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.

Greater Minnesota gets Dayton shout-out

Dayton

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton focused much of his State of the State speech Wednesday night on greater Minnesota, from HitchDoc in southern Minnesota’s Jackson to the Kelliher schools in the north.

He used areas outside the Twin Cities to tout the state’s economic growth, but also to illustrate what he sees as the need for more state spending.

“This economic growth is happening all over our state,” the Democratic governor said.

Republicans called the 48-minute speech the opening of Dayton’s re-election campaign. Republican-leaning rural Minnesota is expected to be an election battleground for Dayton and state House Democrats.

The governor spoke highly of spending programs he championed since he became governor in 2011, proposals that mostly passed last year when fellow Democrats gained House and Senate control.

Coming less than three weeks before the legislative session must end, Dayton made few pleas for this year, although he asked legislators to increase their agreed-to public works spending.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, praised Dayton’s request for more public works spending, but Republican leaders say they will not budge from the $850 million they agreed to spend. The four legislative leaders agreed on $1 billion over two years, but Dayton said Wednesday that he wants $1.2 billion.

Dayton said a larger-than-planned public works finance bill can do things like build the Lewis and Clark water system in southwestern Minnesota. Such projects, he said, would mean “jobs now and jobs in the future.”

The region, served by Republican legislators, needs $71 million to complete the pipeline to Luverne and Worthington. If that money does not come, “that region’s growth in population, business and jobs will suffer,” Dayton said.

The governor said the $850 million cap on public works funding probably would not finish Lewis and Clark.

Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, was happy that Dayton promoted the water project. However, Schomacker said, a lesser amount would at least get the pipeline into Luverne, whose mayor sat in the gallery to hear Dayton’s speech.

Dayton said the Statewide Health Improvement Program has helped Frazee and Fergus Falls in west-central Minnesota adopt policies “making it easier for residents to incorporate physical activity into their daily routines.”

In northern Minnesota’s Kelliher, he added, the program “has brought healthier food to the public schools with more fresh fruits and vegetables and more local foods.” Added state money has allowed Kelliher schools to break even after being up to $40,000 in debt a year ago, he said.

The state needs to invest in more jobs programs, Dayton said, highlighting southwest Minnesota’s need for people to fill jobs that go empty.

HitchDoc, a Jackson company, grew from a dozen workers to 140, Dayton said, but needs another 30. They are not available, the governor said company owner Brad Mohns told him.

Dayton said Minnesota is better prepared than most states to take part in the global economy: “from our farmers, who have made Minnesota the fourth-largest agriculture exporting state in the nation, to our Iron Range mining companies, who have merged new technology with tried and true methods.”

The governor said state government has helped business. “Some people believe there is no role for government in private sector expansion and job creation. To see that they’re mistaken, just look around Minnesota.”

Dayton’s State of the State speech was the latest on record. He delayed the address because a hip injury and surgery earlier in the year curtailed his movement.

Instead of making a grand entry down the center aisle of the House chamber, where governors traditionally shake hands with lawmakers in both parties, Dayton avoided the long walk by entering via a back door.

Dayton is seeking a second four-year term, but his hip problem has kept him off the campaign trail.

Dayton said he wants his Education Department to find ways to reduce the number of state-required tests in Minnesota schools.

“Last year, I’m very sorry to say, our state went backwards,” Dayton said. “More tests were mandated in the upper grade levels. I’m told some tests are required by state statute. Others are necessary to satisfy federal requirements. Still others are added by local school districts. They may make sense individually; but added all together, they do not.”

Rep. Rod Hamilton and guest

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

Schoen

By Don Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

Here is the status of some issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senate passes second tax bill, different from House measure

By Don Davis

The Minnesota Senate on Thursday approved a second tax-cut bill that pretty much matches the total dollar number of tax breaks representatives approved earlier, but the two chambers go different routes to get there.

Senators voted 57-6 for their $100 million tax-break measure, which spreads the money around to a wide variety of taxes. The House already voted 125-0 for a bill focusing on cutting property taxes.

House and Senate negotiators will work on producing a compromise bill after lawmakers return from an Easter-Passover recess April 22.

Sen. Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said much of his tax bill deals with relatively narrow provisions for specific communities and removing outdated laws.

Among the broader provisions is one to give active military personnel and veterans larger tax breaks.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, sponsored the military credit, which would increase a tax break from $120 to $200 a month for each month a person was in active military service in specific areas after Dec. 31, 2013.

Also, the annual credit for past military service would be doubled, from $750 to $1,500, and phase out beginning with income greater than $30,000.

Sen. Tom Bakk, D-Cook, has a provision in the bill to give the Revenue Department authority to negotiate an income tax reciprocity deal with Wisconsin.

Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty canceled the agreement after Wisconsin fell $17 million behind.

Reciprocity allows taxpayers who live in one state and work in the other to pay income taxes to just one state. Since more Wisconsin residents work in Minnesota than the other way around, Wisconsin always owed Minnesota money at the end of the year. But the Badger State fell behind in its payments.

“We would like to have an agreement with Wisconsin so these people only have to file one state income tax,” Skoe said.

If the agreement is reached by the end of this year, it may include up to a $1 million loss to Minnesota, an incentive for Wisconsin to settle. If it comes after that, Minnesota will not accept a loss.

Provisions in the bill include new and expanded income tax credits for transit users, parents paying for tutoring or reading assistance, greater Minnesota businesses hiring interns, and foreclosed and short-sale homeowners. Other tax relief would go to snowmobile clubs, postseason high school events tickets and nonprofit fundraising groups.

Skoe said fire departments struggle to get volunteers, and tax credits could help them and other volunteer public safety agencies recruit more people. Each of about 19,000 volunteer public safety workers could get the $450 income tax credit.

Also in the bill is a provision to split $10 million among 83 of the state’s 87 counties to fight aquatic invasive species.

Minnesota minimum wage deal includes lower small business pay

Winkler, press and spectators

By Don Davis

Small businesses that dot greater Minnesota would not be forced to pay employees as much as larger firms pay under a minimum wage increase proposal legislative leaders announced Monday.

“I think we have a pretty strong provision for small businesses,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said.

Businesses with gross sales less than $500,000 annually would pay a $7.75 minimum wage when the law is fully implemented in 2016 instead of a $9.50 wage for larger businesses. Higher wages would be phased in annually for the next three years in a bill expected to pass the House and Senate this week.

Also, the agreement sets large business minimum wages at $7.75 for a 90-day training wage for 18- and 19-year-olds, for all 16- and 17-year olds and for some employees from other countries working at places such as resorts.

Supporters say the higher minimum wage would give 357,000 Minnesotans higher pay.

Republicans and business leaders were not happy with the deal.

A representative of small businesses said jobs would be lost. Mike Hickey of the National Federation of Independent Businesses could not predict how many jobs would disappear, but said young workers would be especially affected.

“We are very concerned about the sticker shock,” Hickey said. “We are very concerned putting this on autopilot.”

Hickey and other opponents said they think that allowing the minimum wage to automatically rise to keep up with inflation will cost businesses.

The deal includes a provision that beginning in 2018, the minimum wage would increase each Jan. 1 to match inflation, but the state labor commissioner could suspend an increase if the economy is faltering.

The minimum wage could not increase more than 2.5 percent a year.

House leaders had wanted an automatic increase for inflation, but Senate leaders were concerned. Bakk said that allowing the labor commissioner to delay automatic increases was a good compromise.

The Senate leader also liked phasing in the new minimum wage over three years.

“This is manageable,” Bakk said.

Resorts in Bakk’s northeastern Minnesota and around the Brainerd lakes region got help in the bill, the senator said. The measure allows them and other businesses to hire workers from other countries at lower wages than they would be forced to pay American workers. Bakk said the resorts cannot find enough young people to work summers.

Dan McElroy of Hospitality Minnesota said his members are especially concerned about raising wages while other states are not.

“We are afraid of walking away from neighboring states,” McElroy said, with higher wages than they require.

Ben Gerber of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said no state has ever increased its minimum wage as much when compared to adjoining states. No state around Minnesota has a minimum wage higher than the federal $7.25 wage.

The controversial nature of the bill only intensified Monday when Sen. Jeff Hayden, D-Minneapolis, brought the bill in front of the Senate finance committee, which tacked it onto an unrelated bill and sent the minimum wage provision to the full Senate.

“I think I have the right to know what is in bills,” Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said, adding that he just learned about the minimum wage provisions minutes before they came up in the committee meeting.

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

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

President Barack Obama wants to raise the federal wage to $10.10, but Republicans who control the U.S. House do not plan to go along with him.

If the Minnesota minimum wage is approved this week, the House and Senate will have passed all but one of their major bills for the year. Only a public works funding bill would remain without a vote when lawmakers return from their Easter-Passover break on April 22.

When the break ends, negotiators would need to work out differences between House and Senate versions of budget, taxes and other bills.