Session success or flop for greater Minnesota?

A bipartian group of state leaders works together to serve turkey burgers in May 2015 in front of the Minnesota state Capitol. From left are Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

A bipartian group of state leaders works together to serve turkey burgers in May 2015 in front of the Minnesota state Capitol. From left are Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, Rep. Jeff Backer, R-Browns Valley, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Republicans took control of the Minnesota House this year by ousting 10 greater Minnesota Democrats in last November’s election, and immediately promised to make 2015 the greater Minnesota legislative session.

The session has ended and rural Republicans think things went well.

“I’m happy,” Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria said.

Do Democrats agree? Not so much.

“When you look at those high expectations, I thought it was a big flop,” Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart of Dilworth said.

As Franson and Marquart show, the session received mixed reviews from those outside the Twin Cities.

Figuring out how greater Minnesota did during the legislative session is inexact given the fact that the Legislature will be back in special session to pass an education funding bill and deal with some unfinished business. While in St. Paul, lawmakers may be asked to make other changes, which could affect greater Minnesota.

Greater Minnesota Republicans and even Democrats like Marquart say that the biggest victory for those living outside the Twin Cities came in the health-care bill, which added $138 million to nursing home aid, allowing the facilities to raise wages and keep nurses and other staff that more and more have used rural nursing homes as training grounds before moving on to better-paying jobs.

The same legislation would require all nursing homes to receive the same state aid level as those in the Twin Cities. Current law provides less money for rural homes.

“That’s incredible,” said Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, a third-term lawmaker in charge of increasing nursing home aid.

Greater Minnesota residents should be happy, he said. “They will see the doors staying open on their local facilities.”

Many nursing home operators were waiting to see what legislators did this session before deciding whether the homes would be open or closed. The added money is expected to keep most open.

The issue that best illustrates difference between Republicans and Democrats this year may have been transportation, perennially a prime greater Minnesota issue. Lawmakers only could pass a basic transportation funding package instead of one that would have spent billions of dollars over the next decade.

Most Democrats wanted to tack a new tax onto fuel sales to fund the work. It would have added 16 cents a gallon to gasoline at first, then gone up as fuel prices rose.

“It is going to take more revenue,” Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

But many Republicans said their biggest accomplishment was killing the gas tax plan.

“Minnesotans won by not having more money taken out of their wallet by gas tax,” Franson said.

Added suburban Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury: “Minnesotans do not want a gas tax.”

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said the issue will be awaiting lawmakers when they return March 8 for the 2016 session. Some legislators want it to be debated during the special session, but it appears the general feeling is that it will wait until next year.

Even without the multi-year, multi-billion dollar transportation funding bill sought by Democrats and Republicans alike, some new road and bridge money came out of the Legislature.

Cities of 5,000 or fewer population will split $12.5 million in road aid. They have not received such state aid before.

Marquart said his community, Dilworth, likely only will receive about $50,000, not enough to put a seal coat topping on many streets.

The bill also spends $5 million on greater Minnesota transit, $5 million for railroad safety and nearly $1 million to put emergency response teams in Duluth and St. Cloud.

Democrats sharply criticized rail safety funding, saying they support Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to build railroad crossings with overpasses in Moorhead, Willmar, Coon Rapids and the Prairie Island Indian Community to reduce the chance of car-train collisions and to reduce congestion caused by long oil trains. Some hope those crossings will be part of a special session public works funding bill.

The parties worked together to get $19 million to help fight the bird flu that has resulted in 8 million turkey and chicken deaths in the state. The help includes a low-interest loan program for farmers to repopulate their flocks and mental health help for farmers whose flocks were affected by the outbreak.

One little-noticed provision in the vetoed education bill, which likely will be part of new legislation in a special session, would allow school boards in all sizes of districts to approve a levy for money to maintain and repair school facilities. Only about the half-dozen largest ones have that power now.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said that is a major way to keep big and small districts on equal footing. Small districts have been able to take the levy request to voters, but have a tough time passing them, Kresha said.

The vetoed legislation would have provided $32 million for school facilities.

One of the issues that failed was farm property tax relief.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, had proposed lowering farm taxes on school construction projects, but it disappeared for the year along with the GOP’s hope to cut taxes $2 billion when the tax bill failed to advance.

“There is no doubt the biggest issue was the rural property taxes in Minnesota,” Marquart said.

“Property taxes are going to go up, there is no doubt about that,” Marquart said, because of the failure of the Drazkowski bill as well as lawmakers not increasing state aid to cities and counties.

While House Democrats opposed many of the eight budget bills, and say greater Minnesota got few wins, Senate Democrats and Republicans in both chambers generally voted for the bills.

“With divided government, neither party will get everything they want,” Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, said. “It’s about negotiating a reasonable balance between differing values.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the session was the most bipartisan he has seen and generally was happy with the outcome after he said before the session that he, like House Republicans, would look after greater Minnesota.

Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, was an example of Democrats who say they are disappointed with what the Republican majority delivered, or did not deliver, for his area.

“They did not deliver on this message and missed many opportunities to invest in broadband development, rail safety and infrastructure, Local Government Aid and direct residential and agricultural property tax cuts,” Lien wrote in a newsletter.

“As this session has progressed, one disappointment after another is setting back the progress we made over the last two years,” Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, said. “We could have used the $2 billion surplus to invest in families and kids and improve the economic climate in northern Minnesota, and fund the 5 percent increase for care providers.”

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities urges lawmakers to return to the drawing board before a special session.

“In failing to pass a tax bill during the regular session, legislators and the governor missed a rare opportunity to address crucial needs in greater Minnesota,” said Heidi Omerza, president of the coalition and an Ely City Council member. “Now with the special session, they have a second chance to pass a tax bill that includes an LGA (Local Government Aid) increase, workforce housing tax credits and meaningful property tax relief in Greater Minnesota. They shouldn’t let this opportunity pass them by.”

Issues important to greater Minnesota often passed with too little money, Omerza, such as for broadband and workforce housing grants.

Supporters of more funds for care of the elderly and disabled were disappointed that only nursing homes got a funding boost this year.

“The workforce crisis has already had a significant impact on services for people with disabilities and older adults,” said Jon Nelson, executive director of Residential Services Inc. in Duluth. “I know people with disabilities who had to leave their homes because providers could not recruit and retain caregivers. Existing employees have to work long hours of overtime to fill vacant shifts. It compromises the care when employees are overworked.”


Here is a look at how some issues of special interest to greater Minnesota residents fared in the Minnesota Legislature after lawmakers passed a two-year, $42 billion budget:

— Nursing homes received a $138 million boost, which especially helps rural facilities that have been threatened with closing because of difficulty paying enough to retain staff. However, no new money was approved for other long-term care needs, such as workers who take care of people at home.

— MinnesotaCare will remain as a state-subsidized health insurance program, although costs will go up. It is heavily used in greater Minnesota.

— State payments to local governments will remain the same. Republicans wanted to cut aid to some big cities and the Senate Democrats sought to increase aid by nearly $46 million.

— Tax credits to help housing be built in areas with workforce shortages got no money because no tax bill passed.

— Grants to build housing will be $2 million a year, for all of the state, a fraction of what was requested.

— High-speed Internet expansion, known as broadband, ended up at $11 million, well below the $100 million advocates wanted.

— Job training programs, which rural lawmakers say are important in their areas, would get $900,000 each of the next two years, while supporters wanted $15 million for the two years.

— The only new money for transportation programs was $12.5 million for streets in small cities; transportation advocates wanted to commit billions of dollars over 10 years.

— $5 million will be spent on greater Minnesota transit.

— $5 million will go to make railroad crossings safer.

