Budget surplus: $1.9 billion

Minnesota’s budget surplus has ballooned to $1.9 billion, state officials announced this morning.

The surplus, more than double what lawmakers had when they finished work in June, drops to $1.2 billion when $665 million is allocated to reserves and to make payments required by state law.

The money is projected to be available for the current budget, which ends June 30, 2017. The announcement gives state officials an idea about how much they can spend during the 2016 legislative session, which begins March 8.

Minnesota’s two-year budget funded by state taxpayers is $42 billion.

While the budget was set earlier this year, Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators have ideas about how to spend more money. Dayton, for instance, wants to increase education spending every year and in recent days began advocating for money to help reduce economic disparities between black and white Minnesotans.

Moments after the surplus number was released, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, gave the GOP’s priority for added money: “We should immediately approve the roads and bridges plan put forward by Republicans in the 2015 session and give the rest of the surplus back to taxpayers.”

Next year’s session will last less than three months, in part because nearly all of the Capitol building is closed for renovation, so the time to make budget changes may be limited.

Advocates of home and community-based care givers for the elderly and disabled and transportation supporters this week were the first to announce their desires for more money. Other interest groups are expected to follow, especially in light of the growing surplus.

Further details of the budget forecast were to be announced later today.

“Minnesota’s budget outlook has improved from previous estimates despite a weaker economic outlook,” Minnesota Management and Budget reported this morning.

A new budget and revenue forecast will come in late February or early March, giving lawmakers and Dayton an updated look at how much they have to spend.


Political chatter: Students, teachers lobby for college credit courses

Leave it to “real people,” as compared to lobbyists and government officials, to grab attention in legislative hearings.

Youths, especially, get lawmakers’ ears.

Natalie Resch was among Windom Area High School students who told Minnesota House and Senate higher education committee members that they should fight to maintain classes, taught by high school teachers, that provide both high school and college credits.

The senior said she will save $15,000 by earning 31 college credits before graduating from high school. And, she said, she is prepared.

“I can safely say I will be ready for college next fall,” Resch told legislators.

The classes that offer both high school and college credits include tests “at least five times harder than any I had taken before,” she added.

Windom math teacher Aniessa Sebring said instructors like her who teach “concurrent” classes have “been completely vetted by the university we are affiliated with.”

At issue is a plan by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges in 19 states, to require each college instructor to hold a master’s degree in the field he or she teaches or a master’s degree in another field and 18 credits in the field he or she teaches by 2017. That would include high school teachers who teach concurrent classes.

Commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley heard nearly four hours of testimony Thursday, mostly from those who oppose her organization’s plan. She said she will take what she heard back to her board. While promising to “work collaboratively on this,” Gellman-Danley made no promises that the plan would be reversed.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, has offered a potential remedy to the situation, which will remain alive when state lawmakers return to session in March. It would provide tax credits to teachers or teacher prospects to earn master’s degrees in the areas they teach.

“This is something I have been working on for the better part of a decade and this situation might help create some urgency,” said Urdahl, who taught social studies in the New London-Spicer district for more than 30 years. “Not enough of our teachers have master’s degrees and the vast majority who do are not teaching subjects related to it.”

Minnesota pulls in taxes

Minnesota is No. 4 nationally in pulling in more tax money since the recession of 2008 and 2009.

The Pew Charitable Trusts looked at data and reported a 17.9 percent increase in Minnesota tax collections since the end of 2008.

Of course, that pales in comparison to the 119 percent increase North Dakota experienced, thanks to its Bakken oil boom. While North Dakota tax collections have fallen off in the past year as oil prices tumble, the state still looks to be in good shape compared to many others.

Illinois and Colorado reported tax receipt increases slightly greater than Minnesota. Twenty-seven states are collecting less money, when adjusted for inflation, than during the recession.

While Republicans often said that lowering taxes would help businesses be more profitable and result in higher tax collections, the Pew numbers do not support that. Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin cut taxes since the recession, Pew reported, and collected less money. States such as Minnesota, Illinois and California raised taxes and reported more state revenue.

