everything I can to persuade them to change that,” the governor said.

“To wipe out that entire surplus” could hurt the state, Dayton said, as happened when Jesse Ventura was governor and tax cuts he spearheaded adversely affected state budgets for years.

The governor, who polls show maintains popularity, has saved some of his harshest comments for GOP tax cut talk.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they are fighting for tax cuts because that is what Minnesotans want.

House Republicans still are working on their plans, but the Senate GOP announced its proposal Thursday.

“It’s time for families to experience some of the ‘surplus’ enjoyed by state government,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said. “This plan is pretty simple and straightforward — everyone who pays income taxes will pay less.”

The average tax relief for a couple would be $524 a year, the Republicans said.

Income tax rate reductions would be in addition to exempting Social Security and veterans’ pensions from state income taxes and a tax credit for families with young children.

Hemp lobbying effort

Rep. Mary Franson represents half of Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen’s district and since both are conservative Republicans, people might think they agree on everything.

Think again. Franson is the House author of a bill to allow limited growing of hemp for research, in hopes it someday will be legal to grow hemp as a money crop.

Ingebrigtsen is a former long-time law enforcement official, including Douglas County sheriff, and strongly opposes legal hemp. In fact, he told Forum News Service that legalizing hemp is a baby step to legalizing recreational marijuana, which is related to hemp but has very little of the chemical that can make a person high.

So Franson decided so show Ingebrigtsen what Minnesotans are missing. “Just dropped off some hemp presents to my senator,” she tweeted the day the story about his hemp views appeared. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy them.”

Her gift bag included soap and hemp seed hearts. Hemp, grown just north of Minnesota in Canada, can be made into food, ropes, clothing and dozens of other items. It is illegal to grow in Minnesota.

The Ingebrigtsen story attracted a lot of attention by pro-marijuana websites and prompted pro-hemp Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Peterson to write on Facebook: “Well … not sure what to say about this … More work to do!”

GOP attacks Peterson

The National Republican Congressional Committee is trying to tie U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson to Hillary Clinton’s email scandal.

Peterson had nothing to do with expected presidential candidate Clinton setting up a private email server when she was secretary of state.

“Collin Peterson, however, has not called on Clinton to do so and has said nothing at all about this stunning breach of the public trust,” callers are telling Peterson constituents.

A news release says the calls are an attempt to pressure Peterson “to break his silence and demand transparency from Clinton. …”

Democrat Peterson has said he expects to run for re-election next year and Republicans see his western Minnesota district as ripe for a change.

Pressure for bonds

Capitol observers noted that Gov. Mark Dayton included public works projects in legislative districts held by Republicans.

They say those projects were in the Dayton bonding plan to gain GOP support. Votes from lawmakers in both parties are needed to pass a bonding bill.

“If they don’t want to support this,” Dayton said about Republican lawmakers, “let them go back to their districts and explain.”

Some Republicans did not like the Dayton pressure, and vowed to continue their opposition to a public works bill, which would be funded by the state selling bonds.

However, what had seemed to be unanimous GOP opposition appeared to melt away a bit after Dayton announced his plan Tuesday. Even many Republicans who all along have said there would be no bonding bill, unless an emergency cropped up, left the door open to something much smaller than the governor wants.

Of cigars and communists

A Minnesota Senate committee approved spending $100,000 for the state to develop trading ties with Cuba.

“This is all about cigars,” committee Chairman David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, joked.

Later, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, wondered: “What other communist countries do we do business like this with?”

“China,” Tomassoni responded. “How about China? I think that is a communist country.”

Smartphone proof

Smartphone uses are multiplying by the day and soon Minnesota law enforcement officials may accept them for proof of car insurance.

The House passed 127-0 a bill by Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, to join more than 30 other states in allowing electronic proof-of-insurance “cards.” The state-mandated cards long have been stashed in crowded glove compartments, but if the bill authored by Fabian and Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, becomes law, drivers could pull out their smartphones instead.

 

Dayton sticks to education and transportation, but eases up on buffers

State of State opening

State of State opening

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton stuck to his tried-and-true themes during his Thursday night State of the State speech, but rural lawmakers said they felt he showed a willingness to ease a controversial proposal to require 50-foot buffer strips around all water.

The governor chided Republicans for wanting to cut taxes instead of spending more for state programs and plugged his desire to increase early-childhood education, boost transportation funding and a list of other priorities that he often has promoted.

He took advantage of a later-than-usual State of the State address to attempt to sway opinions of the 201 legislators, each with his or her own priorities.

