Session recap

Lawmakers reflect on highlights, lowlights of 2015 legislative session

Credit: Photo courtesy of Minnesota House Photography

FYI …
What:
Town Hall meeting with Sen. Scott Dibble, Rep. Frank Hornstein and Rep. Paul Thissen to review the 2015 legislative session
Where: Tuesday, July 7 at 7–9 p.m.
When: Lynnhurst Recreation Center, 1345 W. Minnehaha Parkway 

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For the DFLers who make up the Minneapolis legislative delegation, the 2015 session was messy and frustrating.

Lawmakers were especially critical about how many deals were made behind closed doors in the final days of the session and days leading up to the June 12 special session.

In a recent interview, Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-61) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-61A) said they will be pushing for reforms next session and enforcement of legislative rules to prevent this year’s end-of-session antics from happening again.

“The process was deeply flawed and it has to change. It’s not acceptable,” Dibble said. “This is a democracy and this is about transparency and the people’s ability to know what’s going on with their government.”

They singled out the elimination of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board as a casualty of the lack of transparency about items in budget bills during the end of session. The 48-year-old board provided oversight of MPCA decisions.

“The special interests, the polluters, large corporations really had their way in the House, and that has got to be reversed if we are going to make progress in this state,” Hornstein said. “… We absolutely have to have much more engagement at the Capitol with everyday citizens. We have wonderful organizations that are turning people out, but we need more of that. Without active citizens, the special interests and corporations will rule the roost.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican from Crown, had a rosier outlook on the session.

“Minnesotans expect us to come to St. Paul and lead by working together,” he said in a statement after the adjournment of the special session. “The House Republican majority’s aim from the beginning was bringing government spending more in line with family budgets. I’m proud to say, upon enactment, our budget will have the third lowest percent increase in general fund spending in over 50 years. We are targeting tax dollars toward our state’s priorities — E-12 students, roads and bridges, aging adults — and we are doing so without increasing the tax burden on hardworking Minnesotans.”

Lawmakers wrapped up their work June 12 during a one-day special session called by Gov. Mark Dayton to resolve disputes on budget bills for education, jobs and energy, and agriculture and the environment.

Dayton, a DFLer, said the session ended with legislators “sharply divided over key issues.”

“Nevertheless, legislators achieved significant progress in providing better care and education for our youngest and most vulnerable citizens: children, who were previously considered too young for structured elementary education. Minnesotans at the other end of life will also benefit from increased funding for nursing homes, personal care attendants, and other supportive services,” he said in a statement after signing bills from the special session. “As I have noted before, a sign of true compromise is that no one is happy with it.  Many compromises had to be made during this legislative session; and many people, across the political spectrum, believe it suffered from too many missed opportunities.”

Lawmakers came into session with a nearly $2 billion surplus, but left about $1 billion on the table and failed to pass a major transportation funding bill many had high hopes for earlier in the year.

A debate over education funding and the authority of the state auditor dominated discussions during negotiations leading up to the special session. Dayton pressed hard for funding for universal prekindergarten, but ultimately agreed to a compromise with Daudt on an education spending bill that includes a significant increase in the per-pupil funding formula.

The final education spending bill was a highlight of the session for many Minneapolis lawmakers.

In an end of session wrap-up letter sent to constituents, state Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-61B) credited Dayton’s leadership for the funding increase. “Due to his leadership, the final education budget passed by the Legislature made important investments in Minnesota’s future,” he said.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the major spending bills passed during the session and other notable items. 

Education 

After lengthy debate and negotiations, the final $17.23 billion E-12 education spending bill signed by Dayton includes a $525 million increase in funding for early learning programs and schools for the next two fiscal years.

The funding increase amounts to a 2 percent increase in the per-pupil funding formula for fiscal year 2016 and an additional 2 percent increase in the formula for fiscal year 2017.

The budget bill also includes more than $95 million in new funding for pre-K programs, including a $48.3 million increase for the Early Learning Scholarship program targeted to children from low-income families.

As for higher education, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) received a $166 million state funding boost for the next biennium. The increase wasn’t enough, however, to hold the line on tuition increases. The university’s Board of Regents recently approved a budget that includes tuition increases ranging 1.5 to 7 percent.

Transportation 

Lawmakers passed what has been described as a “lights-on transportation” bill much to the chagrin of transportation advocates.