— Nearly $1 million will be used to establish emergency response teams in St. Cloud and Duluth. Among other incidents, they could respond to oil train accidents.

— No farm property tax relief passed. A plan would have eased property tax burdens by exempting farmland from school construction levies.

— Two-year state technical colleges will freeze tuitions, but tuitions will go up elsewhere.

— All school boards could be given permission to levy a tax to repair or maintain facilities. Large schools could do that in the past, but small districts needed to have the public vote.

— $19 million was approved for bird flu response, mostly for low-interest loans and mental health aid for farmers whose flocks were affected.

— With the tax bill collapse, no funds were approved for Moorhead, East Grand Forks, Dilworth, Ortonville and Breckenridge to provide tax breaks to companies that located there instead of North Dakota or South Dakota.

— Schools could start classes on Sept. 1 this year. Schools normally must start after Labor Day, but lawmakers approved the Sept. 1 provision since the holiday is late this year.

— Dentists will receive 5 percent more for taking care of poor patients, a far smaller increase than supporters wanted.

— Buffer strips around Minnesota water will need to be at least 16.5 feet except along private ditches. However, money to enforce the law did not pass during the regular session.

— Researchers may grow industrial hemp, but it will not be open for general farming.

— Firearm silencers, or suppressors, will be allowed.

— Money to reroute U.S. 53 in northern Minnesota was not approved since there was no major transportation bill. The highway needs to move because a taconite mine is expanding over the highway’s right of way.

— Six school districts on four-day weeks received permission to continue the schedule until 2020.

Note: This list includes some vetoed provisions, but they are expected to be approved during a special legislative session.


What’s the deal with lack of a deal?

Minnesota state Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley, left, and Rep. Dan Fabian of Roseau talk Tuesday, May 12, 2015, about a meeting Eken was about to attend with the governor dealing with water pollution and treatment. (Forum News Service by Don Davis)

Minnesota state Sen. Kent Eken of Twin Valley, left, and Rep. Dan Fabian of Roseau talk Tuesday, May 12, 2015, about a meeting Eken was about to attend with the governor dealing with water pollution and treatment. (Forum News Service by Don Davis)

Minnesota legislators are getting antsy.

Their leaders have spent hours this week negotiating a $40 billion-plus, two-year state budget with Gov. Mark Dayton, but most legislators know little about what is going on at the governor’s residence and are getting worried about finishing work by Monday’s constitutional deadline.

“You begin to wonder how they are going to put this together,” Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said Tuesday.

Even key budget negotiators are beginning to wonder.

“I’m getting a little bit leery about it,” said Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, who will be involved in resolving some of the major budget issues. “I know with computers we are able to do things we were not able to do in the past. But at the same time, staff needs time to actually put everything together and get the numbers in the right places and get the commas and the periods in the right places. That does take some time.”

Tomassoni said an overall budget deal needs to come by Thursday, at the latest. “Progress needs to move much more quickly than it is right now.”

On Tuesday, Dayton hosted Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and other legislative leaders to discuss health care, education and higher education, among other issues.

At issue is the two-year budget that begins July 1. With a Republican-controlled House, Democrat-run Senate and Democrat governor, there is not the agreement going into end-of-session talks that there was two years ago when Democrats controlled all three.

Daudt walked into Tuesday’s talks saying that he needed to see progress.

“Originally … the end of today was kind of our drop-dead deadline,” Daudt said. “If we have to go into tomorrow, that’s fine. But let’s get some of these budget targets wrapped up so we can get bills into conference committee.”

Bakk was reportedly upset with Republicans who want to eliminate MinnesotaCare, a subsidized health insurance program for the poor. He said that Democrats will not accept killing a program that serves more than  90,000 poor Minnesotans.

High-level negotiators at the governor’s residence were dealing with high-level budget figures to hand down to conference committee members, who would figure out how to spend the money. At the same time, the governor and legislative leaders were expected to provide guidance, or orders, about how to deal with some hot-button topics.