He urged lawmakers to be bold.

“During the remaining six weeks of this legislative session, we will face our own moments of truth: Will we do what is easy, safe and popular or will we risk our political lives to preserve this great state for future generations?” he said.

Sen. Bakk, Justice Page

Sen. Bakk, Justice Page

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, echoed other lawmakers when he said that there were no surprises in the speech other than an apparent willingness by Dayton to back away from requiring 50-foot vegetation buffer zones around water. Dayton had blamed agriculture for water pollution, but Thursday night he said that more than one industry is at fault.

Dayton said he “is unwilling to wait another year, or longer, for legislation that will significantly improve Minnesota’s water.”

He did not mention his 50-foot requirement, which rural lawmakers took as a sign that he is willing to compromise.

Dayton said that when asked about his priorities this legislation session, he says “everything.” But he said his plan to plan to provide education for 4-year-olds is at the top of his list. Next, he said, is improving funding for transportation projects.

Dayton was critical of Republicans, who propose a transportation funding package less aggressive than the Democratic governor, who wants to add a new gasoline tax. The GOP plan to partially fund transportation by taking money from other programs “will inevitably pit those needs against educating our children, caring properly for our elderly, enhancing our natural resources, fulfilling the important promises of the Working Parents Act and providing quality, affordable health care for all our citizens,” Dayton said. “People should not be pitted against projects. Both are too important.”

Another sharp disagreement between Dayton and Republicans is whether to borrow money for public works projects, such as repairing state buildings and entering construction projects. Republicans say that can wait until next year.

“How can we tell the citizens and businesses in Worthington to ‘just wait another year’ for a reliable supply of safe drinking water?” Dayton asked. “Or tell people in Willmar to ‘wait another year’ before rerouting rail cars with volatile fuels away from their city. Or St. Cloud area residents to ‘wait another year’ for public safety improvements to the nearby correctional facility?”

Among those in the House gallery watching Dayton’s speech was Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, one of five Minnesotans House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, invited because, he said, they represent Democratic priorities that Republicans reject.

Democrats have called for increased rail safety, and Dayton would borrow money to build a safe Moorhead railroad crossing. The governor has made improving the safety of oil trains a major issue.

Major railroad crossing improvements — which also would go to Prairie Island Indian Community, Willmar and Coon Rapids — are in a public works funding bill Dayton proposes but Republicans say is not needed this year.

Republicans also oppose increasing a railroad assessment that Dayton and other Democrats want.

Greater Minnesotans watching the speech paid most attention to what he said about buffers.

Atwater farmer Frans Rosenquist sat with Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and said what many did after the speech: “One size does not fit all.”

Dayton challenged opponents of his buffer plan to come up with something that would work.

“Everyone professes to want clean water,” Dayton said. “Too many, however, don’t want to do what’s necessary to get it.”

If the state requires buffers, Rosenquist asked, “how much are you going to pay me for that?”

He said buffers would take land out of crop production and he has paid up to $10,000 an acre for farmland.

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, was happy that Dayton said southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system needs to be funded. “That is absolutely a necessity.”

Dayton barely touched on elder and disabled care. House Republicans made increasing long-term care funding one of their top priorities.

“My heart just breaks over the message Gov. Dayton sent to the elderly and disabled,” Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said.

Democrats, on the other hand, were happy with what they heard.

Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, said he especially liked Dayton’s call to use the state’s $1.9 billion budget surplus “to move the state forward.”

“There were no surprises,” added Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, who said that the governor was careful not to upset Republicans who soon will be negotiating spending and other issues with him.

“He was very firm and strong … but he didn’t back himself into a corner,” said Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley.

“The governor is right,” said Rep. Erik Simonson, D-Duluth. “With a $1.9 billion budget surplus, the time to invest in our future is now.  We may never have another opportunity like this to invest in our students, and to throw that away on corporate tax giveaways as GOP leaders have proposed would be a mistake.”

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, said she was happy the governor emphasized freezing tuition at state-run colleges.

Dayton’s speech was his fifth State of the State as governor and the first in this second term, which he says will be his last four years in office.

 

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

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bells to note Civil War’s end anniversary

Crowder

Crowder

Bill Crowder played a bugle Thursday as history, military and political leaders gathered in Gov. Mark Dayton’s office to urge Minnesotans to commemorate 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War by ringing bells on April 9.

“Bells have long been ringing in our country for many reasons,” state Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said. “They commemorate births, deaths, sadness, alarm and warning. They sounded in April of 1865, at least in the North, when the war ended. They joyously proclaimed the end of this horrible conflict and may they ring again, may they peel again, on April 9 to commemorate what happened 150 years ago.”

