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

Dayton

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

Daudt

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.

Minnesota farmland taxes expected to rise

By Don Davis

Many Minnesota property owners could see some tax relief this year, but farmers can expect higher taxes for at least the next two years.

“What I am hearing is it is making it much more difficult to do business as a farmer,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said of agriculture property tax increases.

Still, he said, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor’s office have slowed increases that have occurred for more than a decade.

A new, nonpartisan Minnesota House report shows that property taxes as a whole should fall $49 million this year, a 0.6 percent drop, although the cost for each property owner will be different. The tax cut may not be seen on property tax bills because the House figures in tax refunds that Democrats increased.

In 2015, property taxes should go up $238 million, a 2.8 percent increase, the House report predicted.

In both years, farmland property taxes are expected to rise: 8.1 percent this year and 4.7 percent next year.

Researchers emphasize that they are working off their best guess because they cannot predict factors such as how much local governments may raise property taxes and how much property may be worth.

The two major parties waged a news release battle soon after the property tax figures were released. Democrats emphasized this year’s predicted drop in most types of property taxes, while Republicans focused on the 2015 increases.

“We knew farmers and rural landowners were going to be hit hard with property tax increases, but now it appears that homeowners in all tax brackets can expect to pay more despite promises the Democrats made over the past two years,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. “Make no mistake, hardworking Minnesotans from all corners of the state are going to feel the impacts of this property tax increase.”

A news release from Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers showed a different side, explaining that when Republicans were in charge, property taxes soared $370 million in 2012.

“The DFL-led Legislature made property tax relief a priority in our budget and, in particular, made direct property tax relief a priority,” the DFL reported, adding that Democrats approved $178 million in property tax relief in the past two years and more than 300,000 homeowners should receive larger property tax refunds.

Marquart, long an outspoken supporter of lowering farm taxes, said that at least agriculture taxes are not rising as fast as they would have under the policies in effect when Democrats took over in early 2013.

The rising taxes still bother him: “I don’t like that, but I think we are getting ag property taxes under control.”

Marquart said the main reason farm property taxes are going up is that farmland value is rising. While home values recently have gone up 6.8 percent, ag land is up 13.3 percent, he said. That shifts property taxes from homes to farmland.

Farmers complain that while land prices are rising, they do not benefit unless they sell their farms.

Marquart said farmers in his western Minnesota district report taxes that not long ago were $14 to $15 an acre now are $30 to $40. “It really has impacted the cost of production.”

Marquart said he does not have the answer to how to fix ag taxes, but said the Legislature and governor must tackle the issue next year.

“We still have a lot of work to do, absolutely,” Marquart said. “But we are moving in the right direction.”

Political notebook: Dems push rural issues

By Don Davis

Minnesota House Democrats want voters to know that most rural residents should pay lower property taxes on their homes after actions they took.

“We think it is good news for Minnesotans and Minnesota homeowners,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, told a handful of greater Minnesota reporters on a Friday conference call.

After property taxes rose 84 percent in the past dozen years, he said, they now will drop 4.9 percent after actions during last year’s legislative session.

While numbers Thissen and colleagues released are overall statewide figures, Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said the overwhelming majority of rural Minnesotans’ home property taxes will fall.

That is not the case, however, with taxes on farm land.

House Property Tax Chairman Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, said he hopes to find a way to lower farmland tax in a second tax-cut bill the House expects to debate this legislative session. Also possible are bigger homeowner and renter refunds and fixing a formula problem that cost 11 counties state aid.

But Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, says there will be no second tax-cut bill. And $500 million in tax cuts the House approved Thursday cut deeper than the Senate will, he said.

Marquart said that rural Minnesota home taxes already are down $30 million, and any homeowner who otherwise would pay more could get a big enough refund to counter higher taxes.

It is obvious around the Capitol that House Democrats are worried about losing rural Minnesota seats in the November election.

Minutes after the House approved its $500 million tax cut, most rural Democratic members sent news releases out via email.

“These tax cuts will go directly to middle class families in Minnesota, including the business owners of main street store fronts and the folks who support them” Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, said, comments typical of rural Democrats.

“Our great state is on the right track and the way to continue that progress is to grow our economy from the middle out, starting with these middle-class tax cuts,” Rep. John Ward, D-Baxter, said in in his news release.