The governor made it clear that water pollution is important to him by interrupting budget talks for a meeting on the subject.

Dayton summoned Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, and leaders of five greater Minnesota cities to discuss issues such as phosphorus and nitrates that pollute water. State rules require cities such as Moorhead and Breckenridge to pay millions of dollars to upgrade facilities to reduce the pollution.

Besides being expensive to cities, Eken said, the Minnesota pollution rules are not fair. For instance, he said, North Dakota allows three times the phosphorus in water than does Minnesota.

“That is like building half a dam,” Eken said about just one state requiring low phosphorus water content. “We need to do this on a basinwide basis.”

Another issue was getting more attention. The House Republican public relations department was churning out news releases from its members critical of Democrats’ proposal to add a new tax on gasoline, which would start at 16 cents a gallon and rise as prices go up.

“Democrats are holding up the state budget negotiations over their desire to increase the gas tax on Minnesota families,” Assistant House Majority leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said in one of the news releases.

In interviews, Republicans also said they are frustrated.

“The Democrats are slow rolling us,” Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said. “They are trying to grind the process to a halt.”

A gasoline tax hike is not what Minnesotans want, she added.

Tomassoni and Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said leaders apparently have approved an agriculture and environment spending plan and they are working behind the scenes to be ready when they can begin to negotiate their bills.

“We will end on time,” Hamilton said, adding that he is an eternal optimist.

Some legislators who have been around awhile know that traditionally there are problems in high-level talks before a breakthrough.

“It’s got to go downhill a little more,” Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press, a Forum News Service media partner, contributed to this story.


Minnesota House would increase bird flu fight funding as deaths increase

Minnesota representatives responded to avian flu Monday by seeking more money to fight the growing outbreak and giving farmers assistance.

On the day that state officials announced that more than 5 million birds have died or will be euthanized due to the flu, the House accepted proposals to increase flu spending as part of an overall agriculture funding bill. The House passed the overall bill by Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, 110-18 and overwhelmingly approved several amendments to increase avian flu funding.

While the federal government reimburses farmers for birds they euthanize, lawmakers opted to also provide low-interest loans for them to recover from the outbreak. Farmers would be eligible for up to $200,000 of loans to repopulate flocks, develop better security and improve infrastructure of poultry facilities.

“I think it is something we should do and I strongly support it,” Gov. Mark Dayton said, although he supports a $100,000 limit.

A Rep. Jeanne Poppe, D-Austin, amendment passed to help fund mental health counseling for affected farmers.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, was successful in amending the bill to provide an undetermined amount of state aid directly to farmers with flocks affected by the flu.

The bill includes funding for state agencies to battle the flu the next two years:

— $3.6 million to Agriculture Department.

— $1.8 million for Board of Animal Health.

— $544,000 for state and Willmar emergency operation centers.

— $350,000 for Department of Natural Resources.

— $103,000 for Health Department.

Dayton already signed the first step in the state’s flu-fighting funding into law. On Friday, he signed a bill giving nearly $900,000 to state agencies to help pay for their flu-related expenses this year.

The House also increased by 13 weeks the length of time poultry workers unemployed due to bird flu can receive unemployment insurance. The current limit is 26 weeks.

On the overall tax agriculture bill, representatives voted 89-37 to allow an industrial hemp growth study. It would be limited to research purposes and would not allow hemp to be a general crop, although supporters see that as their ultimate goal.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said law enforcement officers oppose the measure because hemp and marijuana look and smell alike, even though a person cannot get high on hemp. He also said that because of their similarities, local governments will need to pay for tests to determine if what they confiscate is marijuana.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said that the two crops are very different and hemp can be used to make many useful goods. She and Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, have pushed their hemp bill this year as an economic development tool, with the possibility of manufacturers opening in the state to process hemp into items ranging from rope to clothes.

