Greater Minnesota issues on table at session end

The 2015 Minnesota Legislature convened at noon Jan. 6 with a $1 billion surplus and a greater Minnesota focus.

It ended Saturday morning (the House adjourned at 1:30 a.m., followed by the Senate at 1:56 a.m.) amid disputes, more than $800 million left unspent (after the surplus grew to $1.9 billion) and debating greater Minnesota-centric legislation.

In between, Democrats and Republicans alike failed in their priorities of a big-time boost in transportation funding. Republicans failed to lower taxes $2 billion. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton failed to get universal school for 4 year olds.

In the end, the Legislature passed a $42 billion, two-year budget, the level Dayton sought early in the year.

The governor signed the budget bills Saturday morning.

In a news conference Dayton said, “Last fall, Minnesota voters chose divided political leadership for our state. This legislative session ended in that same way: with legislators sharply divided over key issues, like the optimal amounts of taxes and expenditures, social services, and transportation improvements.

“Nevertheless, legislators achieved significant progress in providing better care and education for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens: children, who were previously considered too young for structured elementary education. Minnesotans at the other end of life will also benefit from increased funding for nursing homes, personal care attendants, and other supportive services.”

The governor added that another positive result is that the remaining surplus, combined with the budgeted reserve and cash flow account, has left the state with a positive balance of almost $2.5 billion.

“It stands in welcome contrast to the financial uncertainties of recent years,” Dayton said.

It was greater Minnesota issues that were deeply embedded in the final major debate of the special session, what to do with agriculture and environment funding issues.

There was little disagreement about agriculture spending, other than some Democrats saying that farm funding should have passed earlier so avian flu-related programs could be funded when poultry flocks were being hit hardest.

“When this bill becomes law, Minnesota will be able to continue to protect and preserve its food supply, make needed investments in research and have the funds necessary to respond to the avian flu outbreak.” said Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, who leads the House Agriculture Finance Committee.

The environmental issues, also mostly involving greater Minnesota, were hotly debated.

“This is a responsible bill that meets the needs of our state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, House environment chairman. “The bill also includes a number of policy reforms and initiatives that have bipartisan support.”

One provision in the wide-ranging bill disbands the Citizens’ Board, a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency entity that makes pollution-related rulings.

A second part of the bill would ease regulations on proposed copper and nickel mines in the northeast by not requiring them to follow solid waste rules.

The two environmental issues delayed the end of the special session for hours. Senators removed them from the bill at one point, something many lawmakers said was a violation of rules Dayton and legislative leaders signed, promising to not support amendments during the special session.

House members quickly rejected the Senate changes, sending the bill back for a post-midnight Senate vote.

On the mining provision, Sen. Chris Eaton, D-Brooklyn Park, said she wanted the stricter law and said she does not oppose mining. “I oppose doing it when it pollutes the rest of our state.”

Bill sponsor Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, jumped up to protest: “The comment that it pollutes the rest of the state is an outrageous comment.”

Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, said provisions in the environment bill help small, rural cities like Luverne, where he was mayor.

A part of the bill gives a break to small towns and counties in pollution rules. He said that even small cities can spend millions of dollars on sewage treatment, and in the end make only small improvements in water quality.

The House vote for the bill was 78-47 and in the Senate early Saturday it was 38-29, with Republicans carrying the weight in both chambers. The Senate took several votes on the bill and amendments before passing the same version as did the House.

Among provisions in the ag-environment bill are:

— Nearly $23 million for the avian flu outbreak.

— New grant program for cities with populations less than 45,000 in greater Minnesota to promote recycling.

— Repeal aquatic invasive species trailer decal law, and replacing it with a requirement that boat owners sign an affirmation stating they will abide by invasive species laws.

Another bill greater Minnesota watched is one funding public works projects, the last big bill up in the special session early Saturday.

House members voted 96-25 for the bill, with senators approving it 48-18.

The bill, funded by the state selling bonds, will spend $373 million, with $180 million of the bonds repaid by general tax revenue.

