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.


At the Legislature: Easy ending for health funding bill

Minnesota Reps. Tony Albright of Prior Lake, left, and Paul Torkelson of Hanska chat on the floor of the state House Monday, May 18, 2015, as lawmakers wound down their session for the year. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Reps. Tony Albright of Prior Lake, left, and Paul Torkelson of Hanska chat on the floor of the state House Monday, May 18, 2015, as lawmakers wound down their session for the year. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Health funding legislation that caused some of the most controversy in recent months ended up passing relatively easily.

House and Senate members late Sunday and early Monday passed a $12 billion measure funding health programs. It retained the existing MNsure health insurance exchange structure, which both parties wanted to change. It also maintained the MinnesotaCare state-subsidized insurance program for the poor, which Republicans wanted to eliminate.

It passed the Senate 49-16 and the House 99-31.

Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, said the bill increases support and resources for health care providers, strengthens the state’s mental health system, increases access to health care for persons with disabilities and seniors, ensures safe and stable housing and provides support for caregivers of the vulnerable.

“This is a good bill, but like any budget year we wish we could have done more, like increase the cash grant for low-income families with children,” said Lourey, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division. “The fact that the House Republicans demanded an increase in premiums and cost-shifting for low-income families continues to be a huge disappointment. But the bill has a large number of significant investments in our elderly and disabled, and children in need of protection.”

Republicans also were happy with the bill, despite the fact that it does not eliminate  MinnesotaCare, an action the GOP said would save $1 billion.

“Legislative leaders have crafted a health care reform bill that prioritizes care for Minnesota’s most vulnerable citizens,” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, Lourey’s House counterpart. “Our omnibus bill seeks to reconnect all Minnesotans with world-leading health care by cutting through red tape, skyrocketing costs and layers of redundant, harmful bureaucracy that government has imposed.”

Increasing state payments to greater Minnesota nursing homes payments to the level paid in the Twin Cities was hailed as a major win by rural lawmakers. It will result in higher nursing home wages.

“This legislation provides a major investment in nursing homes, establishes a sustainable reimbursement system and encourages our workforce to consider a career in long-term care,” said Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, chairman of the Minnesota House Aging and Long Term Care Policy Committee. “There’s no doubt these changes will help improve the quality of care our seniors deserve.”


Minnesota landowners would need to plant vegetation buffers around water under a bill lawmakers were working to pass Monday night.

The House passed the bill 83-50 late Monday afternoon, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

The buffer requirement, an issue Gov. Mark Dayton began promoting earlier this year, would be an average 50-foot buffer around public waters. Public drainage systems would need a 16.5-foot buffer.

The issue has become hotly debated, with Dayton demanding action to prevent agricultural and other pollutants from reaching the state’s water.

It was not clear if Dayton could accept the new buffer strip language.

The Nature Conservancy praised the buffer deal.

“It will considerably reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment that enter Minnesota’s waters from agricultural runoff,” conservancy Director Rich Biske said. “As such, it is one of the single biggest actions that can be taken to improve habitat for fish and other aquatic life and to avoid the increased cost of water treatment in both metro and rural areas.”

Executive Director Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership said the overall bill would make a modest improvement in water, but “it will not return the rivers, lakes and streams in Minnesota farm country to being swimmable and fishable.”

Morse also criticized the bill’s provision to eliminate the Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board, giving most of its duties to PCA officials.

The measure exempts sewage plants near the Red River from some treatment rules until 2025 unless North Dakota increases its water pollution protections.

Sulfide mining waste would be exempt from solid waste rules, apparently helping proposed northeastern Minnesota nickel and copper mines.

When discussing the overall ag-environment bill, representatives engaged in a long debate about whether undocumented immigrants should receive driver’s licenses. The bill’s House and Senate negotiators voted during the weekend to not include the provision.

The driver’s license issue has been discussed the entire legislative session, and in recent days efforts centered on getting it in the agriculture bill because many undocumented immigrants work in ag-related jobs.


The governor is being asked to sign a transportation funding bill a tiny fraction of the size that nearly all legislators and he wanted.

“The transportation plan we have agreed upon is the status quo,” House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said.

The bill would spend $5.5 billion in the next two years, which is little different than current spending. Much of that money comes from sources other than state tax collections.

No deal could be reached on competing Democratic and Republican plans that would have added billions of dollars to transportation projects over the next decade. However, Republicans would not accept Democratic wishes to add a new gasoline tax and Democrats rejected the GOP plan to take money from other state programs.

The bigger transportation bill can be considered when legislators return to St. Paul on March 8.

The bill includes $3 million to improve railroad crossings and $900,000 to establish emergency response units in Duluth and St. Cloud to respond to railroad emergencies.

Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, and others complained that there is too little rail safety money in light of the number of oil trains going through the state.

“Why in the world would we not want to do everything possible to make our communities as safe as they can be?” Marquart asked.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said he and others are disappointed the bigger transportation bill was not possible, but he would support the measure.

“I do look forward to an ongoing conversation that will happen this interim,” Reinert said.

Election reform

Lawmakers approved a measure to update election laws, including giving Minnesota National Guard members and other voters living overseas special voting procedures.

The overseas provision is meant to solve a perpetual problem of getting votes into Minnesota elections officials on time.

The bill also overturns a law that requires county attorneys to proceed with prosecutions of alleged voter fraud even before they investigate.

State government

State Auditor Rebecca Otto waged a Twitter battle against legislation that would allow private auditors to look over local government financials.

Otto sent more than three dozen tweets in the hours leading up Senate vote on the measure, which went against her 44-21. The House was expected to debate the bill late Monday.

One tweet said that legislative “leadership made a deal with the devil and Minnesotans love on this one.”

Otto responded to senators as they spoke for or against the bill.

Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, said private auditors must treat data the same as the state auditor. But Sen. Sandra Pappas, D-St. Paul, said that if local governments are allowed to hire private auditors, it would be like “the fox guarding the chicken coop.”

The bill allows local governments to decide whether to use the elected state auditor or a private one.

