Dayton looks for unity

Dayton gets directions

Uniting Minnesota is one of Gov. Mark Dayton’s goals as he begins his second, and final, term as the state’s chief executive.

“What helps some Minnesotans usually helps all of us,” Dayton said in his Monday inaugural address to about 400 invited guests. “So let’s cheer each other’s successes, not resent them.”

The governor, who at 67 has said he will not run again, complained that Minnesotans divide themselves up into camps: “There’s greater Minnesota against the metro area. Central cities vs. suburbs.  Urban schools against rural districts. East metro vs. west metro. Cities, counties and townships compared to other cities, counties and townships.”

The former U.S. senator, state auditor and economic development commissioner called for state residents to become “one Minnesota.”

“Someone always believes that someone else is getting a better deal,” Dayton said in his speech at St. Paul’s Landmark Center. “Those rivalries are not going to disappear. However, they cannot be permitted to blind us to the larger truth that we are all one Minnesota.”

The Democratic governor’s comments came a day before Republicans take control of the state House The GOP credits its November ballot box win in a large part to a Democratic-controlled Legislature and Dayton ignoring rural needs the last two years.

Dayton did not specifically mention the GOP taking over the House, but encouraged policymakers to look at things his way: “What binds us together is much more important than what pulls us apart.”

“Economic growth in one area pays for property tax relief in another,” Dayton added. “Good farm prices in southern Minnesota boost sales and revenues in metro stores. Shops in Duluth do better when the Range is at full production. “

Republican leaders did not attend the inaugural. The man to become House speaker today, Rep. Kurt Daudt of Crown, said he was in a couple of long-scheduled fundraisers before during the ceremony. He said he tried to call Dayton Monday morning to congratulate him and attempted to connect with him after the inaugural.

Daudt said that he and Dayton have a good relationship, but said his colleagues are concerned about rural Minnesota.

“We are very sincere that rural Minnesota was left behind,” Daudt said.

While GOP leaders were absent, so was Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, who was interviewing potential Senate employees.

Monday’s inaugural, which lasted less than an hour, was an all-Democratic affair.

Along with Dayton, new Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and just-elected Secretary of State Steve Simon were sworn in. Also taking oaths were Attorney General Lori Swanson and State Auditor Rebecca Otto, both starting their third terms.

Smith, a former Dayton chief of staff, replaces Yvonne Prettner Solon, who opted not to seek re-election.

Simon, a Hopkins resident, served 10 years in the Minnesota House before winning his first statewide office. He takes over from Democrat Mark Ritchie, who decided not to run again.

The new secretary of state, who appeared emotional when talking about voting rights, promised to make it easier for Minnesotans to vote.

“As secretary of state, I’ll work with anyone, of any political affiliation, from any part of our state to secure and strengthen our right to vote in Minnesota, to help make our democracy worthy of our best traditions,” Simon said.

Dayton emphasized education, but like most governors in inaugural addresses, offered no specific proposals.

He long has said that he wants to increase education spending in every state budget while he is in office. However, he said, he will not seek more money just to do the same things now happening in schools.

Legislators last year funded all-day, every-day kindergarten and Dayton said he wants more early child programs.

“Additionally, some children’s needs go beyond early education,” Dayton said. “They must be better-protected from neglect and abuse.”

He added: “I will dedicate the next four years to regaining our state’s position as a national and global leader in education excellence.”

Smith also promoted education, crediting a good school system for Minnesota inventions from Bisquick to Twister, from water skies to supercomputers.

“The heart of invention beats in every corner of our state, from the apartment buildings in Cedar Riverside to the farms and small towns across Minnesota,” Smith said. “Let’s make sure these inventors and creative people have the tools they need to make their ideas fly.”

Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea gave the oath to Dayton, Simon and Swanson, while Dayton appointee Justice David Lillehaug swore in Otto and Smith. Justice Alan Page was master of ceremonies.

Renovation Capitol visitors, senators

Ready for what comes during legislative session

Minnesota senators must help write a state budget topping $40 billion and deal with all kinds of significant issues their constituents find important.

But that will be affected by a five-year, $270 million renovation project that has closed two-thirds of the state Capitol building. Not only senators will feel the impact, but regular Minnesotans will, too.

“It is a bigger problem than actual (budget) negotiations,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said.

Meeting with groups, a frequent senatorial duty, “is going to be seriously challenged,” Bakk said.

There is not even a conference room available in the 110-year-old Capitol building, which thanks to plywood and drywall in places now looks more like a temporary structure than a building widely recognized as one of the most elegant state capitols.

State officials do not want to discourage Minnesotans from coming to what is known as “the people’s house,” but they do want people to be warned.

“We definitely are going to have a capacity issue,” Curt Yoakum of the state Administration Department said.

The Minnesota Historical Society will not host weekday organized tours, cancelling those that school children follow every spring.

Most workers have moved out of the building, including the governor and attorney general and their staffs. Senate staffers are scattered among three nearby buildings, along with about 110 left in the Capitol for less than six more months.

The renovation project breaks into two parts: fixing the exterior that has shed marble in recent years, endangering passersby, and the inside that state officials say was badly in need for modernization of air-handling equipment, plumbing and other amenities, not to mention its need for repairs.

Two floors of the Capitol’s west wing remain open, housing senators, a few staff members and the Senate chamber. To the north, only the House chamber is open. A basement cafe will be open for the legislative session.

One floor has two committee rooms, another floor one. The Capitol’s largest committee room and some other lesser-used ones are in the closed construction zone.

The lack of rooms forced Senate leaders to shorten committee meeting time, which Bakk said will mean fewer Minnesotans can testify on bills and spending proposals important to them.

Committees may meet more nights and on Fridays usually reserved for work back home in senators’ districts, Bakk said.

The public will have a tough time even sitting down with their senators, who now are housed in crowded suites.

Bakk told of his visit to one suite: “There is no frickin chair for the public to sit on.”

The majority leader said he hopes he can get permission to use a conference room in the House-controlled office building across the street from the Capitol. All representatives and most House staffers are in that building.

Safety is another issue, Bakk said. There are few exits left open, raising concerns about how the building can be evacuated during an emergency. Two elevators serve all floors of the Capitol, but stairs now do not reach all floors.

There are two entrances-exits: up a set of steps on the Capitol’s south side and through a passageway under those stairs to the ground floor.

Besides it being passageway, the space also is the site for most of the restrooms for the building. The lineup of 10 portable toilets will not be heated, although open areas on each side of the passageway are due to be closed in.

Heated toilets for four women and four men, plus one handicapped-accessible unisex toilet, are near the front entrance, but people must go outside to reach them.