The overall House bill heads to the Senate and eventually to negotiations.

State officials Monday announced that Minnesota’s poultry H5N2 flu deaths now affect 80 farms in 21 counties.

The number of bird deaths, mostly turkeys, topped 5.3 million, with some flocks not yet counted. The figure includes those who have died from the flu and those that are being euthanized to prevent spread of the virus.

Monday’s report showed Renville and Nicollet counties reported their first flu deaths, with 1.1 million chickens in one Nicollet flock. The chicken flock the biggest Minnesota flock infected.

The report also showed Kandiyohi County continues to have by far the most affected flocks, 29, which is more than twice No. 2 Stearns County.

All affected farms are under quarantine. Birds on 71 farms have been euthanized.

Rural Republican legislators plan to provide free turkey burgers on the Capitol lawn Tuesday morning. Chips and lemonade will complete the menu, giving Capitol area workers a chance to support the state’s turkey industry, which produces 46 million birds a year.

Health officials say that poultry and eggs are safe to eat and there is no threat to public health.

The state has about 450 turkey farmers.

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.


Legislative notes: Budget forecast due Friday

A report that gives Minnesota’s governor and legislators information they need to write a two-year budget will be released Friday.

The so-called budget forecast will look at the economy and revenues coming to the state and predict funds available in the next budget cycle.

Gov. Mark Dayton already has released his budget plan, as required by law, but will tweak it after the Friday report. Legislative leaders will develop their budget based on the Dayton plan and Friday’s forecast, likely with considerable differences from the governor.

An early December forecast predicted the state will have a $1 billion surplus, but good economic reports since then have led many state officials to predict better news Friday.

The actual surplus numbers will be a tightly held secret until Friday morning.

Hemp legalization bill advances in Minnesota House

An effort to legalize hemp in Minnesota continues.

A state House committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, to allow limited hemp growth. Hemp farming has been illegal in Minnesota since shortly after World War II.

Franson’s bill would allow hemp as a crop if the producer is licensed by the state Agriculture Department and follows federal law, which now only allows researchers to grow the plant.

Hemp is used for products ranging from ropes to clothes.w

It was declared illegal due to its close relationship with marijuana, although using hemp would not make a person high.

Franson said Minnesota hemp farming has a lot of potential and her bill would develop “on a very small scale” the beginnings of a hemp industry in the state.

A similar Senate bill passed its first committee test last week.

Phasing out Social Security tax on seniors considered

A Minnesota House committee dealing with aging Minnesotans voted Wednesday to phase out the tax the state charges on Social Security benefits.

The House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee sent five bills to get rid of the tax to the Taxes Committee.

If Social Security were not taxed, the average Minnesota senior citizen would save $600 a year, the committee heard.

Most states do not tax Social Security.

Supporters of the bills testified that getting rid of the tax would help Minnesota’s elderly afford to live in their own homes longer.

The bills vary on how long it would take to phase out the tax, with two taking 10 years and the others less time.

Ex-lawmaker Otremba dies


By Al Edenloff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Republican also praised the Democrat.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

High court care case expands

By Don Davis

A U.S. Supreme Court hearing that could affect a Minnesota law allowing child care workers to join unions took on broader interest during Tuesday’s arguments when it became apparent that justices could make a decision to ban forcing government workers to join unions.

The case from Illinois dealt with whether home medical care workers should join unions. The issue is similar to a Minnesota law, passed by a Democratic-controlled Legislature, that allows home child care workers to join unions. A court case over the Minnesota law is on hold until the U.S. high court rules on the Illinois case.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the case is important to Minnesota child care workers.

“While a ruling on this case is months away, its outcome will carry great significance for the hardworking parents and childcare providers of Minnesota,” said Franson, a former child care provider. “Allowing union bosses to insert themselves into the care of our children violates the sacred trust parents have with their childcare provider.”

Unions say they can help child care workers obtain better state payments and working conditions.