“The way to continue building on our progress is to expand middle-class economic opportunity,” Rep. Mary Sawatzky, D-Willmar, said.

Republicans were not buying it.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie echoed other Republicans’ views by saying that Democrats cannot declare victory in the last half of the Legislature’s two-year session. Last year’s $2.3 billion tax increase is cannot be counterbalanced by a $500 million cut, he said.

Democrats lose 2 votes

A tax-cut bill the House passed in record time, less than two weeks into this legislative session, gained support of all but two representatives.

Democratic Reps. Jason Metsa of Virginia and Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley put the only two red votes on the tally board, later saying the money used to finance the $500 million in tax cuts could have been better spent.

Metsa said he supports the part of the bill that matched Minnesota tax law to federal law, which not only would save money but also make tax returns simpler.

“I think the remaining dollars would’ve been better spent on additional property tax relief, support for our nursing homes and further restoring Minnesota’s commitment to our counties, cities and townships after a decade of funding cuts,” Metsa said.

Winkler said he voted against the tax cut because they were too large.

“I support some of the individual provisions, but think that we should not pass cuts within a year of enacting the first truly balanced budget in a decade,” Winkler said. “In addition, a surplus is a good thing to re-invest in Minnesota’s economy through early childhood education, lower higher education costs, higher pay for care providers, improved transportation, etc.”

More propane transportation

Upper Midwest U.S. senators are pushing legislation to make it easier to transport propane to people affected by shortage of the fuel and its high price.

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Al Franken of Minnesota, John Hoeven of North Dakota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin introduced a bill to extend the number of hours drivers can transport propane.

Minnesota U.S. Reps. John Kline, Erik Paulsen, Tim Walz and Rick Nolan have a similar bill.

The longer hours would be allowed through May 31.

“With winter weather still bearing down on Minnesota, we need to do everything we can to deliver relief to families who are feeling the impacts of the propane shortage,” Klobuchar said. “By letting truck drivers work longer hours for the rest of the winter, this legislation will help speed propane supplies to those who need it most and deliver some much-needed certainty to families across Minnesota.

Cash for projects?

Before Gov. Mark Dayton announced changes he wants to make in the state budget on Thursday, it appeared likely that money from a $1.2 billion surplus would be used to fund some public works projects.

However, Dayton tried to put an end to that as he opted against paying cash. He said borrowing money by selling bonds is a better way to fund public works projects such as fixing buildings and constructing new ones.

He included enough money in his revised budget to pay interest on bonds so the Legislature could approve a nearly $1 billion public works bill instead of $840 million legislative leaders want. Legislative leaders are open to paying cash for some projects.

Mute those reporters

Gov. Mark Dayton has been homebound after hip surgery, forcing him to dump news conferences in favor of conference calls with reporters.

When he announced his supplemental budget Thursday, the conference operator explained that reporters’ telephones were muted while Dayton talked.

“I kind of like these calls when all the reporters are on mute,” Dayton cracked.

Speaker’s rural initiatives feature tax cut

By Don Davis

Rural Minnesotans’ ears will be burning when state legislators return to the Capitol Feb. 25 for their 2014 session.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, promises a variety of greater Minnesota issues will be debated, especially a provision to lower ever-increasing property taxes on some farmland.

Thissen’s list ranges from removing a tax on farm implement repair that costs Minnesota farmers $2 million a month to providing more greater Minnesota economic development assistance. The speaker, in a Forum News Service interview, could not say how much the Democratic initiatives would cost, other than most would be “in the millions, not tens of millions of dollars.”

The two most expensive proposals are eliminating the implement repair tax and increasing the ag property tax credit.

Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said the ag property tax issue he is leading may not help some small farmers, but most would get property tax reductions of up to $575.

The reduction would begin this year on taxes already partially paid, he said, and only apply to homestead farmland. That generally is farmland where the farmer or a relative lives.

Actions legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton took last year lowered property taxes for many Minnesotans, but not for farmers.

“Not everyone has seen that relief,” Marquart said of the 2013 tax actions. “In fact, farmers have seen big property tax increases.”

More services funded by property taxes, such as fire and law enforcement, are not more in demand just because today’s land prices are higher, he said.

“Land value does a farmer no good until he sells it,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said. “It is still the same productivity. The increasing value doesn’t give me a better operation in terms of what I produce.”

