Updated: Special session not expected for flood disaster

By Don Davis

Minnesota leaders say they can avoid a pricey special legislative session and still provide local governments money as they recover from early-summer floods.

A new $3 million state disaster fund may be enough to reimburse local governments until legislators return to work Jan. 6, but Gov. Mark Dayton said his administration will continue to monitor the situation and could convene the Legislature if government leaders say they are running short of money.

A memorandum sent Tuesday from the state finance commissioner and emergency management director laid out the situation.

The total state and local government damage from floods across the state is pegged at $40.8 million for local government facilities, with the federal government due to pay 75 percent. That leaves $10.2 million for the state to pay, and the $3 million disaster fund should be enough to get by for now, Commissioner Jim Schowalter and Director Kris Eide said.

In an interview, Schowalter said local governments are not losing out on money by waiting until next year. However, he added, the Legislature may need to act soon after it convenes in order to keep money flowing.

If a special session is called before Nov. 4, it would come during a busy campaign season for Dayton and most House members.

“We will continue to monitor this situation and stay in touch with the administration, local officials and legislators in both parties to ensure communities affected by summer storms are receiving the aid they need before the 2015 session begins,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “And next session, we will give full consideration to remaining requests.”

Federal transportation officials already have sent millions of dollars to the state for road repairs. Dayton said that if that money runs out, “I would talk with (legislative) leaders about a special session.”

The Obama administration ruled that 37 of the state’s 87 counties and three tribal governments sustained enough damage to receive federal aid. The administration denied help to Morrison and Dakota counties.

To qualify for federal help, a county needed to show it incurred at least $3.50 per resident in damages.

Federal funds are only for governments to recover costs for flood fighting; they do not help private citizens and businesses that were damaged in flooding that began June 11 and in some cases extended into July.

Federal officials decided that damage in Morrison County did not occur during the disaster period. County officials say damage was $206,000 and under a new law the state would pay $155,600 of it if federal officials do not provide money.

Dakota County, meanwhile, sustained $1.7 million in public infrastructure cost, which federal authorities said they would not pay. The state and county are appealing that decision. If the federal government does pay, the state’s Dakota County cost would be $427,000; if federal officials continue to reject the request, the state portion would be $1.28 million.


Counties receiving federal funds are Beltrami, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Chippewa, Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Hennepin, Jackson, Koochiching, Lac Qui Parle, Lake of the Woods, Le Sueur, Lyon, Marshall, Martin, McLeod, Murray, Nicollet, Nobles, Pipestone, Redwood, Ramsey, Renville, Rice, Rock, Roseau, Scott, Sibley, Steele, Todd, Wadena, Waseca, Watonwan, Wright and Yellow Medicine. Tribal governments getting the money are Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Prairie Island Indian Community and Red Lake Band of Chippewa.

Farmington leaders offer to host special legislative session

Pitching Farmington

By Don Davis

Leaders of the southern Twin Cities suburb of Farmington Thursday offered to host a special legislative session to fund flood recovery.

“Minnesota has a proud tradition of coming together to provide relief for those in need following natural disasters, and Farmington would be a unique and well-suited location to host any upcoming special session given the current state of the Capitol,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said.

The invitation came as much of the Capitol building is closed for a $273 million renovation. However, state officials say the House and Senate chambers and some meeting rooms will be available if Gov. Mark Dayton needs to call a special session.

While the governor’s office and House speaker did not reject the Farmington proposal, neither did they give it much hope.

“It is an intriguing idea,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “However, there are questions in terms of costs and feasibility.”

Dayton press secretary Matt Swenson said a special session, which is not a certainty, would need agreement among all four legislative leaders and the governor.

“While Rep. Garafolo’s idea is an interesting one, the additional costs incurred by holding a special session outside the Capitol would need to be considered…” Swenson said. “Gov. Dayton’s primary concern is ensuring Minnesotans affected by this summer’s flooding get the help they need as quickly as possible.”

Floods that affected more than half of Minnesota’s counties likely will bring a presidential disaster declaration, but even though the federal government would pay for most flood recovery costs, the state would be on the hook for 25 percent. That probably means the Legislature will need to convene to appropriate the money.

Most disaster recovery funding sessions last less than a day and are routine.

Farmington residents said they can offer lawmakers a home away from Capitol construction and it would give them a chance to toot their own horn.

“We are small town Minnesota nice, but with big city dreams,” Farmington High School student Natalie Pellin said.

School officials proposed using iPad technology they already have in their 5-year-old school to record votes.

“Farmington High School has the space and technology to host a legislative special session, and this is a chance for legislators to see firsthand the technology our students are using to help improve our education outcomes in the classroom,” Chairwoman Tera Lee of the Farmington School Board said.

Farmington Mayor Todd Larson said that holding the session in his community would showcase his entire community.

Garofalo said he is concerned with technological issues during a special session in the Capitol because some recording systems have been removed. He also expressed concerns about the public’s safety in a construction zone.

However, even though the Capitol will remain mostly closed next year, he said that he does not have the same concerns during next year’s regular session that begins in January and could last into May.

Garofalo admitted that the Farmington suggestion could set off a competition among cities around Minnesota to host the session. Soon after Farmington leaders talked to reporters, Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, tweeted that his area would be a good location.

“This is purely to showcase the accomplishments of Farmington,” Garofalo said.

Pipelines allow Legislature to flow to end

Minnesota Senate

By Don Davis

Pipe dreams expressed early in the 2014 Minnesota legislative session gave way to pipelines as it neared an end Friday night.

The House adjourned for the year at 8:59 p.m. Friday, with the Senate following at 10:13 p.m. after two pipeline issues were settled in the final day. Oil-carrying pipelines, mostly in northern Minnesota, and southwest Minnesota’s water pipeline project received funding after talks among legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton produced results that allowed for a smooth session close.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, declared the 2014 session that began Feb. 25 and the 2013 session legislative successes.

“I think we had a productive two years, this year building on the work of last year,” Thissen said.

He pointed out measures lawmakers passed throughout the session such as raising the minimum wage, a measure to prevent school bullying and approving two tax-cut bills.

Republicans could not leave the Capitol quickly enough.

“Minnesota state government has not served Minnesotans well,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said, noting that Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office.

“As a result of this (two-year) session, we have one of the highest tax increases in state history,” Daudt said. “We have the highest budget increase in state history.”

While leaders of the two parties disagreed on the outcome of the 88th Minnesota legislative session, there was relatively little partisan debate Friday as work wound down.

Lawmakers Friday approved more than $1 billion in public works projects, legalized medical marijuana, lowered some taxes and told the state lottery to get out of online scratch-off game sales.

Pipelines took the spotlight in late-session negotiations.

A budget bill that wrapped up early Friday includes $3.75 million to increase training and buy equipment for first responders such as fire departments to deal with potential oil spills from pipelines. The money would come from assessments placed on pipeline companies.

The bill already contained more than $8 million for training and equipment where oil-carrying trains travel. The rail provision also would add two or three railroad inspectors to the one the state already employs.

About 900,000 Minnesotans live near oil pipelines, and many more live near railroad tracks where oil trains travel. Most oil trains go through Moorhead, St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, but trains do travel other parts of the state.

House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said a key part of the bill requires the state Public Safety Department to study oil transportation safety — including trains, pipelines, trucks and boats — and provide information next year to legislators about what else needs to be done.

The House wanted the pipeline safety provision, but the Senate included no funding. Budget negotiators opted to include pipeline safety after Dayton piped up and demanded it.

The bill containing the oil pipeline safety items was an overall budget bill that increases spending $262 million in a $39 billion, two-year budget. Among its other provisions:

– Home and community-based health care workers and rural nursing homes all will get more state funding.

– Public education will receive $54 million more, including funds to increase early-childhood learning for more than 1,000 youths.

– Broadband high-speed Internet expansion efforts will get a $20 million boost.

– More than $31 million will be spent on a road program known as Corridors of Commerce.

– Another $10 million will be spent to fix potholes.