The auditor provision was part of a bill financing a variety of state and veterans’ programs spending $973 million that includes a 1.8 percent pay raise for many executive branch workers.

Appropriations include $14.98 million for the Senate, which is moving into a new building late this year or early next. The House receives $2.77 million in the bill.

The bill kills the state political contribution fund for two years. That includes a $50 refund Minnesotans can receive for some political contributions.

Courts-public safety

Judges and their staffs would receive a 4 percent pay raise under a bill the House and Senate easily passed.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Lori Gildea has said that workers’ wages in her branch of government were frozen for years and raises are needed to be competitive.

The measure also increases public defender spending to add 36 lawyers.

The overall bill spends $2.1 billion.

It includes $11.4 million to replace outdated Bureau of Criminal Apprehension equipment.

The bill allows gun silencers, also known as suppressors, to be used. Gov. Mark Dayton says he does not like the provision, but has not said he will veto the bill over it.

A proposal to allow some North Dakota gun permit holders to carry in the state without a Minnesota license was not included.

Also not in the measure is a much-discussed provision that would have restored voting rights to felons who had served their time in prison.


At the Legislature: Buffer agreement reached, but…

Minnesota Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls explains his higher education funding bill Sunday, May 17, 2015, in the state House. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls explains his higher education funding bill Sunday, May 17, 2015, in the state House. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota lawmakers and agriculture interests reached a compromise on buffer strips around water that delays requiring the 50-foot buffers the governor sought, but problems remained Sunday night and negotiations continued.

“I am absolutely working on buffers hard,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said Sunday night. “I think we are getting close.”

However, he said that he “does not know how the governor is going to react to the latest offer.”

Torkelson, who has worked with Gov. Mark Dayton on the issue, said he expected an agreement among legislators late Sunday.

Buffer provisions were folded into an agriculture and natural resources funding bill.

“It definitely needs to be improved,” Dayton told reporters.

Part of the reworked legislation was to require the state to do a better job of enforcing existing law that protects water from pollutants. Dayton said he does not think landowners need to be given five to seven more years to obey the law.

The bill requires 50 foot buffers around most water in five years and seven years for other areas of water.

“Water quality is going down…” Dayton said, adding that “it is sad they want to give them five to seven more years. … What a joke.”

Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said the new language was “a step” in the right direction.

Dayton this spring made buffer strips a key part of his legislative agenda.

Higher education

Many students attending state-run colleges and universities should prepare to pay higher tuitions next year.

The package freezes tuitions at two-year schools in the next school year and reduces them a percent the next year. The bill also provides a tuition freeze in 2017 for four-year Minnesota State College and University system schools.

“We put students first,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “There hasn’t been a tuition reduction in recent history so I am pleased we can finally provide one.”

A final agreement the Senate and House passed Sunday on higher education spending does not include as much money for tuition freezes as sought by the University of Minnesota and MnSCU systems, leading to the limited freeze in the bill.

The University of Minnesota will get $22 million and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities receive $100 million to hold down tuition.

The bill boosts $2.9 billion spending in the current two-year budget to $3 billion in the two years beginning July 1.

Sen. Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, was critical that the House forced the final bill to favor MnSCU over the U of M. He called it “short sighted.”

Ag issues

A bill providing $19 million to help battle avian flu is expected to pass the Legislature.

An agriculture bill contains the funds, with much going to a low-interest loan program for farmers whose flocks were infected with the flu, which has taken nearly the lives of almost 6 million turkeys and chickens in the state.

Farmers, mostly in western Minnesota, have seen their flocks wiped out by the flu. Federal funds reimburse farmers for euthanizing birds to prevent the flu’s spread, but not for birds that die of the flu. The loans are designed to allow farmers repopulate their flocks.

The avian flu decision was made by the House-Senate agriculture-environment conference committee, which also removed language that would have required manufacturers or distributors of children’s products that contain potentially harmful chemicals to notify the Pollution Control Agency, which would then make that information available to the public.

And an amendment, offered by Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, that would have included language allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license or learner’s permit was defeated on a voice vote.


A $100 million public works funding bill that passed a House committee Saturday night was scrapped Sunday.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, received a message from House leaders to “start from scratch” and see if he could build a new bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds, before lawmakers must go home for the year at midnight Monday.

The Torkelson bill the Ways and Means Committee approved included money for disaster relief, a northeastern Minnesota jail to repair meat processing facilities and to upgrade a Willmar turkey testing facility.

The bill was drawn up without Democratic input and Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said he does not see support in his party for the bill. A bonding bill needs more votes than either party can provide, so Democratic input could help pass the bill.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the Senate bonding bill chief, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, met about bonding Sunday night.

Dayton said he holds out hope that a bill could pass that includes money for railroad crossings in Moorhead, Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community and Coon Rapids. The crossings now are at the same level as roads, but Dayton wants to convert them to overpasses.

“We are going to continue working on the bonding issue,” Torkelson said. “Whether it is going to come to the floor, I have not decided or been told.”


Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, started the legislative session saying that a major transportation-funding bill might not happen until 2016.

Then things quickly gelled and House Republicans produced a 10-year multi-billion-dollar road and bridge construction proposal funded by money taken from other state programs.

But in the past week, that plan and one by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats that would have added a new gasoline tax pretty much disappeared in late-session budget talks.

The Legislature late Sunday was poised to pass a transportation funding bill, tiny in comparison to the ones nearly everyone wanted. Still, Kelly said, the bill would provide $5 million for rail safety issues, money that could be used to study the situation so solutions can be included in a major transportation bill next year.

Railroads were ready to help fund safety projects, Kelly said, but he did not provide specifics before being whisked away to a meeting.

Kelly said the decision came down to “a tax increase or tax cuts.”

Republicans wanted to cut taxes $2 billion, while Democrats wanted the new gasoline tax. Both were controversial and were dropped when neither side could agree to the other’s plan.

The transportation package will be in front of House-Senate negotiators when legislators return to work on March 8 for their 2016 session.