Projects in the bill include rerouting U.S. 53 in northeastern Minnesota to make way for a taconite mine expansion, local road and bridge work, flood prevention and recovery efforts, state Capitol renovation work, southwest Minnesota water supply work, college improvements and poultry testing facilities.

Railroad crossings also were funded, although not at the amount Democrats wanted: $3.8 million for a Willmar railroad crossing, $4.7 million for one in Plymouth and $460,000 for a third at Rainy River.

 

Bird flu infects budget talks

Minnesota poultry farmers found themselves in the midst of political bickering Wednesday as high-level negotiators pushed time limits for resolving Democrat-Republican state budget differences.

Rep. David Bly, D-Northfield, asked the House to debate a bill providing state agencies money to respond to avian flu issues.

“Time is running out,” Bly said during his unsuccessful attempt. “I am very worried.”

But House Agriculture Finance Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, assured Bly and other representatives about flu and other budget issues that “we are absolutely committed to getting done on time.”

The House debate came while Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders talked about state spending levels for the next two years, but they refused to make any public comments about how those negotiations are going.

Dayton, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and others involved in the high-level closed-door talks placed a “cone of silence” on themselves, although there were vague reports of “progress.”

“We’re all still at the table, and we’re all still speaking friendly, so that’s good,” Daudt said Wednesday night as negotiators began a dinner break.

When he left for lunch, Daudt said that “we’re making progress (in) all areas.”

Dayton did not appear in public and Bakk at one point said “I hope” a deal could be reached Wednesday.

However, that appeared less likely as talks stretched well into the night.

Even with the self-imposed gag order, bits and pieces came out. For instance, Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said that major transportation funding increases likely will not happen this year.

“It seems to me that the transportation conversation for the year is over for the issue and not going anywhere,” Skoe said. “It appears transportation is a next-year issue.”

Increasing transportation funding has been a high priority for Dayton and many in the Legislature, but Democrats want to add a new tax to gasoline, which Republicans strongly oppose. And Republicans want to take money from other programs to fund road and bridge improvements, an approach Democrats fight.

The overall budget talks revolved around how to divide state revenue among programs included in a $40 billion-plus, two-year state budget.

The state Constitution requires the 2015 Legislature to adjourn Monday, and most long-time Capitol observers appear to think the governor and leaders must agree on how much will be spent in various budget areas Thursday at the latest.

“I am very worried that things will fall apart and it will not move forward,” Bly said about avian flu program funding.

Ironically, the poultry industry got good news elsewhere on Wednesday. No new flocks were found to be infected which is appearing to be the new normal. That leaves nearly 5.8 million birds dead among 85 flocks in 21 counties.

Funds are provided in an overall agriculture bill for state workers responding to the emergency as well as increasing bird flu research funding. A provision also is being considered to provide low-interest loans to farmers whose flocks were infected.

There also is discussion about negotiators adding direct aid to farmers with infected flocks.

The House voted 72-50 against Bly’s request to immediately debate the avian flu funding measure.

In the Senate, meanwhile, Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, failed in his attempt to prepare a bill that would allow state government to continue to function even if lawmakers could not settle on a new budget. It is similar to bills discussed, but rejected, four years ago when the state eventually underwent a three-week government shutdown after Democrat Dayton and legislative Republicans could not agree on a budget.

Many lawmakers expressed pessimism about getting done on time.

“I am not sure as I stand here today that we can get everything done by the appointed deadline,” Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, said. “I would not bet $10 on it, quite frankly.”

Also Wednesday:

— The House unanimously passed a bill to extend voting rights to National Guard members overseas.

Rights that other members of the military and civilians living overseas enjoy had not been granted to guard members. Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, said the legislation would continue a state tradition of allowing military personnel out of the country to vote.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

— Senators unanimously approved a Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, bill to establish a program to help track down suspects in the death or severe injury of law enforcement officers.

Known as a “blue alert” system, it would be similar to the amber alert program of alerting the public to child abductions. A blue alert would be issued statewide when an officer is killed or badly hurt.

Ingebrigtsen said a blue alert might be issued once or twice a year.

