State Sen. Kent Eken wants to boost state funding 5 percent for home-based care Minnesota’s elderly and disabled receive, as well as giving a similar raise to nursing homes.
The Twin Valley Democrat suggests a higher gasoline tax for transportation needs and would like more money so state-run colleges and universities can continue a tuition freeze.
Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, agrees that nursing homes need more money, even if a tax increase is needed. He also would not rule out backing a tax increase to boost transportation funding.
The story is the same for many of the 201 Minnesota legislators returning to the Capitol for their 2015 session at noon Tuesday. They have wants – wants that usually cost the state money that is raised by taxes.
But they need to keep their wants in check if Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders stick to their guns. They say no general tax increase is needed to fund state government, although there is at least some support for considering a transportation-related tax increase.
It is budget time in the Capitol, with nearly five months to write a two-year state budget expected to top $40 billion.
In many recent years, lawmakers arrived in St. Paul facing a budget deficit. This year, they expect to enjoy a $1 billion surplus, and hope it grows when a new economic and budget report comes out in late February or early March.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk warned his colleagues not to expect big spending increases.
“It will be a pretty austere budget,” Bakk said. “We are still in a pretty fragile economic recovery. I think we need to be a little careful.”
That surplus? State finance officials say it will disappear if inflation is considered, spending such as giving pay raises and paying for higher utility bills. But those who get state money should not count on a increase for inflation, many lawmakers warned.
“It doesn’t take long to burn through a billion dollars,” Bakk said.
Since half of the surplus comes from lower-than-expected spending, Bakk said, only about half of it is ongoing revenue.
“I already know most of these groups coming to ask for money will be disappointed,” the senator said.
Democrat Dayton said throughout his 2014 re-election campaign that he does not think the state needs to raise general taxes. In a recent interview, he was optimistic that an improved national economy could enlarge the surplus finance officials predicted in early December.
Dayton said that his office has received $3 billion in requests for the $1 billion surplus, and most are good causes.
The governor said he will focus on improving transportation and education funding, but will not release specifics until he hands out his budget on Jan. 27.
The Republican-controlled House and Democrat-run Senate likely will release their budget plans in March, after the new economic report comes out. Dayton will revise his plan following the report.
In the meantime, legislative committees will begin looking at budget issues, as well as policy issues that do not involve money. However, committees will not be able to make many decisions until spring.
Eken, like many rural lawmakers, put his funding emphasis on nursing homes and home-based elderly and disabled care. Advocates say rural Minnesotans get less state help than those in the Twin Cities.
“We have seen this disparity between metro, rural and deep rural grow greater and greater as years pass,” Eken said, adding that with a surplus now is the time to even things out.
With a new rural majority in the House, and Bakk being from rural Minnesota in the Senate, there is plenty of optimism that rural issues will receive more attention than in the past.
“I think it is good that there is a rural focus,” Eken said, but quickly added: “I think the last two years (with a Democratic House and Senate) were also good. A lot of good things were accomplished.”
Much of the discussion this year will be about transportation, one of the Republicans’ main 2014 campaign issues.
“I’m a rural guy and I see the need for road and bridge work in rural Minnesota,” Anderson said. “It is going to be a high-profile issue.”
Overall, optimism is high around the Legislature before committees debate issues and spending. But for Bakk, the surplus, no matter how small it may be (“razor thin” he calls it), is a good sign.
“There are some tough votes involved, but it just feels pretty good,” Bakk said. “The last time anyone probably felt like this was going into the ’01 session.”
Finding a compromise is possible, he added. “If everyone comes to the table willing to compromise … it is not insurmountable.”