Felon voting

The Legislature overwhelmingly approved a plan to fund courts, prisons and public safety programs on Sunday.

Despite the 55-9 Senate vote and the 116-15 House vote, the measure did create some intra-party difficulties.

The push to restore felons’ voting rights was left out of the compromise public safety bill negotiated by DFL Sen. Ron Latz and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, due to stiff Republican opposition.

Minnesota felons lose their right to vote until they’ve completed their sentences. Felons released on parole or probation are still unable to vote.

Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis and a fierce supporter of felon voting, was upset by the abandonment of the provision, especially because the final measure included gun rights provisions strongly opposed by liberal activists.

“I do not want us to dirty up the word compromise,” Champion said in the wee hours Sunday before a joint House-Senate committee approved the measure.

Latz said he struck the best deal he could and pointed to extra money for public safety programs such as youth intervention and public defenders that he secured in the bill.

License plate data

Data from automatic license plate readers would have to be destroyed after 60 days, unless part of an ongoing investigation, under a compromise the Legislature approved.

That splits the difference between the House version, which destroyed that data after 30 days, and the Senate version, which had a 90-day lifespan.

Privacy activists say databases of automatic license plate reader information invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens and have argued for the data to be deleted immediately if not related to an existing investigation. Law enforcement officials say license plate readers are an invaluable tool that can identify the locations of suspects — and that the need for a particular hit often doesn’t become clear for months.

The compromise legislation makes the existence of automated license plate readers’ public information, audits every two years of license plate reader programs and limits on the use of the readers to track specific individuals without a warrant.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press and Session Daily contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner. Session Daily is a nonpartisan Minnesota House news service.

Special session, failures face Minnesota lawmakers

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Sunday, May 17, 2015, that he absolutely will veto the education funding bill lawmakers appear ready to send to him. That likely would lead to a special legislative session. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton says on Sunday, May 17, 2015, that he absolutely will veto the education funding bill lawmakers appear ready to send to him. That likely would lead to a special legislative session. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

A special session over education funding and the failure of the three main legislative forces’ priorities face Minnesota lawmakers when midnight arrives Monday.

Lawmakers made good progress on most of the eight major spending bills Sunday as they worked to write a $41.5 billion budget for the two years beginning July 1. They face a Monday midnight constitutional deadline to adjourn, and legislative leaders have agreed on pretty much everything, but Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton repeated demands, more forcibly than ever, that they give him a half-day education program for 4-year-olds.

Dayton wants $171 million to allow 40,000 4 year olds go to school. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Dayton will not get his way.

“Shame on them,” Dayton said of House Republicans who would not back his plan.

Neither the Republican-controlled House nor the Democratic-controlled Senate passed an education funding bill that included the pre-kindergarten funding. Bakk said he and other Democrats support the Dayton provision, but Republicans do not, so it needs to wait if an education bill is to pass.

“The bill is closed and that’s the bill we intend to send to the governor,” Bakk said late Sunday.

House lawmakers were behind closed doors Sunday night discussing the bill, and it was possible it could come up for a vote later in the night or early Monday.

Republicans were adamant against the provision.

“It’s the governor’s responsibility to build a groundswell of support for his issues in the Legislature,” Daudt said. “And the fact that this particular issue didn’t make it into the conference committee, it didn’t pass the House or the Senate, makes it a difficult position for him to maintain.”

Daudt, who met with Dayton on the issue late Sunday afternoon, added: “I certainly ask the governor to reconsider and not veto our bipartisan education bill that puts more dollars on the per pupil formula than his own budget, makes significant investments in early education and helps address teacher shortage issues in greater Minnesota.”

Bakk also met with Dayton, but the governor swayed neither leader.

While Dayton’s priority pre-kindergarten program appeared about to sink, Senate Democrats also have failed to get a transportation program funding by a new gasoline tax and House Republicans were unsuccessful in providing $2 billion in tax breaks.

The tax cuts and transportation funding could pass next year, but Dayton said he does not want to wait until 2016 for an education funding boost.

Work already done on the transportation and tax proposals still will be on the books when legislators return March 8 for their 2016 session.

Daudt and Bakk worked out the education funding plan Friday afternoon in a private session at the governor’s residence. After the governor looked it over, he rejected the plan and each day has spoken more vigorously against it.

If education funding is not approved by the midnight deadline, Dayton would need to call a special session if one was to pass.

The Dayton administration says that while some funding could continue to reach schools if no education bill passes, much would not. And, the administration says, the 400-employee state Education Department would close.

However, House Education Policy Chairwoman Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, said that a 2011 state government shutdown set a precedence that state check-writers and others should continue to work even without a budget appropriation. She said education would continue as is without a bill.

Special sessions have been fairly common, but this year it would be difficult. Hours after the Legislature adjourns, construction workers are due to tear up House and Senate chambers as part of a three-year, $300 million Capitol building renovation.

Dayton on Saturday said that a special session could cost the state millions of dollars, but Sunday he said — and his aides said he was serious — that he would be in favor of holding a special session in a tent on the Capitol lawn.

“They are responsible, not me,” Dayton said as he blamed the GOP for a special session. “Their attitude is they will pass this bill and walk away.”

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said he has heard from a couple of people in his district who favor the pre-kindergarten plan. Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he also has not heard from many in support.

Both said they, and many school leaders, would prefer to add money to the per-pupil state payments to schools instead of sending 4-year-olds to class.

Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said he thought that about 80 percent of House Democrats favor the Dayton proposal.

The Legislature’s preschool-to-12th-grade school funding bill puts school spending at $17 billion over the next two years, about $400 million more than the current budget.

Legislators’ plans put most of the new money, roughly $287 million, into the per pupil funding formula for school operations. Districts would receive a 1.5 percent and 2 percent increase over the next two years, $87 per student in the first year and $110 per student in the second.

It also includes $32 million to help rural districts maintain school facilities. Now, just 25 mostly metro districts can raise property taxes for maintenance without voter backing.

Preschool does get $60 million in new money, but it is evenly split between public schools favored by DFLers and scholarships favored by Republicans.