— Negotiators are considering how to spend revenue from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008, known as the Legacy Fund, but remain a few million apart on some issues.

In general, negotiators are close. They propose giving clean water programs $225 million to $226 million, arts and culture programs about $100 million and parks and trails programs nearly $90 million.

Forum News Service reporter Robb Jeffries contributed to this report.

What’s the deal with lack of a deal?

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

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

Minnesota legislators are getting antsy.

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

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

Even key budget negotiators are beginning to wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In interviews, Republicans also said they are frustrated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Minnesota House would increase bird flu fight funding as deaths increase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— $3.6 million to Agriculture Department.

— $1.8 million for Board of Animal Health.

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

— $350,000 for Department of Natural Resources.

— $103,000 for Health Department.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The state has about 450 turkey farmers.

Bird flu likely to be around for years

The federal government has spent up to $30 million battling a new strain of flu that resulted in more than 1.6 million Minnesota turkey deaths and experts warn that the issue could go on up to five more years.

“This is something we may have to live with for a number of years,” Dr. John Clifford of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told a Minnesota House agriculture committee Thursday.

Most cases were reported March 5 to April 3, Dr. Carol Cardona of the University of Minnesota said, and as temperatures rise cases may slow down. However, she added, it is likely that the region will experience outbreaks each spring and fall for three to five years unless something is found to slow its spread.

Scientists say they think migrating ducks and geese bring the virus to Minnesota.

“It will reoccur, very, very likely in the fall,” Clifford said, because that is when the wild birds head back south.

Cardona showed legislators a photograph with one turkey left standing in a barn, the rest apparently dead.

“This is horrific,” she said.

Clifford, the USDA chief veterinarian, said his department has about 60 staff members in Minnesota fighting avian influenza. “We will continue this effort as long as it takes.”

Fifty full-time state employees are working on the issue, along with 15 temporary and 18 contract workers.

Warmer weather across Minnesota may be helping slow the outbreak.

“I am hopeful that the sunshine that we see today is leading to the end of this wave,” Cardona said.

Rep. Jennifer Schultz, D-Duluth, wondered what can be done to prevent bird flu from spreading.

“We are looking at a situation that has changed overnight,” Cardona said, indicating there is no firm answer. “We no longer are living in the same world as we were.”

That said, she added that procedures need to be continually improved to keep the virus out of turkey barns.

Northfield-area turkey producer John Zimmerman said that already is happening.

“Before, we would wash our boots,” Zimmerman said about when workers went from barn to barn. “Now we have separate boots.”

He said visitors are not allowed in barns.

Executive Director Steve Olson of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association said the procedures are working because there is no evidence virus is spreading from one barn to another or one farm to another.

The virus, probably coming from waterfowl flying through the area, can be attached to dust or other particles blowing in the wind.

While the issue is serious, Olson also tried to put it in perspective. Twenty-six of 2,500 flocks in the state have been infected. The infected flocks are in 14 counties, the state Board of Animal Health reported Thursday.

Minnesota is the country’s largest turkey producer, with 46 million birds a year.

Some countries and states have banned Minnesota turkeys although federal and state officials say there is no evidence that the bird flu has been transmitted to humans.

In a conference call with reporters, Clifford said the USDA is working with countries to try to reopen turkey sales. Mexico, China, South Korea and South Africa ban all American poultry and some other countries ban only Minnesota birds

“We are hopeful we can get things reopened in regards to Mexico,” Clifford said about a major American poultry buyer.

Experts say there is nothing to fear about Minnesota turkeys.

Any bird with the virus “will never, ever enter the food chain,” state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said.

The federal government has spent $15 million to compensate Minnesota turkey producers for birds they had to euthanize. Insurance is not available for turkey deaths.

Clifford said that up to $15 million more has been spent on other needs, and the federal government is considering whether more is needed in Minnesota.

The state House Thursday evening unanimously approved a measure to pay the Agriculture Department $514,000 and the Board of Animal Health $379,000 for state expenses.

More state money is likely to be needed and legislative leaders are considering it. A House committee already has approved a $1.2 million appropriation.

