2014 legislative session: Debate likely on minimum wage, bonding and fixes
ST. PAUL — There is little doubt the 2013 Minnesota Legislature will be remembered for its historic vote to allow gay marriage and a $2 billion tax increase.
Democrats say the session that ended seconds before its midnight Monday adjournment deadline also will be remembered for “investing” in education, jobs and other key state programs. Republicans claim Democrats overreached when they gained control of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time in
22 years by hiking taxes too much, handing unions too much power and spending more than the state should.
But even if Democratic-Farmer-Laborites overreached, they did not accomplish everything they wanted.
Take the minimum wage. Democrats wanted to raise it from the current $6.15 an hour. Senators voted to up it to $7.75, and the House and Gov. Mark Dayton preferred something north of $9.
It became too sticky a subject to finish as the legislative session ended. But House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said it would be atop their to-do list when lawmakers return to St. Paul on Feb. 25.
Bakk said he would encourage legislative minimum wage negotiators to spend time before the next session to talk to businesses about what would work.
The speaker also said the 2014 priority list should include more infrastructure funding, especially for transportation and transit projects.
Dayton said he was disappointed an $800 million public works finance bill failed this year, and indicated he would push a big bill next year to help create thousands of jobs.
Next session also may be a time to make changes to provisions lawmakers passed in the past few days.
For instance, DFL leaders have sent strong signals that they will look to provisions in a tax bill that added sales taxes to some business purchases.
“We need to find out what some of the unintended consequences may be,” Bakk said.
Tax bill writers delayed implementation of some of the provisions until April, giving them time to rewrite what is needed.
The bill senators passed was supposed to exempt farm equipment repair from the new tax, Bakk said, but it did not. Also, farmers could be charged tax when buying fertilizer stored in facilities they do not own.
Other industries also could face issues with the new warehouse sales tax.
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said companies need to know about their tax future, and firms such as Red Wing Shoes must make decisions and not wait until April to see if the tax changes.
Rural Republican lawmakers have lots of concerns with the sales tax being added to farm purchases and said they are not sure just what might be taxed.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she hopes a bill designed to prevent school bullying will come back and pass next year.
The 2013 session, which began Jan. 8, wrapped up with almost no time to spare even though Democrats control state government for the first time in 22 years.
Among the final bills lawmakers passed is one to allow some day care providers and personal care attendants to join unions. The House vote ended in shouting, in the most dramatic episode in the House this year.
On Tuesday, Democrats patted themselves on the back for a job well done in 2013. They praised their work on increasing education funding, reforming taxes, lowering property taxes and raising what the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners pay the state.
However, in briefing reporters, the governor and legislative leaders never mentioned two of the most contentious issues that brought thousands of people to the state Capitol: the unionization vote and legalizing same-sex marriage.
Right after the Legislature adjourned, Bakk highlighted funding all-day kindergarten and some tax reforms such as eliminating sales tax counties and cities pay as top achievements of the session.
He said the Democratic budget plan makes important investments and provides stability.
“It’s going to leave Minnesota a better place,” Bakk said.
He also said funding state Capitol renovation work was a priority for him.
“I wasn’t going home without the Capitol renovations,” Bakk said.
Republicans were not happy with the session.
“This budget’s going to be tough on everybody,” said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls.
He said lawmakers did not need to pass such a large tax increase to fill a $627 million budget deficit.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Democrats went too far: “If I would use one word to describe the session, it would be ‘overreach.’ “
Thissen said that if Republicans want to call DFL action overreach, he can accept it.
“I think Minnesotans actually want government officials that want to set an ambitious agenda,” Thissen said. “If that is overreaching, being ambitious, that is what it is.”
Gov. Mark Dayton and House Democrats wanted to borrow $750 million to $800 million for public works projects around the state, but Republicans and Senate Democrats favored something smaller. In the end, they agreed to spend $177 million.
A $38 billion, two-year budget won approval in the final days of the Legislature, up from $35 billion in the current budget cycle.
Efforts to establish an extensive anti-bullying law failed.
Legislators and other candidates will be able to spend more on campaigns.
More than $200 million is needed to renovate the state Capitol building; lawmakers approved $132 million, expecting to come back next year and approve the rest. A new office building near the Capitol also received legislative approval.
Home-based child care providers and personal care attendants (who help the elderly and disabled) who receive state payments won the right to join unions. It was the most-debated bill of the session.
Public schools will receive $485 million more from the state in the next two years, including money to fund all-day kindergarten and day care scholarships for 3- and 4-year-olds. General state school aid also is increasing.
Fairly minor changes were made in the state’s election laws, including allowing Minnesotans to get absentee ballots without giving a reason, expanding mail balloting, setting up a pilot project for electronic poll books and lowering the threshold for taxpayer-funded election recounts.
Efforts were made to increase the gasoline tax to fund transportation needs, but with the governor’s opposition that never passed.
Minnesota became the 12th state to allow same-sex marriages after a contentious debate and thousands of people packing the Capitol to make their voices heard.
School and other shootings fanned a demand for gun control, but from early this legislative session it was apparent that banning so-called assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines would go nowhere. In the end, little was done other than tweak background checks for some gun buyers.
The first big bill to become law makes Minnesota among a handful of states that operate a mostly Web-based marketplace where its residents can compare and buy health insurance policies. Also, $50 million was cut from state health programs for the poor and disabled.
Tuition at state-run colleges and universities will be frozen for two years as $250 million was added to their budgets, the first significant increase in years.
Undocumented immigrants who attend Minnesota high schools at least three years and plan to become U.S. citizens will be allowed to pay in-state tuition at state-run colleges and universities.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT AID
Cities of all sizes and parts of the state agreed to a new Local Government Aid formula that would make state aid more predictable and, supporters say, more fair.
The Rochester-based Mayo Clinic received about $400 million to help its home community improve infrastructure.
There was discussion, but no action, on allowing Minnesotans to use marijuana to ease pain.
“Next year” is what supporters of a higher minimum wage say after the House and Senate could not agree on how much to raise the current $6.25-an-hour wage. The House and governor wanted it increased to more than $9, but the Senate approved a $7.75 level.
Nursing homes will receive a 5 percent state aid increase, but other long-term care organizations will get just a fraction of that.
Public pension funds in financial trouble, including those for Duluth and St. Paul teachers, will get more state money.
As the legislative session progressed, concern grew that electronic pulltab and bingo taxes would not raise enough money to pay the state’s portion of a nearly $1 billion Vikings stadium. So lawmakers approved temporarily using money from a cigarette tax increase as a backup.
Property: The tax bill provides $441 million in property tax relief. It comes in several ways, including providing local governments more state aid, which is supposed to result in lower property taxes. Property tax refunds also received a boost.
Sales: While the governor withdrew his plan to lower the sales tax rate but apply it to many more goods and services, the Senate succeeded in persuading the governor and House to agree to tax some business goods and services.
— Forum News Service