Minnesota will note its contributions to the Civil War, joining icons such as the Liberty Bell, in the nationwide event.

Crowder, a Mounds View Civil War re-enactor, played his bugle when Dayton and other dignitaries entered the room, then accepted a governor proclamation commemorating the April 9 event.

Those at a gathering of said Minnesota has a special reason to note the war’s end since the state was the first to send volunteers to help the North and they were involved in major battles.

Minnesota Adjutant General Richard Nash, who leads the National Guard, said the state sent 22,000 soldiers to the war “from a developing state.”

Since Minnesota became a state in 1858, three years before the Civil War started, many volunteers had not had a chance to become American citizens, Dayton said, and some could not speak English.

“I have always been proud that Minnesota was the first state to defend the union in the Civil War,” said Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, himself a Navy Reserve officer.

Throughout the war, Minnesota soldiers were in major battles, including Gettysburg and Appomattox.

“Almost 2,500 Minnesotans … gave their lives to preserve their nation,” the governor said.

It is tough for today’s Americans to understand the Civil War, Reinert said. “As deep as sometimes we think our divides are, I cannot imagine anything as deep as that.”

“Bells Across the Land” organizers ask that bells in churches, temples, schools, public building history sites and elsewhere ring at 2:15 p.m. April 9. They are to toll four minutes.

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

Kelly, Daudt

Kelly, Daudt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

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

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

Republicans Daudt, Hann, Kelly

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

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

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

The $7 billion plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $60 million for township roads.

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

— $1.4 billion for county roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota bus services.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transit improvements.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minnesotans in oil train ‘danger zones’ urged to prepare

032115 n mcb railsafety mapThe 326,170 Minnesotans who live near railroad tracks carrying North Dakota crude oil should be prepared for a train accident, a state emergency management official says.

“If you live by the train, people need to take some personal awareness of what’s around them,” Kevin Reed of the Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management department said. “‘How do I get out of the way before the fire department gets here?'”

Minnesotans should answer in advance questions such as “what would I take with me?” he added.

People also should make plans for how to deal with loved ones in schools, nursing homes, businesses and other locations near oil train tracks, Reed said.

First responders such as firefighters and law enforcement officers cannot do everything needed to protect residents in the so-called danger zones, Reed said, leaving residents themselves to bear some responsibility.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation drove home the impact of oil train derailments and potential explosions and fires Thursday by reporting 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks with trains that carry western North Dakota Bakken oil field oil. A half mile is the distance public safety officials say likely would be evacuated in an incident.

On Friday, the department released the number of people in 34 counties where Bakken trains travel.

The state’s largest county, Hennepin, has the most residents in the danger zone, 59,359, followed by 44,967 in adjoining Ramsey County. Another Twin Cities county, Anoka, was close behind with 41,389.

Nearly half of those affected are in the Twin Cities area.

In greater Minnesota, Winona in the southeastern part of the state has the most residents near tracks, 22,325. Clay County, where most Bakken oil enters Minnesota, has 19,499 residents near the tracks.

Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties in the St. Cloud area combine for 38,365 residents in the danger zone.

Most Bakken oil trains come into Minnesota in Moorhead, go through the Twin Cities and then south along the Mississippi River. Some oil trains head south to Willmar then out the southwest corner of the state.

A new state report indicates an average of 6.3 oil trains transverse Minnesota daily, most on BNSF Railway Co. tracks.

Derailments of trains carrying North Dakota oil in the United States and Canada in the past couple of years have produced spectacular explosions and fires. One in Canada resulted in 47 deaths, but many have been in isolated areas.

Gov. Mark Dayton and other Democrats propose more oil train safety training money, railroad crossing improvements and other measures, funded by increasing assessments on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money. Republicans who control the House have yet to say what they would support to improve rail safety.

Railroads say some of the Democrats’ proposed taxes would violate federal law and promise to take the state to court if those taxes are approved.

“I’m very disappointed to hear some of the companies are strenuously opposing an increased share of the responsibility for these improvements,” Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday after visiting a Newport elementary school, blocks from heavily used rail lines along U.S. 61 in Washington County. “They’re coming through the state in the volume they are and they’re adding (to) their own profitability, which is why they’re in business, but then to just turn their backs on the people who are living in the vicinity and say, ‘Well, now you have to come up with your own resources to make these safety improvements,” I think is really, really irresponsible.”