“We want to get it right,” Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, of the House Agriculture Finance Committee said.

Legislators ready to up bird flu funding

Hamilton

Hamilton

Minnesota legislators are reacting to avian flu by providing money for state agencies to attack the spreading outbreak.

The Minnesota House agriculture finance committee Tuesday night voted to add nearly $1.8 million to the fight and its chairman said more is on the way.

Chairman Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said no one knows how much money is needed, adding that House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin understand the importance of providing funds to combat the disease that has resulted in about 1.5 million turkey deaths in the state in the past month and a half.

Legislators have until May 18 to pass a budget for the next two years, but if avian influenza costs after that Gov. Mark Dayton could call them back into special session.

Santo Cruz of the state Agriculture Department said employees of his department are being sent into the field to work on the situation quickly.

“We don’t have our green (accountant) visors on, we are just out there responding,” he said.

The House committee approved $550,000 to fund overtime and other unexpected costs through the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30, with another $1.2 million for the next two-year budget that could be used to combat animal or plant diseases.

The Agriculture Department has hired more than 20 temporary workers for immediate needs, he added. “It is a cash flow problem; we don’t have the cash on hand to fund them.”

The department, Board of Animal Health and Health Department are working with federal authorities on the outbreak.

Tuesday night’s meeting came hours after officials announced that 22 flocks have been wiped out by the flu and euthanasia, and the impact probably will continue to spread.

“I just got some sad news from my district,” Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said about the first flock in his district being hit by the flu.

“It is sad to see someone’s business go down,” Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, said. “Very frustrating.”

Minnesota produces about 46 million turkeys a year, more than any other state.

Committee members from both parties supported adding funds, but many Democrats were unhappy that the money generally came from the Agriculture Utilization Research Institute, which helps provide better ways to market farm products.

“That is not the road we like to be down that is a very fundamentally sound, innovative, program,” Rep. Jeanne Poppe, D-Austin, said.

Hamilton that it was important to at least include some money in the agriculture finance bill so it can be discussed as the House, Senate and Dayton enter final budget negotiations.

“This is a work in progress,” Hamilton said. “I can’t stress that enough.”

Poppe explained how farmers see the flu issue: “It is like a tornado that is coming and it is constantly coming, and they never know if they are going to get hit.”

Bonding: Dayton for big spending as GOP backs little, if any

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

Dayton, Frans and bonding map

Hallock city officials in northwestern Minnesota want the state to borrow $255,000 to help replace a fire station, $360,000 to replace a swimming pool and $400,000 for sewage system improvements.

In southeast Minnesota’s Red Wing area, requests for state money include $14.8 million for a railroad overpass, $4.5 million for a downtown “renaissance,” $16 million for port improvements, $550,000 for Minnesota State Southeast Technical College repairs and $935,000 for the Minnesota correctional facility in Red Wing.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday said he wants the state to fund those and nearly 180 more projects across the state by selling $842 million in bonds. Republicans and the Senate leader were not on board, but even GOP legislators who have talked against a 2015 bonding bill did not completely rule one out.

Dayton said that his proposal would help Minnesota’s economy by allowing the state to “do what every smart business does, to lay the foundation for a better a better future.”

The Democratic governor said that now is when the state should sell bonds to finance projects with low interest rates. “What better time do we have to make these investments?”

Even Dayton admitted that it is a stretch to think legislators will grant his wish, given Republican reluctance to borrow the money. However, in the hours after Dayton announced his bonding proposal, Republicans gave bonding supporters some hope.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Republicans have no plans to pass a bonding bill this year but didn’t shut the door entirely.

“We are open to listening if the governor thinks some of these projects are timely,” Daudt said. “But we certainly are not planning for one right now.”

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said that he would consider a bonding bill, even if many Republicans want nothing. “I have been here nine years and I have never seen zero yet. This is pretty normal.”

The senator added: “Give it a little time to digest and see what happens.”

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that he fears if a big bonding bill like Dayton wants passes this year, the governor will push another big one next year (Dayton said that if his passes this year, he may propose a $200 million to $250 million one next year).