If a farmer pays $15 an acre in taxes, the $2 to $3 tax break Marquart proposes is significant, said Anderson, a farmer.

Every little bit helps, he added.

Early estimates indicate that the added farmland credit would cost the state $33 million this year.

Ending the farm equipment repair tax implemented last year would be another step to help farmers, rural lawmakers said.

“I am not so sure our metro colleagues understand how big those repair bills get,” Anderson said, adding that he has seen bills of up to $30,000 to fix self-propelled farm implements.

Thissen said he is sure the Legislature will vote to overturn the tax.

Thissen said some counties were left out when the state increased County Program Aid $40 million last year.

Nearly a dozen low-population counties with lot of farms lost state money in the deal. That should be fixed, he said.

Marquart said the cost to provide money they lost should come to less than $1 million.

“The new money (approved last year) is weighted more heavily toward the metro area,” Anderson said. “That is a path I don’t like to see us going down.”

Economic development aid also is in the legislative agenda.

“We still have not seen all the economic developments they saw in the metro area,” Marquart said.

Thissen suggested that lawmakers take action to improve fast Internet access, known as broadband, in rural areas. He said grants to fund Internet infrastructure construction could be considered and local governments may be given an easier route to borrow money for internet expansion.

The speaker also proposes several low-cost programs to provide aid for small businesses, mostly in greater Minnesota.

One would add money to a loan fund for businesses. Another would provide “innovation vouchers,” basically state subsidies to help manufacturers pay for private or college consultants that can provide specific expertise the business may not have.

Thissen said he wants state officials to find more funding for training workers. In many rural areas, jobs go unfilled because they cannot fine enough workers, such as welders, within commuting distance.

A long-term solution to high propane prices caused by an Upper Midwest shortage also is on the agenda, but Thissen said he does not have a specific plan.

Anderson, however, is working on a bill to eliminate sales tax for two years on propane tanks. The bill is his answer to the need to increase propane storage in Minnesota, so the fuel may be bought in the summer, when prices are low, and used during cold winter weather.

Thissen said long-term care funding will be discussed, but could not give specifics about what nursing homes and other elderly care organizations can expect. Officials in rural areas say nursing home pay is so low that they have to turn away residents for lack of staff.

Thissen said that it is important for even Twin Cities’ legislators to support greater Minnesota issues. At some point, he said, there will be too many rural Minnesotans moving to the Twin Cities, when it would benefit everyone for them to remain home.

‘People have a right to expect lower property taxes’

By Don Davis

The future of state aid that many local Minnesota governments depend on may be at stake in the next few weeks as property taxes appeared to be headed up.

By mid-December, city, county and other local officials decide how much property tax they will collect. Those decisions come on the heels of the Democratic Legislature and governor sending them large bundles of new money in the name of property tax relief.

If taxes go up, local governments may see less state aid in the future. That could lead to service cuts or property tax increases, much like Minnesotans have experienced for a decade.

“People have a right to expect lower property taxes,” state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.

But many Minnesotans probably will not see lower bills.

A state Revenue Department report earlier this month indicated that property tax levies statewide could rise nearly 2 percent statewide. Cities expect to raise tax levies 2.1 percent, counties 1.5 percent, townships 2.1 percent, schools 2.6 percent and other taxing districts 2.3 percent.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and others are concerned that the preliminary numbers show 63 percent of cities and 77 percent of counties plan higher property tax levies.

Democrats did not think that would happen. They thought that millions of dollars in additional state aid they sent to local governments would result in property tax cuts.

“There will be a number of legislators who seize on any increase as evidence that local governments are (big) spenders and they will take every dollar and spend it and get more and more and they will take every dollar they can get,” Dayton said. “So they are going to undermine the case we have been making.”

With Dayton saying that increases will “seriously undermine our case,” Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans plans to talk to local government leaders who propose raising tax levies in the hope that they will trim their tax levies.

The latest Revenue Department numbers come from preliminary property tax levy decisions local officials have made. Each governing body needs to make a levy final decision by mid-December. State law does not permit preliminary levies to go up, only stay the same or shrink.

Statewide, preliminary levies always are higher than the final ones. They usually fall a percentage point or less, which if it happens this year tax means levies would rise a bit.