Dayton told lawmakers that he wanted money for the Lewis and Clark water system to serve southwestern Minnesota. Legislators obliged by approving $22 million from the state budget reserve to build the pipeline from the South Dakota line to Luverne and giving local governments authority to borrow $45 million to extend the system through several counties, with the state paying two-thirds of the loan costs.

“It is very important to the governor, first of all,” Thissen said of Lewis and Clark. “He gets a lot of credit for this making its way through.”

Thissen said the Lewis and Clark funding deal opened the door for adjournment.

“The main thing that happened in the last 24 to 36 hours is we put our heads together and figured out a better way to fund Lewis and Clark …” Thissen said. “It broke everything loose and everything fell into place.”

Also as the session neared its end, lawmakers voted to restrict online sales of state lottery games. While lotto-type tickets would remain available, the online version of scratch-off games the lottery introduced in February would disappear if the governor opts to sign the bill into law.

Tired legislators take their holiday break with much done, much left


By Don Davis

The looks on Minnesota legislators’ faces before they began a holiday break told the story: They are tired.

The 201 legislators put in long hours the past couple of weeks debating and initially passing pretty much every major bill of the 2014 session, often going well after dark just as spring presents Minnesotans with longer days.

When asked about what would happen after the Legislature returns on April 22 following an Easter-Passover break, Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, showed the exhaustion common to many as the House was adjourning Thursday night.

“My mind is not even there,” Schoen said. “My mind is so tired, I can’t even think straight.”

After pausing, he came up with a few issues he thinks need to pass, then added that some bills lawmakers already passed may need to be revisited because “in our tired, weary minds, we may have missed something that should be fixed.”

It is a different type of year for the Legislature. It came into session Feb. 25, later than most years, and lawmakers are trying to cram in more work than often occurs the year after a state budget is produced.

Lawmakers will have less than four weeks after the holiday break to finish their work before constitutional deadline of May 19.

Days after the session began, lawmakers passed a bill providing financial aid to Minnesotans with problems paying for heat during the intense winter. On March, after plenty of political posturing, they approved $443 million of tax breaks.

Two other major issues are set to take effect. One requires local school districts to write policies to prevent bullying or the state will force them to follow one it prepares. The other issue that has been decided is a higher minimum wage, which in three years will be $9.50 an hour for big businesses and $7.75 for smaller ones.

Otherwise, the House and Senate have passed differing versions of the major bills, such as one tweaking a $39 billion, two-year budget passed last year. Lawmakers dumped nearly all spending bills, and some that do not involve money, into the one massive bill.

Like most other remaining issues, the budget bills the House and Senate passed are different. So negotiators from both houses will sit down after the break and begin reconciling them, then sending them back for final votes.

One significant bill has passed the House, but not the Senate: a plan to move women toward equality with in the workplace.

Two hot-topic bills remain short of House and Senate votes.

Generally getting the spotlight in even-year sessions has been a bill funding public works projects around the state. In the House this year, it is a nearly $1 billion bill, funded both by borrowing money with state bond sales and some cash. It has made its way to near a full House vote, but the Senate measure will not be unveiled until soon after break ends.

Legislative leaders already agreed to spend $850 million, but many Democrats say they want to go higher. If so, they need Republican votes because Democrats alone do not have enough members to pass a bonding bill. Republicans are not eager to accept a higher figure.

The other big issue awaiting a decision is whether to allow marijuana, or an extract from the plant, to be made available to seriously ill Minnesotans, such as children suffering from seizures and cancer patients in great pain.

“We are trying to find ways to come to a solution,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said, but a compromise is needed with police and medical groups opposed to the medical marijuana plan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, gave the issue a kick ahead when he ordered a committee hearing on the bill, similar to one stalled in a House committee. There was no vote, but supporters say that if leaders allow the bill to proceed after returning to St. Paul, there are enough votes to pass it.

The question then would be if Gov. Mark Dayton would sign a bill that does not meet his main requirement: support by law enforcement and medical communities.

Bakk and Thissen said they will talk about the remaining issues some during the recess, although House leaders also plan to travel the state saying they already have shown a productive session.