Pew does not take a stand on whether raising or lowering taxes is the best way to fill state coffers.

Averaging all 50 states, tax revenues are 4 percent higher than at the end of 2008.

“This means that states collectively had four additional cents of purchasing power for every dollar’s worth that they had in 2008,” Pew explains.

Franken plans book

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar released a book earlier this year, so now Sen. Al Franken plans his own.

The Washington media caught wind of Franken’s plans in recent days, but little is known about its topic or when it might hit bookstores. He has hired a lawyer to pitch the book to publishers.

A Star Tribune Washington reporter said the book is said to be a “psychological thriller” that draws from his background as a comedian and then working in dysfunctional Washington. The Minnesota Democrat has written five satirical books.

Klobuchar’s book, “The Senator Next Door,” was released this summer.

Crisis Link help ready

The new Crisis Link Web page can connect Minnesotans with urgent needs to state and other services.

MinnesotaHelp.info includes a link that allows people with urgent mental health, substance abuse, housing, health, job, transportation and other needs to find help. However, state officials say that those who face immediate danger should call 9-1-1.

“We want to make sure that people know there is a single place, the Crisis Link, they can go to get information and phone numbers for … professionals and agencies that meet a variety of immediate needs,” said Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.

Crisis Link has an extensive listing of contact information for organizations, primarily government and nonprofit agencies, including suicide and domestic violence hotlines. It features an online chat service available from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

Tax bill passage sets up final negotiations

The Democrat-controlled Minnesota Senate voted Monday for tax cuts a fraction of the size that Republicans in the House want, sending negotiators into what could be a contentious final two weeks of the legislative session.

The Senate tax bill and a House agriculture funding bill that also passed Monday are the final parts of the two chambers’ money plans. Now, conference committees take the spotlight as differences between the chambers, in some cases massive differences, need to be worked out by May 18 to avoid a government shutdown.

No serious negotiations had begun by Monday, but several Wednesday House-Senate conference committees meetings were scheduled. No high-level talks among the governor and legislative leaders were planned.

The tax bill passed 42-25. Sens. Paul Gazelka of Nisswa, Dave Senjem of Rochester and Carla Nelson of Rochester were the only three Republicans to vote for the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, has said the tax bill is not mandatory to pass this session, but it contains provisions his party likes, such as aid increases the state would send local governments.

Sen. Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said his tax bill “sets Minnesota up for success (with) targeted tax relief.”

The Senate tax chairman said the legislation would give property tax relief to all categories other than railroads, which are slated to pay more under a Senate Democratic transportation plan.

Tax relief would come through several actions, Skoe said, including “significant commitments to partnerships” with local governments. Increased state aid to cities, counties and townships, worth $54 million, are in the bill with the idea that more state money means they could cut local property taxes.

His bill would bring Local Government Aid to cities back to what they got in 2002, a year that was followed by years of cuts or static funding.

The Senate bill also would increase tax breaks for parents of students, businesses that do research and development and provides help for investors looking to build apartments in areas with jobs but not enough housing.

Another provision would increase taxes on seasonal recreational property valued more than $300,000. Skoe said properties at that value are homes, not cabins, and should be taxed more.

The state helps homeowners whose property taxes rise more than 12 percent in a year; the bill would cut that eligible percentage to 10 percent. It also would provide state money to farmers whose property taxes rise at least 8 percent, which is not in current law.

Also in the legislation is a provision that the state would withhold aid to southwestern Minnesota cities and counties if they do not fulfill a requirement to pay their portion of Lewis and Clark water system construction funds.

Republicans criticized Skoe for presenting a tax bill with relatively few tax breaks when the state is projected to have a nearly $2 billion surplus.

When combined with a gasoline tax included in the Senate Democrats’ transportation plan, the overall DFL budget proposal “has huge tax increases, while this bill has a paltry $170 million in tax relief,” Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, said. Skoe considers tax cuts to be more than $200 million.

Republicans tried and tried again to change the Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor tax legislation more to their liking, but mostly failed.

For instance, Gazelka could not convince Democrats to go along with his proposal to eliminate state taxes on veteran pensions. And Senjem failed to win when he moved to eliminate taxes on Social Security payments.

In the House, Republicans said the centerpiece of their bill would provide a family of four $500 over two years. The Dayton administration, however, said it would be more like $130 per household.

One of the most controversial parts of the Republican measure is the elimination of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth Local Government Aid payments.

“In the remaining two weeks of the session, mayors and city leaders from across greater Minnesota will work tirelessly to see that the House changes direction and recommits to meeting the needs of communities by adopting the Senate’s proposal to increase funding for LGA,” said Le Sueur Mayor Bob Broeder, Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities vice president.


Farmers, businesses would get GOP tax breaks

Farmers and businesses would receive at least a quarter of the $2 billion of tax cuts Minnesota House Republican propose.
A GOP bill discussed Wednesday in the House Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division would phase out a statewide property tax on businesses, saving $453 million in the next two-year budget. A credit giving farmland owners refunds would add $49 million to the tax-break total.
Committee Chairman Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that his goal is to reduce “businesses taxes, specifically the statewide business property tax, and the almost-suffocating nature of farm property taxes.” Cabin owners’ state property taxes also would be phased out.
Property taxes levied by the state would be phased out over six years, but they would continue to pay to local governments.
The farmland tax cut is a revised version of what Drazkowski proposed before the legislative session began. It would provide a credit refunding half of what landowners pay for school construction bonding projects.
Current law requires farmland to be assessed for school construction projects, but farmers object because they often own so much land that their unoccupied property ends up footing a larger portion of construction costs than other property. Drazkowski’s bill requires the farm house, garage and one acre to continue to pay full price for school construction.
“Farmers pay 10 times what people in the cities might pay,” Thom Peterson of the Minnesota Farmers Union said.
“When somebody wanted to build a school gym, it ended up pitting neighbor against neighbor, farmer against farmer,” he added.
Past attempts to lower farm taxes have involved proposals that would shift taxes to home or businesses owners. The new proposal would lower taxes by the state paying the farmers, so the tax burden would be spread among all taxpayers.
Because farmers paid so much of construction costs, it became hard for rural school districts to pass bond issues to fund new facilities.
With support in the Senate, too, the Drazkowski plan had advanced further than any similar plan.
“We probably worked on this every year in the 13 years I have been with Farmers Union,” Petersen said.
Southern and western Minnesota, known as “the L,” would be most helped by the Drazkowski bill, Petersen said.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has promised that House Republicans will propose $2 billion in tax cuts focusing on the average Minnesotan. The entire tax package has yet to be unveiled.
The bill also would chop Local Government Aid to Duluth, Minneapolis and St. Paul (saving the state $85 million); repeal political contribution refund ($10 million); and eliminate aquatic invasive species payments to counties ($20 million).
The bill also would boost money available for Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Breckenridge, Moorhead and Ortonville to provide tax breaks $1 million annually in an effort to be competitive with South Dakota and North Dakota.

Political chatter: Dayton strongly fights Republican tax-cut wishes

It is impossible to listen to Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton very long and not realize he hates Republican plans to disperse a state budget surplus by cutting taxes.

A surplus can “evaporate” quickly, he told reporters, adding that the surplus should be used to advance Minnesota.

Dayton said that Republicans’ idea of spending the nearly $2 billion state surplus on tax cuts is just wrong.

“If they insist on that, I will do everything I can to persuade them to change that,” the governor said.

“To wipe out that entire surplus” could hurt the state, Dayton said, as happened when Jesse Ventura was governor and tax cuts he spearheaded adversely affected state budgets for years.

The governor, who polls show maintains popularity, has saved some of his harshest comments for GOP tax cut talk.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they are fighting for tax cuts because that is what Minnesotans want.

House Republicans still are working on their plans, but the Senate GOP announced its proposal Thursday.

“It’s time for families to experience some of the ‘surplus’ enjoyed by state government,” said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville, said. “This plan is pretty simple and straightforward — everyone who pays income taxes will pay less.”

The average tax relief for a couple would be $524 a year, the Republicans said.

Income tax rate reductions would be in addition to exempting Social Security and veterans’ pensions from state income taxes and a tax credit for families with young children.