The preliminary levies are a mixed bag, Dayton said. “We reduced property tax increases, but our goal was to reduce property taxes.”

Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said that even if levies increase, “the average property taxpayer probably will not see an increase.”

A higher levy does not always mean higher homeowner taxes. For instance, if business property value increases more than home value in a community, businesses would pay a higher percentage of taxes and home property taxes could fall. The situation is different in each community.

Frans and Dayton said that, despite their concerns, they understand the need for higher taxes.

Frans said that in Ada, for instance, he learned that when Local Government Aid was falling in the past 10 years, the city decided to buy a new police car every six years instead of every five years. With higher LGA coming, city officials plan to return to the old purchase schedule to try to prevent equipment problems.

Even if property taxes rise, Gary Carlson of the League of Minnesota Cities and those representing other forms of local government say that new money is needed after 10 years during which state aid often fell, or at least did not keep up with inflation.

The levies announced this month, at less than a 2 percent increase, easily could have been 6 percent or 7 percent hikes without the additional state aid, Carlson said.

Salary freezes, hiring caps and other cuts have hampered local governments, Carlson said. “At some point, and maybe it already has started, there is some pressure to fill some of those jobs, to undertake some of those projects, to kind of get back to the traditional flow of services.”

Local governments have held down property taxes for years, said Beau Berentson of the Association of Minnesota Counties. “We are still dealing with a decade of underinvestment, under funding.”

Skoe said his area is a good example of county-to-county differences.

Beltrami County’s preliminary 2014 levy is the same as the current one. But next door in Clearwater County, officials decided to sell a hospital and have related debt that needs to be paid, leading to a preliminary 14 percent levy increase.

One factor influencing higher taxes is that unexpected local aid cuts over the years have made local officials leery about trusting state government to come through with money that was promised.

“I have had that specific conversation on many occasions,” Frans said.

Given that lack of trust, some local budgets are built without counting on full state aid, possibly triggering larger-than-needed levy increases.

With increases looming, some say, there could be a fight to keep Local Government Aid and County Program Aid as is.

“I do think it makes it harder for local governments to make the argument that LGA is about property tax relief,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Local Government Aid was created in 1971 to give cities without much property wealth (and, thus, a harder time collecting property taxes) the ability to provide fundamental services such as police and fire protection. It has become critical for many cities, such as Minneapolis, St. Paul and Greater Minnesota communities.

A formula designed to determine financial need means most Twin Cities suburbs receive little, if any, LGA. Suburbs generally have more property wealth than communities that receive LGA, so they can collect more property taxes.

“A lot of suburban legislators are going to have doubt,” Marquart said. “’Is that the right investment to make?’ I’m going to be honest, that is a fair question.”

If the final levies next month show increases, Marquart said, the news will “send a very clear message and determine the future of Local Government Aid.”

“The state of Minnesota is watching,” Marquart warned.

Democrats “came through” for local governments, said Larry Jacobs from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, “and the taxes still go up. I think this was an overreach on the part of local governments. I think they might have lost an ally in the Capitol.”

Most importantly for local governments, Jacobs added, “this could be an end to what had been a pretty nice gravy train.”

 

—-

 

New money the governor and Legislature approved sending to local Minnesota governments next year:

– $140 million in homestead credit refunds and renters’ credits, which goes directly to Minnesotans

– $129 million in sales tax exemptions for cities and counties (a figure cities and counties say actually will be half that size)

– $80 million increase in Local Government Aid, raising the total to $507 million in 2014

– $40 million increase County Program Aid, raising the total to $105 million next year

– $10 million in township aid, a new program

—-

Property taxes, mostly levied by local governments, increased from $4.4 billion in 2002 to $8.3 billion this year.

Divide remains between rural Republicans, House leaders

Murphy, Marquart

By Danielle Killey

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy and Rep. Paul Marquart stood side-by-side Tuesday introducing House Democrats’ education funding plan.

Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, praised Marquart’s work as education finance chairman: “He has done such a fantastic job.”

Indeed, politics can make unexpected allies.

Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, had challenged Murphy to lead the House Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus after last November’s elections. Rep. Paul Thissen of Minneapolis was elected House speaker, and Marquart said he wanted to make sure rural Minnesota was represented in leadership.

Marquart lost the leadership contest, but said he was pleased to land the job as education finance chairman. His committee decides the budget for the state’s largest spending area.