The measure does not include controversial policy provisions proposed by Republicans, including changes to teacher seniority rules for layoffs and requiring transgender students to use bathrooms based on their sex at birth.

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


No agreement on rail ‘blast zone’ funding in Minnesota House



A new phrase is entering Minnesotans’ vocabulary.

“Are you in the blast zone?” state Rep. Diane Loeffler, D-Minneapolis, told the Minnesota House Tuesday night that her neighbors are asking one another.

Loeffler said during a lengthy transportation funding debate that besides oil trains, a main topic of the night, “there are all kinds of other sorts of chemicals going through our communities on a daily basis.”

Rail safety was a focus of debate about a $7 billion, 10-year transportation funding bill the House passed 73-59 Tuesday night after debating the measure more than seven hours. All Republicans and one Democrat supported it.

The debate also featured funding. Republicans want to move money from other state programs and borrow funds for road and bridge projects. Democrats, meanwhile, prefer to add a new gasoline tax that would start out at 16 cents a gallon and rise as gasoline prices go up.

Senate Democrats plan to soon debate their bill that includes the tax increase, legislation similar to that proposed by fellow Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said the GOP bill was drawn up “with proper funding and sustainable funding for the foreseeable future, the next 10 years at least, and we do this without a tax increase. This is our response to the call of the people over the last several years that said prioritize transportation and do it within your budget.”

Republicans and Democrats agreed that rail safety should be a priority, but they made no progress toward agreeing how to achieve the goal.

The GOP bill up for consideration includes $5 million for rail safety, with Kelly saying work on the issue continues and more money may be available. Democrats said hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to protect Minnesotans from trains carrying North Dakota oil through the state.

Loeffler’s blast zone comment was a reference to the fact that 326,170 Minnesotans live in a danger zone, a half mile from railroad tracks carrying oil tank cars. Democrats center their rail safety measures on building new rail crossings on streets and highways along oil train routes, funded by increasing an assessment on railroads.

Kelly said that a prime rail safety outcome from his bill would be adding quick response teams in Moorhead and Duluth to respond to rail accidents and other major public safety issues.

The issue has increased in importance as more and more rail derailments and explosions are reported across the United States and Canada.

In an interview, Kelly said that he and Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, are talking to railroads and others about the possibility of increasing existing assessments on railroads.

Kelly told fellow representatives that he has faith in railroads to seriously negotiate. “They have the most to lose, so they want their businesses to be the safest business there is.”

Also, Kelly said, most of the spectacular rail accidents “are human error.” Republicans also pointed out that most oil train accidents have occurred far from crossings.

Democrats were disappointed in the railroads.

“They are making record profits, billions in profits,” Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, said.

He joined Hornstein in reminding lawmakers that North Dakota crude oil has helped give railroads that go through Minnesota those profits.

Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said that even if railroad crossings are not the main problem area, crossings at the same level as streets and roads cause congestion. Moorhead officials, for instance, say 118 emergency public safety services runs were delayed by blocked rail crossings last year, Marquart said.

“It takes just one, just one vehicle to crash with an oil train and you have disaster in our communities,” Marquart said.

Democrats were not confident Republicans would do enough for rail safety.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry and I am afraid we all are going to be sorry,” Loeffler said.

The transportation debate had some twists.

Rep. John Petersburg, R-Waseca, offered an amendment to get North Dakota help pay for Minnesota rail safety funding.

“In reality, North Dakota is benefiting the most,” he said, so they should be able to “help us transport their oil through our communities.”

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said that if the Petersburg amendment passed Democrats would offer an amendment to get North Dakota to pay for “every single bill.”

Petersburg withdrew the amendment.

Thissen offered an amendment, which failed, to name a portion of U.S. 12 the “Tim Miller Goat Trail.” Rep. Miller, R-Prinsburg, defeated Democrat Andrew Falk last November, which has been a bitter pill for Democrats. Miller at one point had said that without more aid, the highway would become a goat trail.

To the overall bill, Kelly criticized Democrats for wanting to increases taxes, in an amount he called “historic.” “Our plan is based on funding that is predictable sustainable and dedicated.”

Democrats said taking funds from sales taxes such as those on automobile parts should continue to be spent on general state needs, such as education, but Republicans would dedicate them to transportation.

Republicans knocked down most Democratic attempts to change the bill, in many cases by ruling them not germane to the bill, including an amendment requiring American-made steel to be used in road projects and another that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to be allowed to drive in Minnesota.

The GOP plan includes:

— $4 billion for state roads.

— $1.44 billion for county roads.

— $583 million for city roads.

— $139 million for greater Minnesota buses.

— $60 million for township roads and bridges.

— $164 million for Twin Cities transportation improvements.

— $282 million for cities with less than 5,000 population.

— Finding 15 percent savings in the transportation department budget.




Minnesota GOP rolls out $2 billion tax-cut plan



Minnesotans deserve a $2 billion tax break, House Republicans say, while admitting they will not get their way.

A plan the GOP laid out Monday features a provision to give Minnesotans $539 million income tax cuts with another $453 million for beginning to phase out the statewide business and cabin property tax. The bill is expected to be in front of the full House in coming days, as lawmakers have less than a month to pass and then negotiate their final budget and tax bills.

The proposal contains a wide variety of tax cuts, including $131 million in credits for student loans, $61 million for farmers and other Minnesotans by reducing the state estate tax, $50 million to farmers by reducing their share of school district construction costs and $101 million to encourage businesses to increase research and development.

“State government has collected $2 billion too much from Minnesotans,” House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, declared as he and other GOP leaders announced their tax package.

Republicans did not touch the new tax Democrats added two years ago on the richest Minnesotans when they were in charge of the House, Senate and governor’s office. House Tax Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said he knows Dayton, a Democrat, will not approve eliminating that tax, so he opted for tax cuts he thought would be more acceptable.

While Dayton’s spokesman said he is awaiting a Revenue Department analysis before commenting on the plan, House Democrats wasted no time attacking it.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said Republicans are misleading Minnesotans by saying their bill aims to help the middle class. He said it really helps big businesses.

