Minnesota legislative session drawing to an uncertain close

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With perhaps only a few days left before lawmakers adjourn for the biennium, the most closely watched bills this year — the bonding bill and the stadium to house the Vikings — remain in limbo at Session Weekly press time.

Legislative leaders have been meeting privately with Gov. Mark Dayton to try to hash out an agreement on key legislation, but with little sign of progress. In a departure from the usual end-of-session proceedings, House Speaker Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) told Capitol reporters April 25 that this year’s negotiations are unlikely to yield a “global agreement” — a catch-all deal that wraps up the session. Instead, Zellers suggested that the stadium package, the bonding bill, an omnibus tax package and other significant bills will simply have to sink or swim on their own merits.

“I don’t think this year is one of those years where you’ll see that here we all are standing in front of a microphone saying, ‘It’s done and we’re moving on,’” Zellers said.

The House and Senate have been meeting in session on an almost daily basis during the past couple of weeks, passing dozens of bills to reform state government, protect vulnerable adults, boost veterans programs and improve health care and education. More controversial measures to loosen restrictions on fireworks and tighten restrictions on abortions have also passed the House floor.

Some of these measures have been signed into law; others have been met with the governor’s veto pen. But the fate of the biggest bills is still in doubt. But as Dayton said during an April 25 press availability, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over, as Yogi Berra said.”

Complicating the situation is the session’s aggressive timetable. Recognizing that legislators would want to return home quickly to campaign in their newly redrawn legislative districts, Zellers announced before the start of the 2012 session that the Legislature would adjourn no later than April 30.

Legislative leaders have remained firm on that deadline. But even if they opt to extend the session out to the May 21 constitutional adjournment deadline, it’s unclear what the path forward is. As of this writing, the Legislature has already used up 110 of its 120 legislative working days, meaning they can only meet in session 10 more days this year.

All this is to say that the clock is ticking.

Agriculture

Awaiting action by Gov. Mark Dayton, the omnibus agriculture bill would name a state soil, change requirements for labeling of landscape and garden stock and delay an ethanol mandate.

Sponsored by Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck) and Sen. Doug Magnus (R-Slayton), HF2398*/ SF2061 would designate Lester as the state soil. That would coincide with the University of Minnesota’s 2013 celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the soil science program and the 40-year-old Minnesota Association of Professional Soil Scientists. (See omnibus agriculture bill story on page 6.)

Bonding

A bill that would commit $221 million in bonding proceeds to repair the State Capitol failed in the House April 19 on an 80-50 vote — capital investment bills must be approved by three-fifths of the body, or 81 votes.

However, a $443.9 million bonding bill (HF1752) that includes money to restore the State Capitol and fund other capital investment projects awaits action on the House floor. Appropriations include:

  • $221 million for the Capitol repairs;
  • $102.5 million for transportation projects;
  • $60 million for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Repair (HEAPR) projects;
  • $30 million for flood hazard mitigation;
  • $20 million for wastewater infrastructure;
  • $10 million for housing programs; and
  • $433,000 for bond sale expenses.

Rep. Larry Howes (R-Walker) sponsors the bill. He has been clear that the amount remains in flux and could change with end-of-session negotiations.

DFLers would like to see more money spent on bonding because interest rates are low and the projects would help create jobs. Republicans, however, say that the state carries a large debt load, and that a nearly $500 million capital investment bill was enacted in 2011.

Gov. Mark Dayton has said he wants a bonding bill to be in the $775 million range. The Senate bill, SF1463, sponsored by Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont), awaits action by the Senate Capital Investment Committee.

Education

This session has seen two key bills emerge from the House. HF2083*/ SF2492 sought to repay some of the funding owed to the K-12 schools that was withheld by the state to balance its budget and end the 2011 state government shutdown.

Rep. Pat. Garofalo (R-Farmington) and Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista) sponsor the bill that was vetoed by Gov. Dayton April 5 because he said it would shrink the state’s budget reserve too much.

The omnibus education bill, HF2949*/ SF2482, awaits action by the governor. It would expand postsecondary enrollment options, make changes to pay for school employees deployed in the military, and allow districts to withhold salaries for teachers charged with a felony. Also sponsored by Garofalo and Olson, the conference committee report was passed 119-9 by the House and 64-0 by the Senate.

