Legislature begins 2000 session this week

This article submitted by Linda Stelling on 1/26/00.

How to reach area legislators

The $1.6 billion surplus and the bonding bill will be among the issues Minnesota legislators will discuss in the upcoming legislative session.

The 2000 legislative session will convene on Tuesday, Feb. 1, in St. Paul. Since this is an election year and the second year of the biennium, the session is expected to be short and end by April 20.

Top issues on the agenda for Paynesville area legislators include the $1.6 billion budget surplus, the unicameral Legislature proposal, transportation funding, the bonding bill, and agriculture.

Budget surplus
Senator Steve Dille (R-Dassel) said they will probably have a lot of discussion on what to do with the $1.6 billion surplus. Should the Legislature consider tax cuts or a rebate?

Senator Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) agreed the surplus will be a big issue this year. "There is a lot of talk about permanent tax cuts. We need to make deeper cuts than what were made last year," she said. "This is about the seventh year we have had a surplus."

Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar) said the state has a healthy economy and the surplus is expected to be even higher by March. "We have $500 million in the bank. We have considered writing rebate checks totaling that amount," Juhnke said.

"What will we do with the extra billion?" Juhnke asked. He talks about investing some of the surplus in education and transportation funding.

Juhnke agreed with Dille about the need for tax cuts (property and income) and another rebate.

Senator Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) said if we use the same rebate formula as last year, families would receive only one-third as much as their last rebate.

"Our commercial and industrial taxes are clearly too high," Johnson said. "We need to provide these people with tax relief."

Johnson added that some of the surplus funds could help cover bonding projects thus the state wouldn't need to bond as much for the projects.

Rep. Bob Ness (R-Dassel) said the state needs to make some permanent reductions in tax relief. "The state is structurally sound and can afford to lower taxes," he added. He would like to see $75 million of the surplus earmarked for Reinvest in Minnesota. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring) said since $1 billion seems to be an on-going surplus year after year, the state needs to cut taxes. Areas in which taxes could be cut include property tax (commercial, industrial, and agriculture), income taxes, sales taxes, and sales taxes local governments pay.

"What will be cut probably won't be decided until the last week of the session," Stang said.

Ness would like to see $3 million restored to vocational programs and another $10 million to upgrade vocational courses such as business and office practices.

Ness would also like to see $10 million earmarked for rural schools with declining enrollment. "A lot of rural schools are experiencing declining enrollment. Schools need to cushion their decline. Their programs are labor intensive and many districts can't afford to downsize," Ness said.

Stang is working on a bill that would help area schools impacted by declining enrollment. "All the districts have fixed costs for maintaining their buildings. Those costs are there whether they have 200 students or 500 students," Stang said. "We also need to make sure their operating costs are met."

Stang added there are also proposals to increase per pupil allowances for districts. "As part of a compromise last year, districts were to receive $50 more per pupil if there was another surplus, so that increase is in place," he said.

Unicameral Legislature
This is a subject the Legislature shouldn't waste its time on, said Juhnke. Since September, Juhnke has attended more than 60 meetings and the majority of rural Minnesota is against the change to a unicameral Legislature. "I feel this is a metro versus rural issue. At present, Paynesville has two people representing them in the Legislature. With a unicameral Legislature, that number would be cut to one. St. Paul still would have nine people voting on issues.

"With a unicameral Legislature, the governor would have too much power, be it Ventura or Carlson or Coleman. That is no way to go. It is not a partisan issue. The discussion could probably spur some internal changes which would be good for the Legislature," Juhnke said.

Stang is unsure about putting the issue on the ballot, but he doesn't support the proposal personally. "I haven't heard much support for a unicarmeral Legislature except from Governor Ventura," Stang said. "It will be a different issue this year which could bring major changes to the state."

Johnson agreed there will probably be long debates on the issue. "I attended more than 40 meetings this fall and found not one rural Minnesotan in favor of a one-house Legislature," Johnson said.

Ness feels the a unicameral Legislature will be a big issue this session. Ness said by having only one body of government, there will be one less voice and one less advocacy for projects. "We will lose experienced men and women. They all have a different background and a different network of people which provide us a broader base of knowledge with a two-house government," he added.

Ness said a lot of good stuff comes out of conference committees. He would be concerned about the concentration of power with a smaller body of government.

Fischbach agreed that there be will be a lot of discussion on the unicameral issue. She hasn't taken sides on the issue. "I can see advantages and disadvantages. We would adjust to whichever body of government we would be living with," she said. "Someone once said legislators should not be voting on something that directly affects the Legislature. I'm not comfortable saying the people can't vote on the issue. Let both sides make their case to the people of the state. I will live with whatever is decided," Fischbach added.

Bonding bill
This is a bonding year for the Legislature. About $462 million has been designated for bonding projects by Governor Ventura. However, the Legislature has received more than $1.6 billion in requests, according to Johnson.

"The demand is very high for construction projects and bringing state buildings into compliance," Dille said.

According to Juhnke, there are big holes in the bonding bill, especially in the rural areas of Minnesota. Not one dollar has been set aside to upgrade rural colleges or to upgrade the Regional Treatment Center in Willmar.

"Of the new dollars being spent, two-thirds of the money is going to Twin Cities projects," Juhnke added.

According to Ness, the governor has his agenda for projects to be in the bonding bill which are different than the Legislatures.

