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Paynesville Press - February 20, 2002

Legislative session 2002

Sen. Michelle Fischbach | Rep. Doug Stang | Sen. Steve Dille | Rep. Al Juhnke | Sen. Dean Johnson

Sen. Michelle Fischbach

Budget Shortfall
The top concern facing our state is the budget shortfall. After nearly two decades of budget surpluses and economic security, our state - along with 44 other states - is in the midst of a serious economic recession.

Governor Ventura laid out his preferred course of action, which would cut spending by $700 million during the next year and a half, while raising new tax revenue of almost $400 million and spending almost $670 million from budget reserves. Key points of his proposal include: K-12 spending is reduced by 0.9 percent ($92 million); higher education is reduced by 2.5 percent ($71 million); local aid is reduced 5.2 percent ($146 million); Health and Human Services are reduced by 1.5 percent ($98 million); and other programs are reduced by 5.3 percent ($293 million).

In addition to these cuts, Ventura hopes to raise revenue by increasing the gas tax (five cents effective March 1, 2002), by eliminating schools' sales tax exemption, changing individual and corporate income taxes, and expanding sales tax to services, including motor vehicle repairs, legal services, papers and magazines, institutional meals, and telemarketing calls.

We will try here at the capitol to do everything possible to avoid tax increases. Raising taxes on families and businesses that are going through economic struggles of their own should be our last resort.

K-12 Education
This coming session there will be many bills introduced with various ideas of how we can improve the education system. Some possible legislation we may see this session may be regarding declining enrollment and the Pledge of Allegiance.

A heightened interest in patriotism and knowledge of American history over the past few years was greatly intensified following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. One month later, the President led students in schools around the nation in simultaneously reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. An effort to make the pledge a regular event in all Minnesota public schools was brought up earlier and will be revisited in 2002.

Another concern many school districts have is in regard to declining enrollment. K-12 enrollment state-wide has started to decline following a decade of growth and is likely to dip over 10 percent after the year 2010. Because school funding is heavily dependent on pupil counts, this decrease in enrollment has resulted in substantial stress to school district budgets.

Funding formulas should better recognize the contribution and needs of school districts dealing with declining enrollment.

Other issues will of course accompany these concerns, including other ways to increase funding so programs are not lost and possible bans on soda pop vending in schools.

Health Care
As in past years, the repeal of the health-care provider tax will be a probable subject to come up. The "sick tax" funds MinnesotaCare, the state-subsidized health insurance plan. Last session, a bill froze the provider tax at 1.5 percent until January 2004. Without legislative action, it would have increased to two percent in 2002.

As an alternative to the provider tax, various plans propose replacing MnCare funding through a combination of one-time and ongoing tobacco settlement payments, along with revenue from the cigarette tax.

Those who support repeal argue that the provider tax adds $150 million annually to the cost of health care in Minnesota, in a time when premiums jumped 16 percent in 2000. They also argue that the provider tax is regressive and targets the elderly, the low income, and families with children.

Other possible health topics for this coming session include supplemental nursing agencies and regulatory reform among nursing homes. The long-term care task force will probably reexamine the regulations over supplemental nursing agencies again this year.

Often the federal regulatory requirements placed on nursing homes can interfere with the quality of care the residents receive. This year a task force will be looking into what Minnesota can do to help ease the heavy burden of federal requirements placed on long-term care facilities.

This coming session there will be many possible agricultural proposals that make it to the Senate floor, such as biodiesel and feedlots.

By the end of the 2001 session, two proposals were approved by the Senate and the House to promote the use of biodiesel fuel. The Senate supported a study on the effects of two percent blend of soybean oil in all state vehicles, including Metro Transit buses. The House supported a statewide mandate on the use of soybean or other vegetable oil in its biodiesel fuel. The final conference committee report was approved in the Senate but failed in the House due to other unrelated provisions.

Those in favor of the legislation say that state support will help soybean farmers in Minnesota and improve air quality. Those who oppose this bill believe that biodiesel could potentially damage diesel engines and may perform poorly in cold weather conditions.

The dairy industry is vital to our rural economy, and a fair price for milk is essential to preserving family farms and agribusinesses that are crucial to the well being of this country and state. The discussion continues at the federal level and we will certainly also see proposals at the state level.

Finally, it seems that every year the feedlot issue comes up and this year will be no different. Possible legislation could include continuing the existing moratorium of open air hog lagoons, which is set to expire this summer.

Rep. Doug Stang
(R-Cold Spring)

The 2002 session is in full swing, and this year's agenda looks like it will bring an invigorating, challenging, and fast-paced session. While balancing the budget will be the immediate concern of the House, I will personally be working hard on issues specific to our district, including education, nursing homes, and transportation.

It's important in the midst of budget cuts that we protect education funding for our schools. We need to find a solution that will allow us to distribute K-12 education dollars more fairly, and increase the equity between rural and metro school districts. Jeopardizing the quality of our children's education by cutting K-12 education funding is not responsible or fair, and will not be tolerated.