Bakk said he could not predict if there will be any problems in the final few weeks of session. “I think it would depend on the governor’s engagement.”

Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, said he is not concerned. “With the time that is left, we should get it all done. It will come together.”


Here is the status of some issues:

Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money mostly obtained by the state selling bonds. The House and Senate are looking at borrowing about $850 million, with additional cash from a state budget surplus. The House has a bill in play and senators likely will introduce their bonding bill soon after returning to St. Paul.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. The House and Senate have passed differing versions of a bill to tweak the budget and negotiators will work out differences after the recess.

Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed just before the recess to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.

Constitutional amendments: No constitutional amendments have made much progress so far this year, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, wants one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed.

Construction zones: Provisions have been folded into larger bills to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones. They have yet to receive final approval.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. Bills approving online registration are progressing.

Gender equality: Ways to improve women’s pay and other aspects of their lives are being considered. The House passed its version, with the Senate expected to take it up after break. The fact that women earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.

Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction could begin this summer. However, a lawsuit against the building remains to be settled.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been debated, but stalled in a House committee after the governor expressed misgivings because law enforcement and medical groups oppose it. A Senate committee heard testimony on it just before the break, but will not vote until after legislators return to St. Paul.

Minimum wage: Legislative leaders negotiated a compromise to raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically up to 2.5 percent a year to stay abreast with inflation. It will be law in time for the first step of the raise to begin in August.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups want to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. The issue has been debated in committees, but not in the full House and Senate.

Propane: Right out of the chute, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage brought on high prices. However, long-term solutions to propane price volatility have not moved forward.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators have made little progress toward agreeing on how to deal with the situation.

Synthetic drugs: Bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers have progressed and the House approved its bill. A Senate bill awaits a vote.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, with the second portion awaiting negotiations after the break. The bills cut income taxes and property taxes and overturn some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes appears to have failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work in the state budget surplus.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and better equipment for emergency personnel. The plans are included in an overall budget bill that remains to be negotiated.

Minnesota House, Senate agree on minimum wage increase


By Don Davis

Legislative leaders agreed to raise the Minnesota minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in 2016, with lower wages for small businesses, those undergoing training, teens and some foreign workers.

The deal announced today includes a provision that beginning in 2018 all wages would increase each Jan. 1 to match inflation, but the state labor commissioner could suspend an increase if the economy is failing.

Full House and Senate votes are expected before lawmakers begin an Easter-Passover break on Friday.

Democrats who control the House and Senate praised the deal. Republicans and business leaders panned it.

“This is a good day for Minnesotans,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said in announcing the agreement.

The House had wanted an automatic increase for inflation, but Senate leaders were concerned. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that allowing the labor commissioner to stall automatic increases was a good compromise.

The Senate leader also said that phasing in the new minimum wage over three years is a good idea.

“I think we have a pretty strong provision for small businesses,” Bakk added.

Businesses with gross sales less than $500,000 annually will have a $7.75 minimum wage when it is fully implemented in 2016.

The agreement also allows large businesses to pay $7.75 for a 90-day training wage for 18- and 19-year-olds, for all 16- and 17-year olds and for some employees from other countries working at places such as resorts.

Mike Hickey of the National Federation of Independent Businesses predicted job losses if the bill is enacted.

Dan McElroy of Hospitality Minnesota said he does not expect many restaurant workers to lose their jobs because of the measure, but predicted continued higher meal prices than in neighboring states that count tips as part of wages. McElroy said he will continue to lobby to include tips in the minimum wage.

The most vocal legislative proponent of a minimum wage, Rep. Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said that despite an improving economy, many Minnesotans still struggle. He said they will have more money to spend, which will help businesses. He said studies show that raising the minimum wage does not hurt business.

Minnesota’s current minimum wage is $6.15, but most businesses fall under the federal $7.25 figure.

President Barack Obama wants to raise the federal wage floor to $10.10, but Republicans who control the U.S. House do not plan to go along with it. The president is taking steps to raise the minimum wage in areas where he has control, such as when the federal government hires private contractors.