Marquart said he was relieved when he saw many other rural members named to committee leadership spots as well, allaying some concerns about a lack of input from greater Minnesota that many members outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area raised as the legislative session began.

“I thought, ‘here’s where the balance is,’” Marquart said.

Some rural lawmakers still are not convinced.

“I think we’re left behind, definitely,” Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, said of rural Minnesotans under Democratic budget plans.

She said the proposals do not address real needs outside the Twin Cities area and could hurt small businesses and farmers.

“I think they need to re-examine their priorities,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said of Democrats. “I definitely have concerns.”

Many rural Republican lawmakers cited recent approval of the environment and agriculture finance bill, which included water usage fee increases, an example of plans they say will disproportionately impact greater Minnesota.

Before the legislative session began, Republican lawmakers said agriculture funding would be overshadowed by other issues when it was joined with environment and natural resources for finance talks, and they were not happy with the result.

The bill passed without any Republican votes.

“I think this is one of the first times we have had a lack of bipartisan support there,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said. “I just don’t think this is a common-sense approach to how things work in rural Minnesota.”

Murphy said Democrats intentionally aimed for significant rural committee leadership overall to ensure those voices would be heard and said the budget plan reflects that.

“I think Minnesota as a whole will experience the benefits,” Murphy said. “We pay a lot of attention to different areas of the state.”

“We said we’re not going to play games with the budget anymore,” Marquart said. “That leads to balancing it on the backs of rural Minnesota often.”

Marquart said those Republicans concerned about rural Minnesota should look at the difference from the past two years, when the GOP controlled the Legislature.

“Rural Minnesota took a hit,” Marquart said. “We reversed some of those things.”

“I think the overall budget is excellent for rural Minnesota,” he added, citing his education finance bill, property tax relief and a 3 percent increase in funding for nursing homes. “I would say, look at the results.”

Thissen said a possible public works borrowing bill also would include funding toward important projects in rural Minnesota.

Kiel acknowledged some rural cities might see more state funds from changes to Local Government Aid and property tax relief plans. But she said proposed alcohol and cigarette taxes, the water fee increases, education requirements and other policies would cost more than any benefit those communities might see.

“Even if we raise LGA, we’re going to turn around and spend it and charge more money,” she said.

Kiel said other Democratic proposals such as raising the minimum wage will hit rural Minnesota harder than the metro as well. “That’s going to be detrimental to businesses.”

Leaders “truly think they’re trying” to keep rural Minnesota in mind, Kiel said.

Murphy grew up around agriculture and said she has farmers in her family. She said she understands the ag industry’s strength is essential to the state’s success.

But top concerns are different from rural to metro areas, Kiel said, and it is hard to advocate for both.

“If everything’s a priority, nothing’s a priority,” Hamilton said.

Marquart said he thinks Thissen and other leaders have “made a concerted effort to make sure the results are beneficial for rural Minnesota.”

“We know if greater Minnesota succeeds, we’ll all succeed,” Thissen said.

Hamilton said the final results of the session remain to be seen in the last few weeks, and Democratic leaders still will be in place next year, the second of a two-year legislative session.

More policy issues likely will come up then, Anderson said, and the impacts on the state outside the metro area might be clearer.

“There could be a lot more issues that are near and dear to rural Minnesota,” Anderson said. “It’s kind of a two-year trial here.”

 Reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.

Update: Education debate about more spending, better economy

By Don Davis

A debate about education funding goes beyond helping individual students: There is widespread agreement that a better education system would help the economy.

However, there is less agreement about how to achieve those improvements.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, tied the economy and education together Tuesday as the Minnesota House voted 83-50 to approve a $15.7 billion, two-year funding bill for schools. Many Republicans opposed the bill, saying it would place too many mandates on schools and remove a state law requiring students to pass a test before graduating.

Much of the $550 million of increased spending would go to early-childhood education, including all-day kindergarten, a concept that Marquart said is the basis of improving Minnesotans’ education.

“We are going to get every single child to the starting line on time,” said Marquart, House education finance chairman.

Education does not end there, he said. “When our students leave high school, on Day 1 they will be ready for success.”

Marquart, whose bill picked up some Republican votes but mostly was backed by Democrats, said the vote was for historic education finance reform. “No ambition is too bold, no goal is too high.”