The income tax relief could provide up to $1,500 a year tax savings for a family of four, Republicans say. Thissen, however, said an average-wage single tax filer would more likely get $50 to $70 a year.

The income tax change would last two years, while the statewide property tax phase out would come over a number of years.

Republicans say that the Twin Cities’ tax relief for next year would be $110 million from the property tax change, with greater Minnesota getting $132 million. Greater Minnesota would get far more relief for cabins, officially known as season recreational properties: $30 million vs. $860,000 for the Twin Cities metro area.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that eventually eliminating the statewide property tax (local property taxes would not be affected) would allow “our small business owners to survive and, hopefully, thrive.”

Aitkin County Commissioner Donald Niemi agreed with Drazkowski that the Republican plan could help small businesses. For one restaurant in his area, Niemi said, 400 pies must be sold to pay for the state property tax.

With stores closing across Minnesota, the commissioner said, any help like the phase-out helps.

Thissen agreed that at first small businesses may do well under the bill, but said as the phase-out continues the benefit would shift to big businesses and to the Twin Cities.

Davids claimed that 75 percent of the GOP bill is “targeted to the middle class and actual Minnesotans, not businesses.”

“I wanted to bring as many people into tax relief as I possibly could,” he said, adding that even though he hoped for Democratic support for some provisions, he knows the bill cannot pass as is.

Thissen compared the overall tax plan to a time in the early 2000s when Jesse Ventura was governor and rebate checks were sent to Minnesotans. Soon after the “Jesse checks” were sent, the economy went sour and the state budget faced numerous problems.

Dilworth Democratic Rep. Paul Marquart, an assistant minority leader, said he fears an $85 million cut to Local Government Aid to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis also would hurt other cities.

Democrats brought several Minnesotans to a news conference who said they would be harmed by the overall Republican budget.

Nancy Swanson, a server at the Green Mill restaurant in Willmar, said a bill up in the full House on Wednesday would affect her income. The provision would lower the minimum wage for some people who receive tips.

Swanson, married with four children, said that she does her best to serve customers, and in return they “give us nice tips. I’m going to be penalized for a job well done.”

The Republican tax bill also includes:

— $50 million for Minnesotans who pay more using MNsure than their previous health insurance providers.

— $47 million for families with children by increasing education deduction.

— $35 million for families by establishing a larger child care tax credit.

— $21 million by repealing sales tax on digital products such as downloaded songs.

— $20 million for pre-kindergarten student deductions.

— $40 million to let families deduct contributions to Minnesota College Savings Plan.

— $237 million to phase out tax of Social Security payments.

— $52 million to eliminate income tax on military pay and pensions.

— $10 million to provide tax credit for saving for long-term care costs.


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.


State leaders disagree on rail oil safety



There is no overall agreement on how to prevent Minnesota oil train explosions.

Democrats want to raise railroad taxes $100 million to improve oil train safety. Republicans balk at higher taxes and say more information is needed before drawing up a solution.

Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart of Dilworth and Rep. Frank Hornstein of Minneapolis, along with Democratic colleagues, on Tuesday released their plans to expand the property tax to railroad cars and to increase assessments on railroads. It is a plan similar to that of Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Republicans, who control the House, are expected to release their transportation plan soon, but House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said more information is needed before a comprehensive rail safety plan is written.

“This is a huge, huge issue,” said Marquart, who lives a half mile from tracks carrying five to seven oil trains a day and whose high school classroom where he teaches is two blocks from the tracks.

The entire Dilworth community, where Marquart once was mayor, is within the half-mile danger zone of the tracks, Marquart said. “We have to make intersections and crossings safer.”

The Democrats propose increasing assessments on the four largest Minnesota railroads — including BNSF and Canadian Pacific railway companies, which carry most of the oil — to provide $32 million that would be used to improve railroad crossings. Changing the law to charge property tax on rail cars would provide the state $20 million a year for crossing improvements and give local governments $45 million to use however they want.

Marquart and Hornstein emphasized the need to improve crossings, although none of the past five weeks’ oil train derailments and fires they mentioned in Iowa, West Virginia, Illinois and Canada occurred near crossings.

Kelly noticed that crossings were not blamed for the fiery derailments.

“I believe we need to understand the problem more,” Kelly said, although he agreed that many crossings are dangerous or cause traffic congestion and should be improved. “I don’t think we fully understand the extent of the problem and how to solve it.”

Crossing improvements could be funded under the transportation bill he plans to announce soon, Kelly said. However, he added, a solution to oil train safety may not come until next year.

“It is our responsibility to deal with it,” Kelly said, adding that the answer is not just taxing railroads more when a solution is not known.

Railroad lobbyist John Apitz said that not only is the Democratic plan a $100 million tax increase on railroads, at least some of it may violate federal law dealing with taxing railroads. He said if the legislation were to pass, railroads “absolutely” would take the state to federal court.

Also, he said, the new taxes come at a time when railroads are spending money to improve their Minnesota tracks to reduce congestion.

BNSF alone plans to spend about $500 million this year on its Minnesota property, much of it along the line from Moorhead to the Twin Cities that carries much of the oil.

Hornstein said Minnesota cannot wait to deal with crude oil being shipped from North Dakota’s Bakken oil region and from southern Canada.

“We are at the crossroads of oil transportation by rail,” Hornstein said.

He mentioned a federal report predicting more than 200 crude oil and ethanol-carrying trains will derail in the next two decades, with 10 in urban areas. Total cost to recover from the derailments would be more than $18 billion, the U.S. Department of Transportation predicted.

With railroads earning ever-increasing profits, Hornstein and Marquart said, they should pay for safety improvements.

The Democratic plans, Hornstein said, are “asking the railroad to pay their fair share. … This should not be a cost to taxpayers.”

What started a year ago as just an oil safety debate quickly expanded to include traffic problems when Dayton began a series of rail safety summits and local officials complained about rail crossings being blocked for long periods.