Only four public toilets, each serving a single person, remain in the building. Senators and their staffs do have access to a limited number of nonpublic toilets.

Peter Brekken of contractor JEDunn Construction said his company and state workers will try to keep temperatures in the still-open part of the building as comfortable as possible, but with so many people crammed into a small space, it probably will require frequent adjustments.

Yoakum said state officials are considering the possibility that the St. Paul fire marshal may need to close the Capitol to further visitors if it becomes too crowded. That is one reason tours were canceled.

“‘The last thing we want is for a school bus to come down from Fergus Falls and find the door to be locked,” Yoakum said.

It gets worse in June. That is when the entire Capitol will close, other than a set of basement tunnels that allows people to move from building to building. For the 2016 legislative session, the House will be the only area open in the Capitol, with senators meeting in a building now being constructed to the north.

The new five-floor building is supposed to be done a month or two before the 2016 session. Most Capitol renovation work is to be done by the end of 2016.

Brekken said JEDunn is trying to keep noise and other disturbances to a minimum and will avoid disruptive work near where legislative committee meetings take place. Most work ends for the day at 3:30 p.m.

The project is a balancing act.

“We don’t want to discourage people from participating in the legislative process, but there will be delays,” Yoakum said.

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State officials suggest that people check the Website tinyurl.com/MNCapReno before visiting the state Capitol building.

Help wanted for rural workforce, housing problems

“Help wanted” signs hang in front of businesses and factories throughout rural Minnesota and in many communities even if those jobs are filled, workers may not find homes nearby.

Training workers and building homes are two parts of the same problem that rural legislators hope to fix. The workforce issue is one of the major ones that will be brought to St. Paul by rural lawmakers, who will control the Minnesota House and say the problem hinders economic growth in their districts.

The 2015 Legislature begins at noon Tuesday.

“We want to enjoy the growth,” Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, said. “It is a nice place to live.”

He just has to look in his own district to explain the problem. The town of Jackson, population about 3,300, hosts an industrial park with 2,100 workers, taking all available housing.

A major farm tractor manufacturer is always looking for workers, as are other area businesses. Some manufacturers have pulled out of the community because there was not enough housing for workers, Gunther said.

From his southern Minnesota district to those in the north, the story is similar. In northwest Minnesota’s Perham, for instance, the company that makes Barrel O’ Fun snack foods last summer took to recruiting Ukrainians and busing them the 24 miles from Wadena because workers and housing for them are scarce.

Further north, in Thief River Falls, Digi-Key and other businesses create another housing and employee crunch.

“We’re very fortunate,” Mayor Jim Gagg said earlier this year. “We have 8,600 residents and we have 10,000-plus jobs in our community. That’s just a wonderful thing, but it leaves us with a housing problem.”

Gov. Mark Dayton often talks about Digi-Key, one of the country’s fastest-growing electronic companies. Dayton points to a problem the company has getting trained workers.

A college across the street from Digi-Key has an architectural engineering program, he said in a recent interview, but not a mechanical engineer program the company needs.

One of his goals during the nearly five-month legislative session is to get state-run colleges to train workers Minnesota companies need.

Many legislators say there is too much emphasis placed on a four-year degree.

“There are good jobs in the technical area,” Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said.

However, Rep. Bud Nornes said, there are some state rules that make it more difficult to get funding for adults to be retrained. As chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, the Fergus Falls Republican said that he hopes to drop those roadblocks.

Dayton and lawmakers have increased spending for housing, but in the interview Dayton did not appear ready to dramatically increase housing aid. He said that builders will step up and increase housing starts once it is apparent that the need will remain over the long term.

“I don’t think we are going to be able to significantly impact” the rural housing shortage, the governor said.

Gunther said he hopes the state can help. People are living in Iowa to work in Jackson, he said, and he would rather see them in Minnesota.

His southern Minnesota district alone has lost 17,000 people since the 1960s, said Gunther, who will lead the newly created House Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Committee.

“We want to have anything that impacts growth and prosperity eliminated as much as possible,” Gunther said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that housing is a critical issue in some greater Minnesota communities, but like others he is not sure just how the Legislature can solve it.

“It seems like some kind of state (financial) bridge to make those projects is going to be required,” he said.

As a carpenter, Bakk said that housing construction costs about the same in the Twin Cities and rural Minnesota. “You can’t get (rural) rent payments or mortgage payments high enough to work, like they do in the Twin Cities, where wages are higher.”

Bakk predicted that the Senate will put money into one fund that could help rural housing and could tweak another fund to help greater Minnesota.

“Our focus is going to be on things that try to improve the economy,” Bakk said. “That probably is not as demanding a need in the metropolitan area, but in a whole lot of rural areas in the state they are not sharing in this economic recovery.”

Dayton said that a minimum wage increase he championed is helping rural Minnesotans afford housing. Anderson, however, said wages are higher than the minimum wage, making it “almost a nonfactor.”

“Do you subsidize housing or do you say wages should be higher so they can afford housing?” Anderson asked. “That is a tough question.”

Minnesota Legislature to start with wants, limits

 State Sen. Kent Eken wants to boost state funding 5 percent for home-based care Minnesota’s elderly and disabled receive, as well as giving a similar raise to nursing homes.

The Twin Valley Democrat suggests a higher gasoline tax for transportation needs and would like more money so state-run colleges and universities can continue a tuition freeze.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, agrees that nursing homes need more money, even if a tax increase is needed. He also would not rule out backing a tax increase to boost transportation funding.

The story is the same for many of the 201 Minnesota legislators returning to the Capitol for their 2015 session at noon Tuesday. They have wants  — wants that usually cost the state money that is raised by taxes.

But they need to keep their wants in check if Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders stick to their guns. They say no general tax increase is needed to fund state government, although there is at least some support for considering a transportation-related tax increase.

It is budget time in the Capitol, with nearly five months to write a two-year state budget expected to top $40 billion.

In many recent years, lawmakers arrived in St. Paul facing a budget deficit. This year, they expect to enjoy a $1 billion surplus, and hope it grows when a new economic and budget report comes out in late February or early March.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk warned his colleagues not to expect big spending increases.

“It will be a pretty austere budget,” Bakk said. “We are still in a pretty fragile economic recovery. I think we need to be a little careful.”

That surplus? State finance officials say it will disappear if inflation is considered, spending such as giving pay raises and paying for higher utility bills. But those who get state money should not count on a increase for inflation, many lawmakers warned.

“It doesn’t take long to burn through a billion dollars,” Bakk said.

Since half of the surplus comes from lower-than-expected spending, Bakk said, only about half of it is ongoing revenue.