Dayton said the report that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of rail lines carrying North Dakota crude oil highlights the need for rail safety improvements.

“It just underscores the risk factor and why it’s imperative that we do everything we possibly can to prevent these derailments and the catastrophes that can result from them,” he said.

Dayton said he is glad that beginning in April, North Dakota will require removing volatile gases from oil being transported by rail through Minnesota.

“That’s very, very important,” he said.

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Minnesota transportation officials Friday released a county-by-county list showing how many people live within a half mile of railroad tracks carrying North Dakota oil, an area officials say is in a “danger zone:”

Anoka, 41,389

Becker, 6,975

Benton, 14,320

Chippewa, 1,465

Clay, 19,449

Dakota, 2,165

Douglas, 322

Goodhue, 6,711

Grant, 2,803

Hennepin, 59,359

Houston, 1,262

Kandiyohi, 9798

Lincoln, 10

Lyon, 5,550

Meeker, 1,673

Morrison, 5,163

Otter Tail, 4,137

Pipestone, 4,122

Pope, 855

Ramsey, 44,967

Rock, 831

Sherburne, 16,577

Stearns, 7,468

Stevens, 4,945

Swift, 4,186

Todd, 1,880

Traverse, 68

Wabasha, 5,937

Wadena, 2,790

Washington, 8,436

Wilkin, 2613

Winona, 22,325

Wright, 13,960

Yellow Medicine, 1,659

Forum News Service reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

 

State moves to protect 326,170 Minnesotans near oil trains

Oil Transport Safety

A third of firefighters, law enforcement officers and others who protect 326,170 Minnesotans living near oil train routes have received initial training about how to deal with oil disasters.
“We are opening their eyes but we also are giving them a place to start,” said Kevin Reed of the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management department.
About 1,800 first responders have received the training, which lawmakers funded last year as a way to prepare for an increased number of oil trains.
His comments came Thursday, shortly after the Minnesota Department of Transportation announced that 326,170 people live within a half mile of tracks that carry crude oil trains, mostly from western North Dakota’s Bakken oil field.
About 65 fire departments have received training in oil train and pipeline safety, Reed said, out of 340 that serve areas along oil train tracks.
First responders are urged to know about schools, nursing homes and other facilities in the “danger zone” and how to protect them.
“We talk through with all the players what will happen,” Reed said. “They really want to know what can we help them do and where are resources coming from.”
In releasing the 326,170 number the transportation agency provided Minnesotans’ their first view of those who live in the danger zone.
“The numbers are not a surprise, but it does highlight the fact that there is a significant risk and that is important to use to pay attention to that risk,” MnDOT’s Kevin Gutknecht said.
State transportation officials delivered the 326,170 estimate Thursday after they could not answer a Forum News Service question about it last Friday. The state’s population is nearly 5.5 million.
People within a half mile of tracks usually will be evacuated if an oil train could explode or catch fire after a derailment. The area often is called a “danger zone.”
The transportation department did not immediately release data showing how many in any specific geographic area live in the danger zone.
A state report issued this week shows an average of 6.3 trains a week carry western North Dakota crude oil through Minnesota. A train with 110 tank cars would carry 3.3 million gallons of oil.
Crude oil trains travel on 700 miles of Minnesota tracks, carrying oil that originates in western North Dakota and southern Canada oil fields. Bakken oil trains are destined for the East and Gulf coasts.
Most oil trains enter Minnesota in Moorhead and travel through the Twin Cities, although some head south through the Willmar area. Canadian oil enters the state near International Falls and goes through Duluth.
Minnesota officials say about 70 percent of Bakken oil travels by rail. A majority of that goes through Minnesota, and BNSF Railway hauls most of it.
State Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said that while the number of residents living near oil train tracks did not surprise him, it could result in “quickening the step of other legislators” to agree with him and find money to avoid potential disasters.
“I’m not comfortable that our public safety responders can respond adequately to some sort of catastrophe,” Dibble said, adding that firefighters and others say they do not have enough training and firefighting materials or equipment needed to deal with a major oil issue.
“It is sheer dumb luck” that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Dibble said.
House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, plans to release his overall transportation funding plan next week, but said he will work with Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, on a separate rail safety plan.
More work is needed to figure out what needs to be done, Kelly said, focusing on whether money is best spent on preventing derailments, responding to accidents or fixing railroad crossings.
Democrats are pushing for more oil train safety training money and railroad crossing improvements, funded by increasing assessment on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money.
Most of Gov. Mark Dayton’s rail safety plan deals with improving railroad crossings, including adding overpasses and underpasses in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. More than 70 other crossings also would be improved under the Dayton plan.
The governor also proposes borrowing money to add an oil disaster training facility at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley in central Minnesota.