The House has yet to hear the so-called “Last In, First Out” bill, which would authorize schools to base teacher layoffs on evaluations, rather than seniority alone. A conference committee agreed on a final version of the bill April 3, but the House and Senate have yet to re-pass the report. The governor opposes the proposal.

HF1870 has drawn criticism from some teachers and union officials, who say the legislation is yet another piece in the continued Republican assault on educators. Rep. Branden Petersen (R-Andover), who sponsors the bill with Sen. Pam Wolf (R-Spring Lake Park), said the bill will bring fairness to the practice of teacher layoffs.

Environment

Right: House Speaker Kurt Zellers (left) speaks with Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem on the House floor April 23.

Republicans wanting to loosen environmental regulations got their wish when the House passed its omnibus environment bill April 5. Differences between the House and Senate versions were resolved by a conference committee, and now the report is referred back to each body for consideration.

Sponsored by Rep. Denny McNamara (R-Hastings) and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), HF2164*/ SF1830 includes permit streamlining, environmental deregulation and a statewide course to identify aquatic invasive species.

Other features of the House bill would allow state parks and recreation areas and the Minnesota Zoo to remain open during a government shutdown and expedite the exchange of school trust lands in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for land that generates income for the trust fund, possibly nonferrous mining.

Differences between the bills are inclusion of a minor permit in the House; House language that would limit the state from paying more than 20 percent more than the tax-assessed value for land; allow shallow lakes to be drained to help fight aquatic invasive species; and remove the state Executive Council from the decision-making process in many cases, including permitting of nonferrous mining.

Conferees met April 26 and reached agreement on the bill that now returns to each body for consideration.

Game and Fish

A conference committee is meeting to work out differences in the House and Senate omnibus game and fish bills.

Included in both bills is the proposed creation of a wolf-hunting season. Sponsored by Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar) and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria), the bills would allow 400 wolves to be taken as well as a variety of related measures.

Differences between the House and Senate versions of the omnibus bill are increases in hunting and fishing license fees by the Senate; House language requiring shooting ranges that are partly or wholly owned by the public to host youth firearms safety tests four times a year; and restrictions on importing minnows into Minnesota contained in the House bill.

Health care

Autism studies, group homes, personal care assistants and electronic benefit transfer cards are just a few of the dozens of health and human services reform policies awaiting the governor’s signature in HF2294*/ SF2093, the omnibus health and human services bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka) and Sen. David Hann (R-Eden Prairie).

One of the more controversial provisions of the bill would limit electronic benefit transfer card purchases to stores in Minnesota and adjacent states. The bill also adds liquor stores, tobacco stores and tattoo parlors to the list of prohibited uses. (See omnibus health and human services bill story on page 13)

Higher Education

A bill containing bonding and provisions for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and University of Minnesota awaits House and Senate action after an April 25 approval of a compromise bill by a conference committee.

Sponsored by Rep. Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) and Senate President Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville), the major feature of HF2065/ SF1573* is increasing the bonding authority of MnSCU from $300 million to $405 million.

The bill provides endowment funding of up to $25 million to create a mining, metallurgical or engineering degree program offered by the University of Minnesota at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College — and scholarships of up to $6,500 a year for students in the program.

It also would create a textbook work group to study ways to lower textbook costs for students and a one-time $645,000 appropriation from the university to Hennepin County Medical Center for graduate family medicine programming.

Legacy Funding

After changes in funding levels and language, a conference committee approved $99.9 million in Outdoor Heritage funding April 25. Passed by the Senate 61-4 April 26, it awaits action by the House.

Conferees approved $11.3 million to fund aquatic invasive species efforts, including $7.5 million to build Asian carp barriers on the Mississippi River and $3.8 million in research and clean water projects for the state’s lakes and rivers.

That $4.8 million appropriation is intended to create an Aquatic Invasive Research Center at the University of Minnesota. The center would collaborate with the Department of Natural Resources to control the spread of Asian carp, zebra mussels and invasive aquatic plant species.

“The AIS was the most important part to get in,” said Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City), who sponsors HF2430/ SF2493* with Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria).