“I don’t know that we are going to see anything, but if there is (it must be) very, very modest,” Hann said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said he has instructed bonding Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, to draw up a basic bonding bill that includes statewide needs such as college repairs, but not local projects such as Hallock and Red Wing officials hope to see.

“That is not the real work of this session,” Bakk said about a major bonding bill. “The budget is our priority for this session.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he was happy to see Dayton included $48 million to complete southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system. He said that Lewis and Clark should be in a bonding bill unless lawmakers and Dayton opt to pay cash for it.

Lewis and Clark is the largest single project Dayton put in his plan. The proposal also includes $65 million to build four railroad overpasses or underpasses in Willmar, Prairie Island Indian Community, Moorhead and Coon Rapids, places where trains transporting crude oil travel.

Dayton’s office said that $360 million of the projects would be in greater Minnesota, $321 million in the Twin Cities and $161 million for statewide programs. A quarter of the money would go to education facilities.

Dayton said that his office received $1.9 billion in project requests and many items that he included in his plan could use more money. “We could spend $800 million on rail safety,” Dayton said.

“This bonding bill addresses high-priority needs,” Commissioner Myron Frans of Minnesota Management and budget said.

Dayton said that projects like the Hallock pool and the southwest water system are important: “It makes a lot of difference to the people.”

St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Doug Belden contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

 

Farmers look to Legislature for expansion paths

Eken

Eken

Minnesota farmers want state leaders to help them expand to new markets.

They are ready to enter a new era of producing crops that can be made into products ranging from rope to ink, but rural legislators say some laws must change first.

House and Senate committees Wednesday approved measures written to help those advances. One would allow industrial hemp research, while the other would provide incentives to produce advanced biofuels that could be used for more products than the current ethanol.

The biofuel bill could have the most immediate impact since the federal government still restricts growing hemp.

“This bill takes advantage of Minnesota’s abundant forest and agriculture feedstocks,” Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, said about his plan to provide subsidies to makers of advanced biofuels used for fuel, heat and chemicals.

“The worldwide advanced biofuels market will be over $185 billion by 2021, and we want to be leaders right here in Minnesota,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.

Hamilton, who sponsors the House version of the Saxhaug bill, said increased production of biofuels and renewable chemicals would lessen the existing use of fossil fuels and be an economic boon to the state.

To receive the state grants, at least 80 percent of raw materials would have to come from Minnesota, or in cases of plants near the state’s borders, they would need to come from within 100 miles.

Brigid Tuck of the University of Minnesota Extension Service predicted that $837 million of economic activity would occur in the state if the bill passes. She said it would create more than 3,000 jobs.

Seven advanced biofuel facilities are under construction, she said.

Ethanol usually is made from corn and biodiesel from soybeans. Advanced biofuels could be made from many other inputs, including sugar beets, wood waste, crop wastes and alfalfa.

John Warren of GreenBiologics, which operates CentralMNRenewables in Little Falls, said his plant is converting from traditional ethanol to produce n-butanol and acetone instead. The new products, which need little new equipment to make, will include paint, ink, adhesives, cleaners, heating fuels, food ingredients and lubricants, he said.

“It can take some time to grow those markets and there can be some growing pains,” Warren said, which the proposed state grants can help.

The way the Saxhaug and Hamilton bills are written, Warren said, the state would not pay money to build advanced biofuel plants, just pay once they are producing goods.

“There is going to be a lot of money coming into the state before the state has to pay any money out,” Warren said.

State payments would be made for 10 years. If the concept advances, the amount available for grants will be part of a budget bill later this year.

Environmentalists complain that using biofuel inputs such as corn would lead to more soil erosion.

Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership told senators that they should encourage growing crops like alfalfa, which are not plowed under annually, to provide cover that would hold down erosion.

Lawmakers also advanced a bill that would allow industrial hemp research in Minnesota.

“It would be a very limited basis,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said.

A new federal farm law allows such limited hemp growing, but still outlaws using it as a crop.