Marquart said Moorhead officials are concerned that trains can block crossings in that city four to eight hours a day, making it difficult for police, firefighters and ambulance workers to respond to emergencies.

First legislative day combines ceremony with policy

Opening day

Pomp and policy mixed Tuesday as Minnesota legislators returned to work in their 2015 session.

Winifred Swedzinski, 6, was in the House chamber for the pomp as her father, Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, was sworn in for his third term. She and her three sisters quietly played around their father’s desk during the noon hour session.

Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore, brought guests for the ceremony, but he also was thinking about taxes.

“We were told two years ago (when Democrats controlled the Legislature and governor’s office) that property taxes would be fixed once and for all,” he said, adding that has not happened and improving the tax climate is top on his priority list.

First-time lawmakers like Dave Baker, R-Willmar, were glad Tuesday finally arrived.

Baker said his time since the November election has been full of meetings about a variety of issues due to come up during the legislative session tha tthe state Constitution says must be done by May 18.

“I didn’t realize all the moving parts there are here,” Baker said.

Most eyes Tuesday were on Kurt Daudt, a representative with four years in the House who became its speaker, a position often said to be the second most powerful political job in state government.

Daudt, R-Crown, said his inexperience may be a plus because he does not bring all the political baggage long-time lawmakers carry. He is the youngest speaker since the 1930s and one of the least experienced.

The soon-to-be-speaker sat at a back-row desk while colleagues lauded him before the House voted on speaker.

“He sounds like a good guy,” Daudt joked during one of the speeches nominating him.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said Daudt can help all of Minnesota grow: farms, urban areas, mines, suburbs. And, Kresha added, Daudt can conduct the House’s business with decorum.

Democrats put up outgoing speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis to continue in that role, but Daudt won 72-62, a strict party-line vote.

Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, nominated Thissen, saying he has “a very strong record of leading this body.”

In a brief speech after taking the speaker’s oath, Daudt said that growing up on a family farm taught him to study problems before coming up with solutions. “We have an opportunity to do that now.”

He said that he rules nothing out as the legislative session begins.

“We should all expect and embrace new ideas,” Daudt said.

After the House session, Daudt said that House Republicans on Thursday will roll out bills dealing with jobs and the economy, nursing homes, an education achievement gap suffered by minorities and poor Minnesotans, transportation and reforming the MNsure state health sales system.

“I hope we can have great debates and decide on something together.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said Democratic senators on Thursday will introduce a package of six bills reflecting their priorities for the session.

He declined to disclose what’s in the bills, but he said, “I think they’re priorities that most Minnesotans will agree with.” They’ll include some new ideas,

Some parts of rural Minnesota have not benefited from the recovering national economy, he said, “So I think there is going to be some additional emphasis” on providing economic aid to those areas.

Bakk said he will seek quick action on a disaster relief package for parts of the state damaged by severe flooding last summer.

The state used up its $3 million disaster-aid account last month, and Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would ask lawmakers to promptly pass an emergency bill. Administration officials estimated at least $8.7 million is needed to cover a gap between the cost of recovery and the disaster aid already supplied by the state and federal governments.

Bakk also said “there’s interest” in taking quick action on a bill to make Minnesota tax law conform with new tax breaks in the federal tax code. If the state law isn’t updated by Jan. 20, many Minnesota taxpayers will face higher federal income tax bills and have to file more complicated tax returns.

Bakk and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that they would like to consider not meeting next year, largely because the Capitol building will be mostly closed due to a $270 million renovation. The plan has been for the House to meet in its chamber, which would be the only part of the Capitol still open, and the Senate meet in a large committee room in a new office building now being constructed.

Daudt and Thissen said they would consider the Senate leaders’ idea, but that would mean that a public works funding bill would need to pass this year. Such bonding bills usually are debated in even-numbered years.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, wasted little time going after Democrats on opening day.

“Over the last two years we saw the harm caused by Gov. Dayton and DFL majorities,” Ingebrigtsen said. “This year we now have a Republican majority in the Minnesota House. This will undoubtedly give a stronger voice to Greater Minnesota. With this new Republican majority we now we have an opportunity to reform our tax laws to provide some relief to hardworking taxpayers.”

For House Democrats, after two years in the majority things are different.

“I am eager to learn how to best serve my district while serving in the minority,” Rep. Jason Metsa, D-Virginia, said. “There are issues big and small facing our district and Minnesota. From ensuring a resolution to the relocation of Highway 53 to helping homeowners better address septic systems — these issues may not be glamorous, but they need to get done and they need bipartisan support to do it.”

For Willmar’s Baker, jobs and the economy are keys.

“The new Republican majority is ready to get to work helping to grow jobs, improve Minnesota’s economy, and tackling the challenges facing Minnesota families,” Baker said.

Like other Republicans, Kresha said that he looks forward to his party being in control.

“It is nice to take some of the things I hear from home and put them into bills,” he said.

Jobs and child protection legislation are among those he is emphasizing. He said child protection action has bipartisan support after a northwestern Minnesota abuse case.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he is optimistic about being able to work with the Democratic governor in his House Agriculture Finance Committee.

Dayton representatives, including Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, already have talked to him about the budget.

Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, said that with GOP House control, state government will be balanced again.

The farmer said rural lawmakers, whose November election wins gave Republicans the majority, need to show how important agriculture is to urban Minnesota.

Bill Salisbury of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press and Forum News Service are media partners.

Daudt in charge

Rep. Dean Urdahl takes oath

Rep. Paul Marquart’s first speech of year

Winifred Swedzinski and dad


Dayton focuses on education and transportation, but open to other ideas


Gov. Mark Dayton plans to focus on education and transportation funding when the Minnesota Legislature opens next week, but said he welcomes anyone “to knock on the door” and offer suggestions for what else should be accomplished.

“I’m open to anything,” the 67-year-old Dayton told Forum News Service and St. Paul Pioneer Press reporters during a wide-ranging Tuesday interview.

The Legislature convenes at noon Tuesday for a nearly five-month session that is to center on approving a two-year state budget likely to top $40 billion.