Political notebook: Medical marijuana keeps producing controversy

By Don Davis

Medical marijuana is a story that is not going away.

A bill to legalize the plant to help people with extreme pain and children with seizures stalled, and Gov. Mark Dayton said he could not sign a medical marijuana bill if it did not have the support of law enforcement and medical organizations. They generally do not back the bill.

With most bills, all of that would have killed the measure. Not with this one.

Parents of children who suffer seizures gathered reporters for an emotional Wednesday news conference. With tears, they complained that Dayton is delaying help for their kids.

Jessica Hauser of Woodbury told reporters that Dayton suggested she buy marijuana illegally in Minnesota or go to another state. On Friday, Dayton gave “no” as his answer to a question about whether he told her to buy marijuana illegally.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say about medical marijuana,” Dayton added. “You had statements. You asked questions. … I’m just not going to discuss it further.”

He then talked about it some more.

Other drugs go through exhaustive testing before the public can access them, Dayton said. Since he must govern for all Minnesotans, he said, he wants the chemical from marijuana that may help control seizures to undergo the same test.

In a lengthy conference call with reporters earlier in the month, and something he repeated Friday, the governor said he “is told” that marijuana is available on the street in every Minnesota city.

While he has said he does not advocate breaking the law, he also has said he understands a parent’s desire to do anything possible to ease a child’s illness.

Another tax bill ready

Getting through one tax bill was taxing, and now the Minnesota House is ready to consider a second one.

“Our second tax bill will focus on ways to make further reductions in property taxes for homeowners, renters and farmers,” said House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington. “We believe this is a responsible way to continue expanding our economy from the middle out while maintaining our stable budget into the future.”

The first tax-cut bill was enacted a little more than a week ago, reducing income taxes for many Minnesotans as well as eliminating some sales taxes businesses pay.

The new House bill would reduce taxes $45 million.

Both tax-cut bills come after the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor last year approved more than $2 billion in tax increases.

Democrats are focusing on property tax relief in the phase 2 bill. They have campaigned for years on property tax increases they blamed on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP lawmakers.

The biggest single property tax relief provision would be $18 million to homesteaded farms. More than 90,000 farmers would be affected, with the average getting $460 lower tax bills.

About 500,000 other homeowners would receive $12.1 million in cuts, with renters getting $12.5 million in a 6 percent refund increase.

The full House is to vote on the measure in the next few days.

It’s a rushed session

All Minnesota politicians, and those who follow them, probably can agree on one thing: This year’s session is moving faster than any other.

“This session has been a mad rush to everything,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

He recalled the days, not that long ago, when the even-year session (also known as the election-year session) was reserved for approving a list of public works projects and fixing any urgent issues, such as dealing with economic changes.

That concept has changed dramatically, with pretty much any subject fine for debate.

“More is never enough,” Dayton said about politicians’ mentality.

The session, just over a month old, gets into some of its basic issues in the next week. House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said a bill making tweaks in last year’s $39 billion, two-year budget, will be up for a vote near the end of the week. So will a tax-cut measure.

The rush has brought up some tension among lawmakers, prompting Chairman Tom Huntley, D-Duluth, of the House health and human services finance committee to remark near the end of one long meeting: “I think we are so tired that we can’t get mad at each other any more.”

The great space debate

Minnesota politicians have delighted in arguing about space, specifically space in the Capitol and a proposed Senate office building.

All six Republican governor candidates, and most others in the GOP, have come out against the proposed $63 million building and a nearby $27 million parking garage. The House in general has been skeptical of the need for something on that scale.

Senate Democratic leaders, however, say that so many other agencies are growing during a Capitol renovation that they do not have enough space left for senators and their staffs.

The Senate space would drop from today’s 86,372 square feet to 48,025. At the same time, the governor’s office space would soar from 9,055 to 16,630, which Gov. Mark Dayton says is to give the lieutenant governor and staff space.

Historical society space would double, journalists would get more room and so would the Supreme Court. Public space, including for dining and exhibits, would grow.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Capitol building renovation is a good time to build a new facility because it would save the state from paying for temporary space to house senators and their staff for a year or two when their Capitol offices will be closed.