But the spotlight shifted to public unions in general during Tuesday’s hearing in Washington.

Lyle Denniston of the SCOTUSblog, which covers the Supreme Court, said the case appears to have become a test of public worker collective bargaining.

“Aside from what was said explicitly from the bench, the atmospherics of Tuesday’s argument suggested strongly that this case has very large potential,” Denniston wrote.

He said that Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to be the deciding vote on the issue.

Jennifer Parrish of Rochester, one of the child care workers who brought the Minnesota case and has fought unionization for years, was in the courtroom Tuesday.

“It was an incredibly moving experience to be present and hear oral arguments in the Harris case,” she said. “Throughout this eight-year ordeal, I have never lost my faith in our justice system.”

Parrish said that after listening to the justices, “I am confident” they will rule against forcing home care workers to join unions.

Bill mixes paint, bees and farmers … and includes an island, too

Rep. Ben Lien

By Don Davis

Paint will cost more and be recycled. Bees will be protected. Financially troubled farmers will be able to access state aid.

And an island to provide more wildlife habitat could be built in the Mississippi River.

Those are a few of the impacts from a diverse environment, natural resources and agriculture funding bill headed for Gov. Mark Dayton’s expected approval.

The overall bill spends $312 million on programs such as in the Agriculture Department, Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources. Funding for the two years beginning July 1 is $25 million more than in the current budget.

The House voted for the bill 71-60 and the Senate 42-23, sending it to Dayton for his expected signature.

A House-Senate conference committee removed the most controversial aspect of the bill, new fees on people who use large quantities of water, such as farmers who irrigate land.

The House version of the bill tacked on new fees, but the committee accepted the Senate provision that takes money from the state General Fund.

“This bill is a winner for communities in rural Minnesota,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin. “It gives us the tools to address shrinking water supplies without raising water fees, which is a big deal for farmers, ranchers, livestock producers and agri-businesses that depend on reliable supplies of water. This bill recognizes the need to solve that problem before it’s too late.”

Mining fees were rejected that House bill author Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said were needed “so the mining industry was paying its fair share for some of the costs it is imposing on the state. The Senate declined to increase fees whatsoever.”

One of Wagenius’ concerns this year has been a water shortage in parts of Minnesota, including Worthington, parts of Otter Tail County and White Bear Lake.

The bill gives the DNR more authority and $6.6 million more money to monitor groundwater and surface water to the state can address water shortages.

“It is something hard for me to imagine … where we are having shortages of water,” Wagenius said.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, did not agree with the water monitoring. She said it bothers her to see money spent on water monitoring when the Democratic-written budget does not give enough money to nursing homes.

And, Franson added, “we’ve still got that $300,000 restroom in there.” She referred to a northern Minnesota restroom in an area Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said is miles away from any public restroom.

The bill tacks a 75-cent-a-can fee on paint to establish a program to recycle unused paint.

“We are moving to a system of the person who creates the mess pays for it rather than asking for a subsidy from the neighbor,” Wagenius said.

That fee concerned Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau. He said his constituents could buy paint in North Dakota, which does not charge a recycling fee.

“I cannot imagine how this is going to be good for our border hardware stores and paint stores,” Fabian said.

However, he added, he was glad that proposal to require carpet recycling was dropped.

Some Republicans complained that the bill adds too much to government.

“What we have here is government run amuck…” Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said. “We are giving them even more unchecked authority in a number of areas.”

The bill also establishes protections for bees that have been dying off.

“We are an agriculture state and agriculture depends on pollinators,” Wagenius said.

The bill includes a provision that would allow Minneapolis authorities to “recreate” an island in the Mississippi River.

Drazkowski asked Wagenius: “Can you tell me where did the island go?”

Wagenius responded: “No.”

Drazkowski guessed that “the river took the island out.”

“We could end up building an island in the stream and having it washed away,” Drazkowski said.