By the numbers
26 newly elected
21 new Republicans
5 new Democrats
Senate seats were not up for election in November
Key dates for Minnesota Legislature
Jan. 5: Gov. Mark Dayton sworn in for second four-year term
Jan. 6: House and Senate begin 2015 session at noon, with House officially electing speaker and other officials
Jan. 27: Last day Dayton may submit his budget proposal
Late February or early March: State finance officials release latest report on economy and expected state revenue
May 18: Last day Legislature may meet, unless Dayton calls lawmakers into a special session
How to follow Legislature
– Legislative Web site: www.leg.state.mn.us
– Mobile devices may automatically call up a mobile legislative site (www.leg.state.mn.us), but if not, there is mobile link at the top of the page
– Find out who represents you: tinyurl.com/MNLegWho
– Calendar for legislative meetings: tinyurl.com/MNLegCal
– The House and Senate stream legislative committee hearings and House and Senate sessions on their Websites: tinyurl.com/MNMedia
– Public television’s Minnesota Channel statewide and some cable TV systems carry legislative hearings and House and Senate sessions. Schedules and channels are at tinyurl.com/MNMedia
– How a bill becomes law: tinyurl.com/MNBillLaw
– Find House bills: tinyurl.com/MNHBills
– Find Senate bills: tinyurl.com/MNSBills
– Follow activity on specific bills: tinyurl.com/MNLegBills
– Governor’s office Website: mn.gov/governor/
– Bill signings and vetoes: tinyurl.com/MNBillGov
– Ways to follow committees and other legislative activity: tinyurl.com/MNLegLists
– Summaries and other information about bills and government issues: tinyurl.com/MNHouseResearch and tinyurl.com/MNSenateResearch
– Legislative background from Legislative Reference Library: www.leg.state.mn.us/lrl
– Printed directories with legislators, committee and other information will be available in House Public Information Office and Senate secretary’s office once they are printed. Until then, a directory is available at tinyurl.com/MNDirectory
– The nonpartisan House Public Information Office produces Session Daily, with stories about what is happening in the House: tinyurl.com/MNSDaily
– The Senate and House staff telephones to answer questions about the process of passing bills, the status of legislation and other questions. The Senate numbers are (651) 651-296-0504 and (888) 234-1112. To contact the House, call (651) 296-2146 or (800) 657-3550.
– Forum News Service Minnesota Capitol bureau: Blog, capitolchat.areavoices.com; Twitter, @CapitolChatter; Facebook, www.facebook.com/CapitolChatter
Note: State Capitol building renovation and new equipment installed for House and Senate television productions could mean some video services will not be available when the legislative session begins.
From St. Paul Pioneer Press and Forum News Service
Dayton and state lawmakers will have a $1 billion surplus to work with as they start crafting a two-year state budget this session.
That’s sounds like a lot of money, but state finance officials warn that is just enough — just over 2 percent of the projected $41 billion budget — to cover the cost of inflation in health care, salaries, fuel and other state expenses.
Dayton said he has received $3 billion in requests for that surplus and suggested that groups seeking more money should temper their expectations.
But the surplus should make it easier for the split government — a DFL governor and Senate and a Republican-controlled House — to pass a balanced budget next spring.
Aside from a possible gasoline tax increase for roads and bridges, don’t expect lawmakers to pass any major tax increases or tax cuts this session.
After pushing through $2 billion in new taxes in 2013, Dayton said he won’t propose any general tax increases this year.
He will call for increasing income tax credits to help about 137,000 families cope with rising child care costs.
Incoming House Tax Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said the first job of the Republican-controlled House is to “do no harm,” meaning no more tax increases like the ones DFLers passed two years ago. But with DFLers controlling the governor’s office and Senate, he said, GOP leaders won’t be able to pass the tax cuts that many conservatives want.
“I want to spend time on what we can get done,” he said.
One of biggest challenges facing Minnesota lawmakers is how to pay for the projected $6 billion in road and bridge improvements that are needed over the next decade.
Dayton supports a new tax on wholesale gasoline to help pay for the state’s future infrastructure needs.
Republicans are against the idea, calling it unpopular with residents. They prefer a reprioritizing of transportation projects to free up money for roads and bridges.
Schools also are a top priority for both parties as educators continue to work to close Minnesota’s large achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.