The decision about whether the new building is constructed rests on the House rules committee, which is looking into space needs and is expected to take a vote in April.

Potholes and oil safety take transportation funding spotlight


By Don Davis

Fixing ice-cold roads and preventing red-hot railcars are Minnesota lawmakers’ transportation priorities.

A House bill would provide $15 million to fill an abundant crop of potholes blamed on the severe winter, with another $20 million to repair and replace state snowplow equipment and fund unexpected snowplow expenses from this winter. The measure also would provide $5 million in the next year, with $2.5 million in each of the next four years, to prepare local public safety workers to deal with potential crude oil train disasters.

A House transportation committee approved the bill on a split voice vote Wednesday night. It must make one more committee stop before a full House vote. A similar bill is making its way through the Senate.

Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, released his transportation funding bill Wednesday, which includes nearly $50 million from the state budget surplus and $78 million from a fund filled with transportation-related taxes. Besides potholes and oil safety, the bill includes money for major highways around the state, improving highway railroad crossings, and hiring more state troopers and Capitol Security officers.

The provision most Minnesotans would notice is a pothole decline.

“I think every Minnesotan has a story about the state of our roads,” Hornstein said about winter-ravaged highways.

“Sometimes my drive from my district in Shoreview to the state Capitol feels like an amusement ride, with the increase in potholes, and I would bet most Minnesota drivers have had similar experiences,” Democratic Rep. Barb Yarusso said. “This is a common-sense safety issue for our drivers and communities that I would hope can secure broad bipartisan support.”

Hornstein said the pothole money planned for cities and counties is not enough to fill the wicked winter weather budget gap, but it will help.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say the additional $15 million for pothole repairs could fill 50,000 potholes throughout the state.

Scott Peterson of MnDOT said snowplow equipment replacement is not necessarily all because of the polar vortex winter. He said some of the money is for needs not met in past years.

No new taxes are in Hornstein’s bill, but he would increase an existing assessment on railroads and tack it onto pipeline companies to fund crude oil safety measures. It would raise $2.5 million annually.

“I wouldn’t characterize this as a tax or a fee,” Hornstein said, then later called it a “fee.”

Rep. Ron Erhardt, D-Edina, responded: “We used to call a tax a tax and a fee a tax, and now we are going to ‘assessment.’ “

Regardless of what it is called, House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he does not find it “onerous.” The speaker has opposed tax and fee increases this year.

Thissen justified the assessment because “railroads are sending these dangerous products through Minnesota.”

The most-discussed “dangerous product” during this legislative session has been North Dakota crude oil, brought into the spotlight by fiery railroad derailments in eastern North Dakota and Quebec. North Dakota crude, which was in tank cars in both derailments, has been found to be more highly flammable than other oil.

Hornstein’s bill would provide $2.5 million from the surplus this year and a like amount for the next five years to increase training of firefighters, law enforcement personnel and ambulance service workers to be prepared for oil disasters. The ongoing funds would come from the assessment.

New equipment and materials such as firefighting foam also could be funded.

The chairman wants to increase the number of state railroad inspectors from one to four or five. Two federal inspectors cover Minnesota and western Wisconsin, and railroads themselves have many more.

The transportation measure would pay for improving railroad crossings, especially on lines that carry hazardous materials.

Committee moves toward oil disaster preparedness

Kelly, Cornish

By Don Davis

Plans to train first responders such as firefighters to battle oil disasters are gaining traction in the Minnesota Legislature.

“It takes just one of these trains at the wrong place at the wrong time for a catastrophe,” Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, told fellow members of the House public safety committee Wednesday before it approved funding a program to provide more training funds for first responders to oil incidents.

“If a coal train derails, you get out a broom and sweep it up,” he said, but the committee heard of explosions that followed Quebec and North Dakota derailments last year.

Even as a fiscal conservative who does not like to spend money, Newberger said, he supports the bill because preparation is needed.

The bill calls for $5 million to be spent, half from assessing railroads and pipelines and half from a state budget surplus. Sponsor Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said he expects his bill to last three years, after which a study would provide information to state leaders about long-term needs.