Fischbach agreed with Ness, that Governor Ventura has made his proposals known. His agenda for spending is smaller than what has been traditionally spent in the past. "He is focusing statewide rather than on local projects," Fischbach said. "As Governor Ventura puts it, he is upgrading basic brick and mortar issues with the $462 million."

"As finance committee chairman, I can recess, then allow the governor to veto whatever he wants and then we can call the committee back into session and repeal his vetoes. We were blind sided last year because we didn't know what to expect from Governor Ventura. This year, we will be more prepared," Ness said.

Ness said the governor keeps talking about his big plan but hasn't really defined what it is. "I haven't been able to determine what he is investing in rural Minnesota. Everything is geared toward the metro area," Ness said.

Stang feels transportation will be the biggest item for him personally in the next session.

"I would like to see $400 million of the surplus placed in repairing highways and bridges," Stang said. "We can't specify which highways will receive the funds, but the money will be divided equally between the metro and rural areas. A criteria would be established to help determine which roads would receive funding."

According to Stang, Highway 23 is on the Minnesota Department of Transpor-tation's top five project list.

Dille agreed that additional highway funding was essential. "We hope to spend more on transportation this year than we have for decades," Dille said, "especially on projects vetoed by Ventura last year.

Johnson and Ness would like to see $400 and $500 million designated for transportation. "This would enable Highway 23 to be finished from Willmar to I-94. It would also complete the unfinished road beds and ramps that were constructed almost 20 years ago in Willmar," Johnson added.

Fischbach said one legislator has labled the session as the "4 TsÉ"teacher shortage, transportation, taxes, and temporary freeze on legislative rules.

"Transportation will be a big issue this session. Last year the governor vetoed funding for projects for rural Minnesota and pushed light rail for the metro area. Traditionally, funds go to roads, but that doesn't mean light rail can't be included," Fischbach said.

"With the extra transportation funding, Highway 23 could be bumped up faster on the project list. It would be nice to see the roadway finished around Willmar," she added.

Other issue:
According to Juhnke, a sleeper issue for the session will be the topic of home privacy. What items do banks and publishers have a right to sell? What should be made public or kept private.

Dille agreed with Juhnke that the privacy issue will be discussed this year. Who has the right to sell names and addresses to telemarketers," he added. "Do credit card companies and banks have the right to give out your financial data?"

Telecommunications will be another issue discussed this year. With fiberoptic cables going in the ground all over the state, we need to make sure rural Minnesota has access and is competitive with the metro area, Juhnke said. He added that Minnesota should be made a toll free zone. "Rural areas will need to be more competitive," Juhnke said.

Johnson said it shouldn't make any difference where you live in rural Minnesota, rural technology should be the same everywhere. "When you turn on the computer or television, you should expect the same quality service," he added.

Stang said there are businesses who want to come to Minnesota and establish themselves in the rural areas. "We need to ensure that the technology is there so the rural areas are on an even playing field with the large cities for new jobs," Stang added.

"I was glad to see $35 to 45 million dollars set aside for cleanup of the Minnesota River. This money will help farmers put in buffer strips along the river," Juhnke said.

However, Juhnke said, there is no money set aside for water infrastructure projects in rural areas. There is a waiting list of small towns a mile long needing help. "The rural government of small towns doesn't have the money to help improve their water and sewer systems," Juhnke added.

Ness said he was committed to doing all that can be done for rural cities and schools so they can be economically viable. "No matter where you live, there seems to be two standards, rural and metro. We need one Minnesota and need to level the playing field for schools, nursing homes, and businesses," Ness added.

"The governor is spending money in the metro area at the expense of the rural area which will create more problems. Housing, roads, the infrastructure of rural communities are all part of the big picture," Ness added.

Fischbach said Irv Anderson (DFL-International Falls) is sponsoring a bill that would allow the Legislature to call a special session to review vetoes. Last year, Governor Ventura vetoed a lot of spending bills after the session was over. The govenor is the only person with power to reconvene the Legislature once it has closed the session.

"It has been an interesting year with Governor Ventura. People are getting to know his style a little better. We know we won't recess the session until all the bills are back. Hopefully, we will be able to bring back some of the bills that he vetoed last year," Fischbach added.

Johnson named transportation budget division chair
Senator Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar) was appointed chair of the Senate Transportation Budget Division by Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe (DFL-Erskine).

"Dean Johnson is the right fit at the right time as the new chair of the Transportation Budget Division," Moe said.

In his new role as committee chair, Johnson will be helping shape budget policy in several key areas, including proposals to bolster Capitol security, reduce vehicle registration fees, and strike a balance between highway funding and various modes of transportation, including rural transit.

The vacancy in the Senate Transportation Budget Division was created by the death of Senator Janet Johnson (DFL-North Branch) on Aug. 21, 1999. Dean Johnson, who is not related to the late Senator Johnson, credited her with helping deliver an important victory on behalf of District 15 last year.

"In true bipartisan fashion, Janet Johnson stood up for our interests, insisting that the start-up funding for the Kandiyohi Area Transit system was non-negotiable in conference committee," Dean Johnson said. "She went to bat for us, even though I was sitting on the other side of the political aisle at the time. In the tradition of the late Senator Johnson, my goal is to work in the best interest of my constituents and all Minnesotans.

Johnson has served in the Legislature since his initial election to the House in 1978. He has served in the Senate for 19 years. He was a member of the Senate Transportation Budget Division prior to last week's announcement that he has joined the Senate's majority DFL caucus."

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