Hemp lobbying effort

Rep. Mary Franson represents half of Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen’s district and since both are conservative Republicans, people might think they agree on everything.

Think again. Franson is the House author of a bill to allow limited growing of hemp for research, in hopes it someday will be legal to grow hemp as a money crop.

Ingebrigtsen is a former long-time law enforcement official, including Douglas County sheriff, and strongly opposes legal hemp. In fact, he told Forum News Service that legalizing hemp is a baby step to legalizing recreational marijuana, which is related to hemp but has very little of the chemical that can make a person high.

So Franson decided so show Ingebrigtsen what Minnesotans are missing. “Just dropped off some hemp presents to my senator,” she tweeted the day the story about his hemp views appeared. “I’m sure he’ll enjoy them.”

Her gift bag included soap and hemp seed hearts. Hemp, grown just north of Minnesota in Canada, can be made into food, ropes, clothing and dozens of other items. It is illegal to grow in Minnesota.

The Ingebrigtsen story attracted a lot of attention by pro-marijuana websites and prompted pro-hemp Farmers Union lobbyist Thom Peterson to write on Facebook: “Well … not sure what to say about this … More work to do!”

GOP attacks Peterson

The National Republican Congressional Committee is trying to tie U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson to Hillary Clinton’s email scandal.

Peterson had nothing to do with expected presidential candidate Clinton setting up a private email server when she was secretary of state.

“Collin Peterson, however, has not called on Clinton to do so and has said nothing at all about this stunning breach of the public trust,” callers are telling Peterson constituents.

A news release says the calls are an attempt to pressure Peterson “to break his silence and demand transparency from Clinton. …”

Democrat Peterson has said he expects to run for re-election next year and Republicans see his western Minnesota district as ripe for a change.

Pressure for bonds

Capitol observers noted that Gov. Mark Dayton included public works projects in legislative districts held by Republicans.

They say those projects were in the Dayton bonding plan to gain GOP support. Votes from lawmakers in both parties are needed to pass a bonding bill.

“If they don’t want to support this,” Dayton said about Republican lawmakers, “let them go back to their districts and explain.”

Some Republicans did not like the Dayton pressure, and vowed to continue their opposition to a public works bill, which would be funded by the state selling bonds.

However, what had seemed to be unanimous GOP opposition appeared to melt away a bit after Dayton announced his plan Tuesday. Even many Republicans who all along have said there would be no bonding bill, unless an emergency cropped up, left the door open to something much smaller than the governor wants.

Of cigars and communists

A Minnesota Senate committee approved spending $100,000 for the state to develop trading ties with Cuba.

“This is all about cigars,” committee Chairman David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, joked.

Later, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, wondered: “What other communist countries do we do business like this with?”

“China,” Tomassoni responded. “How about China? I think that is a communist country.”

Smartphone proof

Smartphone uses are multiplying by the day and soon Minnesota law enforcement officials may accept them for proof of car insurance.

The House passed 127-0 a bill by Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, to join more than 30 other states in allowing electronic proof-of-insurance “cards.” The state-mandated cards long have been stashed in crowded glove compartments, but if the bill authored by Fabian and Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, becomes law, drivers could pull out their smartphones instead.


Cities that border Dakotas want continued state support

Hutchins, with Rep. Paul Marquart in background

Hutchins, with Rep. Paul Marquart in background

Minnesota legislators who regularly complain that North Dakota and South Dakota lure business away with lower taxes are considering renewing a law in effect since the mid-1980s that gives five western Minnesota communities money to compete with their neighbors to the west.

Deputy City Manager Scott Hutchins of Moorhead told House and Senate committees Wednesday that his community, Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Breckenridge and Ortonville use tax reductions to attract businesses that otherwise could have gone to one of the Dakotas. Money also is used to keep firms in their communities.

“These disparities have only grown greater over time,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said.

Lawmakers discussed the bills Wednesday, and in both chambers they are expected to be folded into overall tax bills due to pass before the May 18 legislative adjournment date.

The current two-year state budget provides $750,000 a year to the five cities, and bills sponsored by Eken and Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston, would up that to $1 million.