“I already know most of these groups coming to ask for money will be disappointed,” the senator said.

Democrat Dayton said throughout his 2014 re-election campaign that he does not think the state needs to raise general taxes. In a recent interview, he was optimistic that an improved national economy could enlarge the surplus finance officials predicted in early December.

Dayton said that his office has received $3 billion in requests for the $1 billion surplus, and most are good causes.

The governor said he will focus on improving transportation and education funding, but will not release specifics until he hands out his budget on Jan. 27.

The Republican-controlled House and Democrat-run Senate likely will release their budget plans in March, after the new economic report comes out. Dayton will revise his plan following the report.

In the meantime, legislative committees will begin looking at budget issues, as well as policy issues that do not involve money. However, committees will not be able to make many decisions until spring.

Eken, like many rural lawmakers, put his funding emphasis on nursing homes and home-based elderly and disabled care. Advocates say rural Minnesotans get less state help than those in the Twin Cities.

“We have seen this disparity between metro, rural and deep rural grow greater and greater as years pass,” Eken said, adding that with a surplus now is the time to even things out.

With a new rural majority in the House, and Bakk being from rural Minnesota in the Senate, there is plenty of optimism that rural issues will receive more attention than in the past.

“I think it is good that there is a rural focus,” Eken said, but quickly added: “I think the last two years (with a Democratic House and Senate) were also good. A lot of good things were accomplished.”

Much of the discussion this year will be about transportation, one of the Republicans’ main 2014 campaign issues.

“I’m a rural guy and I see the need for road and bridge work in rural Minnesota,” Anderson said. “It is going to be a high-profile issue.”

Overall, optimism is high around the Legislature before committees debate issues and spending. But for Bakk, the surplus, no matter how small it may be (“razor thin” he calls it), is a good sign.

“There are some tough votes involved, but it just feels pretty good,” Bakk said. “The last time anyone probably felt like this was going into the ’01 session.”

Finding a compromise is possible, he added. “If everyone comes to the table willing to compromise … it is not insurmountable.”

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By the numbers

House–

72 Republicans

62 Democrats

90 men

44 women

26 newly elected

21 new Republicans

5 new Democrats

Senate–

39 Democrats

28 Republicans

44 men

23 women

Senate seats were not up for election in November

Key dates for Minnesota Legislature

Jan. 5: Gov. Mark Dayton sworn in for second four-year term

Jan. 6: House and Senate begin 2015 session at noon, with House officially electing speaker and other officials

Jan. 27: Last day Dayton may submit his budget proposal

Late February or early March: State finance officials release latest report on economy and expected state revenue

May 18: Last day Legislature may meet, unless Dayton calls lawmakers into a special session

How to follow Legislature

– Legislative Web site: www.leg.state.mn.us

– Mobile devices may automatically call up a mobile legislative site (www.leg.state.mn.us), but if not, there is mobile link at the top of the page

– Find out who represents you: tinyurl.com/MNLegWho

– Calendar for legislative meetings: tinyurl.com/MNLegCal

– The House and Senate stream legislative committee hearings and House and Senate sessions on their Websites: tinyurl.com/MNMedia

– Public television’s Minnesota Channel statewide and some cable TV systems carry legislative hearings and House and Senate sessions. Schedules and channels are at tinyurl.com/MNMedia

– How a bill becomes law: tinyurl.com/MNBillLaw

– Find House bills: tinyurl.com/MNHBills

– Find Senate bills: tinyurl.com/MNSBills

– Follow activity on specific bills: tinyurl.com/MNLegBills

– Governor’s office Website: mn.gov/governor/

– Bill signings and vetoes: tinyurl.com/MNBillGov

– Ways to follow committees and other legislative activity: tinyurl.com/MNLegLists

– Summaries and other information about bills and government issues: tinyurl.com/MNHouseResearch and tinyurl.com/MNSenateResearch

– Legislative background from Legislative Reference Library: www.leg.state.mn.us/lrl

– Printed directories with legislators, committee and other information will be available in House Public Information Office and Senate secretary’s office once they are printed. Until then, a directory is available at tinyurl.com/MNDirectory

– The nonpartisan House Public Information Office produces Session Daily, with stories about what is happening in the House: tinyurl.com/MNSDaily

– The Senate and House staff telephones to answer questions about the process of passing bills, the status of legislation and other questions. The Senate numbers are (651) 651-296-0504 and (888) 234-1112. To contact the House, call (651) 296-2146 or (800) 657-3550.

– Forum News Service Minnesota Capitol bureau: Blog, capitolchat.areavoices.com; Twitter, @CapitolChatter; Facebook, www.facebook.com/CapitolChatter

Note: State Capitol building renovation and new equipment installed for House and Senate television productions could mean some video services will not be available when the legislative session begins.

 Major issues

From St. Paul Pioneer Press and Forum News Service

Budget

Dayton and state lawmakers will have a $1 billion surplus to work with as they start crafting a two-year state budget this session.

That’s sounds like a lot of money, but state finance officials warn that is just enough — just over 2 percent of the projected $41 billion budget — to cover the cost of inflation in health care, salaries, fuel and other state expenses.

Dayton said he has received $3 billion in requests for that surplus and suggested that groups seeking more money should temper their expectations.

But the surplus should make it easier for the split government — a DFL governor and Senate and a Republican-controlled House — to pass a balanced budget next spring.

Taxes

Aside from a possible gasoline tax increase for roads and bridges, don’t expect lawmakers to pass any major tax increases or tax cuts this session.

After pushing through $2 billion in new taxes in 2013, Dayton said he won’t propose any general tax increases this year.

He will call for increasing income tax credits to help about 137,000 families cope with rising child care costs.

Incoming House Tax Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said the first job of the Republican-controlled House is to “do no harm,” meaning no more tax increases like the ones DFLers passed two years ago. But with DFLers controlling the governor’s office and Senate, he said, GOP leaders won’t be able to pass the tax cuts that many conservatives want.

“I want to spend time on what we can get done,” he said.

Transportation

One of biggest challenges facing Minnesota lawmakers is how to pay for the projected $6 billion in road and bridge improvements that are needed over the next decade.

Dayton supports a new tax on wholesale gasoline to help pay for the state’s future infrastructure needs.

Republicans are against the idea, calling it unpopular with residents. They prefer a reprioritizing of transportation projects to free up money for roads and bridges.

K-12 Education

Schools also are a top priority for both parties as educators continue to work to close Minnesota’s large achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.

Dayton has said he wants to increase school spending in targeted areas that are proven to close those gaps. School leaders are pushing for lawmakers to pay for “unfunded mandates” and increase the state per pupil funding formula.