The chairman quoted Federal Reserve officials as saying the Minnesota economy could get a $5 billion-a-year boost if what he sees as a more effective education system is implemented. And, he said, the early years are when to start strong education practices.

“Economically speaking, early childhood programs are a good investment …” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said in a speech last year. “Studies show that the rest of society enjoys the majority of the benefits, reflecting the many contributions that skilled and productive workers make to the economy.”

A coalition of Minnesota businesses agrees with Marquart and Bernanke that early-childhood education is important for the economy, but has taken to the airwaves fighting the House bill’s provision overturning the graduation test.

Coalition leader Charlie Weaver called the Marquart plan “the elimination of state expectations for student achievement on the state’s reading, writing and math standards to earn a high school diploma.”

Added Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton: “I think we are dumbing down the diploma.”

Among the major goals Marquart laid out is to make sure every student graduates from high school by 2027.

Minnesota schools carry a 76 percent graduation rate, the chairman said. The Marquart plan would require school districts to prepare plans with a goal of graduating every student.

The state would check progress districts make to graduate all students, have all students reading by third grade and see better achievements for minorities. If a district fails three straight years, the state could take over school administration.

Marquart said the current graduation test is not working, citing a large number of college students who need to take remedial classes.

His bill would require school districts to begin in middle school preparing students for college or a job by the time they finish high school.

The House bill provides enough money for every school district that wishes to establish all-day kindergarten with state funds.

However, Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said some districts do not have the room for all-day kindergarten, so they would be left out.

Overall, Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, was not happy with the House bill, saying it includes too many mandates. “We need to stop acting as the state school board.”

Erickson said the bill makes the Minnesota Education Department a “command and control center.”

Education spending, the largest single part of the Minnesota budget, would rise $550 million in the next two years under the House Democratic plan.

Among items in the House bill are those:

– Increasing per-pupil payments to school districts by $209, which is 2 percent more in the school funding formula each of the next two years.

– Adding $50 million to various early-childhood programs.

– Taking steps to close the gap between districts that have high revenue and those with less revenue potential.

– Preventing schools from firing a coach purely on parental complaints.

State House poised to pass $15.7 billion education funding bill

Marquart

By Don Davis

Education funding, the largest single part of the Minnesota budget, would rise $550 million in the next two years under a House Democratic plan being debated this afternoon and tonight.

Early-childhood education, including funding all-day kindergarten statewide, is the foundation of the $15.7 billion, two-year plan.

“We are going to get every single child to the starting line on time,” said Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, House education finance chairman.

Among items in the bill representatives are expected to pass:

– Increasing per-pupil payments to school districts by $209.

– Adding $50 million to various early-childhood programs.

– Paying back schools $850 million in loans by adding a surcharge on the richest Minnesotans’ income.

– Replacing the existing graduation test with a new system of evaluation beginning in middle school.

Among the major goals Marquart laid out is to make sure every student graduates from high school by 2027.

Minnesota schools show a 76 percent graduation rate, the chairman said, but students of color achieve a far lower rate.

To increase graduation rates, the Marquart plan requires school districts to prepare plans with a goal of graduating every student. The state would check to see how districts are doing and if a district fails three straight years, the state could take over district administration.

The plan would replace current law that requires high school students to pass a test before graduating.

A coalition of businesses support the existing test and in a letter to representatives coalition leader Charlie Weaver called its elimination “devastating.”

Weaver called the Marquart plan “the elimination of state expectations for student achievement on the state’s reading, writing and math standards to earn a high school diploma.”

Half the states have such tests, Weaver said. “Minnesota is poised to return to the time when we had no common expectation for high school graduation.”

However, Marquart said, Federal Reserve officials say the state’s economy could get a $5 billion-a-year boost if what he sees as a more effective education system is implemented.

Legislative notebook: Tax talk divided

By Don Davis

A parade of lobbyists picked apart proposals by House and Senate tax committees Tuesday while others gave the plans their blessings.

Among dozens of testifiers was Frank Orton of Walker, whose company owns 15 northern Minnesota convenience stores. Ones in East Grand Forks and Moorhead would be hurt by a proposed $1.60 per-pack increase in cigarette taxes, he said.

“It is going to affect all border cities drastically,” he added, not just those bordering North Dakota like two of his stores.