“We actually could use more than a million,” Eken said.

In Moorhead alone, more than $300,000 in tax cuts is used to provide businesses aid to make up for Minnesota’s more expensive workers’ compensation program.

Hutchins provided legislators a workers’ comp comparison showing the per-employee premium for a sugar refinery worker in Minnesota is $5,458 while North Dakota charges $957. To help make up that difference, Moorhead used the state program to lower American Crystal Sugar taxes $25,000 last year.

The five cities also help some of businesses because Minnesota taxes are higher than North Dakota. For instance, a Fargo business would pay nearly 20 percent lower property tax rates than one in Moorhead and a Grand Forks business would pay 8 percent less than in East Grand Forks.

East Grand Forks used some of its money to help build a $5 million, 67-bed hotel. Dilworth provided aid to a dentist business expansion and to lure an international corporation, which will have 100 employees, that conducts prescription drug trials.

Kiel said the five cities are the only ones on the border with one of the Dakotas, or in Dilworth’s case adjacent to Moorhead.

“They are right there,” she said. “It is easy to go across the border.”

Kiel said that the bill could help East Grand Forks attract businesses that support the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s new mission of controlling drone aircraft. The border cities bill, she said, could put East Grand Forks on more equal footing with Grand Forks when recruiting businesses.

Strong support for the Kiel-Eken provision came from Bloomington Democratic Rep. Ann Lenczewski, who when she was House Taxes Committee chairwoman included the program in her tax bills.

“With a big (state budget) surplus, we might have a chance to prioritize this,” she said. “This is extremely important.”

Senate Taxes Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said: “We have a couple hundred businesses, more or less, that participate.”


Legislative notes: Budget forecast due Friday

A report that gives Minnesota’s governor and legislators information they need to write a two-year budget will be released Friday.

The so-called budget forecast will look at the economy and revenues coming to the state and predict funds available in the next budget cycle.

Gov. Mark Dayton already has released his budget plan, as required by law, but will tweak it after the Friday report. Legislative leaders will develop their budget based on the Dayton plan and Friday’s forecast, likely with considerable differences from the governor.

An early December forecast predicted the state will have a $1 billion surplus, but good economic reports since then have led many state officials to predict better news Friday.

The actual surplus numbers will be a tightly held secret until Friday morning.

Hemp legalization bill advances in Minnesota House

An effort to legalize hemp in Minnesota continues.

A state House committee Wednesday unanimously approved a bill by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, to allow limited hemp growth. Hemp farming has been illegal in Minnesota since shortly after World War II.

Franson’s bill would allow hemp as a crop if the producer is licensed by the state Agriculture Department and follows federal law, which now only allows researchers to grow the plant.

Hemp is used for products ranging from ropes to clothes.w

It was declared illegal due to its close relationship with marijuana, although using hemp would not make a person high.

Franson said Minnesota hemp farming has a lot of potential and her bill would develop “on a very small scale” the beginnings of a hemp industry in the state.

A similar Senate bill passed its first committee test last week.

Phasing out Social Security tax on seniors considered

A Minnesota House committee dealing with aging Minnesotans voted Wednesday to phase out the tax the state charges on Social Security benefits.

The House Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee sent five bills to get rid of the tax to the Taxes Committee.

If Social Security were not taxed, the average Minnesota senior citizen would save $600 a year, the committee heard.

Most states do not tax Social Security.

Supporters of the bills testified that getting rid of the tax would help Minnesota’s elderly afford to live in their own homes longer.

The bills vary on how long it would take to phase out the tax, with two taking 10 years and the others less time.

Legislative notebook: Smoking drops

Fewer Minnesotans are smoking.

The Department of Health Thursday reported that new study results show smoking fell 14.4 percent since 2010.

“We know that many factors, including tobacco price increases, smoke-free policies, cessation programs and media, combine to reduce smoking prevalence over time,” said Dr. Raymond Boyle of ClearWay Minnesota, an anti-smoking organization that co-sponsored the study. “The new … data suggest that Minnesota’s long-term investment in addressing tobacco use is paying off.”

