Political chatter: Privacy matters to be in the open

Every Minnesota legislative session seems to produce one issue no one saw coming, at least to the scale it reaches.

Perhaps that issue this year will be privacy.

When Minnesotans hear comments like from Rep. Peggy Scott, it could attract attention.

“In today’s schools, the highly sensitive and personal information … now is being uploaded up on third-party servers,” the Andover Republican said when she and Democrats joined together Wednesday in announcing a series of bills designed to protect Minnesotans’ privacy.

Most parents likely do not know that iPads, laptop computers and other devices schools provide students may come via a contract that allows businesses that provide the electronics the right to gather data on the students. It goes to private computer servers in the cloud, where the company may use it — or sell it for others to use — to target the kids with advertising.

Privacy advocates do not know how many schools’ contracts allow businesses to use student information, but Scott said her objective is to conduct a preemptive strike.

Besides contact information, Scott said, electronic devices contain information such as grades, Social Security numbers, disability status, disciplinary actions and financial information.

Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said it is not just businesses that are looking at student information. Schools are, too.

The lawmaker said one of the half-dozen bills being proposed also bans schools from looking at private data.

“We want to make sure our students are protected from that,” he said.

Citizen-lobbyist Rich Neumeister, who has worked on privacy and open-government issues for decades, wrote about the issue on his Open Secrets blog two years ago, after St. Paul schools signed a contract to provide iPads: “Would there be a parent anywhere who would support the school district’s actions to abrogate their families and children’s privacy rights? Does the iPad initiative violate students-family privacy and liberty rights?  Does the school district have the right to install devices in the iPads that allow monitoring and surveillance of where students go and what they do? What are the choices that parents and students have?”

Many questions Neumeister raised in 2014 remain unanswered, the privacy advocates pushing legislation indicated.

Other privacy issues that could arise include how long police can keep body camera video, and who can see it, and whether drones should be regulated to protect privacy.

The wild card on privacy and most other issues this year will be how much legislators can do in a short session. They go into session March 8 and the Constitution requires them to wrap up by May 23. It is much shorter than usual, in a large part because pretty much all of the Capitol is closed due to renovation.

Parking garage woes

A $10.9 million parking garage repair request is getting attention.

Gov. Mark Dayton’s public works funding bill includes fixing the five-floor Centennial ramp after the state discovered during routine maintenance last year that some cables supporting the facility had broken.

“Although the ramp is currently safe, failure to make these repairs will render the parking ramp unsafe over time and could result in catastrophic failure,” the state Administration Department said in its request for funding.

The ramp has 1,489 parking spaces, but many now are not available as temporary braces hold up ceilings.

‘Happy birthday, new voter’

Minnesotans turning voting age may not get many printed birthday cards in this electronic age, but they can expect something in the mail from Secretary of State Steve Simon.

Simon announced he will send 100,000 letters in the next nine months to Minnesotans who recently turned 18, encouraging them to register to vote.

“I strongly believe we should be doing everything we can to get good habits started early with young Minnesotans, and this outreach effort is an important step in that direction,” Simon said. “This will not only help encourage pre-election registration and decrease wait times on Election Day, but by contacting voters on an ongoing basis, we can help ease the volume of voter registration applications received by counties in the last few weeks leading up to the election.”

Rural battle coming

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen did not want to talk about it, but he signaled that rural Minnesota again will be a battleground for control of the state House.

The Minneapolis Democrat and rural Democrats lined up at a news conference to lay out their plans for greater Minnesota, plans that were mostly like what they wanted a year ago.

Thissen said they were talking “not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” diverting attention away from the fall election and to the March 8 opening of the 2016 state Legislature.

Thissen used lines often heard before elections, such as: “Republicans talk a lot about tax cuts, they talk a lot about trickle-down economics,” policies, which he said only help big corporations.

Deputy Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, started with a comment that likely will be heard on the campaign trail: “A strong rural Minnesota means a strong Minnesota.”

Republican wins in several rural districts gave them control of the House last year, and rural Minnesota again appears to be a main focus.

DFL, GOP agree on rural goals, but not the means

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, with Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and other Minnesota House Democrats, discusses policies to help rural Minnesota Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth, with Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown and other Minnesota House Democrats, discusses policies to help rural Minnesota Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Democratic and Republican legislators agree on many goals for rural Minnesota, but often differ on how to reach them.