Dayton has promised to increase education funding in each budget as long as he is in office, but said he does not yet know how more he will seek when he releases a budget proposal Jan. 27.

The education initiative Dayton has discussed the most is a tax cut he proposes for middle class families to help pay for child care.

One of Dayton’s major initiatives has been to improve early-childhood education. While Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, applauds Dayton’s moves in the area, he worries that facilities are not adequate to hold more young Minnesotans.

Dayton agreed that could be a problem, but said his all-day kindergarten plan has resulted in few space problems. For other early-childhood institutions, expanding facilities may be expensive, but existing funding sources need to be used, the Democratic governor said.

“That would be important to look at some state dollars in that area,” countered Marquart, who will be an assistant House minority leader.

In higher education, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the University of Minnesota propose getting more state money to continue a tuition freeze.

“I am all for freezing tuitions,” Dayton said, but first state officials need to decide how much money needed to pay for freezes would come from the state and how much from the higher education systems being more efficient.

In the interview, Dayton did not commit to backing a tuition freeze. He said he plans to meet with leaders of the two systems soon.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said continued tuition freezes “would require a fair amount of new state dollars.” As House higher education chairman, however, Nornes said that he does not know where he would find the money.

“The spread between the state investment and student investment has been getting wider,” Nornes said about the decreasing percentage of state money going to higher education. “Narrowing that is a goal that I think all would agree on.”

Dayton’s transportation proposal likely will center on adding a sales tax on gasoline, estimated to produce $5.85 billion over 10 years. Unlike the 28.5-cent-a-gallon state tax already charged at the pumps, this one would be at the wholesale level. At today’s gasoline prices, the new tax could add 12 cents a gallon.

Everyone agrees transportation is a major issue, Dayton said, but “nobody wants to pay for it. … I just recognize the necessity of it.”

Besides the gas sales tax, Dayton said he probably will propose a small increase in car license fees. He also would double a sales tax from 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent in the Twin Cities to be spent on transit.

“We will see when we get down to the details if we can agree,” Dayton said.

House Republicans put a high priority on improving road and bridge funds.

Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, said he hears a lot of support for a major transportation borrowing bill, as occurred during Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration. “I would prefer doing that instead of a gas tax.”

The governor said that while his plan will call for some borrowing for transportation, that will not be a major part of a proposal and that any plan must have a dependable funding source.

Many Democrats in the Senate majority appear open to a transportation tax increase.

While many Republicans oppose tax increases, some Republicans who control the House say they would consider a higher transportation tax. As Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said: “I have an open mind.”

Dayton said he has an open mind about other issues people want to bring up, suggesting they can “knock on the door” or “slip it through the mail slot” if they want to share any with him.

But whatever is suggested, he said that he hopes not to raise general taxes, with only those going to transportation programs getting a boost.

Republicans prepare new rural agenda

Daudt, Peppin

This is one of a series of stories previewing the 2015 Minnesota Legislature. It concentrates on Republicans’ policy initiatives as they retake control of the House. The Senate and governor’s office remain in Democratic control.

Republicans who will control the Minnesota House the next two years make it abundantly clear they will focus on rural Minnesota when the legislative session starts Jan. 6.

Or, as they prefer to say, GOP members will drop what they call a Minneapolis-St. Paul focus they claim has been the norm under Democratic control.

“House Republicans understand all of Minnesota matters — not just one part of the state or another — and we are proud to bring those priorities forward over the next two years,” majority leader-elect Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said.

“I think they are going to get a fair deal this time,” Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said about rural Minnesotans.

Several new House committees are aimed at greater Minnesota issues, such as two dealing with agriculture and the newly minted Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee.

Republicans say it is time for rural constituents to catch up with their urban cousins after two years in which Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. But the House will not be able to “catch up” by itself, since Democrats retain control of the Senate and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton was re-elected in November.

“We are just kind of bringing the state government back into balance,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said.

Minnesotans can expect to see an emphasis on issues of particular interest to greater Minnesota residents, such as increasing aid for nursing homes and other elderly and disabled care programs, farm issues and road construction.

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has had little time to craft policy priorities as he reorganized the House, but when he has time for broad stroke comments, he emphasizes the need to look at rural issues.

While Dayton will present his budget proposal first, by Jan. 27, it technically is Daudt’s chamber that must first pass a two-year budget expected to top $40 billion. When that comes in March or April, Minnesotans will have an idea about what helping out greater Minnesota really means to GOP leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said there are general agreements among Dayton, House leaders and Senate leaders. For instance, rural manufacturers and other businesses are having trouble finding qualified workers and then getting housing for them, something all sides say must be addressed.

“There is a critical problem,” Bakk said of rural housing.

“It costs about the same to build a housing unit, no matter where you build in the state,” the former carpenter said, but it is much easier to afford in the Twin Cities thanks to higher wages. “It seems like some kind of state bridge to make those projects work is going to be required.”

It is not just the House Republican majority that wants to help greater Minnesota, he said.

“I’m a rural guy,” Bakk said. “I understand the challenges that exist in rural Minnesota. I think my colleagues in the Twin Cities want a strong rural Minnesota, too, but they don’t understand the extent of the problem.”

In the House, a rural lawmaker who will be one of three assistant minority leaders said that he and his fellow Democrats have done well for rural Minnesotans in the past two years, but he appeared happy that the new GOP leadership is talking about doing more.

“I think there is a somewhat disconnect between the urban and the rural, probably in both parties,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “Making sure the positive momentum we saw in greater Minnesota continues is my No. 1 goal.”

But Marquart worries that the House could pass bills that would cut state payments to local governments, thus forcing up property taxes.

Marquart said he hopes Republicans agree with three of his rural priorities: improving early-childhood education, funding more school construction and lowering farm property taxes.

For Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the coming session looks like it could be much better than the last two years, when agriculture funding was decided in a committee with an environmentalist as chairwoman.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” Hamilton said of his chairmanship of the Agriculture Finance Committee. “I am ready to go to work.”

