By Danielle Killey and Don Davis
Organizations that took the lead in an election fight to ban gay marriage will keep working as Minnesota lawmakers debate the issue, and even debate whether to debate the issue.
Minnesotans United for All Families will continue its work to legalize gay marriage while the leader of anti-gay marriage Minnesota for Marriage says that group needs to keep up the fight, too.
On Nov. 6, voters defeated an attempt to outlaw gay marriage in the state Constitution. But the ban remains in state law.
Democratic leaders generally support gay marriage, but have hesitated embracing a law change in 2013.
The November vote only meant that “people don’t want to stop that discussion fully,” House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “They don’t want to lock into our state Constitution a definition of marriage.”
Discussions need to continue, he said. In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court plans to take up a gay marriage case that could overrule anything Minnesota does.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he knows bills will be introduced to allow gay marriage, but he does not favor that debate in the legislative session beginning Jan. 8.
“The more pressing thing probably this session is the budget,” Bakk said.
Chairman John Helmberger of Minnesota for Marriage is not buying DFLers’ talk.
“Don’t be fooled by the public statements made by the majority leaders in our new Legislature,” Helmberger wrote in a fundraising appeal to gay marriage opponents. “Right now, gay marriage activists are pressing our new Legislature and their ally Gov. Dayton to redefine marriage, just as we warned would happen throughout the amendment campaign.”
Indeed, pro-gay marriage groups are looking at how they can overturn the ban.
An Associated Press study showed that more than a quarter of the state’s 201 legislators live in districts that voted opposite how their parties stand on the marriage issue (Democrats generally were in favor of gay marriage and Republicans opposed). That leaves a big question mark on how legislators might vote on the issue.
Incoming Assistant Senate Majority Leader Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, has her sights set on improving the state’s election process as incoming chairwoman of the Senate elections subcommittee.
“I will be looking into, as part of that committee, why some of the lines for voting were so long,” Sieben said.
“I also think that we’ll have a robust discussion about early voting,” she said.
Early voting would allow Minnesotans to head to cast ballots before Election Day. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has suggested Minnesota should explore the option, as other states have implemented a similar system.
Sieben said discussions about campaign finance reform will be raised as well.
“I also think there’s more we can do around campaign finance reform to increase the amount of disclosure that people running for office and elected officials need so the public is more aware of what potential sources of conflict that person could have,” she said.
Gov. Mark Dayton also has mentioned campaign reform as a top priority for 2013.
Dayton often has said he only will sign a major campaign law change if it arrives on his desk with broad bipartisan support.
Two Republican legislators with long law enforcement backgrounds want to allow teachers to carry guns.
Two key Democrats oppose the concept.
“I would absolutely be open to personnel in the school who are certified and trained to have the option to do that,” Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said. “They will have to be trained. I just don’t think that is unreasonable.”
Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, also proposes arming some school employees.
Ingebrigtsen said that the principal at the Connecticut school where 20 students died in December did the noble thing in trying to stop the gunman, and got herself killed in the process. If she had a gun, the senator said, maybe she could have saved lives.
“I don’t think too many people will disagree,” Ingebrigtsen said.
Two key people do disagree. Gov. Mark Dayton said that it does not make sense to arm school personnel and House Speaker-designate Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said such a bill will not pass the House.
It’s a start
Paying back money owed to Minnesota schools pleases legislators, but many say it is only a beginning of what needs to be done to help schools.
“I am encouraged the state is able to pay our school districts a portion of what was borrowed from them,” Sen.-elect Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said. “It was an unwise decision to take funds from schools in the first place and this is a positive outcome from the forecast
Even after a $1.3 billion payback, the state still will owe schools $1.1 billion.
“It’s important to come up with a plan to repay school dollars,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader-elect Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said.
Education funding should be fair among districts, but that no longer is the case, Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said.
Voter-approved property tax increases work well in districts with plenty of money, but not elsewhere, he said. That creates disparities.
“It really hurts the districts that have difficulty even approving a referendum,” said Marquart, incoming House Education Finance Committee chairman.
Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbook, said property tax votes are “divisive in our communities.”
To bond or not
A strong movement appears to be forming to approve a public works funding bill in 2013, but most state leaders say that work must wait until after a budget is written.
They are reluctant to discuss how big a bill they could support.
“We are almost required to” approve what is known as a bonding bill, Gov. Mark Dayton said, because a state Capitol renovation project already has begun and more than $200 million is needed to finish it.
“I have not spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Dayton said, but added that if there is a bonding bill, he will propose funding civic center construction projects in St. Cloud, Mankato and Rochester.
The governor also mentioned the need to help fund Minneapolis veterans’ home work.
“Our priority is the budget,” House Minority Leader-elect Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said, “The bonding bill is not off the table, we are open to talking out it.”
Daudt indicated Capitol work is a good use of bonding money: “It is a treasure to the state and we need to talk about it.”