House Democrats unveiled their rural legislative plan Tuesday, mostly the same as they pushed a year ago, calling for better rural schools, improved roads and more jobs.

“It’s time to level the playing field for greater Minnesota and that won’t happen unless this Legislature truly makes greater Minnesota a priority,” Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said.

Assistant Majority Leader Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, agreed with the priorities. “Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. … We know rural Minnesota is important; we have been focusing on that.”

Democrats added two priorities to eight they worked on a year ago: increasing focus on community and technical colleges, as well as improving care for Minnesotans with dementia.

Their returning rural priorities are expanding broadband high-speed Internet service, funding a transportation package, providing housing for rural communities that have jobs but not enough homes, training Minnesotans for new jobs, increasing Local Government Aid and County Program Aid, making farm property taxes fairer, improving train safety and providing property tax relief for the elderly.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis, Marquart and Rep. Mary Murphy of Hermantown emphasized the need for high-speed Internet in rural areas.

Thissen talked about Pine City, where people park near the library to get wi-fi signal “because that is the only place they can get high-speed Internet.”

“There are pockets in my district in Lake County and South St. Louis County that have nothing,” Murphy said, with some not even able to get a dial-up Internet connection.

Marquart said it is not fair that 94 percent of Twin Cities homes have access to high-speed Internet while just 61 percent enjoy it in rural Minnesota.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats want the state to pay $100 million to expand broadband; House Republicans passed $10 million last year, which Kresha said added to a separate allocation of  $86 million of federal funds.

Train safety is another issue both parties say they want improved.

Marquart said his bill would fund many crossing safety improvements, although major changes such as adding overpasses would need to be funded by the state selling bonds. It would use $20 million a year of state property taxes.

Thissen said a $1.2 billion state surplus should be used to fund things like transportation.

The Republicans’ 2015 plan, which remains alive, takes money from other programs and the surplus to fund $7 billion in transportation needs in coming years.

Part of train safety is cutting waits at crossings. Murphy pointed to one place in her area with two busy tracks: “Those people could be cut off for as much as 40 minutes … and ambulances cannot get through in any other direction.”

Kresha said no transportation funding bill passed last year because Dayton and Senate Democrats wanted to a new gasoline tax. Dayton since has said that will not pass, and no longer supports it.

Marquart estimated the total cost of the DFL rural plan could be $400 million.

Le Sueur Mayor Robert Broeder, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, praised the DFL’s proposal to add $45.5 million to aid the state sends to cities, bringing the total back up to 2002 levels. He also said the coalition appreciates efforts for housing, training, transportation and broadband. Republicans vote to eliminate aid to Duluth, St. Paul and Minneapolis, leaving other cities alone.

Marquart and Kresha made similar comments about rural Minnesotans’ feelings.

“What we are hearing from rural Minnesota is, ‘Just give us a fair shake,'” Kresha said.

Thissen, whose is courting rural Minnesotans in an effort to get House control back, said the plan announced Tuesday “is not about November of this year, but this coming spring,” when lawmakers will be back in session.

He called the 2015 session a “monumental flop” for Republicans’ rural plans.

In a year when Republicans are trying to maintain control of the House, Democrats see an opportunity to regain the majority by taking a handful of rural GOP seats. However, neither side wanted to explicitly talk about how rural Minnesota could flip power in the House.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, says on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, that he is glad Democrats are focusing on many of the same rural Minneosta issues as are  Republicans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, says on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, that he is glad Democrats are focusing on many of the same rural Minneosta issues as are Republicans. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Political chatter: Again, property taxes head up

Minnesota’s Revenue Department tells property owners something they already assumed: Property taxes will rise next year.

The department received data from local governments indicating that overall city taxes will jump 5.2 percent, counties will be up 3.7 percent and townships plan a 2.4 percent increase.

School tax levies next year are expected to be up 7.5 percent, an increase of $186 million. While in other local governments an elected body makes taxing decisions, half of the schools’ increase came from the public approving them.

The figures represent the most that governments may tax property owners, but elected officials may lower taxes after hosting truth in taxation hearings. Also, the figures the state released are just averages, and some jurisdictions may raise taxes more and some may lower taxes.

House Republicans pledged to provide ways for local officials to lower property taxes, prompting Democrats to complain when the Revenue Department released the new numbers.

“Minnesota homeowners, businesses, and farmers received news … that they are facing property tax hikes totaling hundreds of millions of dollars,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “Given our state’s strong budget surplus, this is inexcusable.”