Hamilton said one of his top priorities is finding workers to fill thousands of vacant agriculture-related jobs. “There is a huge shortage of agriculture professionals.”

Part of the solution, he said, is to encourage the state’s universities and colleges to train more high school ag teachers. The state also could support a variety of organizations that promote farming to young people, he added.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said that he fears many young people do not realize how technically advanced agriculture is today.

“Agriculture is really changing, becoming really advanced,” said Anderson, who will lead the Agriculture Policy Committee. “We need more training and that is where it all starts.”

Also, Hamilton said, the University of Minnesota needs to increase spending on crop and livestock disease research. “It is an absolute must that we invest in more research at the University of Minnesota.”

Hamilton said money to support more ag spending could come from rethinking budget priorities, and freeing some money now going to other programs.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that another way to help Minnesota is to encourage people to leave the Twin Cities for rural areas. The state can help convince them “there is a way to earn a living in greater Minnesota,” Nornes added.

Many Minnesotans do not realize jobs are available in rural areas, he said.

Anderson said he expects rural bills to be bipartisan. “I think there is a realization that agriculture is important to the state economically.”

He said that he expects the issue of labeling products as being genetically modified will come up. He suggests turning it around and labeling food that has not been genetically modified.

“I am kind of interested in hearing the arguments,” Anderson said of the controversial topic. “I don’t have anything to hide.”

Bakk said that rural lawmakers are the best to balance spending statewide.

“We understand the entire state better,” Bakk said. “We live in St. Paul almost six months of the year. … I think I have a pretty good sense of what is going on around the Twin Cities. Because I live in rural Minnesota, I also understand what is going on out there. So I think we bring a more global view of the state.”

Democratic doubts remain as Daudt prepares to lead Minnesota House


Memories of 2011 remain fresh for Mark Dayton.

That was when Dayton, Minnesota’s Democratic governor, faced a conservative Republican Legislature and as time ran out the two sides could not agree on a state budget, throwing Minnesota into a three-week government shutdown. While no one is predicting another shutdown in 2015 as legislators and Dayton work to write a two-year state budget, it is obvious the shutdown haunts the governor as he prepares for his second term in office.

In 2011, both chambers of the Legislature were Republican and the GOP was trying to take advantage of the party’s unusual power. In 2015, the Senate is in Democrats’ hands, as is the governor’s office, while the House is back in Republican control after two years in the minority.

Dayton and the Senate majority likely will agree on most major issues and spending decisions in 2015, but it will take House Republican approval to get things done. And leading the House as speaker will be Republican Kurt Daudt of Crown, a third-term representative considered a nice and moderate guy, but who calls himself as conservative as most in his caucus.

When asked if he trusts Daudt, Dayton responded quickly: “I have no reason not to.”

But he immediately added that he had a good relationship with Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, speaker during the shutdown. The governor recalled that things went south in session-ending negotiations when the two sides could not agree on a budget.

“I knew that he was captive of his extreme right-wing caucus that was so inflexible … that if he would agree to something reasonable that he would not be speaker an hour later,” Dayton said of Zellers.

Applying that experience to budget talks next year, Dayton said that success rests on whether “Rep. Daudt has the latitude and authorization to agree to or not.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the problem is that Republicans long ago established an executive council that can control a speaker.

“I do think he sincerely wants to have a smooth session,” Bakk said of Daudt.

The incoming speaker himself said that he understands negotiations mean giving up something.

“We aren’t going to get everything we want,” Daudt said.

The amount of freedom the executive council gives Daudt could determine the session’s success, Bakk said, adding that he has worked well with Daudt in recent years.

“I don’t know the extent they are going to empower him,” Bakk said. “Is the Kurt Daudt I know the one I will negotiate with or will he bring some baggage with him?”

In a recent interview, Daudt did not address the executive council, but said he has good relationships with Dayton and legislative leaders, including outgoing Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, who will be House minority leader.

The speaker-designate said that he believes the person who will be Democrats’ key negotiator, Dayton, has the best interest of Minnesota at heart and is trustworthy.

However, Daudt added, “he has always been unpredictable.”

Daudt said that while he knows Bakk well, he needs to learn more about Dayton.

As for a shutdown, Daudt echoes comments from many other lawmakers: “We are in a completely different situation.”

That situation become known earlier this month when state officials announced a $1 billion surplus, although they also said there really was little surplus because inflation would eat up that $1 billion.

A surplus “helps our relationship,” Daudt said.

Still, there will be tension.

While Dayton blamed what he calls the inflexibility of Republicans to negotiate for the 2011 budget stalemate, Daudt recalled things differently in his first year in the House. He said that the governor did not tell Republicans just where he stood on many budget items, and Dayton’s commissioners were not empowered to speak for him during budget meetings.

One of the Democrats’ leaders had only good things to say about Daudt.

“He was fair on the House floor,” Assistant Minority Leader-elect Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “He gave spirited speeches and debate, but he was never personal. … I think he has a good track record.”

One of Daudt’s assistants, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, called him “an exceptionally talented young man.”

“He has a lot of support throughout the caucus,” Torkelson added.

Veteran Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said Daudt and other leaders will work well as Republicans dealing with Democrats who control the Senate and governor’s office. “We know the situation; we need to work with both the Senate and the governor’s office.”

The 2011 shutdown may have been caused by “a few people coming in with more horsepower than they needed,” he said.

“That was probably the most unusual session I have been through,” Nornes said. “We learned from that.”

The incoming speaker, at 41 the youngest in that position since the 1930s, approaches things a bit differently than some of his colleagues.

Daudt said would like to see legislators stop presenting solutions, in the form of bills, before problems are thoroughly vetted by legislative committees. His idea is to come into session to examine problems, then as information is gleaned, solutions can be discussed and bills written.

As it is, he said, many legislators introduce bills as soon as the Legislature begins work.

Whether talking about how to approach problems or budget negotiations, Daudt indicates he is optimistic about the legislative session to begin at noon Jan. 6.

“In the end, we will get it done,” he promised, and without a shutdown.