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said that to him the assessment is a tax. He said the state already “is most of the way there” in funding first responder training, so Hornstein’s $5 million bill is not needed.

Hornstein said that as the bill moves from committee to committee within the Legislature, he plans to broaden it to allow more agencies other than fire departments receive money. The committee heard that state hazardous materials teams, law enforcement agencies and ambulance services also need more training funds.

The bill is one of three Hornstein introduced — with similar ones in the Senate — reacting to highly publicized train derailments in Quebec and North Dakota last year.

With western North Dakota’s Bakken oil field constantly increasing production and Alberta, Canada, oil transportation needs on the upswing, Hornstein said, Minnesota is the “epicenter” of oil transportation. He said both pipelines and railroads are carrying more oil.

A second Hornstein bill requires railroad and pipeline companies to submit plans to prevent oil leaks and how they would respond if leaks occur.

His third bill would add two or three rail inspectors to the one the state now has on staff. It also would provide $5 million to improve safety at railroad crossings used by trains carrying hazardous materials.

Railroads would be assessed the costs of the $5 million inspector and rail crossing proposal. They already are assessed to fund the single inspector.

Rail companies also would pay more for the Hornstein bill the committee passed Wednesday. He would institute a new assessment on pipelines to fund first responder preparedness.

Vice President Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co. said his firm is looking into the assessment plan and has yet to take a stand on the provision.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, earlier opposed a Hornstein plan to tax oil transported through Minnesota. Hornstein switched to the assessment, but it is not clear if that will survive in a year when Democrats who control the House are leery about raising taxes and fees.

Crude oil coming from North Dakota is regarded as more flammable than other types of oil, and state leaders from the governor down have said that Minnesota needs to be more prepared.

Hornstein said that federal officials earlier this year urged oil trains not to travel through densely populated cities. However, St. Paul officials told the committee that many go through their city.

The city’s emergency manager, Judd Freed, told of a rail yard six or seven miles long, with critical infrastructure nearby. “All of that oil comes through that yard.”

About a half-dozen oil trains a day go through the Twin Cities.

Senate tax bill arrives after Dayton lobs stalling complaint


By Don Davis

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday used his first public appearance since Feb. 8 to accuse fellow Democrats who lead the Senate of stalling a tax-cut bill until they won approval for a new Senate office building.

An hour and a half later, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook and Tax Chairman Rod Skoe of Clearbrook showed off a tax bill they hope senators pass Thursday, without a building agreement. They denied that Dayton’s comments changed their plans.

Dayton, who has been in a body cast since Feb. 10 hip surgery, walked to a podium aided by crutches Tuesday afternoon and began to rip Bakk for telling him and House Democratic leaders that he would not allow a tax bill to pass until the House rules committee approves a new Senate building.

“I’m very, very, very disappointed they would not pass a bill,” Dayton said.

The House passed a $500 million tax cut March 6. It would stop three sales taxes businesses pay as well as conform to federal tax laws.

Dayton and Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said that tax cuts needed to be finished by today or Minnesotans would struggle to get tax breaks that come from matching state and federal laws.

Skoe had been saying that senators wanted more time to investigate implications of various tax provisions, and they would wrap up a bill by month’s end.

Democratic and Republicans senators must agree to suspend Senate rules before the Thursday vote will occur.

When Bakk and Skoe sat down with reporters after Dayton’s comments, they began talking about the tax bill, not mentioning Dayton. Bakk did not directly answer the question, asked multiple times, about whether in meeting with Dayton and House Speaker Paul Thissen he linked the tax bill with a new building.

Thissen, D-Minneapolis, agreed with Dayton that Bakk linked the two.

“We have all along urged the House rules committee to act …” Bakk said when asked about the tax-building link. “We don’t understand why the House rules committee hasn’t acted.”

The only action needed before a new Senate office building is constructed is House rules committee approval. However, House members have joined Dayton in expressing reservations about the building.

Bakk said it is needed.