However, Republicans say local elected officials make property tax decisions, not state officials.

Railroads fight back

Railroads are fighting back when newspapers print criticisms of their safety records.

They have not been very vocal in recent years as state officials and others criticize their handling of North Dakota crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials. That appears to have changed in recent days.

Railroad lobbyist John Apitz wrote a piece alleging that a commentary by key Dayton administration commissioners printed by the Alexandria Echo Press underplayed what railroads are doing to improve safety.

Apitz began: “For Minnesota’s railroads, working to keep our employees and the communities we serve safe is the most important thing we do.”

He pointed out that railroads voluntarily have increased track inspections, improved technology to discover problems early, lowered speeds of trains carrying hazardous materials and increased training for local public safety workers.

Also, he said, Minnesota’s four biggest railroads “will spend $500 million in our state improving infrastructure to safely operate and serve Minnesota’s businesses.”

Amy McBeth of BNSF Railway Co. wrote to the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune. She complained that the newspaper’s editorials and other Minnesotans say railroads are only doing the minimum possible to promote safety.

“Safety is paramount to BNSF,” she said, adding that derailments are down more than 40 percent since 2000.

Franken tries again

U.S. Sen. Al Franken again is trying to get Congress to outlaw smartphone stalking apps.

The Minnesota Democrat so far has not convinced colleagues that the apps that track a smartphone user’s movements should be banned, so he has reintroduced his legislation.

“A majority of Americans have smartphones now,” Franken said. “And disturbingly, a growing number of them have become victims of dangerous cyberstalking. My commonsense bill will help a whole range of people affected by cyberstalking, including survivors of domestic violence and it would finally outlaw unconscionable — but perfectly legal — smartphone apps that allow abusers to secretly track their victims.”

The legislation also would give consumers more control over who has access to location data.

Revenue up again

Minnesota state government revenue in October continued its trend of rising.

Minnesota Management and Budget reports revenue rose 0.2 percent, about $4 million, more than previously expected for the month. Individual income tax, sales tax and other revenues exceeded expectations, although corporate taxes fell $29 million.

MMB announced that it would release a comprehensive budget report on Dec. 3. It gives legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton an early look at how much money they will have available in the next legislative session.

However, since the 2016 legislative session begins late next year, March 8, another revenue report will be released a few days before lawmakers return to St. Paul.

LGA remains priority

From the it’s-no-surprise category: The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities puts Local Government Aid payments at the top of its 2016 legislative priority list.

During the coalition’s annual meeting in Alexandria, its leaders said that with a state surplus of at least $1 billion, it is time for lawmakers to return state payment to cities to levels enjoyed in 2002.

“LGA is absolutely vital to our communities,” said Robert Broeder, Le Sueur mayor and coalition president. “Many cities rely on LGA to help pay for basic services like police and fire protection and street repairs. Without it, we’d be forced to either cut staff and services or drastically raise property taxes.”

Since 2002, the coalition, which represents 85 cities, has either fought attempts to lower LGA payments or fought to restore payments. It usually is atop the group’s legislative priorities.

 

Special session almost set for Friday

Waiting to talk to the media on Thursday, June 11, 2015, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, left, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann collect their thoughts. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Waiting to talk to the media on Thursday, June 11, 2015, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, left, and Senate Minority Leader David Hann collect their thoughts. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota political leaders expect a special Friday legislative session Friday, but Gov. Mark Dayton will not schedule it until he is convinced none of the 201 legislators will mess up the plan.

Dayton plans to meet with Democratic lawmakers tonight to make sure they are willing to support three funding bills he vetoed, as well as a public works financing measure and legislation to fund outdoors and arts programs.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he is not sure his members would pass an agriculture-environment bill, due to a multitude of environmental concerns. However, he added, the votes should be there once Dayton tells them that the bill is the best they will get.

Bakk and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said Dayton will speak to their members tonight. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he could invite the governor to talk to his members, but House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he does not see the need in his caucus.

Once Dayton receives assurances that the bills will pass, he said that he will schedule a Friday session.

“I really ask the 201 legislators to look beyond their particular political views,” Dayton said Thursday morning after meeting with the four legislative leaders.

Without the final three budget bills, a partial government shutdown would begin July 1. Before then, Minnesotans could feel the impact, such as state parks not accepting camping reservations beginning next week.

“What is at stake now is the continuity of government in the state of Minnesota,” the governor said.