Nearly 63 percent of smokers surveyed said that a 2013 cigarette tax increase influenced them to try to reduce or quit smoking.

About 580,000 Minnesotans continue to smoke. Those who smoke generally have lower incomes than nonsmokers, more men smoke than women smoke and those who have not graduated from high school have the highest smoking rate.

“Minnesota has made great strides in reducing tobacco use through important health policies, but we can’t become complacent,” Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger said. “The tobacco industry is constantly evolving, and we need to keep up our work to prevent young Minnesotans from becoming addicted to new and novel flavored products.”

Senate OKs tax conformity

Minnesotans can expect an easier tax season, and perhaps giving the state a bit less.

Senators voted 63-0 Thursday for a bill that conforms state taxes to those the federal government charges. That means taxpayers will get more state deductions that match those Washington grants.

The House already passed the bill, so it awaits an expected signature from Gov. Mark Dayton to become law.

While the thrust of the bill is to make life easier for taxpayers, it also could result in up to $20 million more tax breaks for Minnesotans.

“Minnesota taxpayers will have an easier time filing taxes…” Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said. “It is a good government thing to do.”

Disaster relief advances

Minnesota senators voted without opposition to send $17 million for flood recovery to 47 Minnesota counties and three American Indian reservations.

Much of the money in the bill that passed 65-0 comes from money appropriated but not needed for previous disasters. It includes $2.2 million general tax receipts.

The House also is expected to pass the legislation soon and Gov. Mark Dayton likely will sign it into law.

Money will pay for government expenses spent to fight and recover from floods in June 2014.

For most counties and tribes, the federal government paid 75 percent of the expenses, with the state money covering the remaining 25 percent. However, Morrison, Washington and Dakota counties did not qualify for federal assistance, so the state is paying for more of their expenses.

Higher taxes? Take a guess


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.

Let’s face it: What most Minnesotans want to know about the upcoming legislative session is whether lawmakers will raise their taxes.

The answer is a resounding maybe.

In most years, Republicans could be expected to reject any tax increase proposal. But some in the GOP, including a leader or two, say there could be tax increases for priority items such as nursing homes and transportation. Democrats in general are much more open to raising taxes to fund new or expanded programs.

“I don’t think this is the time of year you rule out taxes,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said. “This is the time you throw all the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks.”

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has left the door open, if only slightly, for new tax revenues. Others, however, have securely locked that door.

“Absolutely no new taxes,” Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said.

All of that talk comes at a time when Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders say no general tax increase is needed in 2015.

Nornes promotes the type of revenue increases generally favored by Republicans: Find ways businesses can make more money, allowing the companies to pay more taxes, along with employees who are earning higher wages.

“If we can increase tax revenue without increasing taxes, by just increasing productivity and the economy, that would be the hope that we all have,” Nornes said. “It is kind of a pretty delicate procedure.”

Daudt agreed with Nornes that improving the economy can help. Putting more money in Minnesotans’ pockets, he said, “solves Minnesota’s problems.”

Nornes added: “We have raised so many taxes in the last two years that I think people are fed up.”

Republicans campaigned before the November election against the $2 billion tax increase approved by Dayton and his Democratic legislative colleagues when the DFL controlled the Legislature and governor’s office the past two years.

Some Republicans could consider a tax increase as a top priority. For Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, that exception would be nursing homes.

“At least on the nursing homes, I would support some kind of an increase of some form of tax or revenue increase,” Anderson said. “I think it is that serious out here in rural Minnesota.”

Republicans are talking less this year about tax reductions than in the past, but farm property taxes may be an exception.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa plans to offer a plan that would remove farm property taxes for new school and local government buildings.

Drazkowski said that he will talk to members of the Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division that he leads before coming out with a final plan. The beginnings of the plan were hatched when he talked to some southern Minnesota farmers who said they paid $55 an acre for local government building projects.

“That’s a lot of money when you begin to add up the cost of those property taxes,” he said, adding that the building taxes were not the only items farmers pay.

During his re-election campaign, Dayton said that he leaned against providing special relief for farmers. He said that to so would force other property owners to pay more; to make that change, he said, would take a reform of the entire property tax system.

