Education, transportation top legislative agenda

Minneapolis DFL lawmakers cautiously optimistic about finding common ground with Republicans for 2015 legislative session

The state Capitol. Credit:

With the 2015 legislative session underway, notable Minneapolis politicians are adjusting to new roles at the state Capitol and a return to divided government.

The DFL Party no longer controls all branches of state government with Republicans now at the helm of the Minnesota House of Representatives. State lawmakers are also facing a $1 billion surplus as they begin to embark on the budget process that will be dominated by discussions about how to improve transportation and education in the state.  

Tina Smith, a resident of the Fulton neighborhood, has taken over as lieutenant governor for Yvonne Prettner Solon who decided not to run for a second term with Gov. Mark Dayton.

Smith, who served as chief of staff for Dayton and former Mayor R.T. Rybak, is expected to have a more active and visible role than what is typical for a lieutenant governor.

“Whether you are a 10th generation Minnesotan or your family moved north last year, at our best we are earnest, hardworking, disciplined people who every day in big and small ways are determined to make things work better, for the good of the whole,” Smith said during her inaugural remarks Monday at the Landmark Center in St. Paul. “This is the heart of invention, and the heart of what makes Minnesota exceptional. In business language, we would call this our competitive advantage. Minnesota’s challenge for 2015 and beyond is to nourish this spirit of invention — to keep our competitive advantage.”

Smith said the state needs to have its “politics and communities work better” through improved public services and transportation infrastructure, safer neighborhoods and excellent schools.

Dayton said improving educational opportunities for Minnesotans will be his top priority for his second term.

“Our citizens have long known that a good education is the key to our success,” he said during his inaugural speech. “Now, we need to realize that a good education is the key to our survival, and that an excellent education unlocks the door to unprecedented opportunities. Our future success — the health of our families, the vitality of our communities, and the prosperity of our state — will depend upon our making those excellent educations available to all Minnesotans. We’re part way there.”  

Dayton wants to build on work of his first term, which included rolling out free all-day kindergarten throughout the state. He said he wants the state to expand and improve early childhood programs, child protection services and mental health resources for children.

“During the past four years, we started to reverse the previous decade’s disinvestment — with all-day kindergarten, early childhood scholarships, per-pupil aid increases, and more postsecondary assistance,” he said. “But those new investments have only returned Minnesota’s education expenditures to the national average — and that’s not good enough.”

He said Minnesota ranks 24th in the nation in per-pupil elementary and secondary school spending, according to the most recent U.S. Census report. State spending on higher education has also dropped to its lowest level in 30 years, he said.

“Now, with a $1 billion surplus, the question is not: Can we afford to provide Minnesotans with the best education? It is: Can we afford to continue providing less? The answer, obviously, is ‘no,’” Dayton said.

House Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-61B) applauded Dayton’s speech and said it set a “very optimistic tone.”

He said the surplus gives lawmakers some flexibility and is hopeful there will be bipartisan support for making new investments in education.

Thissen, a Lynnhurst resident who served as speaker of the House during the 2013-14 session, said discussions on transportation will be on the front burner. Other priorities he’s focused on include improving campaign finance disclosure laws by requiring independent expenditures to disclose spending and pushing for greater workplace flexibility for employees who face illness or need time off to care for family members.

Thissen said Minneapolis legislators will also be watchful to make sure the Republican-controlled House doesn’t try to steer funding away from Minneapolis schools or reduce the city’s Local Government Aid (LGA).

Republicans won several key races in rural Minnesota to take a 72-62 majority in the House.

Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A), former chair of the House Transportation Finance Committee and Linden Hills resident, said he’s hopeful DFLers can find some common ground with Republicans on transportation and avoid the bitter partisanship that marked the 2011 session and resulted in a three-week government shutdown when Dayton and the Republican-controlled House and Senate couldn’t agree on the state budget.

He said he and Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61) have a good relationship with Rep. Tim Kelly, a Republican from Red Wing, who chairs the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee.

He said it’s time for the Legislature to make the $6 billion investment recommended by the governor’s task force to fix the state’s aging roads and bridges.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get this accomplished,” he said, noting House Republican leaders have said they oppose new taxes to pay for the maintenance of roads and bridges.

He said last winter’s crop of potholes will be a preview of what life will be like on the roads if state government fails to invest enough in infrastructure.

Hornstein said he will also continue to push for more money for Metro Transit to improve reliability of bus service and upgrade bus shelters.

He said he’ll also remain focused on ways to protect communities impacted by oil train traffic. “There still are significant gaps in terms of keeping communities safe,” he said.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-60B), who won a competitive primary challenge against Mohamud Noor, said she won’t have a direct impact on the debate over transportation and education funding since she doesn’t serve on those committees, but agreed that they should be the priority issues for the session.

She said she’d like to see the state support high-speed rail between the Mayo Clinic and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and extend the North Star Line to St. Cloud.

Kahn, a Nicollet Island resident first elected to the House in 1972, is also considering introducing legislation that would recognize the monarch as an endangered species and will continue working on policies supporting the health of the state’s pollinators.

She said she’s optimistic that the Legislature can avoid the gridlock of the 2011 session. “It was so disastrous when [the Republicans] took a position of no compromise,” she said.

Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL-60A), who represents Northeast Minneapolis neighborhoods, also has a positive outlook about the session.

“I’ve always succeeded in getting legislation passed no matter who is in charge and expect to do so this term,” she wrote in a legislative update to constituents. “The end result will reflect the ideas of all parties including the Senate and Governor Dayton.”   

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At a glance: State government

 

Governor: Mark Dayton (DFL)

Lt. Governor: Tina Smith (DFL)

 

Senate: 39 DFLers; 28 Republicans

Senate Majority Leader: Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook)

Senate Minority Leader: David Hann (R-Eden Prairie)

 

House: 72 Republicans; 62 DFL

House Speaker: Kurt Daudt (R-Crown)

House Minority Leader: Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis)