Minnesota’s working families will see the most obvious fruits of the 2013 legislative session in their public schools and property-tax bills, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of investments, reforms and initiatives passed by labor-endorsed majorities in the Legislature this year, union leaders said. The Minnesota AFL-CIO called the session, which adjourned May 20, “one of the most productive legislative sessions for working Minnesotans in a generation,” pointing to a laundry list of bills passed by DFL majorities – with the support of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton – “that will help countless numbers of working people in Minnesota.”
State lawmakers made their biggest investment in public education, reversing a decade-long trend of underfunding by adding about $235 million to the general education funding formula over the next two years.
“The leaders of the House and Senate said education would be a priority this session, and they delivered,” said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide educators’ union.
Lawmakers also expanded access to all-day kindergarten – a proven strategy for raising students’ academic achievement – to students statewide beginning in 2014, and they boosted support for special education by about $40 million.
“Our schools won’t recover from a decade of underfunding in a single session, but the new investments in the basic formula, special education and all-day kindergarten put us on the road to recovery,” Dooher said.
To pay for new investments in education, lawmakers raised $2 billion in revenue by closing tax loopholes exploited by corporations, raising taxes on the richest 2 percent and increasing the tax on cigarettes – a strategy Carol Nieters, executive director of SEIU Local 284, called “a much better investment for Minnesota’s future.”
“Finally, Minnesota is closing corporate tax loopholes instead of schools,” said Nieters, who represents more than 8,000 public school paraprofessionals, clerical staff, bus drivers, custodians and food service workers. “After years of gimmicks and borrowing billions from schools, we have a historic investment in education.”
New revenues also will underwrite property-tax relief for homeowners – a critical step toward fixing a tax system that hits middle-income families harder than their wealthy counterparts. A January 2013 report by the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that Minnesota’s top 1 percent of earners pay just 6.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the middle 20 percent of the state’s earners pay 9.6 percent.
Raising income taxes on the highest earners and providing property-tax relief for homeowners will “make taxes fairer for middle-class Minnesotans,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson said. “Minnesota won’t turn around overnight, but the 2013 session was an enormous step forward.”
While tax reform and education funding were two labor priorities that passed during the 2013 session, one top priority – a minimum-wage hike – failed to win legislative approval.
Although minimum wage bills passed both the House and Senate, legislative leaders could not reconcile differences between the two bills.
The House bill, supported by a coalition of labor, faith and community organizations, called for raising the minimum wage to $9.50 over three years and adjusting the rate annually for inflation. The Senate passed a much smaller increase.
With an eye on the 2014 legislative session, Knutson said the issue will remain a priority for the Minnesota AFL-CIO.
“Hundreds of thousands of low-wage working Minnesotans and their families who deserve a pay raise are extremely disappointed in the Senate’s failure to agree to a meaningful minimum wage increase,” Knutson said.
“Between now and the 2014 session, our coalition will be having conversations with lawmakers and their constituents about why a significant minimum wage increase is good for workers, small businesses, and our entire state.”
Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.