Dayton and legislative leaders expect a one-day session. An activity near the Capitol would make it difficult to extend the session into Saturday, Bakk said.

Most of the concern about passing the environmental bill is from Bakk’s caucus.

“They members feel they have a constitutional right to offer an amendment,” he said, but leaders and Dayton oppose any changes to bills they have negotiated since the regular session ended on May 18.

“We don’t have time to continue this process…” Dayton said, referring to the June 30 deadline for passing bills. “This is about stepping up to do what we must do.”

“The game’s over,” he added. “Now you can get prepared for the next game.”

A special session is needed because Dayton vetoed three of eight budget bills during the regular session. Negotiations since then have changed those bills, although Daudt said they look much like what passed earlier.

Education layoff notices coming

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin tell reporters on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, that they think the 2015 Minnesota Legislature was a success. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin tell reporters on Wednesday, May 20, 2015, that they think the 2015 Minnesota Legislature was a success. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Minnesota’s education funding dispute means more than 800 state education workers will begin receiving layoff notices June 1, with any actual layoffs not starting until July 1.

Gov. Mark Dayton said he regrets the need to upset workers’ lives, but state law requires that workers who could be laid off receive a month’s advance notice, even though if his education funding differences with lawmakers could be settled before July 1.

Democrat Dayton and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown each said on Wednesday that a special legislative session to fix the funding quarrel, and consider non-education bills, almost certainly would not be called before the layoff notices are mailed.

Dayton said he would veto the bill providing education $17 billion over two years. The Legislature-passed bill funding early childhood to high school programs does not contain his priority, funding a half-day of school for 4-year-olds.

Minnesota Management and Budget says that without an education bill when the new fiscal year begins July 1, the Education Department will shut down and many school funds would not be available.

However, the state could go to court as it did during 2011 and 2005 partial government shutdowns and ask a judge to declare that some employees and some funds are critical to the state and that they be allowed to continue even without a bill.

Four hundred people work for the Education Department.

The Dayton administration says also laid off would be 300 workers at the state academies for the deaf and blind and 120 at the Perpich Center for Arts Education without a signed education funding bill.

Also, the administration says that “major cuts” would be needed, including layoffs, at local schools if there is no legislation.

While the governor and legislative leaders have not predicted an extended education funding argument, the differences are deep and five months of a regular legislative session did not bridge them.

Plus, there may be different visions on other items that could come up during a special session. Those differences also could delay a special session start.

Daudt on Wednesday seemed to agree with Dayton on the need to call a special session to deal with education funding. The two also said a public works spending bill and legislation funding outdoors and culture projects should be considered. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, earlier backed considering those two measures.

Others want more on a special session agenda.

House Democratic Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said other budget bills should be reconsidered: “We have the opportunity to hit the reset button.”

Dayton discounted that idea, but said it could be the end of the week before he knows whether he will veto any spending bill other than education.

Thissen will have more of a say in special session decisions than he did during late regular session negotiations because Dayton plans to require all four legislative leaders — Bakk, Daudt, Thissen and Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie — to sign an agreement outlining the agenda for a special session before he calls it.

The main dispute centers on early education funding. Dayton wants to spend $171 million for schools to be allowed, but not required, to start half-day classes for 4 year olds. Republicans and many Democrats prefer to put any new money to per-pupil funding that could be used for needs other than pre-kindergarten.

Daudt said pre-special session education negotiations should begin where they left off shortly before the Legislature adjourned at midnight Monday: with the two sides $25 million apart and no pre-kindergarten funding. To reach a deal, Dayton dropped his pre-kindergarten program in the last hour of session.

Dayton said he does not know where he and Daudt will begin negotiations, scheduled for Tuesday, but in talking to reporters the last two days he seemed to learn toward going back to his 4-year-old education stand.

Also Wednesday, Daudt demanded Dayton apologize for saying some Republicans “hate schools.” The governor refused, but said he would apologize if they vote for his pre-kindergarten plan.

Daudt and House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, visited southern Minnesota communities Wednesday to promote what they call a successful regular session. Dayton has said he plans to hit the road next week to sell his pre-kindergarten proposal.

After he left a Rochester appearance, a local Democratic representative called for Daudt to resign, the Post-Bulletin of Rochester reported.

Rep. Rep. Tina Liebling accused Daudt of abusing his power and ignoring the democratic process, citing a chaotic ending of the legislative session featuring Democrats shouting at the speaker because they were told to vote without reading a 93-page bill they just received.