Republicans are expected to push for new reforms to the state education system. Those could include eliminating teacher seniority as a consideration during layoffs, expanding school choice and updating the teacher licensure system.

Higher education

State lawmakers will have to weigh whether they want to increase funding to keep tuition at Minnesota colleges and universities frozen for another two years. Both parties agree keeping tuition in check is important, but there are opposing views on how it should be funded.

Eric Kaler, University of Minnesota president, said last year a tuition freeze would require more taxpayer support. Leaders in both the House and Senate have questioned whether the state’s higher education systems could cut costs to cover some of the money needed to hold the line on tuition.

Lawmakers also want colleges and universities to strengthen their roles in workforce development. Both DFLers and Republicans have noted there are nearly more than 187,000 job openings without qualified applicants.

Healthcare

MNsure, the state’s health care marketplace under the federal Affordable Care Act, is expected to receive new scrutiny after a disastrous 2013 roll out.

Open enrollment went more smoothly in 2014, but critics have a long list of questions and proposed improvements.

Peppin said the system needs better, more transparent oversight and she hopes someone from the insurance industry will be appointed to the MNsure board. Some have called that proposal a conflict of interest.

“Many in our caucus believe it’s necessary to have someone on the board who knows what they are talking about,” Peppin said.

Dayton and other DFLers have said they’re open to suggestions for improving MNsure, but they don’t want to rehash the debate over “Obamacare.”

Nursing homes

A priority for Greater Minnesota lawmakers is improving funding for long-term care programs that serve elderly and disabled residents.

Rural residents have long complained their facilities are underfunded and a growing number have shut their doors. Others have trouble keeping employees, who get experience and move to higher-paying jobs in the Twin Cities.

It will likely take new revenue to improve funding for long-term care facilities and it’s unclear where that money will come from.

Child protection

Minnesota’s child-protection system will be up for improvements.

A task force has issued preliminary recommendations calling for the elimination in state law of the preference for “family assessment” in addressing child-protection cases. Family assessment focuses on engaging and supporting families instead of investigating wrongdoing. Task force members have said the approach is used in about 70 percent of cases, including some where kids are at substantial risk of harm and investigation would be the safer course.

The task force also advocates repealing a law that prevents county officials from considering prior “screened-out” reports when deciding what to do about a new allegation. The idea is to allow officials to see a pattern of behavior in making their determinations.

The task force’s final recommendations are due by the end of March.

Super Bowl tax breaks

Officials involved in bringing the Super Bowl to the new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis in 2018 say they will ask the Legislature this session for additional tax exemptions for the National Football League.

An existing state law exempts tickets to the game itself from tax. Officials have said they will try to get that extended to include events related to the game as well.

According to information from the state Department of Revenue, waiving the tax on tickets to the “NFL Fan Experience” would mean about $400,000 in forgone revenue to the state.

It’s not clear whether additional tax breaks will be sought, or what they might be. Those involved in preparing the successful bid to secure the 2018 game have refused to release it publicly, citing a need to keep the details under wraps for competitive reasons.

Sex offenders

One of the issues that is little discussed, but carries big consequences is how the state should deal with sex offenders.

A federal judge says Minnesota’s system of holding sex offenders who have completed prison sentences is unconstitutional. But Minnesota legislators have been reluctant to take action.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said the state needs to take action soon, or the courts will take over the system. If that happens, he said, a federal court-run sex offender program could cost the state much more money.

“It needs to be bipartisan if it needs to be done,” Eken said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, places fixing the sex offender issue near the top of the agenda. He agreed with Eken that both parties must agree.

“That probably is the toughest vote of the session,” Bakk said.

Sunday liquor

Once again, lawmakers will be urged to end the ban on Sunday liquor-store sales, something social conservatives oppose and liquor store lobbyists say will add to retail operational costs.

Although minor changes have been made, the repeal has been a perennial loser at the Capitol. Lawmakers who represents areas near states that allow Sunday sales are especially pushing for the change, citing loss of business to those other states.

Republicans prepare new rural agenda

Daudt, Peppin

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

Republicans who will control the Minnesota House the next two years make it abundantly clear they will focus on rural Minnesota when the legislative session starts Jan. 6.

Or, as they prefer to say, GOP members will drop what they call a Minneapolis-St. Paul focus they claim has been the norm under Democratic control.

“House Republicans understand all of Minnesota matters — not just one part of the state or another — and we are proud to bring those priorities forward over the next two years,” majority leader-elect Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said.

“I think they are going to get a fair deal this time,” Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said about rural Minnesotans.

Several new House committees are aimed at greater Minnesota issues, such as two dealing with agriculture and the newly minted Greater Minnesota Economic and Workforce Development Policy Committee.

Republicans say it is time for rural constituents to catch up with their urban cousins after two years in which Democrats controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. But the House will not be able to “catch up” by itself, since Democrats retain control of the Senate and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton was re-elected in November.

“We are just kind of bringing the state government back into balance,” Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said.

Minnesotans can expect to see an emphasis on issues of particular interest to greater Minnesota residents, such as increasing aid for nursing homes and other elderly and disabled care programs, farm issues and road construction.

House speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has had little time to craft policy priorities as he reorganized the House, but when he has time for broad stroke comments, he emphasizes the need to look at rural issues.

While Dayton will present his budget proposal first, by Jan. 27, it technically is Daudt’s chamber that must first pass a two-year budget expected to top $40 billion. When that comes in March or April, Minnesotans will have an idea about what helping out greater Minnesota really means to GOP leaders.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said there are general agreements among Dayton, House leaders and Senate leaders. For instance, rural manufacturers and other businesses are having trouble finding qualified workers and then getting housing for them, something all sides say must be addressed.

“There is a critical problem,” Bakk said of rural housing.

“It costs about the same to build a housing unit, no matter where you build in the state,” the former carpenter said, but it is much easier to afford in the Twin Cities thanks to higher wages. “It seems like some kind of state bridge to make those projects work is going to be required.”

It is not just the House Republican majority that wants to help greater Minnesota, he said.

“I’m a rural guy,” Bakk said. “I understand the challenges that exist in rural Minnesota. I think my colleagues in the Twin Cities want a strong rural Minnesota, too, but they don’t understand the extent of the problem.”

In the House, a rural lawmaker who will be one of three assistant minority leaders said that he and his fellow Democrats have done well for rural Minnesotans in the past two years, but he appeared happy that the new GOP leadership is talking about doing more.

“I think there is a somewhat disconnect between the urban and the rural, probably in both parties,” Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “Making sure the positive momentum we saw in greater Minnesota continues is my No. 1 goal.”