The spending bill includes $5.5 billion for transportation spending over the next biennium.

Before the special session convened Dibble and Hornstein, DFL leaders on transportation issues, had proposed a compromise plan to move ahead with a more ambitious spending plan.

“Action on transportation can’t wait another year longer,” Dibble said. “Gridlock at the Capitol leads to gridlock on our roads and spiraling costs for everybody. We can’t afford more delays.”

The DFLers offered to drop plans for a new sales tax on gas, and instead called for adding a dime to the current gas tax and agreeing to the House Republican idea of dedicating sales tax on auto parts to roads and bridges.

Hornstein said the transportation spending shouldn’t be labeled “status quo.”

“By delaying any action we will have to spend much more in the future if and when we get serious about transportation in this state,” he said.

The transportation bill also eliminated $30 million in planning dollars for the Southwest Light Rail Transit project — a measure tucked into the bill at the end of session that received little attention. How it will impact the project remains to be seen. Project planners are working on scaling back the project to keep the price tag around $1.6 billion. 

DFL lawmakers also failed to get traction on an effort to pass increased assessments on railroad companies to pay for improvements at highway-rail grade crossings on rail corridors transportation crude oil and other hazardous materials.

The transportation bill did, however, include a provision that adds ethanol to the list of cargo transported by rail that the Department of Public Safety must analyze the impacts and preparedness of emergency responders to handle in the event of a derailment.

The transport of ethanol by rail has been a major concern of residents living along the Kenilworth Corridor.

The transportation bill also increases penalties for texting while driving. Beginning Aug. 1, fines for texting while driving will reach up to $350.

Environment 

The final environment and agriculture bill signed by the governor leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of many DFL lawmakers because of the provisions that eliminate the MPCA Citizens Board and exempt sulfide mining from solid waste rules.

Hornstein said the Citizens Board served a critically important role in the state.

“It’s really important that citizens have their day in court when it comes to major permits and environmental review,” he said. “It sends such a chilling message about the degree that industry is in charge at the Legislature.”

The bill did include one of Dayton’s top priorities — new buffer strips designed to improve water quality. The law designates an estimated 110,000 acres of land for water quality buffer strips around the state, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

The vegetation strips will help filer out nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus from lakes, streams and rivers.

Sex trafficking  

A new law going into effect Aug. 1 makes it a felony to solicit anyone “reasonably” believed to be under the age of 18 for prostitution.

City leaders advocated for the law as another tool to fight juvenile sex trafficking, said City Attorney Susan Segal.

The law carries a penalty of a sentence up to five years and a fine up to $10,000, she said. Previously, offenders would be charged with a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor if they solicited a 16 or 17 year olds for sex, which carried a maximum sentence of 90 days or one year in jail, respectively.

The law also allows police to conduct undercover sting operations and pose as underage victims in online ads and via text messages. Previously it has been challenging for police to go after offenders in sting operations if the victim was older than 15, Segal said.

The Minneapolis Police Department has two full-time investigators devoted solely to juvenile sex trafficking cases and has been working on a number of other fronts in recent years to fight the problem.

Capital investments 

The $370 million bonding package approved by the Legislature includes funding for flood mitigation and disaster relief projects, among other things.

It does not include funding for the city’s 10th Avenue Bridge, however.

The City of Minneapolis is seeking $42 million in funding for repairs to the four-lane bridge that runs parallel to the I-35W Bridge. It was listed as the city’s top bonding priority for the recent session and has made it on the list for next year as well.

The four-lane bridge has deteriorating concrete areas on its spandrel columns, arches and floor beams that need repairs. 

Soccer stadium 

Citing stadium fatigue, lawmakers did not address a package of tax breaks sought by a group of investors led by Bill McGuire to assist with the construction of a new Major League Soccer stadium on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

McGuire’s group, which has proposed privately financing a stadium near the Minneapolis Farmers Market, lobbied legislators for a sales tax exemption on construction materials, a property tax exemption and limits on future local taxes levied on the stadium. 

The Minneapolis City Council, meanwhile, has established a new working group to examine ways to sort through stadium issues and explore legislative strategies to support the stadium proposal. The working group is expected to report to the Council’s Committee of the Whole in September.

— House Public Information Services contributed to this report