“This was a case of the majority, of the speaker who you just heard from, abusing his power, demonstrating an utter disdain for the democratic process and ramming through a bill that had not been read or considered,” Liebling said.

Education bill heads to promised veto

An education funding bill Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton promises to veto is headed to his desk.

With less than a half day left until the state Constitution orders lawmakers to finish their work, senators voted 51-14 to approve the bill Dayton says he cannot sign because it does not fund half-day classes for 4 year olds. A mixture of Democrats and Republicans voted against the bill.

The House earlier approved the bill 71-59, with all Republicans in favor and Democrats against.

If Dayton follows through with his promise to veto the bill, and it occurs before midnight, the question will be whether he and legislative leaders who crafted the measure can work out a last-minute compromise. If that does not happen, the governor could call a special legislative session to pass an education bill.

On Sunday, Dayton said in his strongest language yet that he would veto the education bill because it does not fund his top priority: pre-kindergarten education. It falls $171 million short.

Dayton blamed House Republicans on the lack of pre-kindergarten funding.

“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.”

Dayton’s fellow Democrats in the Senate said lots of nice things about the bill Dayton promises to veto.

One provision that will help greater Minnesota, Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer said, “is going to mean an awful lot.” It would allow schools to get state money to help make repairs.

Stumpf told of one school district that had to make roof repairs over a numbers of years because it could not afford to make all the needed repairs, adding that the provision would have helped.

Otherwise, the Legislature was well on its way to passing a $41 billion, two-year budget. Much of the spending was negotiated by Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook.

However, after the three failed to reach a deal on education funding, Daudt and Bakk met privately for two hours Friday afternoon and came up with their own plan.

While Dayton Sunday expressed displeasure with provisions in the other seven spending bills, he only issued a veto threat on education.

The House education vote just before 5:30 a.m.

The bill would spend $17 billion in the two years beginning July 1.

“Legislative leaders crafted a student-focused, bipartisan education bill that works to provide Minnesota students with a world-class education,” House Education Finance Chairwoman Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said. “From increasing E (early childhood)-12 funding by a substantial $400 million to prioritizing our youngest learners with millions more for pre-k scholarships and school readiness aid, this legislation increases academic opportunities for all students and will help close the achievement gap.”

Democrats saw the bill differently.

“Just like this entire session, the Republican education bill is a huge waste of an opportunity for Minnesota’s future,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “With a $2 billion surplus, we should seize this opportunity to invest in our youngest learners and make serious progress to reduce our state’s achievement gap.”

Much of the new money goes to increasing per-pupil aid to all public schools. It also would spend $60 million for early-childhood education and adds money to help greater Minnesota schools improve and repair facilities.

House and Senate members overnight also 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.

 

Minnesota GOP rolls out $2 billion tax-cut plan

Davids

Davids

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.

 

Minnesota Republican budget plan features $2 billion tax cuts

Daudt

Daudt

House Republicans want to cut Minnesotans’ taxes $2 billion and increase state spending $1.5 billion in the next two years.

House committees are to work out the details after GOP leaders this morning announced spending targets for each finance committee.

While Republicans promoted the budget growth, Democrats said the plan does not allow as much growth as already planned.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the House Taxes Committee has not decided who would receive tax cuts. However, he said that most would go directly to Minnesotans, not businesses.

The idea is to “put money back into the pockets of working Minnesotans,” Daudt said.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he expects tax relief to mostly go to corporations who politically support Republicans.

The Republican plan would send back in tax cuts the same amount as projected for a state budget surplus in the next two years. Daudt earlier had said that he did not expect to refund all of the surplus, but state Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey led a campaign to “send it all back.”

Overall, the GOP proposes modest health and human services spending growth from current spending, and Daudt said he expects at least $160 million more for long-term care spending, such as for nursing homes and home care for the elderly and disabled.

Thissen repeatedly compared the Republican proposal to 2011, when state government shut down after the two major parties could not agree on a spending bill.

“It’s a recipe for getting nothing done and shutting down government,” Thissen said.

Republicans said their plan matches what happens in families: not spending more than is available.

“Government spending should not grow faster than family budgets,” Daudt said, echoing comments Republicans made in last year’s campaigns. “We set our budget targets with that value in mind and aimed to prioritize education, roads and bridges and protecting our aging Minnesotans’ quality of life.”