Drazkowski promised that his committee will hold listening sessions about his and other property tax plans, perhaps including some away from St. Paul.

His committee also will govern state aids paid to local governments, and if he has his way things will change.

Local Government Aid, a program for cities, mostly goes to Minneapolis, St. Paul and greater Minnesota cities. For the most part, suburbs get little if any LGA.

Drazkowski and other Republicans say the program, set up to help cities with little property that can be taxed, should return to its original concept, to pay for fundamental services such as public safety. He said cities like St. Paul and Minneapolis have plenty of property to tax, so do not need LGA.

“Why are we giving Minneapolis $76 million Local Government Aid,” the chairman-to-be asked. “I don’t know.”

While Drazkowski may want to eliminate some cities from the LGA list, and make other changes, he also realizes that the Republican-controlled House cannot dictate such things. “We also have to remember we have got a Democratic Senate and a Democratic governor.”

Minnesota farmland taxes expected to rise

By Don Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Construction spending up, taxes down slightly

Senate in session Friday

By Don Davis

Public construction projects across the state will receive more than $1 billion while some Minnesotans’ property taxes will fall slightly after legislators wrapped up two key bills Friday.

When Gov. Mark Dayton signs the measure, which is expected soon, public works projects will receive $857 million obtained by the state selling bonds, with another $199 million coming from a state budget surplus. The Capitol building is the biggest single project, getting $126 million to finish a multi-year renovation project.

Higher education construction spending, divided among the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses, totals $240 million

While public construction spending is significant, tax cuts are in the cards this year after Democrats in control the Legislature and governor’s office increased them about $2 billion a year ago.

As this year’s legislative session wound down Friday, lawmakers lowered property taxes $103 million, making the year’s total tax cut $556 million in two tax bills.

Just one lawmaker voted against the Friday tax bill, which features an average $410 tax relief for Minnesotans who live on their farms.

Homeowners will see a one-time increase in homestead credit refunds of 3 percent, an average of $837 per home. Renters’ credit refunds will go up 6 percent, an average of $643.

Friday’s tax bill also:

— Provides $4.5 million this year and $10 million a year in the future for 83 counties to manage aquatic invasive species prevention programs.

— Gives 14 rural counties a $500 per-person payment to recruit and retain volunteer first responders, such as firefighters.

— Allows National Guard members’ military pay to be treated like active-duty personnel, lowering their taxes.

— Gives $4.5 million in tax breaks that five cities near North Dakota and South Dakota can give businesses and apartment properties.

— Requires study on the Minnesota impact of the North Dakota oil boom.

Local Government Aid for cities will go up $10 million after lawmakers boosted it $80 million last year. County Program Aid the state increased last year helped most counties, but 11 rural ones ended up losing money; Friday’s bill provides one-time payments to those counties.

Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said last year’s attempt to lower property taxes by giving local governments more state money did not work because property taxes rose.

“I think we need to be very careful,” Osmek said. “Giving local government more money doesn’t equate to tax decreases, it just equates to more spending.”

The bonding bill passed the House and Senate easily, but there were complaints.

Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, said the bill contains plenty of money for Minneapolis and St. Paul, but not enough for the rest of the state. For instance, he said, dams across the state are falling apart and state aid is needed to fix them.

He also complained that the bill lacks enough money for local roads and bridges.

The bonding bill contains funds to build University of Minnesota Twin Cities laboratories to study bees and aquatic invasive species.


Some figures from public works funding bills Minnesota legislators passed Friday:

— Capitol building renovation. $126 million

— University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities asset preservation and replacement. $43 million each

— University of Minnesota Tate laboratory renovation, Minneapolis. $57 million

— Red Lake school construction. $6 million

— Flood prevention programs. $12 million

— Vermillion State Park development. $14 million

— State trail acquisition and development. $17.7 million

— Local bridge replacement. $33 million

— Local road improvements. $54 million

— Minnesota State Security Hospital, St. Peter, remodel. $56 million

— Minnesota Sex Offender Program, St. Peter, remodel. $7 million

— Corrections Department improvements. $18 million

— Housing aid. $100 million

Legislators work toward adjournment

Having a laugh

By Don Davis

Minnesota representatives approved a pair of public works funding bills spending more than $1 billion early today as lawmakers head toward what they hope is adjournment for the year later today.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the public works bills later this morning.

Other major bills left on the legislative agenda for today include medical marijuana, taxes, budget adjustments and a measure to limit online games presented by the state lottery.

Senators planned to be to work at 9 a.m., with the House coming in at 11 a.m.

Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature were ready to crow that they adjourned early this year, even though it was not by much. The state Constitution makes Sunday the last day they could pass bills and orders them to go home Monday.

The most high-profile issue awaiting debate today is allowing Minnesotans with severe medical conditions to use marijuana extracts. People allowed to use the chemicals would include children with seizures, cancer patients with complications and multiple sclerosis patients.

Versions of the bill to be considered today already passed the House and Senate by overwhelming margins.

“We will take it up after we get the major work done,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said.

While the marijuana bill could affect 5,000 Minnesotans with serious medical conditions, part of another bill due for consideration today would affect thousands more.

Legislative budget negotiators early today added a pipeline safety provision Gov. Mark Dayton insisted be included.

The budget bill already contained more than $8 million to improve the safety of trains hauling crude oil, with help for first responders such as fire departments to afford training and new equipment. The addition does the same things for pipelines, which are moving increasingly large amounts of oil and other hazardous products.

Trains and pipelines are being used to move crude oil from western North Dakota, where oil wells are pumping record amounts.

Pipelines will be assessed, as are railroads, to raise money to fund first responder needs.

House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein said pipelines have spilled 18,000 gallons of hazardous materials since the early 1990s, and safety needs to be increased on them as it needs to be on railroads.

Crude oil train derailments have gained lots of publicity in the past year and took the spotlight as legislative committees discussed oil transportation safety. Trucks hauling crude oil got little attention in the Legislature, but Hornstein said they will be to be addressed in future years.

The public works funding bills, partially paid by the state selling bonds and partially with cash from a budget surplus, spends the most for a single project on renovating the state Capitol building: $126 million.

Higher education spending, divided among the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities campuses, totals $240 million.

The most-discussed issue in the bonding bill required two bills to settle it.

Southwest Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water system was left out of an earlier House bonding bill, but Republicans, in particular, demanded it be funded.

The solution was to pay $22 million in budget surplus cash from the public works bills, with another $45 million coming in a tax bill due up later today.

The plan would allow local officials to sell bonds to fund $45 million of project costs. Local governments would repay a third of the bonds over 20 years, with the state paying the other two-thirds, Senate Taxes Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

“We are stepping up,” said House Taxes Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington. “The state is going to pay 85 percent of the whole thing.”

Minnesota is getting involved because the federal government backed off a promise to pay for the system, which is to bring water from near the Missouri River in South Dakota. Federal funds dried up when the project reached the Minnesota-South Dakota line.

“The federal government really has dropped the ball here,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, adding that lack of water is hampering economic growth throughout southwestern Minnesota.

Some projects including in the public works funding bills:

— Capitol building renovation. $126 million

— University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities asset preservation and replacement. $43 million each

— University of Minnesota Tate laboratory renovation, Minneapolis. $57 million

— Red Lake school construction. $6 million

— Flood prevention programs. $12 million borrowed

— Vermillion State Park development. $14 million

— State trail acquisition and development. $17.7 million

— Local bridge replacement. $33 million

— Local road improvements: $54 million

— Minnesota State Security Hospital, St. Peter, remodel. $56.3 million

— Minnesota Sex Offender Program, St. Peter, remodel. $7.4 million

— Corrections Department improvements. $18 million

The bonding bill also contains funds to build University of Minnesota Twin Cities laboratories to study bees and aquatic invasive species.

Representatives began debating the public works bills at 2:15 a.m., nearly seven hours after legislative leaders had agreed to its provisions. Lawmakers waited must of that time while negotiations with the governor went on. Public works debate lasted less than an hour.