Week 4 dawns on the Minnesota Legislature with a battlefield laid out before it.
Gov. Mark Dayton last week gave lawmakers a lot to fight about when he unveiled a highly controversial state budget proposal, plus ambitious plans to revamp the state's tax structure. This week, lawmakers will begin skirmishing on the proposals.
Predictably, the governor's plan has already met with resistance from GOP lawmakers. Many business and industry officials hate it, with one calling it "insane." And even some DFL lawmakers aren't rushing to embrace it just yet.
In short, Dayton aims to raise more tax revenue for the state to trim a projected $1.1 billion deficit and increase education and health services spending, including $300 million more for K-12 and $240 million in new money for higher education.
A central piece of Dayton's plan is lowering the state sales tax rate (from 6.875 to 5.5) but ultimately collecting $2 billion more in sales taxes by broadening what gets taxed, including a long list of services. (Dayton also proposes a new sales tax on clothing items costing $100 or more, and a 94-cent-per-pack hike in cigarette taxes for a total $2.17 in tax per pack.)
A few other budget highlights:
-- An income tax hike on the top 2 percent of Minnesota earners — couples making $250,000 or more or individuals making $150,000 — totaling $1.1 billion.
-- A property tax rebate up to $500 per homeowner, totaling a $1.4 billion reduction.
-- A quarter-cent sales tax hike in the seven-county metro area to help fund a Southwest light rail line from Eden Prairie to Minneapolis and expand bus service in the metro.
-- Doubling state funding for mental health programs in schools.
The House Ways and Means committee will begin mulling the governor's budget proposal on Monday morning. Here's a calendar of other committee work this week. Among the hearings set is one on the state's endangered species list. The DNR aims to remove some species and add others.
And here's a snapshot of other action at the Capitol last week.
The Department of Natural Resources has been rocked by the disclosure than an employee inappropriately accessed the files of about 5,000 Minnesotans – 90 percent women – including a number of TV personalities, celebrities, athletes and politicians. The now-fired male DNR manager had access to the driver's license and motor vehicle records for law enforcement purposes only. A bill was outlined last week that would require state and local government agencies to create better safeguards against database misuse and calls for harsher criminal penalties.
Guns and mental health
A group of Minnesota sheriffs last week goaded the Legislature to make changes to the state's mental health system. Hennepin County Sheriff Rick Stanek called it the first step in a statewide conversation on mental health and extreme gun violence. "Gun control alone is not going to solve the complex problem of guns and extreme violence," he said.
New legislation named for Gabe Rodreick and Jack Jablonski – two young Minnesotans who suffered paralyzing injuries – would invest $8 million in research on spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.
The Legislature is holding joint hearings this month on climate change and hearings continued last week about the effects that global warming is having on Minnesota. Scientists have told lawmakers that state traditions like the John Beargrease sled dog race could be in jeopardy (the race has been postponed again this year due to lack of snow). Greenhouse gas emissions have dipped overall in the last five years, but that trend may not continue, the Star Tribune reported.
Roads and bridges
Offering some context for a debate about transportation spending, a new report by a group backed in part by construction industries says Minnesota needs $7 billion keep up with construction and repair on roads, bridges, transit and other infrastructure. In related news, Dayton said there is no government money right now to build high-speed rail lines in Minnesota.
A House panel considered what Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, called an epidemic of labor lockouts in the state and nationally. "Legislation is being contemplated to prevent or disincentivize the probability of lockouts," he said. Musicians at the state's two major symphonies in St. Paul and Minneapolis have been locked out as labor contract negotiations drag on.
A revived proposal by DFL lawmakers to commission a bust of former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun for the state Capitol is stirring controversy again. Blackmun, who grew up in St. Paul, wrote the majority opinion in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion. Abortion foes oppose the proposal, which has been discussed before.
The Minnesota Senate confirmed two key Daton appointments: Jim Schowalter as commissioner of Management and Budget and Larry Pogemiller as director of the state Office of Higher Education.