The first bill of the 2011 session, as is customary, has symbolic importance. It addresses the new majority party’s top priority for the state. What it is not, according to House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove), is “sexy.”
“We’re looking at the priorities we’ve talked about time and time again: making Minnesota more competitive, making it a better place to do business,” Zellers said, before adding, “maybe not the sexiest issue in the world – permitting and the regulatory process.”
House Republicans held a press conference Jan. 10 to announce HF1 and HF2. They address Republicans’ top priorities – jobs and the budget – in largely incremental steps. The first bill would streamline and speed up the state’s environmental permitting process, while the second would institute a new approach to budgeting that would force state agencies to justify not only their funding levels but also their continued existence.
Zellers said the bills would make the state a more attractive location for businesses – and ultimately grow jobs in the state.
“These are the things we promised to make Minnesota more competitive,” he said.
In another symbolic gesture, the majority party chose two members of their freshman class – Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau) and Rep. King Banaian (R-St. Cloud) – to sponsor the bills. Zellers said the two were chosen because of their unique academic and practical experience.
“These are two of our best members, and we’ve got a great freshman class,” he said.
DFLers reacted coolly to the proposals, praising some of the reforms, but casting doubt on their overall impact on the economy and the budget.
“They may be fine proposals in the long term, but Minnesotans have real problems that they need solutions to right now,” said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Mpls).
The first bills seem to signal a willingness among House Republicans to seek bipartisan support. In contrast, Senate Republicans made their first bill, SF1, sponsored by
Sen. Geoff Michel (R-Edina), a package of mostly corporate tax cuts that DFLers have criticized in the past. It was the Senate bill that earned the strongest criticism from DFLers.
“Just to give across-the-board tax cuts to corporations that can afford to pay income tax … is absolutely a ridiculous way to start to solve our problems,” said Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia).
Fabian said he thinks the environmental permitting bill will find some support among DFLers, who enacted similar reforms in last year’s omnibus agriculture law. He was scheduled to travel with Gov. Mark Dayton to an event in Hallock on Jan. 11, and said he hoped to discuss the bill with him there.
“This is a bill that I think can be bipartisan,” Fabian said. “It’s a bill that’s filled with common sense, in my opinion.”
Likewise, Republicans hope DFLers will warm to the idea of using priority-based budgeting – a process where agencies must justify their funding requests against measurable objectives. This method, sometimes called “zero-based budgeting,” is the essence of HF2. DFLers actually explored the process shortly after they took over the House in 2007, but never adopted it.
Thissen said the concept “has some merit,” but argued the process would cost money and could end up being a waste of time. In particular, he criticized a part of the bill that requires a review every 10 years of all state agencies to determine whether their continued existence is needed. Giving the example of K-12 education, he said the state isn’t likely to cut off funding for some programs, so why spend time and money studying it?
“At the end of the day, I think the schools can rest assured they are actually going to be getting money coming from the state to pay for kids’ education,” he said. “That kind of gives the lie to zero-based budgeting.”
HF1 has been referred to the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee. HF2 awaits action by the House Government Operations and Elections Committee. Neither bill has a Senate companion.
First Bills of Session
Sponsor: Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau)
• would ask Natural Resources Department and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to respond to environmental permit requests within 150 days
• would eliminate district courts from the appeals process for environmental review decisions
• would allow project proposers to bypass local governments to contract directly with companies who draft their environmental impact statements
Senate companion: none
Sponsor: Rep. King Banaian (R-St. Cloud)
• would enact a priority-based budgeting process for the state beginning in the next biennium
• would require a review every 10 years of all state agencies and other executive-branch entities to determine whether they should be continued, abolished or reformed
Senate companion: none