Dayton has said he wants to increase school spending in targeted areas that are proven to close those gaps. School leaders are pushing for lawmakers to pay for “unfunded mandates” and increase the state per pupil funding formula.
Republicans are expected to push for new reforms to the state education system. Those could include eliminating teacher seniority as a consideration during layoffs, expanding school choice and updating the teacher licensure system.
State lawmakers will have to weigh whether they want to increase funding to keep tuition at Minnesota colleges and universities frozen for another two years. Both parties agree keeping tuition in check is important, but there are opposing views on how it should be funded.
Eric Kaler, University of Minnesota president, said last year a tuition freeze would require more taxpayer support. Leaders in both the House and Senate have questioned whether the state’s higher education systems could cut costs to cover some of the money needed to hold the line on tuition.
Lawmakers also want colleges and universities to strengthen their roles in workforce development. Both DFLers and Republicans have noted there are nearly more than 187,000 job openings without qualified applicants.
MNsure, the state’s health care marketplace under the federal Affordable Care Act, is expected to receive new scrutiny after a disastrous 2013 roll out.
Open enrollment went more smoothly in 2014, but critics have a long list of questions and proposed improvements.
Peppin said the system needs better, more transparent oversight and she hopes someone from the insurance industry will be appointed to the MNsure board. Some have called that proposal a conflict of interest.
“Many in our caucus believe it’s necessary to have someone on the board who knows what they are talking about,” Peppin said.
Dayton and other DFLers have said they’re open to suggestions for improving MNsure, but they don’t want to rehash the debate over “Obamacare.”
A priority for Greater Minnesota lawmakers is improving funding for long-term care programs that serve elderly and disabled residents.
Rural residents have long complained their facilities are underfunded and a growing number have shut their doors. Others have trouble keeping employees, who get experience and move to higher-paying jobs in the Twin Cities.
It will likely take new revenue to improve funding for long-term care facilities and it’s unclear where that money will come from.
Minnesota’s child-protection system will be up for improvements.
A task force has issued preliminary recommendations calling for the elimination in state law of the preference for “family assessment” in addressing child-protection cases. Family assessment focuses on engaging and supporting families instead of investigating wrongdoing. Task force members have said the approach is used in about 70 percent of cases, including some where kids are at substantial risk of harm and investigation would be the safer course.
The task force also advocates repealing a law that prevents county officials from considering prior “screened-out” reports when deciding what to do about a new allegation. The idea is to allow officials to see a pattern of behavior in making their determinations.
The task force’s final recommendations are due by the end of March.
Super Bowl tax breaks
Officials involved in bringing the Super Bowl to the new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis in 2018 say they will ask the Legislature this session for additional tax exemptions for the National Football League.
An existing state law exempts tickets to the game itself from tax. Officials have said they will try to get that extended to include events related to the game as well.
According to information from the state Department of Revenue, waiving the tax on tickets to the “NFL Fan Experience” would mean about $400,000 in forgone revenue to the state.
It’s not clear whether additional tax breaks will be sought, or what they might be. Those involved in preparing the successful bid to secure the 2018 game have refused to release it publicly, citing a need to keep the details under wraps for competitive reasons.
One of the issues that is little discussed, but carries big consequences is how the state should deal with sex offenders.
A federal judge says Minnesota’s system of holding sex offenders who have completed prison sentences is unconstitutional. But Minnesota legislators have been reluctant to take action.
Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said the state needs to take action soon, or the courts will take over the system. If that happens, he said, a federal court-run sex offender program could cost the state much more money.
“It needs to be bipartisan if it needs to be done,” Eken said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, places fixing the sex offender issue near the top of the agenda. He agreed with Eken that both parties must agree.
“That probably is the toughest vote of the session,” Bakk said.
Once again, lawmakers will be urged to end the ban on Sunday liquor-store sales, something social conservatives oppose and liquor store lobbyists say will add to retail operational costs.
Although minor changes have been made, the repeal has been a perennial loser at the Capitol. Lawmakers who represents areas near states that allow Sunday sales are especially pushing for the change, citing loss of business to those other states.