But Marquart worries that the House could pass bills that would cut state payments to local governments, thus forcing up property taxes.

Marquart said he hopes Republicans agree with three of his rural priorities: improving early-childhood education, funding more school construction and lowering farm property taxes.

For Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, the coming session looks like it could be much better than the last two years, when agriculture funding was decided in a committee with an environmentalist as chairwoman.

“I am absolutely thrilled,” Hamilton said of his chairmanship of the Agriculture Finance Committee. “I am ready to go to work.”

Hamilton said one of his top priorities is finding workers to fill thousands of vacant agriculture-related jobs. “There is a huge shortage of agriculture professionals.”

Part of the solution, he said, is to encourage the state’s universities and colleges to train more high school ag teachers. The state also could support a variety of organizations that promote farming to young people, he added.

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, said that he fears many young people do not realize how technically advanced agriculture is today.

“Agriculture is really changing, becoming really advanced,” said Anderson, who will lead the Agriculture Policy Committee. “We need more training and that is where it all starts.”

Also, Hamilton said, the University of Minnesota needs to increase spending on crop and livestock disease research. “It is an absolute must that we invest in more research at the University of Minnesota.”

Hamilton said money to support more ag spending could come from rethinking budget priorities, and freeing some money now going to other programs.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that another way to help Minnesota is to encourage people to leave the Twin Cities for rural areas. The state can help convince them “there is a way to earn a living in greater Minnesota,” Nornes added.

Many Minnesotans do not realize jobs are available in rural areas, he said.

Anderson said he expects rural bills to be bipartisan. “I think there is a realization that agriculture is important to the state economically.”

He said that he expects the issue of labeling products as being genetically modified will come up. He suggests turning it around and labeling food that has not been genetically modified.

“I am kind of interested in hearing the arguments,” Anderson said of the controversial topic. “I don’t have anything to hide.”

Bakk said that rural lawmakers are the best to balance spending statewide.

“We understand the entire state better,” Bakk said. “We live in St. Paul almost six months of the year. … I think I have a pretty good sense of what is going on around the Twin Cities. Because I live in rural Minnesota, I also understand what is going on out there. So I think we bring a more global view of the state.”

Democratic doubts remain as Daudt prepares to lead Minnesota House

Daudt

Memories of 2011 remain fresh for Mark Dayton.

That was when Dayton, Minnesota’s Democratic governor, faced a conservative Republican Legislature and as time ran out the two sides could not agree on a state budget, throwing Minnesota into a three-week government shutdown. While no one is predicting another shutdown in 2015 as legislators and Dayton work to write a two-year state budget, it is obvious the shutdown haunts the governor as he prepares for his second term in office.

In 2011, both chambers of the Legislature were Republican and the GOP was trying to take advantage of the party’s unusual power. In 2015, the Senate is in Democrats’ hands, as is the governor’s office, while the House is back in Republican control after two years in the minority.

Dayton and the Senate majority likely will agree on most major issues and spending decisions in 2015, but it will take House Republican approval to get things done. And leading the House as speaker will be Republican Kurt Daudt of Crown, a third-term representative considered a nice and moderate guy, but who calls himself as conservative as most in his caucus.

When asked if he trusts Daudt, Dayton responded quickly: “I have no reason not to.”

But he immediately added that he had a good relationship with Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, speaker during the shutdown. The governor recalled that things went south in session-ending negotiations when the two sides could not agree on a budget.

“I knew that he was captive of his extreme right-wing caucus that was so inflexible … that if he would agree to something reasonable that he would not be speaker an hour later,” Dayton said of Zellers.

Applying that experience to budget talks next year, Dayton said that success rests on whether “Rep. Daudt has the latitude and authorization to agree to or not.”

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the problem is that Republicans long ago established an executive council that can control a speaker.

“I do think he sincerely wants to have a smooth session,” Bakk said of Daudt.

The incoming speaker himself said that he understands negotiations mean giving up something.

“We aren’t going to get everything we want,” Daudt said.

The amount of freedom the executive council gives Daudt could determine the session’s success, Bakk said, adding that he has worked well with Daudt in recent years.

“I don’t know the extent they are going to empower him,” Bakk said. “Is the Kurt Daudt I know the one I will negotiate with or will he bring some baggage with him?”

In a recent interview, Daudt did not address the executive council, but said he has good relationships with Dayton and legislative leaders, including outgoing Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, who will be House minority leader.

The speaker-designate said that he believes the person who will be Democrats’ key negotiator, Dayton, has the best interest of Minnesota at heart and is trustworthy.

However, Daudt added, “he has always been unpredictable.”

Daudt said that while he knows Bakk well, he needs to learn more about Dayton.

As for a shutdown, Daudt echoes comments from many other lawmakers: “We are in a completely different situation.”

That situation become known earlier this month when state officials announced a $1 billion surplus, although they also said there really was little surplus because inflation would eat up that $1 billion.

A surplus “helps our relationship,” Daudt said.

Still, there will be tension.

While Dayton blamed what he calls the inflexibility of Republicans to negotiate for the 2011 budget stalemate, Daudt recalled things differently in his first year in the House. He said that the governor did not tell Republicans just where he stood on many budget items, and Dayton’s commissioners were not empowered to speak for him during budget meetings.

One of the Democrats’ leaders had only good things to say about Daudt.

“He was fair on the House floor,” Assistant Minority Leader-elect Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth said. “He gave spirited speeches and debate, but he was never personal. … I think he has a good track record.”

One of Daudt’s assistants, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, called him “an exceptionally talented young man.”

“He has a lot of support throughout the caucus,” Torkelson added.

Veteran Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said Daudt and other leaders will work well as Republicans dealing with Democrats who control the Senate and governor’s office. “We know the situation; we need to work with both the Senate and the governor’s office.”

The 2011 shutdown may have been caused by “a few people coming in with more horsepower than they needed,” he said.

“That was probably the most unusual session I have been through,” Nornes said. “We learned from that.”

The incoming speaker, at 41 the youngest in that position since the 1930s, approaches things a bit differently than some of his colleagues.

Daudt said would like to see legislators stop presenting solutions, in the form of bills, before problems are thoroughly vetted by legislative committees. His idea is to come into session to examine problems, then as information is gleaned, solutions can be discussed and bills written.

As it is, he said, many legislators introduce bills as soon as the Legislature begins work.

Whether talking about how to approach problems or budget negotiations, Daudt indicates he is optimistic about the legislative session to begin at noon Jan. 6.

“In the end, we will get it done,” he promised, and without a shutdown.