“We are competing with two hands behind our back when competing with North Dakota,” Orton said, and if taxes increase “you might as well cut the hands off and our legs as well.”

Orton also told Gov. Mark Dayton about his concerns when Dayton visited Moorhead recently.

Minnesota liquor lobbyists complained that a House provision to raise alcohol taxes could add $2 in tax onto the cost of a 12-pack of beer.

Minnesota-based brewers would get a tax break, but imported drinks would cost an average of 7 cents more.

City leaders praised a provision to simplify and add money to Local Government Aid, a program that provides state funds to cities.

“This is, in our view, a very historic reform,” said lobbyist Tim Flaherty of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities.

But Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, complained that the bill would reduce the percentage of LGA going to rural cities.

Flaherty said the formula is fair because it would give LGA to many suburbs that now receive none. But, he added, more money is needed than now is spent on LGA.

“We only support the formula with the additional $80 million,” Flaherty said. “To cement this reform into the future, we are going to need to see moderate increases in the future.”

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, complained that there has been no estimate about the full cost of a proposal to begin taxing clothing, a part of the Senate tax bill. She said if clothing is taxed, fewer people will visit Minnesota — especially Mall of America — which would affect other sales such as airline tickets and motel rooms.

911 calls protected

The Senate unanimously approved a bill to allow criminal charges against those who call 911 under false pretenses.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said her bill “creates the option for a prosecutor to charge an individual with a felony if the individual intentionally reports a fictitious emergency with the intent of getting an emergency response, and if an emergency responder or someone else is seriously injured or killed as a result of the emergency.”

The bill also makes it a felony to use communications devices to interfere with, overload or otherwise prevent the emergency call center’s system from functioning properly.

Education bill advances

A bill increasing public school spending has passed the House Taxes and Ways and Means committees.

The bill by Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, supports a goal of by 2027 reaching 100 percent high school graduation, 100 percent literacy by third grade and 100 percent career and college readiness by graduation.

The bill would provide money for all-day kindergarten statewide and appropriate $50 million for pre-school scholarships. Also, basic state school funding would increase 4 percent.

“This bill is going to have a significant positive impact on the economic future of this state,” Marquart said. “Investments in proven programs like all-day kindergarten and early childhood scholarships combined with additional resources for our schools will put our children on the path to the world’s best workforce.”

The full House is to vote on the bill next week.

Judiciary funded

Senators Tuesday approved 47-18 spending nearly $1.8 billion on judicial, corrections and related purposes for the next two years.

That is $88 million more than is being spent in this budget cycle. The increase includes giving judges and justices 3 percent raises on July 1 and 4 percent increases the following year.

Funding also includes new personnel for the Tax Court and increased technology spending.

The Corrections Department, which operates state prisons, would get $487 million of the budget.

Border city aid

The House tax bill moving through committees includes $1.5 million to help Moorhead, Dilworth, Breckenridge, East Grand Forks and Ortonville compete with lower-tax North Dakota.

For years, the cities have received help to lower taxes for new and expanding businesses. For instance, businesses could receive sales tax exemptions for new equipment investments, get tax credits for hiring new workers or expanding facilities and receive property tax credits on new or expanded facilities.

“Our border communities are in a very unique situation,” said Rep. Jay McNamar, R-Elbow Lake. “Obviously, we are working hard to provide options for all of the communities in Minnesota, but when you’re neighboring another state, you deal with a whole different set of circumstances.”

Decker highway named

Gov. Mark Dayton Tuesday signed a bill naming a portion of Minnesota 23 in Stearns County as Officer Tom Decker Memorial Highway.

The bill was brought by Rep. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, and Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, to honor the police officer who died in a Nov. 29 shooting. Decker, whose family attended the bill signing, was a six-year Cold Spring Police Department veteran.

Businesses want test

A coalition of businesses is buying broadcast, online and other advertising urging lawmakers to keep a test high school seniors must pass before receiving their diploma.

“We don’t like to get rid of the consequence,” said Charlie Weaver, representing the coalition.

Legislative Democrats propose doing away with the test that first was required in 2000. Known as the Basic Skills Test, Weaver said it especially helped minority students graduate.

Weaver said businesses are concerned because they are worried about having enough educated employees. He said the businesses are spending “six figures” to finance the statewide campaign.