Other Republicans are not as receptive.
“I don’t know why after a billion dollars of bonding in the last two sessions that we’d be jumping into more bonding in a non-bonding session,” Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville said. “But obviously you always have to look at what the proposal is before you pass judgment.”
The Legislature must deal with the budget in 2013 and usually reserves big bonding bills for even-numbered years.
Frowning on fees
Gov. Mark Dayton does not rule out raising fees, but hints that method of raising revenue is not honest.
“It is something I would be very reluctant” to approve, Dayton said.
“We have not made an evaluation yet whether that is warranted or not,” he added.
Recent fee increases, instead of tax hikes, have brought Minnesota fees “out of line with many other states,” Dayton said. “I see that as part of the honesty that we need to reinstate in our budget. … Let’s do it straight up, not back door.”
Republicans in charge of the Legislature the last two years pushed initiatives to help businesses, such as lowering taxes, as ways to improve the Minnesota economy.
Democrats who take legislative control Jan. 8 look more at making sure existing programs have adequate funding.
“Make sure the people in the workforce are well trained and that businesses have good employees,” Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, said is a key. “We deal with some of the not large economic issues, but the smaller day-to-day details of making sure you have a good workforce and a good infrastructure.”
Skoe and other Democrats say that education beginning in early childhood helps produce good workers.
Sen.-elect Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, said lawmakers need to find ways to reduce business property taxes, “which is becoming the No. 1 tax burden on businesses today in our area. It is driving more businesses out than any other tax.”
Laws lowering costs for firms near the borders of low-tax states like North Dakota and South Dakota need to remain in place, Eken added.
“It is very, very real that we have businesses right in the district that I serve that have left our area because of the tax climate and have gone to Sioux Falls,” Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.
At the same time, Hamilton added, tax-cut programs like the Jobs Opportunity Building Zones law helps attract businesses.
Incentives for businesses to invest in rural Minnesota are important, he said.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said the economy again will be a priority, but warned Democrats’ policies could put it in jeopardy.
“We’re looking at a situation here where we’ve got somewhat of a fragile economic recovery that’s happening here,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we do not enact policies that will stifle the progress in the alacrity with which this economy will recover.”
One of those policies could be raising taxes, Drazkowski said.
Sand mining an issue
Sand mining for hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is an issue on the minds of many lawmakers, especially in rural areas.
They differ somewhat in their opinion of how the state should be involved but agree the issue will be raised during the upcoming legislative session.
“I think we’ll have some discussion about the mining issue, especially in southeastern Minnesota as it affects the Mississippi River,” Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said.
He said the state probably will not have a major role except when it comes to issues with transportation.
“We need to look at the taxes we’re collecting when we extract minerals from the ground, and if are they adequate to cover all the costs associated with that work,” he said, referring to roads that might need to be repaired or built for trucks transporting the materials. “We don’t want the other taxpayers subsidizing the gravel operation.”
Sand is a key ingredient to the fracking process that used by oil and gas producers. Sand mining is a booming industry, but one that has environmental and other opponents who have slowed its growth.
“I think there will be questions asked and legislation discussed to look at ways that this industry can operate in Minnesota and, to the best of our ability, help protect the environment,” Assistant Senate Majority leader-elect Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said.
Some Minnesota cities and counties have put in temporary moratoriums on mining while they explore the issue and pen regulations.
When asked about it, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders said they expected to deal with the sand mining issue, but could offer no specifics.
Senator back mining
New forms of mining on Minnesota’s Iron Range, with all Democratic representation, received support from a Republican.
“The amount of potential up there … is similar to what North Dakota has with oil,” declared Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria.
Revenue western North Dakota’s oil wells are bringing in allow that state to both lower taxes and spend more money, nearly the only state in the country doing that. North Dakota only trails Texas in oil production and is the country’s fastest-growing state.
Ingebrigtsen said Iron Range lawmakers need to work harder to overcome what he called environmentalist roadblocks to the mines that would produce nickel, copper and other valuable materials.
Schools statewide would be among the biggest beneficiaries of increased tax revenue from new mines, the senator said.
“Those folks have third- and fourth-generation miners sitting up there unemployed,” Ingebrigtsen said. “They need something up there.”
‘Save rural fund’
A fund set up to help rural Minnesota, with $10 million in it now, needs to be saved, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said.
The money had been allocated to pay ethanol producers when that fuel was being developed. Since that program is ending, legislative agriculture leaders got a law passed to divert the money into a rural fund instead.
The money could be used for an agriculture museum, FFA, 4-H, new agriculture businesses and other uses, Hamilton said.
However, he fears a Twin Cities-dominated House leadership will try to move the money into environmental programs. He plans a bill to keep most of it for ag.
“I believe that over the last decade, maybe even the last multiple decades, that we have done a very poor job of educating the public about where this food comes from.” Hamilton said, and this fund could reverse that course.