Political chatter: 2012 ag controversy continues with committee assignments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thissen said Wagenius’ voice is important for the committee.

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

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

Bachman doesn’t go quietly

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

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

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

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

Franken for Hillary

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

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

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

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

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

 Solid agreement already

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

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

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

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

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

Seifert to lobby

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

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

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

Franken in Uber fight

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

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

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

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

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

Political chatter: North Dakota is major Minnesota political topic

Garofalo

It is hard to talk long to any Minnesota official without hearing about North Dakota.

The reason? Oil that is, black gold, Bakken tea. The first thing you know, old North Dakota’s a billionaire.

All that money has Minnesota politicians envious and concerned.

From Gov. Mark Dayton on down, it is common to hear them wishing that Minnesota had a resource worth as much as that being pumped from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Then, almost without pause, a politician can pivot and complain that North Dakota’s oil makes Minnesota a more dangerous state.

So it was no surprise the other day when the Minnesota Legislative Energy Commission slipped, as if on an oil puddle, from talking about rail congestion slowing the delay of coal to power plants to the dangers of railroads transporting oil across the state. Rail safety is not in the commission’s portfolio, but over the past couple of years, the nine or 10 oil trains a day that pass through Minnesota has become an explosive issue in the Capitol.

Six or seven trains, each with at least 100 cars of oil, travel from Moorhead through the Twin Cities and on southeast each day, headed to Midwest and East Coast refineries. Fewer go from North Dakota, then south through Willmar and Marshall to Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.

So when Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation was telling the commissioner about rail congestion that many blame on North Dakota crude oil, questions arose about rail oil safety.

“Bakken fuel is very volatile…” Christianson told the legislators. “If there is a rupture or spill, it tends to ignite with any source of heat.”

Republicans, especially, long have argued that building pipelines would help fix the problem. Christianson said that if every pipeline proposed through 2025 is built, “we could empty all the oil trains being moved today.”

However, he quickly added, Bakken production is growing so fast that its output would be so big that pipelines could not handle it all and the same number of oil trains would be needed as are on the tracks today.

“Energy independence is a good thing,” state Rep. Pat Garofalo said, “but it creates new problems.”

The Farmington Republican, who next year will lead a House energy committee, said that oil trains are far more dangerous and costly than pipelines.

New tax eyed

The governor and most legislative leaders have said no general tax increase is needed in 2015, but a phantom surplus means some state lawmakers who want to increase spending are hatching plans to get around that attitude.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, says he is calling to close a “loophole” in proposing to enact a new tax on people with higher incomes.

Eken always has been a strong proponent of increasing funding for care given to the elderly and disabled. With a $1 billion surplus that state officials say will be devoured by inflation, he had a choice of taking money from state programs or add a new tax. He hopes his new tax is the answer.

The federal government taxes Americans to fund Social Security, but the tax is not on the full income for many taxpayers. This year, the tax was levied on $117,000 of income (it changes every year). So if someone made $200,000, the tax only was levied on $117,000 of the income.

Eken’s idea is to add his new state tax where the federal Social Security one leaves off. So this year it would have started at $117,000, meaning with a $200,000 income a Minnesotan would pay tax on $83,000 for elderly and disabled care. People earning less than $117,000 would not pay the Eken tax.

Eken said that early estimates show the tax could raise $600 million.

“I am not wedded to this idea,” Eken said, adding that he just wants to find more money for the cause and he does not expect his tax to pass as is.

More leaders named

House Democrats named three deputy minority leaders for the 2015 legislative session: from rural, suburban and urban Minnesota.

Joining already-elected Minority Leader Paul Thissen of Minneapolis will be deputy leaders Paul Marquart of Dilworth, Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park and Erin Murphy of St. Paul.

Two years ago, Marquart challenged Murphy to be majority leader when Democrats controlled the House. His loss led to many Republican charges that the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party caucus was controlled by urban Democrats.

Bakk raises money

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk a few days ago raised money for the disadvantaged instead of a political campaign.

His annual Stock the Shelves event brought in more than $100,000 for northeastern Minnesota food shelves. In the eight years he has hosted the Twin Cities event, the Cook Democrat has raised more than $600,000.

“Even with a recovering economy, job losses and rising food costs mean more families are stretched to the limit,” Bakk said. “We are doing our part to help, and I hope all Minnesotans will take time to help others this holiday season.”

Inflation eats away surplus

Lots of charts

The Minnesota state budget surplus sits at $1 billion, but not really.

While state officials said a Thursday economic and budget report was good news, Minnesota’s top finance official said that inflation will eat up what many called a surplus. Still, political leaders agreed that the added money, unlike deficits they often have been dealt, will make budgeting easier when legislators return to St. Paul Jan. 6 and that no overall tax increase will be needed.

“Inflation is essentially everywhere,” Commissioner Jim Schowalter said of the state budget, and the $1 billion “surplus” mostly will be used to counteract it in the state’s two-year budget that begins next July 1.

“Yes, if you add in inflation, it evens out,” his boss, Gov. Mark Dayton, said.

However, Dayton and most other political leaders said Thursday’s report was good news and the governor insisted there is a surplus.

After raising taxes more than $2 billion in 2013, Dayton said that he sees no need for a general tax increase. On the other hand, the Democratic governor said that some type of new revenue is needed to inject needed money into road and bridge budgets.

House Speaker-designate Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said that he does not think higher taxes will be needed for transportation, although all ways to increase transportation funding “are on the table.”

Dayton said that what he called a “surplus” could help fund some child care tax credits, increased broadband facilities across greater Minnesota and other needs.

As soon as the $1 billion surplus was announced, groups ranging from the University of Minnesota to those representing nursing homes said they need some of that money.

Part of the $1 billion is $373 million that is not being spent in the current budget and can be spent in the next two years. State law automatically requires another $183 million to remain in the reserve and not be folded into the next budget.

The news gives Dayton a benchmark as his administration works on a budget proposal that he plans to give legislators Jan. 27. The Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate will draft their own budget plans, most likely based on the Dayton budget, after another revenue report in late February or early March. Dayton will tweak his budget after that report.

Thursday’s report, known as a budget forecast, takes a look at the national and state economies and predicts how much is available to spend on state programs.

The state general fund budget has grown from $31.5 billion in 2006-2007 to $40 billion now. It is expected to top $40 billion for the two years beginning next July 1, a figure state lawmakers and the governor will work out in the legislative session that begins Jan. 6.

The general fund budget is that part of state spending funded by Minnesota taxpayers. When federal and other funds are included, the state’s total spending can be twice the state-funded total.

While Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature and governor’s office the past two years, were celebrating Thursday’s report as good news, Republicans had their doubts.

Daudt said that the state is bringing in more money, but Minnesotans’ personal budgets do not appear to be improving.

The Minnesota economy is closely tied to national trends, State Economist Laura Kalambokidis said. That includes a worse-than-expected housing market, which affects industries across greater Minnesota such as lumber and window makers.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that he hopes the budget cushion announced Thursday gives lawmakers a chance to work on one of greater Minnesota’s most pressing issues: housing.

Industries located in communities from Roseau in the north to Jackson in the south say they have jobs available, but need housing for workers, and in many cases potential workers need more training.

Most of the state’s key political leaders specifically said after Thursday’s budget forecast that it means no overall tax increase will be needed. However, Dayton emphasized what he sees as the need to raise revenue for transportation.

While he said he is open to ideas about how to raise that revenue, one possibility he has discussed would be to add a tax on gasoline at the wholesale level. The current gas tax is added at the pumps.

Daudt, whose Republican candidates this fall campaigned on improving roads and bridges, said he is not convinced higher taxes are needed. He and other Republicans have said they prefer to cut other state programs that may not be needed and transfer those funds to transportation.

In general, state political leaders were waiting for the budget forecast to draw up specific proposals.

Besides transportation, Dayton specifically mentioned the need to fund expansion of high-speed Internet, known as broadband, across the state.

Broadband, he said, is “crucial for economic development over the state.”

Dayton and legislators this year approved a down payment for improving broadband access, but some projections indicate that billions of dollars more are needed to bring greater Minnesota to the same level as the Twin Cities.

 Key budget numbers

in next two-year budget

$1.037 billion: More money expected than earlier projections

$412 million: Lower revenues expected than earlier prediction

$502 million: Expected drop in overall state spending

$443 million: Less spending needed than expected in health programs

$2 billion: Expected gain in individual income tax receipts

$598 million: Expected increase in sales tax collections

Bakk

Dayton

Daudt

State economist

Legislative session personal

House near the end

By Don Davis

Minnesota state Sen. Kent Eken fought for years to increase pay for those who care for the elderly and disabled, but as state legislators wound down their 2014 session, he made it personal.

“I had a brother who was intellectually disabled,” Eken said about Kyle, who was two years older than the Twin Valley Democratic senator.

Eken told fellow senators about the young brothers making hay forts in a barn on the family farm. “We talk a lot about numbers; I think sometimes it is important that we put faces with those numbers.”

No special education services were available in Eken’s northwestern Minnesota area, he said, so his parents helped launch one. There, Kyle was happy and made progress, the senator said, thanks to people helping others like his brother with special needs.

“We are not a state that leaves anyone behind,” said Eken, whose brother died in a drowning accident at age 12.

Eken was a leader in increasing funding 5 percent for people who serve the disabled and elderly. The effort, part of a bill that passed moments before the Legislature adjourned for the year, is especially important in his area, Eken said, because nearby North Dakota pays its workers at least $2.50 an hour more.

“We have an industry that really is on the verge of collapse,” Eken said, and the 5 percent increase will help keep it alive.

Eken’s plea was personal and emotional during a legislative session that brought out many such testimonials. The most visible came in discussions about whether marijuana extracts should be allowed as treatment for a variety of severe medical conditions, including children’s seizures.

While an estimated 5,000 Minnesotans could benefit from a medical marijuana bill that is about to become law, supporters say, some claim the bill passed leaves behind another 30,000 who also could benefit.

“Gov. (Mark) Dayton called the process that produced this bill ‘citizen government at its best,’ but it is actually politics at its worst,” Brainerd mother Shelly Olander said. “Instead of listening to parents and patients about what bill would work for our families, the governor gave law enforcement the power to decide how this medical program should operate and who should have access to it.”

Her son, 6-year-old Lincoln, has undergone 20 surgeries and she said police were not consulted, and should not have been, for those medical procedures. The boy will not be able to use marijuana extracts that she said could help his condition.

“Why should their approval be necessary if doctors think medical marijuana will help my son?” Olander asked about police. “We will keep fighting until Lincoln and the thousands of other seriously ill patients who have been left behind by this law are able to access the medicine they need.”

On the other hand, parents of children who suffer seizures, including during testimony in front of legislative committees, mixed broad smiles with tears of joy in recent days as it became apparent their children next year will have access to chemicals from the marijuana plant that they hope will ease the seizures.

“This is going to help thousands of Minnesotans …” Angie Weaver of Hibbing said after a final medical marijuana compromise was announced. “My daughter is going to be able to stay in Minnesota and grow up with her cousins.”

Personal stories were accompanied by tears when many bills were discussed this year.

For instance, victims of domestic abuse cried when telling why they felt abusers’ guns should be taken away. Lawmakers agreed and approved a bill to do that.

On the other hand, tear-filled testimony did not persuade House members to reform payday lending laws. A bill never got a House vote. Supporters of stricter regulations testified that the bill was needed because many payday lenders turn poor people into victims who are forced to take out loans every couple of weeks just to pay off earlier loans.

Overall, Democrats who control the House, Senate and governor’s office said that Minnesotans, especially in the middle class, will feel their actions this year.

“Two years ago, when I was asked what Minnesotans could expect from a DFL governor and a DFL Legislature, I said: progress,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “That is exactly what we delivered again this session.”

Dayton and other Democratic leaders point to issues they passed that affect Minnesotans personally, such as lowering taxes $550 million this year (after boosting them more than $2 billion last year), increasing the minimum wage, improving working conditions for women and protecting children from bullying.

“We did all of this to improve the lives of Minnesotans, and to build a better Minnesota,” Dayton said. “We have more work ahead to finish restoring our state to greatness; but we have made important progress.”

Republicans differ and say Minnesotans will be affected personally by Democratic economic decisions.

While saying the Legislature worked together well this year, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, complained about Democrats’ spending tendencies.

“Spending money isn’t always evidence that we have accomplished anything,” he said moments before the 2014 session ended.

Republicans like Hann said three straight months of smaller-than-expected state revenues prove that the Minnesota economy has not improved enough and Minnesotans will feel it in their wallets. Next year, Hann said, lawmakers need to do “a better job of prioritizing things that are important. … Spending money and having good intentions are not good enough.”

Democrats were not buying the GOP arguments.

“It was the most productive legislative biennium in my time here,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said seconds before he moved to adjourn the annual session at 10:13 p.m. Friday.

—-

A legislative tradition continued after the House adjourned for the year Friday night: speeches from lawmakers who are retiring.

This year, it was only representatives because senators have two years remaining on their four-year terms.

