Session starts for legislators

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 1/17/01.

The third installment of a three-party legislative process in Minnesota has begun. Both houses of the Minnesota Legislature are back at work, and Governor Jesse Ventura has already set forth some of his objectives in his State of the State address.

Three area legislators took time to share their expectations for the coming session with the Press.

State surplus
Despite tax reductions in the past few sessions, the state is still expecting a budget surplus again this year.

Lots of discussion will go into dealing with the surplus, said Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville). Even the amount of the surplus will be debated, she said.

Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) said $900 million will be rebated automatically, but the surplus might be $1 or $2 million more than that. Stang supports tax relief and investments in key areas like education, transportation, and health care.

Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) supports returning a third of the surplus to taxpayers through tax cuts, spending a third on needed investments, and keeping a third as a reserve for the state budget. "I believe this is a moderate and balanced approach to the ongoing surplus," he said.

Tax reform
Fischbach expects property tax reform to be the hot topic of the 2001 session.

Governor Ventura has proposed having the state cover the cost of school funding completely, which should alleviate property taxes throughout the state. The problem would be finding nearly $900 million in the state budget to fund K-12 education.

The governor has proposed broadening the sales tax to items that are currently exempt. Fischbach is wary of lowering one tax at the expense of raising another. The sales tax rate might actually be lowered, but applied to more goods and services.

Stang feels the ongoing surplus "is a clear indication that our taxes are too high." He supports an income tax cut and property tax reform.

Fischbach also thinks income taxes should be cut, in addition to property tax reform. "With the state our economy is in, we can afford to do a major reduction and reform in our property taxes and/or income taxes," she said.

"I support a decrease in all three brackets of income tax," added Johnson, "and decreases in property tax especially on business property and farms. The governor's efforts to simplify the tax system are noble and should strongly be considered by the Legislature."

State budget
This year is a budget session of the Legislature, but new spending items will be closely scrutinized.

Stang said he likes the governor's directive to his department heads that before they ask for any funding increases they need to make their department more efficient. "Everyone knows that within our state government and each of these agencies there is some waste," said Stang.

Johnson said the budget will include regular yearly increases, but with the governor's emphasis on limiting new spending the final budget is difficult to predict.

School funding
As already mentioned, the governor has proposed having the state fully fund K-12 education. Johnson said the possible consequences of the proposal need to be considered. "If changes are made," he stressed, "it is important that local control remain with the district school boards."

Fischbach liked some of the changes made in the past couple years and supports building on them. "For the first time, we've specifically appropriated additional funds to help prevent schools from having to use general education dollars to cover nonreimbursed special education costs," she explained.

Education is a priority because it is the key to Minnesota's future, she added. "At the same time," she cautioned, "the funds need to be spent efficiently and with the greatest impact possible, and they need to be distributed equitably."

Along with additional dollars in general education funding, Stang said greater funding for transportation and technology are needed.

Health care
A $500 million proposal by the health care industry for reform of long-term care will get attention, but the area legislators seemed doubtful that that large of appropriation would be made for it. (See related story on page 3 about the continued industry effort to lobby for reform.)

Both Johnson and Fischbach think the nursing shortage should be the top priority.

"Most importantly, I believe the Legislature needs to find a way to promote and stabilize the nursing profession. Nurses are the people that are in the trenches daily caring for our state's senior, yet they are currently underpaid. Increases in pay and benefits are a needed first step," said Johnson.

Fischbach pointed out that the nursing shortage is related to the state's overall labor shortage. She expressed a desire to follow the recommendations of the Long Term Care Task Force, established to investigate the situation in the interim between sessions.

Another hot topic in health care could be prescription drugs for seniors. Johnson called it a serious and complicated issue, and said the federal government needs to take the lead.

Stang and Fischbach noted that the state already has a plan to help seniors in need. Stang said the program was too restrictive two years ago, and more dollars were spent on it and its eligibility guidelines relaxed last year. He supported more of the same this year.

Still, Fischbach said the program was underutilized, with less than half of the eligible seniors using it. One easy way to help would be to get the word out to seniors about the existing program, she added.

Health care lobby
The Minnesota Health & Housing Alliance (MHHA) and Care Providers of Minnesota - both long-term care associations in Minnesota - expect the Legislature's Long Term Care Task Force to recommend more modest funding increases than the industry wants.

A joint reform package by MHHA and Care Providers calls for $500 million for long-term care reform, $150 million in one-time spending and $350 million in on-going spending.

MHHA and Care Providers expect the Long Term Care Task Force to propose a little more than $100 in spending, which is at least more than the $30 million the task force originally expected, lobbyists from the two associations said last week in an interactive conference call.

"We don't feel that the task force's recommendations are sufficient for Minnesota's needs," said a MHHA lobbyist. "The cost of reform is expensive today, but it will be more tomorrow."

Administrators of long-term care centers in Paynesville, Belgrade, and New London gathered at the Good Samaritan Care Center in Paynesville to hear the lobbyist's presentation, discuss the crisis in long-term care, and plan ways to contact legislators.

Tom Kooiman, administrator at the Good Samaritan Care Center in Paynesville and Hilltop Good Samaritan in Watkins, said his staff has already started to contact their legislators. "The reason why is (they are) fed up," he explained. "They're sick of it, too."

Nurses have some of the longest hours and low pay set by the state. "We're in the situation where the least desirable place to work gets the least pay," said Larry Juhl, administrator at Glen Oaks in New London.

Other initiatives
Stang plans to push for greater transportation funding, including the expansion of Highway 23, as well as education funding increases and a repeal on the sales tax for fire departments.

Johnson first wants to pass a disaster relief package for Granite Falls. Other initiatives include transportation infrastructure improvements, rural economic development, improvement in the ag economy, and an equalization in home health rates.

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