In committees, Eken and Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, passed around products made from hemp, which is legal to grow in Canada.

Eken said their bill “positions us well” if growing hemp as a farm crop is legalized. Once farmers begin growing it as a crop, he said, manufacturing facilities would be built nearby.

Hemp is used in food, ropes, cement, clothing, soap, paper and other products.

Thom Petersen of Minnesota Farmers Union said there is a “tremendous interest in hemp” among the state’s farmers. Its growing season is similar to corn, but needs little fertilizer and insecticide.

The biofuel and hemp bills have numerous committee stops before reaching votes by the full House and Senate.

Jonathan Mohr of the nonpartisan House Session Daily contributed to this story.

Greater Minnesota officials seek apartment-building aid

Greater Minnesota leaders say that apartment houses may be the answer to their housing shortages.

The Greater Minnesota Partnership and Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities propose a state program to give grants and tax credits to companies willing to erect apartment buildings in cities without enough housing for jobs already available.

“There is not the ability of the private sector to respond,” Rick Goodemann of Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership said. “It’s a complicated problem.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, chief author of a bill designed to help fix that problem, said that greater Minnesota’s economy cannot grow unless there is more housing for workers.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” he said.

The problem is that businesses from AGCO farm equipment maker in southern Minnesota to Digi-Key in the northwest have jobs open, but struggle filling them. Even if they can find workers, there often are no homes available nearby.

It is a different problem than a shortage of homes for low-income Minnesotans, said Dan Dorman of the Greater Minnesota Partnership and a former state lawmaker. The apartments need to be for workers in decent-paying jobs, he said, which is what many manufacturers and others have available.

After the financial crisis hit in 2008, Goodemann recently told a House committee, state policy shifted to preventing foreclosures and homelessness, and preserving the state’s aging stock of existing affordable housing. That came with less emphasis on building new housing, leading to what he termed “a broken market.”

“It’s a real challenge,” City Administrator Larry Kruse of Thief River Falls said.

The city’s multifamily housing stock is old and new construction is expensive to build. The city does not want a lack of housing to limit job growth, Kruse said.

In Kruse’s community, Digi-Key employs 3,200 people and would like to hire 250 more but has expanded operations in Fargo, N.D., instead of Thief River Falls.

In many border areas, such as near Hamilton’s southwestern Minnesota district, workers are imported from nearby states. “We want them here,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton’s bill and one by Sen. Dan Sparks, D-Austin, in the Senate would:

— Provide a tax credit for all or much of the apartment construction cost for small investors.

— Allow a 30 percent tax credit for larger investors.

— Give grants for building greater Minnesota apartments, as long as the developer provides as much money as the grant.

The rural groups want $100 million in the next two-year state budget, $60 million to cover the tax credits and $40 million for grants.

The program would be limited to communities with little available rental housing and open jobs.

Nearly 2,000 apartments could be built in two years, said Chris Henjum of the partnership.

The bill requires that apartments be built where roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure already exist.

Hamilton said he thinks people would move into the new apartments, but soon would buy houses. That would leave apartments available to new employees, he added.

Backers of the Hamilton bill said that once some apartments are built, private investors will build more.

“It’s just a start,” Tim Flaherty of the cities’ coalition said of the apartment bill.

Moody’s, a company that analyzes the state’s economic health, said in a report that “Minneapolis is positioned to thrive. The rest of the state, meanwhile, has struggled with unsteadiness in manufacturing and agriculture.”

Chris Steller of the nonpartisan Minnesota House publication Session Daily contributed to this story.

Some Republicans question Tomassoni’s new job

By John Myers

Some Republicans in the Minnesota Senate said Monday they may pursue ethics charges against state Sen. Dave Tomassoni if he keeps a new appointment as head of an Iron Range lobbying group in addition to his Senate job.

Senate Republicans said they may file an ethics complaint against Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, if he keeps both his position as state senator and as head of the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools.

“It should go without saying that a sitting Minnesota Senator cannot take a job as a lobbyist and expect to keep his seat in the Senate,’’ Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said in a statement. “If this was a trial balloon, Sen. Tomassoni needs to call it back.”