326,170 Minnesotans live near oil train tracks

State officials estimate that 326,170 Minnesotans live within a half mile of railroad tracks that carry crude oil, a distance often known as the danger zone.

People within a half mile of tracks usually will be evacuated if an oil train could explode or catch fire after a derailment.

The estimate, released this morning after state officials could not answer a Forum News Service question about the issue last week, is the first time Minnesotans had an idea about the number of people that state transportation and public safety officials say could be in danger of oil train explosions like those seen elsewhere in the United States and Canada.

“This data provides a greater emphasis on the need for a strong rail safety program,” Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said. “If trains derail and an emergency occurs, many lives could be in danger.”

Zelle’s department did not immediately release data showing how many in any specific geographic area live in the danger zone.

State funds were appropriated last year to begin improving firefighter and other public safety workers’ training in dealing with crude oil explosions and spills.

“It is sheer dumb luck” that no major oil train issues have occurred in Minnesota, Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said.

Democrats are pushing for more oil train safety training money this year, as well as railroad crossing improvements, funded by increasing assessment on the state’s largest railroads, taxing more railroad property and borrowing money.

Crude oil trains travel on 700 miles of Minnesota tracks, carrying oil that originates in western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield. Oil trains are destined for the East and Gulf coasts.

Most oil trains enter Minnesota in Moorhead and travel through the Twin Cities, although some come into Minnesota and head south through the Willmar area.

State transportation officials say each train carries about 3.3 million gallons of oil.

Most of Gov. Mark Dayton’s rail safety plan deals with improving railroad crossings, including adding overpasses and underpasses at crossings in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. More than 70 other crossings also would be improved under the Dayton plan.

“Improved crossings will mean fewer chances for train and wheeled vehicles crashes, which will mean less likelihood of derailments,” Zelle said. “If an incident does occur, well-trained emergency personnel will be better able to protect the citizens and communities that lie along rail lines.”

None of the recent oil train explosions have occurred at road crossings. Five oil trains have derailed and caught fire in the past six weeks.

A Quebec train carrying North Dakota crude exploded in 2013, killing 47. A nonfatal derailment and fire near Casselton, N.D., brought the issue closer to home late that year.

The governor also proposes adding an oil train response training facility at the National Guard’s Camp Ripley.

MNsure reform advances

The prime Senate advocate of MNsure becoming a state agency says his legislation follows recommendations in a report critical of the health insurance exchange.

Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, told the Minnesota Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday that he slowed down progress on his bill earlier this legislative session when he was criticized that it was out in front of an Office of Legislative Auditor’s report.

That report came out last month and also suggested that MNsure be a state agency, leading Lourey to proceed with is legislation.

“We need to do better,” Lourey said, and turning it over to the governor and Legislature would increase its accountability to the public.

MNsure was established in 2013 with a governor-appointed, but independent, board to govern the health insurance selling program. It got off to a rocky start, with a variety of problems.

Politically, Republicans generally oppose MNsure and Democrats support it, although there is a bipartisan feeling that changes are needed.

The Senate committee passed the Lourey bill Wednesday, sending it to the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, wanted to eliminate MNsure and let Minnesotans buy health care insurance from a federal health care exchange similar to MNsure.

“My hope is there is a way to salvage this,” he said about MNsure, “but I don’t know that we can.”

Gazelka dropped an amendment to “gut” MNsure, but said it could return later in the legislative session.

A successful amendment by Rep. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, would require MNsure to publish insurance rates 30 days before enrollment begins each fall so Minnesotans have the information early.

Wednesday’s hearing followed by a day a House committee vote to get rid of MNsure and by two days a request from Gov. Mark Dayton that lawmakers approve spending $500,000 to fund a task force that would recommend how, or if, MNsure operates.

A House health and human resources committee voted along party lines, supported by Republicans, to eliminate MNsure and utilize a federal web-based insurance sales program. It would take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that subsidies offered via state health care exchanges can go ahead under federal control.

Republicans say the Legislature needs to act now to save the state money.

Dayton told legislative leaders that he wants the task force to investigate how to best run MNsure, and he even brought up the possibility that the state program be eliminated, with the equivalent federal operation taking over.

The Democratic governor is a MNsure supporter, but has said he prefers something along the lines of what Lourey suggests.