Wagenius said the island is needed to add wildlife habitat.

Among other provisions in the bill financing environment, natural resources and agriculture programs are:

— The Minnesota Agriculture Department will spend $3 million on a farm-to-school program to provide local produce for schools.

— Agriculture business development will get a $10.5 million boost and renewable fuels $2.5 million more.

— Spending $8.7 million for the University of Minnesota to develop its aquatic invasive species research center to fight invasive species such as Asian carp, but fish barriers were not funded because the federal government has not approved them.

— More fuels will be defined as biofuels beyond just ethanol and biodiesel.

— The state will provide guidance to local governments dealing with silica sand mines and production facilities and local silica sand mining moratorium provisions may be expanded for a year.

— Perfluorochemical (PFC) monitoring is funded for the eastern Twin Cities, where 3M waste has been an issue.

— The farmer-lender mediation act that helps farmers in financial trouble was extended through 2016.

Legislative notebook: Care provider union debate sets Senate record

By Don Davis

Minnesota senators set a modern-day record for debating a single bill Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before voting to give childcare providers and personal care attendants the right to unionize.

The bill passed 35-32 a little after 8 a.m. Wednesday, concluding 17 hours of constant debate.

“It just gives this group of workers, that don’t have the right to have a vote, an opportunity to decide if they can form a union and form a bargaining unit so that they can bargain for some of the things that my union card has provided for me,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

The bill would allow for an election among providers if unions meet certain thresholds of support. If childcare providers and personal care attendants decided to join unions, they could negotiate with the state and would have to pay union dues.

The unions would negotiate state payment levels.

Republicans argued that the providers are private businesses that do not need to be unionized, and should not be unionized.

Four Democratic senators joined Republicans in voting against the bill.

“Union special interests were listened to over moms today,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. “This bill will make childcare more expensive for families and taxpayers.”

Republicans presented dozens of amendments in an attempt to water down the measure.

“Today, the DFL members of the Minnesota Senate gave childcare providers the right to vote for a union,” Alexandria childcare provider Lynn Barten said. “Everyone wins when we come together and work together to improve our lives and profession.”

Childcare provider Marilyn Geller of Bemidji said the vote showed that Democratic senators “acknowledged that we are smart women who deserve the right to vote to join a union.”

“With a union, providers will be able to negotiate with the state for better reimbursement rates, which will keep costs down for providers and parents. It’s simple, providers can’t work for less and parents can’t pay more,” Geller said.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the Democratic-Farmer-Labor argument does not make sense because if unions negotiate a certain state subsidy for childcare workers and personal care attendants, the higher pay is not automatic. The state Legislature still would need to appropriate the money.

The House could debate the union bill Saturday.

‘Ban box’ bill ready

A bill prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about criminal history awaits Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature.

Supporters say the “ban the box” bill gives people second chances.

“As Americans we believe in second chances and we believe that work is redemptive,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said. “This is a victory for Minnesota. This bill makes it possible for thousands of parents who have made a mistake and paid their price to one day get a job, get their children out of foster care, and pull their lives and their families back together.”

Jeff Martin of the Minnesota-Dakota NAACP State Conference said that once the bill is law, employers “will have access to a labor pool that fully represents what is available in Minnesota, rather than a filtered down version.”

Invasive species fight gets money

The University of Minnesota’s Aquatic Invasive Species Center will get $8.7 million to help fight aquatic invasive species.

A law Gov. Mark Dayton has signed appropriates those funds to the center as part of a $38 million overall outdoors spending bill with funds gained from the state lottery.

Also in the bill is $3 million to continue grants for land conservation and $1 million for acquiring land for trails and property adjoining state parks.

No more formaldehyde

A newly signed law bans formaldehyde from children’s products.

Things such as shampoo, lotion and bubble bath now may contain the toxic substance, but they will not be allowed to be on store shelves after Aug. 1, 2015.