Johnson calls session 'aggressive' and 'productive,' but remarks heavy lifting still remains

WILLMAR -- It's halftime in the 2006 legislative session, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson returned home for the Easter and Passover recess with words of praise for a fast-paced game in the chamber he leads.

WILLMAR -- It's halftime in the 2006 legislative session, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson returned home for the Easter and Passover recess with words of praise for a fast-paced game in the chamber he leads.

The Willmar DFL'er called it "the most aggressive and productive five weeks of a legislative session'' that he has seen in his 28 years as a state legislator. He met with local news media on Thursday.

Johnson cited bipartisan votes in the Senate for the approval of bills dealing with some of the major issues of the session. Bills dealing with state bonding, eminent domain, identity theft and a constitutional amendment for conservation funding are among those he cited.

Johnson went so far as to suggest that the Legislature could finish its work before the short session's May 22 deadline, but he made no promise. He expressed his disappointment with what he termed a lack of progress in the House on major issues.

While he voiced optimism for continued hard work, the senator also noted that the "heavy lifting" is still ahead. Still to be negotiated are major differences between the two chambers and parties on immigration, sports stadiums, property tax relief, energy policy, dedicated funding for the outdoors and spending in the bonding bills. The Senate will take up debate on the three stadium issues when it returns next week.


The biggest work order of the session for the House and Senate is the bonding bill. The Senate bill contains $980 million in spending as compared to $950 million in the House and the $881 million recommended by the governor.

Any final bill will have to stay below $1 billion. Johnson said he estimates that the House and Senate versions share about $600 million to $650 million in common projects.

The Senate bill includes $2.2 million for the Grass Lake restoration project that would hold Willmar's storm water runoff. The House bill does not include any funding for the project.

"I don't think Dean Johnson wants to come home until Grass Lake is finished,'' he told reporters.

The bonding bill does not include funds for a veterans' home in Willmar. Johnson said the omission came at the request of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It doesn't have the operating funds to take on a new facility at this time.

He offered this preview of other issues about to reach the hot plate:

Dedicated conservation funding


The Senate approved a constitutional amendment to put before voters that would add three-eighths of a percent to the state's 6.5 percent sales tax for conservation. It would collect 37 cents for every $100 in sales and divide the monies among wetland restoration, habitat, state parks and trails. A smaller portion goes to arts and cultural programs.

The House approved a version that dedicates three-sixteenths of a percent of the 6.5 percent sales tax.

"I can't make a prediction,'' Johnson said when asked if he thought the two bodies could resolve the difference between their bills.

Property tax relief

The Senate wants to focus property tax relief on education. It would earmark $130 million in state revenues to write down the property taxes now collected for education across the state.

Johnson said the Senate will not accept what he termed the "Jesse checks'' proposal by the House to mail property tax rebates to homeowners. Calling property tax relief the number one goal for the senate, he said: "We want long-term, meaningful reform that is equitable across the state.''


The senator lambasted the federal government for "dropping the ball on immigration and protection of our borders.'' He said his conversations with people in the food processing industry in the district have convinced him of the need for immigrant workers. The Senate wants to take a proactive approach by offering work place, education and language services to assist new immigrants, he said.



Johnson cast his vote to advance a bill requiring that the state to obtain 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, but the bill failed to advance to the Senate floor on a 32-32 tie. "At least give us an opportunity to debate it,'' said Johnson of his vote to advance the bill.

The bill was opposed by the rural electric associations and municipal utilities. The senator said they have told him they would rather see renewable energy goals and not mandates.

Johnson said that the state's flourishing ethanol industry would never have gotten off the ground if the state had not taken a long-term approach and helped create a market with a 10 percent ethanol requirement.

Sports stadiums

Johnson said rural legislators tend to support the current proposals for a University of Minnesota Gophers' football stadium on campus, a Minnesota Twins' ballpark in Hennepin County and the Minnesota Vikings' $1 billion complex in Anoka County.

He indicated the greatest debate ahead will focus on the Twins' and Vikings' proposals. Should voters in the two counties have a vote on whether to add to the local sales tax? Should the taxes be expanded to include other metro area counties?

There is also a proposal to add one-tenth of 1 percent to the state's sales tax. It would provide the state's share of funding for all three projects, improve a number of state college and university stadiums, and be completed in five years.

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