Other provisions in the conference committee report include spending $11 million to buy the 1,882-acre Mississippi Northwoods Habitat project in Crow Wing.

Removed by conferees was House language to create a grassland grazing program.

Stadium

Left: House Speaker Kurt Zellers (left) speaks with House Majority Leader Matt Dean on the House floor April 23.

The plan to build a $975 million “People’s Stadium” on the eastern edge of downtown Minneapolis, including the Metrodome site, has been changing almost by the day, in the final week of session.

As of press time, HF1485 was awaiting action on the House floor. Sponsored by Rep. John Kriesel (R-Cottage Grove), the bill initially was designed to provide tax relief to charities, but the House Ways and Means Committee amended the stadium language of HF2810 onto the bill earlier in the week.

The move was necessary because the latter, sponsored by Rep. Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead), was thought to be dead after failing to get out of the House Government Operations and Elections Committee April 16. After that vote, Lanning said a rabbit would need to be pulled out of a hat to get a stadium bill done this session.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited with Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders April 20. Although no threats were issued, Goodell indicated something must be done on the issue this session.

Under the plan, the team would cover $427 million of construction costs; the state $398 million; and Minneapolis $150 million. Money from electronic pull tabs, electronic bingo and tipboard games would be used to pay the state’s share of the cost. Supporters noted that charities would get tax relief and more gambling proceeds while the state also would get more revenue.

The Senate version, SF2391, sponsored by Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont), is awaiting action by the Senate Taxes Committee.

Taxes

Republicans have been clear their goal this session has been to reduce business taxes, while DFLers said they want to protect the renters property tax credit from further erosion and bring property tax relief to homeowners.

Labeled as a vehicle for “Tax Relief and Jobs Creation,” a phase-out of a state property tax levy paid by seasonal/recreational property owners and business property owners is a cornerstone of the omnibus tax bill, HF2337*/ SF1972. Sponsored by Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) and Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen), the bill passed the House 72-62 March 21, but the Senate passed a different version 34-26 nine days later.

A conference committee has held two meetings, and it is expected the bill will be part of end-of-session negotiations.

Davids said the bill’s provisions are aimed at improving the state’s business climate by phasing out the state property tax levy over 12 years beginning in 2014 and excluding 70 percent of the first $150,000 value of all business property in 2013.

Critics say the tax benefit comes at the expense of renters, namely seniors and the poor through a decrease in the renters property tax credit.

The House file would also:

  • freeze local government aid at 2012 amounts;
  • provide targeted tax relief for homeowners equal to 90 percent of any tax increase over 12 percent for pay 2012 only;
  • replace the foreign operating cooperation deduction with a tax credit;
  • increase, in some cases, the research and development tax credit, as well as the angel investment credit; and
  • provide a jobs credit for businesses hiring qualified veterans.

Transportation

The 2011 and 2012 omnibus transportation policy bills have been sitting on the House Fiscal Calendar for approximately a week.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Beard (R-Shakopee), the 2012 version, HF2685, would, in part, allow suburban opt-out transit providers to “establish a pilot program that adds a distance-based surcharge to standard transit fares.” Such a surcharge could only be implemented on routes whose total length exceeds 15 miles. The pilot program would expire on Jan. 1, 2016. Metro Transit could also impose an increase on its express bus service.

Other provisions in the bill include: directing the Employment and Economic Development and Transportation departments to conduct a freight rail economic development study and broaden a “first haul” exception to vehicles that exceed weight limits by no more than 10 percent and are performing the first transport of unprocessed farm products or unrefined forest products to a location within 100 miles.

The Beard-sponsored 2011 version (HF1284), which was awaiting action on the House floor when last year’s session concluded, includes provisions related to speed limit violations, online driver’s education training, electronic-bicycle use and organ donation education.

Potentially the most controversial part would prohibit speed limit violations of up to 10 mph over the limit in 55 mph and 60 mph zones from going on a driver’s record. Currently, a ticket does not appear on someone’s driving record if the person was driving up to 10 mph over the speed limit in a 55 mph zone, or 5 mph over the limit in a 60 mph zone.

The companion bills, SF1072 and SF2321 await action by the full Senate. Sen. Joe Gimse (R-Willmar) sponsors both.