“Minnesota is losing so many great people from both parties tonight! ” Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, tweeted. “Many can’t believe we have different opinions but are friends.”

Those delivering retirement speeches were Reps. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville; Kathy Brynaert, D-Mankato; Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine; Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville; Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer; Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury; John Benson, D-Minnetonka; Mike Benson, R-Rochester; Mike Beard, R-Shakopee; Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville; Michael Paymar, D-St. Paul; Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove; and Tom Huntley, D-Duluth.

Some are leaving the Legislature because they are running for other offices, others because political problems would make it difficult to run again, and many are just plain retiring.

 —-

The 2014 Minnesota Legislature ended late Friday with a long list of actions.

Bonding: Lawmakers approved more than $1 billion for public works projects on the last day of the session, some funded by bonding and some by a state budget surplus. The biggest single project is $126 million for state Capitol building renovation. State colleges would get $242 million for campuses around Minnesota.

Broadband: High-speed Internet expansion efforts, mostly in rural areas, will get a $20 million boost.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. Legislators added more than $260 million this year.

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

Constitutional amendments: No new constitutional amendment proposals were approved, but one planned for a public vote in 2016 was altered. That proposal would establish a commission to decide lawmakers’ pay, taking it out of legislative control.

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

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators and a judge said he did not have that authority. Lawmakers passed a bill to make online registration legal.

Electronic cigarettes: Provisions to limit the sale of e-cigarettes to youths passed, along with prohibitions from smoking them in government buildings, hospitals and elsewhere. However, attempts to treat them like tobacco cigarettes, which are banned in all public places, failed.

Gender equality: The Women’s Economic Security Act passed, with several provisions meant to help women get better pay and to be treated fairly in the workplace. One part of the act requires many state contractors to give equal pay to women who do the same jobs as men. It also doubles unpaid parental leave time to 12 weeks and requires more workplace accommodations for pregnant women and new parents.

Guns: Guns may be taken away from domestic abusers and some suspects after court approval.

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

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction can begin this summer.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesotans to use marijuana to relieve extreme seizures and other medical problems was passed on the Legislature’s final day. It will allow eight locations to distribute marijuana extracts, but no plant marijuana can be used and it cannot be smoked. A doctor must approve the marijuana use for a specific list of medical problems. Distribution begins July 1, 2015.

Minimum wage: Legislators approved raising the minimum wage in phases to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically to stay abreast with inflation. The first step of the higher wage begins in August.

Oil: A study was approved to see how North Dakota’s oil boom affects Minnesota.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups wanted to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. Senators passed it, but the House did not take a vote.

Propane: Soon after arriving in St. Paul, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage prompted high prices. Also, a new law is designed to prevent propane price gouging and to maintain its availability to Minnesotans.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators did little about the situation, although a public works project they approved will improve Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program facilities.

Smartphones: Beginning next year, smartphones will be required to have “kill switches,” software or hardware that allows the owner to disable the phones if they are lost or stolen.

Sunday sales: Efforts to allow Sunday liquor sales made little progress.

Synthetic drugs: Synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts and products sold under names like K2, will be more difficult or impossible to buy at retail stores under a new law.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, totaling $550 million. They cut income taxes and property taxes as well as overturning some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted spending more than $11 million to improve response to railroad and pipeline crude oil incidents. First responders will get funds for more training and equipment, and the number of state railroad inspectors will grow from one to four or five. Some crossings along oil train routes will be improved. An existing assessment on railroads will be increased, and a new assessment on pipelines will help pay for the safety projects.

Unsession: Gov. Mark Dayton wanted this year to be the “unsession,” meaning that obsolete laws and rules would be repealed. Lawmakers obliged by sending him more than 1,000 provisions to overturn or simplify.

Water: Lawmakers approved spending nearly $70 million to bring water from South Dakota into southwestern Minnesota. While the project received widespread support, many in the Legislature warned that other water-related issues, including shortages in parts of the state, will need to be addressed soon.

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.

Dayton would veto bonding over fire sprinkler provision

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton dropped a legislative bombshell Monday when he announced that he is willing to give up $846 million in public works projects around Minnesota if legislators insist on overturning a state requirement for fire sprinklers in larger new homes.

“I will veto the bonding bill if it has that provision in it,” Dayton said. “I will not let them ram it down my throat.”

The rare veto threat came over a provision in a Senate public works bill that would forbid state officials from requiring fire sprinkler systems in homes larger than 4,500 square feet. The current building code requires sprinklers for the larger homes.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, told members of his bonding committee last week that requiring sprinklers would drive up housing costs, and many well systems in rural areas could not provide enough water.

Dayton, a Democrat, said he opposes the sprinkler prohibition and opposes putting it in a public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds.

The governor’s comment came out of left field for legislators.

“I’m absolutely stunned,” Sen. Carla Nelson, R- Rochester, said. Her community has a $35 million civic center project in the bonding bill.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, appeared happy with the comment. “That would signal his demise as a candidate for governor.”

Dayton is running for his second term this year, and politicians usually want a bonding bill on their record in a campaign.

The comment also took Democrats off guard.

“I am going to have a conversation with the governor about it,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said.

Bakk and House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, knew Dayton opposed the sprinkler prohibition, but did not know he would veto the entire bill over it.

“Putting policy like that in a bonding bill is not done very often, if at all,” Thissen said.

Bakk said that as of Monday afternoon he was not willing to take out the sprinkler provision.

The bonding bill is supposed to be the main work of even-year legislative sessions. With the constitutional deadline for taking votes this year coming up on Sunday, neither house has considered bonding.

Key legislators have been meeting to work out a bill House and Senate Republicans and Democrats can support. That has not happened and at mid-afternoon no negotiations had been scheduled Monday.

“My calendar is open,” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, the lead Republican on the House bonding committee.

Thissen and Bakk said they probably would need to get involved and push negotiators to draw up a final bill.

“We will have to get engaged a little more to kind of push it over the line,” Thissen said.

Dean said there are some major differences between what the House and Senate bonding committees propose. The biggest one, he said, is a southwest Minnesota water project.

“Lewis and Clark is a big deal,” Dean said. “We think that should be the first project in and not the last project in.”

The project should receive the nearly $70 million it needs to move water to residents in the Luverne and Worthington areas, Dean said. Dean, like other Republicans, said that museums, theaters and other arts projects should get less money so Lewis and Clark can be fully funded.

The overall bonding bill would fund projects such as state-run college construction and repairs, developing Vermillion State Park, paving some state trails, building or expanding civic centers, funding flood prevention projects and other items in most of the state.