Due to an extensive Capitol renovation project, Bakk said, senators will not have offices or a chamber in which to meet in 2016 if something is not done. Construction will continue at least through 2016.

The renovation is stealing space from the Senate, and doubling what the governor’s office occupies, and there will not be enough room for senators and staff in the finished building, the majority leader said.

Bakk said the Senate will lose 38,000 square feet to renovation.

While representatives have not decided whether a new building is even needed, Dayton said he thinks a modest one should be built. But he was not happy that Bakk linked lower taxes with it.

Dayton said he returned to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester on Monday to have the body cast removed, a week earlier than planned, because he needed to get back to the Capitol to fight for the tax cuts. “It was time for me to come back because of the deadline.”

“I can’t kick any field goals for a while,” he said, but other than using crutches most of the time he is doing well.

He may not be kicking field goals, but he kicked senators’ tactics. “These are DFL legislators, I’m sorry to say. … It’s just inexcusable.”

Dayton said an entire half-hour meeting earlier Tuesday was about the Senate building because the Senate insisted on discussing it before taxes.

“I need to take this to the people of Minnesota,” Dayton said, adding that he plans to start meeting with legislators about taxes today.

Thissen said Bakk wanted to include Senate building approval in the tax bill. Skoe and Bakk said there is no mention of the building in their bill, which they would not give to reporters Tuesday night.

Bakk said that taking up the tax bill by Thursday would be an “extraordinary accomplishment.” A second bill, including some tax cuts, is expected before lawmakers adjourn for the year in May.

The Senate bill will would cut taxes nearly $70 million less than the House, but would add $150 million to the state budget reserve, Skoe said.

Bakk, Skoe

Judge wants change, Minnesota sex offender program remains same

By Don Davis

A federal judge’s pressure on Minnesota officials to change how the state deals with sex offenders does not appear to be producing results.

Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday that he does not expect this year’s Legislature to act on the situation, and legislative leaders Friday showed no indication the governor is wrong.

That comes after Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a court order: “The time for legislative action is now.”

If state leaders do not take action, Frank could take control of the Minnesota sex offender treatment program, where serious sex offenders are kept in prison-like settings after serving their prison sentences. Former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and others who are urging lawmakers to act say Frank could order changes in the program — changes that could result in much higher costs to the state — or he could order release of at least some sex offenders.

Just one sex offender has graduated from the program, leading to a lawsuit by others who say the program is more prison than treatment.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, downplayed the possibility that Frank will take over the program. He said that Frank’s order for the state to fund four experts’ study of the program should take some time, and lawmakers may not need to act right away.

However, he and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said they hope for a bipartisan agreement on the issue.

That does not appear close. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he thinks the current treatment program is constitutional, although he could support some changes.

Since Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office, Daudt said, they are the ones who should lead on the issue.

Murphy said that state leaders not agreeing on the solution hurts their efforts.

“When people chose to politicize this issue, it tends to confuse Minnesotans,” she said.

Dayton blamed House Republicans for failure to come together, adding, “I don’t think anything else is going to happen this session.”

“It is not going to proceed without broad bipartisan support,” Dayton told reporters Thursday. “It is just not going to happen now. … We will come back next session, if I am still around.”

However, he added, Frank could take away Minnesota’s options before next year.

Daudt said Democrats may not have come up with a plan, but he thinks he knows their desire: “They seem set on letting these people out.”

Frank issued his latest order five days before the Legislature convened last month.

“If the evidence requires it, the court will act,” Frank wrote. “But it is the Minnesota Legislature that is best equipped to develop policies and pass laws — within the limits of the Constitution — that both protect public safety and preserve the rights of the class.”

How to deal with sex offenders has been a major state Capitol issue since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall on Nov. 22, 2003. The next April, her body was found near Crookston, Minn. A sex offender who had served his prison time was convicted of her kidnapping and murder.

The crime set Minnesota politicians on a quest to find ways to keep sex offenders behind bars longer. One of the ways was to make more use of an existing program that allows county prosecutors to ask judges to put offenders into the treatment program.

The program is housed at state hospitals in Moose Lake and St. Peter.