Tomassoni last week was named as the new RAMS executive director. The group was formed in the 1970s mostly to look after the interests of Iron Range local governments — school boards, city councils and townships — at the state Capitol.

Tomassoni defended the RAMS position, saying it’s no different than other lawmakers holding jobs outside the Legislature. He said his salary for the RAMS job would be $45,000 and that the group’s board will hire a second person to conduct lobbying.

That’s a change from past practice, where the RAMS director did both administrative and lobbying duties.

“My job (with RAMS) is going to be administrative, not lobbying … I’m not going to be a lobbyist,’’ Tomassoni said. “It’s no different than having teachers on the education committee or a lawyer chairing the judiciary committee or a farmer chairing the agriculture committee.”

Tomassoni has said he will take a leave from the RAMS job during legislative sessions, much the way the many teachers in the Legislature take leave from their school jobs.

Not all Republicans at the Capitol were critical, however. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, and Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, issued a statement Monday defending Tomassoni.

“Serving in the legislature is a part-time job. Legislators have the right to hold employment outside the legislature that does not involve lobbying and is not a conflict of interest,’’ the statement noted. “In all our interactions with Senator Tomassoni, he has upheld the highest standards of ethics and integrity. We disagree with those who have been critical of the Senator’s new employment.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, also defended his fellow Ranger, saying Tomassoni has correctly hired an attorney to ask the state Campaign Finance Board to determine if any conflict exists.

“The Campaign Finance Board is the institution intended to resolve and advise on potential conflicts of interest concerning public officials. When they return their advisory opinion Sen. Tomassoni will have clear direction,’’ Bakk said in a statement.

Tomassoni, 62, first was elected to the Minnesota House in 1992 and served four terms. In 2000 he was elected to the state Senate, where he has served since. He is chairman of the Environment, Economic Development and Agriculture Budget Division of the Senate Finance Committee.

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

 

Elderly, disabled care top priorities

Schomacker

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

The top priority for many rural Minnesota legislators is to improve state funding sent to elderly and disabled care programs.

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, puts that in his top three priorities — along with transportation and education — and most rural members agree.

Not only are such programs good for the people they serve, but lawmakers say nursing homes and other care programs are among the biggest businesses in many rural communities.

Rural nursing homes, which are closing in increasing numbers, often serve as training locations for nurses, Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said. Once trained, nurses leave for bigger cities and more money.

Schomacker, who will head the House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee, said a priority should be changing that trend.

“We are greatly underfunding these programs,” Schomacker said of nursing homes and other programs for the disabled and elderly.

Rural programs are especially hurting, many legislators said, because they receive far less money than those in the Twin Cities.

“A senior is a senior in Minnesota,” Schomacker said.

Finding money for the elderly and disabled could be difficult.

“It’s a priority for everybody until it is time to write the check,” Schomacker said.

While legislative leaders of both parties and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton agree no general tax increase will be needed next year, there is talk, even from some generally anti-tax Republicans, that higher taxes could be needed to help nursing homes.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, proposes several initiatives to improve funding by increases in taxes.

For elderly and disabled care provided in the home, he suggests a Minnesota tax that would kick in above the level of federal Social Security tax. This year, that would be above $117,000.

Although he said that he does not expect that idea to pass as he proposes it, he wants it to begin a conversation about funding the programs. “It is a good starting point for starting discussions.”

Nursing homes did not want to be included in the bill for home-bound care and plan to offer their own plan to boost state funding.

The Long Term Care Imperative is looking to reform funding next session for nursing homes, assisted living communities and home-and-community-based services that serve the elderly.

A spokeswoman said the group is in the final stages of preparing its plan, which not only would boost funding but improve quality of care.

Rural legislators have varying stories about nursing homes in their areas, from districts that have experienced homes closing to those where nursing home administrators report they are in financial trouble and barely able to stay open. The problem is much less in the Twin Cities.

“If legislators would take the time and visit with the individuals (residents) from the nursing homes … they would understand they have been underserved,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.