Republicans propose increasing higher education spending $103 million and early-childhood-through high school funding by $1 billion.

Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, said the increase would be enough to freeze either the University of Minnesota or Minnesota State Colleges and Universities tuitions, but not both. Dayton proposes to freeze tuitions for both systems.

Democrats tend to figure spending based on what had been expected to be spent in the next two-year budget, while Republicans compared it with what actually is being spent in the current budget.

 

Political chatter: North Dakota gun law leads to Minnesota committee shootout

Minnesota legislators often discuss North Dakota, usually in relation to its oil wealth and usually the talk is accompanied by envy.

But the Minnesota House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee underwent a lengthy and spirited debate about a topic with even more firepower than money: whether North Dakota residents’ gun permits should be honored in Minnesota.

After a meeting split between morning and night Thursday, the committee cast a divided vote to allow Class I North Dakota permits to be legal. The next stop is the full House.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, is author of a similar Senate bill.

The argument came because gun rights groups do not agree with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s decision that the North Dakota gun permit law is not close enough to Minnesota law to allow reciprocity.

Current Minnesota law requires the state to honor gun permits from states with “substantially similar” laws to Minnesota. The BCA makes that decision and puts a list of those states that do not have similar laws on its Website.

The bill in front of the House would remove the word “substantially” from the Minnesota law, but also specifically requires the BCA to allow Class I North Dakota permits. Class I permits require more testing than North Dakota’s Class II permits.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem’s Website indicates that “holders of a Class 1 license have reciprocity in many more states than those who have a Class 2 license.”

Minnesota allows gun permit holders from 11 states to carry weapons in the state. The bill could nearly triple the number of states.

Lawmaker rejects immunity

Minnesota legislators have discussed for years whether they are immune to arrest during a legislative session.

Like in many states, there is a constitutional provision dealing with legislative immunity. Some say lawmakers cannot be arrested, while others disagree, so legislation often is discussed about clarifying that in most instances lawmakers can be arrested like anyone else.

The debate is back on the table in this year’s Minnesota legislative session, and it faces a tall hill to climb, but the issue arose in another state.

It came up this year in Kentucky, when state Sen. Brandon Smith of Hazard was charged with drunken driving. At first, Smith claimed legislative immunity from arrest, but later withdrew a court motion requesting that because, he said, he did not want to look like he was seeking a special favor.

“Quite frankly I would have liked to have been arguing that today (in court) but he felt like he did not want to rely on that,” the senator’s attorney, William Johnson said, as quoted in The State Journal of Frankfort. He explained that it’s been embarrassing and difficult for Smith to carry out his legislative duties while facing these charges. “He felt you ought to go through the justice system and that’s what we’re doing.”

Smith, who lost his driver’s license because he did not obtain a lawyer by the Kentucky deadline, has pleaded not guilty and expects an April jury trial on the charge.

Spirited debates go nowhere

The two liveliest debates of the 10-week-old legislative session resulted in lots of talk but no bill moving forward.

Senators got into how schools should handle transgender athletes when Republicans tried to pull a bill out of a Senate education committee that did not appear to be going anywhere. The attempt to move the bill directly to the full Senate failed, but senators took plenty of time to debate transgender issues.

Representatives took part in a 90-minute debate about long-term care funding when Democrats tried to get an immediate vote on a bill that would increase senior care funding.

The colorful debate included Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, saying Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, wanted to be king and Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, saying House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, was “acting like a dictator.”

Winkler’s comments came when Daudt ended the session for the day as Thissen was seeking a roll call for adjournment.

Lawmakers will get a break from each other when they take an Easter vacation March 28 to April 6.

Statues under scrutiny

First it was Christopher Columbus; now it is Leif Erickson.

A bill by Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, calls for a Columbus statue plaque on the Capitol grounds to be reworded from him discovering America to him landing here. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, D-Minneapolis, now has added a bill to make a similar change to an Erickson statue across the street from the Capitol.

Historians do not agree on who actually was first to land in what now is the United States.

Columbus is being attacked on another front, too.

With some cities opting to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, there now is a state House bill to do the same statewide.

Rep. Susan Allen, D-Minneapolis, introduced legislation to make the second Monday in October American Indian and Indigenous People’s Day “to acknowledge and promote the well-being and growth of Minnesota’s American Indian and Indigenous community.”

State of State April 9

Gov. Mark Dayton plans to deliver his annual State of the State address at 7 p.m. in the House chamber.

He originally was going to deliver it next Wednesday, but legislative leaders asked him to postpone it because of deadlines. Then he asked if he could speak on April 8, but House Republicans reported a scheduling conflict.

 

16-cent-a-gallon gas tax center of transportation plan

Zelle

Minnesota motorists would pay at least 16 cents a gallon more gasoline taxes under Gov. Mark Dayton’s transportation funding proposal.

They would pay slightly higher motor vehicle license fees and $10 more to register a vehicle. Also, a half percent sales tax increase would be applied in the Twin Cities for transit needs.

Dayton announced Monday that he wants Minnesota to spend about $11 billion more in the next decade to improve the state’s roads and bridges and boost transit.

The Dayton administration indicates that those in greater Minnesota would pay about $15 a month for his plan while in the Twin Cities the cost would be closer to $24.

“Inadequate transportation clogs our lives with worse traffic congestion, longer commutes, more dangerous travel conditions,” Dayton said. “These deficiencies restrict our future economic growth and detract from our quality of life.”

The Democratic governor was critical of Republicans for refusing to raise taxes for transportation.

“It takes some political courage” to approve tax increases, he said.

The governor said that Republicans appear to want to solve the transportation situation is “waving a wand and saying ‘abracadabra.'”

However, the Republican chairman of the House transportation committee said that his committee will need time to assess transportation needs, which may not be completed until next year.

“I look forward to a long-term solution over the next two years,” Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing said.

Kelly already has laid out what he calls a temporary fix, which Republicans want until a long-term funding bill can be prepared.

The chairman said there probably is not enough time during this legislative session, which must end May 18, to fully understand transportation needs and funding alternatives.

At least for now, Kelly said, “we can address the problem with funding that is already there.”

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, was critical of Dayton.

“Gov. Dayton is showing once again he is either unwilling or unable to set priorities in the state budget, and instead resorts to massive new taxes on lower and middle class Minnesotans,” Hann said.

Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, said the Dayton tax-increase plan comes “the minute working families begin to see some relief from high gas prices.”

Legislative Democrats generally liked the Dayton plan.

“Unfortunately, the proposal put forward by the Republicans in the Minnesota House fails to meet any of the standards necessary for Democratic support,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “While Gov. Dayton’s plan would be a bridge to the future, Republicans have offered Minnesotans a bridge to nowhere.”

Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said half of the state’s highways are at least 50 years old, and 20 percent have three or fewer years of life left.

In addition to state highways, the Dayton plan increases funding for cities, counties and townships.

Greater Minnesota transit funds would increase $120 million in the next two years, with money coming from the state General Fund. Twin Cities transit needs would be funded by the higher sales tax.

The major part of the Dayton increase comes in a wholesale tax on gasoline. While it is different from the existing per-gallon tax, it would be felt much the same at the pump.

The tax would be 16 cents a gallon when wholesale prices are $2.50 a gallon or less. If wholesale prices go higher than $2.50, so would Dayton’s proposed new tax.

The wholesale price now is about $1.30.

The existing state gas tax is 28.5 cents a gallon and the federal tax is 18.4 cents.

Transportation officials did not say what specific projects that would be funded by the higher taxes.

Dayton’s plan depends on federal funds, which have yet to be appropriated.

The governor pledged to find $600 million from the Minnesota Department of Transportation doing things more efficiently.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, a leader of a city coalition seeking more street funding, said the Dayton plan is a good start, but does not give cities enough to fix their streets. And, he added, it does not help cities smaller than 5,000 population.

 —-

 Transportation funds

Money in Gov. Mark Dayton’s transportation plan would be divided over 10 years:

— $5.4 billion for state roads and bridges

— $2.4 billion for cities, counties and townships

— $2.8 billion for Twin Cities transit

— $120 million for greater Minnesota transit

— $75 million for bike and pedestrian paths and the Safe Routes to Schools program.

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

 

Political chatter: 2012 ag controversy continues with committee assignments

Republicans who will control the Minnesota House next year angered Democrats by leaving a strong environmentalist off the environmental committee.

House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, released a list of committee members Thursday night, and the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee list did not include Rep. Jean Wagenius, D-Minneapolis. She has served on the committee each of her 14 terms in the House, earning a reputation of detailed-oriented environmentalist.

“I am deeply disappointed that Speaker-designate Daudt has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to accept the individual the minority caucus has designated as its lead on a Minnesota House committee,” current Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “So much for the ‘balanced approach’ the Republicans touted repeatedly during the campaign.”

Two years ago, when Democrats took control of the House, Thissen put Wagenius in charge of an environment and agriculture committee, angering rural Republican who said Wagenius is against traditional farming and that putting the subjects together reduces the importance of agriculture.

Republicans gained control of the House in last month’s election, and established several rural-oriented committees. Rep. Rod Hamilton of Mountain Lake will be chairman of the Agriculture Finance Committee, while Rep. Paul Anderson of Starbuck will lead the Agriculture Policy Committee.

Daudt’s office said little about the decision, but issued a statement from him: “We have put together a committee structure that is balanced and we look forward to rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on problems Minnesotans care about.”

Thissen said Wagenius’ voice is important for the committee.

“Just because House Republicans don’t take climate change or protecting Minnesota’s water and air seriously doesn’t mean that the majority of Minnesotans agree with them,” Thissen said. “Rep. Jean Wagenius is a woman of great integrity who would bring much needed experience to the important work of the environment committee.”

Democrats’ rural problems two years ago were not limited to the Wagenius chairmanship. They also took heat by making Minneapolis’ Thissen speaker and Erin Murphy of St. Paul majority leader, skipping over Rep. Paul Marquart of Dilworth. He had run to give a rural balance to leadership; next year he will be an assistant minority leader after 10 rural seats flipped from Democrat to Republican in the November vote.

Bachman doesn’t go quietly

U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann surprised no one as she exited Congress for the unknown.

The Republican firebrand was critical of Democratic President Barack Obama to his face at a White House holiday party, she weaved critical remarks around thank-yous in her final floor speech and she sent an email blasting her own party’s congressional leaders.

“Speaker John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and the GOP leadership cut a deal with the Obama Democrats to approve another staggering $1.1 trillion in new spending,” she wrote in an email from her political action committee. “What happened to the Republican commitment to fight the reckless Obama agenda, balance the budget and save our country?”

She added: “Unfortunately, I can’t say I am surprised. Dismayed, disappointed and angry — but not surprised.”

Franken for Hillary

Hillary Clinton has the support of both of Minnesota’s Democratic U.S. senators.

Sen. Al Franken told MSNBC that he is in the Clinton camp. Amy Klobuchar already expressed her support, despite talk that she could be a presidential candidate herself.

Clinton has not announced she is running in 2016, but she is expected to and is considered the leading Democratic candidate, by far.

“I think that Hillary would make a great president,” Franken said in the MSNBC interview.

“I think that I’m ready for Hillary,” he said. “I mean, I think that we’ve not had someone this experienced, this tough, and she’s very, very impressive.”

 Solid agreement already

Minnesota’s legislative leaders and governor are feeling out each other to find out what to expect in the coming legislative session, but they already agree on one thing.

“We are going to the last day,” House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, predicted.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he, too, thinks legislators will use every day until the constitutional deadline to adjourn. He said all deadlines for the session will be set with that date in mind.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton probably would not argue. He often has said that the nature of a Legislature is to use all of the available time.

The 2015 session begins at noon Jan. 6. And while it must end by May 18, Dayton could call legislators back into session if they do not complete a budget or new issues arise. However, Dayton has shown a reluctance to call special sessions.

Seifert to lobby

Former state Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, will lobby for greater Minnesota issues in the 2015 Minnesota Legislature.

He has joined the Flaherty and Hood law firm, which represents the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities and several cities that belong to that group.

Seifert has lost two campaigns for governor, including a Republican primary loss this year in which he ran as the only greater Minnesota candidate.

Franken in Uber fight

The fast-growing Uber transportation service and U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota are engaged in a privacy battle.

Franken, an outspoken privacy advocate and chairman of a subcommittee on the subject, has complained about Uber’s data collection practices. He also has wondered whether Uber misuses consumer data.

“I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that right includes the ability to control who is getting your personal location information and who it’s being shared with,” Franken said. “I recently pressed Uber to explain the scope, transparency and enforceability of their privacy policies. While I’m pleased that they replied to my letter, I am concerned about the surprising lack of detail in their response.”

Uber’s response indicated that the company that connects riders with drivers for hire has disciplined its workers who broke its privacy policy.

Part of the problem, as Franken explains it, is that the global positioning system Uber uses allows the new company to track riders’ locations.