As part of the budget solution, we can not go back on our historic nursing home reform that passed last session. In 2001, the House passed legislation that increased nursing home reimbursement rates for nursing homes at the bottom of the scale, mostly located in rural Minnesota. These important advances in Minnesota's long-term care system must be maintained to ensure quality care for our elderly citizens.

I will also continue to fight for transportation improvements to roads and bridges in our district. Most notably the continuation of the construction of Highway 23. Rural Minnesota is in need of increased funding for transportation, not only to build new roads but also to maintain and repair existing roads. These transportation improvements are an economic necessity for local businesses and farmers, as well as a necessity to keep residents driving on safe roads.

It is clear that programs will have to be cut in order to balance this budget deficit. But it is also clear that education, nursing homes, and transportation are three areas where we need to maintain funding. There are many other areas where state government could make cuts without hurting our children or elderly.

For instance, on the first day of session a resolution was introduced that institutes a hiring freeze for permanent full-time staff in the House and encourages other state agencies to do the same. While it may be a small first step, it illustrates the kind of cuts we need to make to begin the process of balancing our budget.

Sen. Steve Dille

With the 2002 session upon us, I thought it would be useful for me to lay out some of the issues that we're going to be debating at the Capitol this year. Here are just a few of the issues that are likely to come up this legislative session:

Budget Solutions
For the last several months, we have heard warnings that our state's recent tradition of surpluses and rebate checks was over, and that Minnesota, like many other states, would be facing a significant budget deficit. It was the magnitude of the projected deficit announced last month nearly $2 billion that caught everyone by surprise.

At the state level, we will have to take substantial steps to correct our economic problems. As any household manager knows, the answer to budget deficits is simple consume savings accounts, raise income (i.e. taxes), or decrease spending. The first, and perhaps least painful, option would be to spend down the state's "Rainy Day" account.

In this respect, Minnesota is much better equipped to handle this economic downturn than we have been in the past. In 1991, we faced a similar recession without the benefit of a savings account. Today, the state can depend, to some extent, on reserve accounts the Legislature boosted this session to over $1.175 billion.

Second, the state could choose to cut spending. Responsible budgeting in a time like this depends on making sacrifices. Obviously, certain priority areas, like schools, transportation, and nursing homes, have little excess meat on their bones. We will make every effort to pare back spending in our budget without disrupting vital services like these.

The third, and least desirable, option is raising taxes. The last thing our families, who are facing their own financial challenges, need is an increased tax burden.

Bonding Bill
At least once every two years, the Legislature approves a major capital facilities bill (bonding) to fund the construction of many important state and local projects. During the 2000 session, for example, the Legislature passed a $654 million bonding bill and in 1998, the final bonding bill provided $999 million for new projects.

Typically, bonding bills include funds for higher education as well as K-12 facilities, for recreational projects, including trails and parks, and for the arts. State bonds are issued for the construction of these projects and paid for as part of the state's self-imposed three percent of revenue debt service limit.

Although the size of the bonding bill will not be determined until the end of the legislative session, there is some interest in putting together a package that could reach or even exceed $1 billion. Regardless of the size of the final bonding bill, I will be working hard to include a number of valuable projects within our area in the final package.

Stadium Proposals
As most of you probably know, the future of the Minnesota Twins is currently up in the air. With the initial groundwork laid long before talks of contraction began, the leaders of the Minnesota Senate and House of Representatives recently announced the formation of a joint legislative task force to consider the state's sports facilities needs for both professional baseball and football, as well as the University of Minnesota football team.

The tri-partisan task force is made up of 18 members, six appointed by the Senate, six by the House, and six by Governor Ventura.

Over the years there have been numerous proposals and studies on sports facilities needs in our state. The task force has already begun a series of meetings to review and consider all existing proposals, case studies, research, and analysis, as well as take input from interested parties and the general public.

The goal of the task force is to gather information to establish a set of principles or criteria for the Legislature to use when evaluating any proposed stadium legislation in the upcoming session or future sessions. The task force may choose to make specific recommendations to the governor and the Legislature regarding sports facilities in Minnesota, and if so those recommendations could come as soon as in the next couple of weeks.

While I want professional baseball to stay in Minnesota as much as anybody else, I assure you that my main consideration when reviewing any stadium legislation will be whether or not that proposal is fair for the taxpayers of our community and our state.

There are a number of transportation initiatives that are likely to be debated this legislative session. Here are some of the issues that are likely to come up:

Constitutional Dedication of the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) to Transportation. This tax was enacted in 1971 and was originally directed into the general fund. Over the years, many people have argued that MVET is a user fee like car tabs or the gas tax and consequently it should be dedicated to highways and other transportation needs. Previous proposals would have dedicated anywhere from 50-100 percent of MVET for these purposes.

Lottery proceeds to Inter-regional Corridors. This proposal would dedicate $13 million per year or 30 percent of what goes into the general fund from the lottery proceeds to the Trunk Highway Fund to be used for inter-regional corridor improvements.

Primary Seat Belt. Current law states that anyone in the front seat of a vehicle and anyone under the age of 11 must wear a seat belt. However, the state only allows secondary enforcement, meaning that a citation can only be made if it is in conjunction with a lawful unrelated stop. This proposal would allow law enforcement to stop a vehicle and ticket the driver as a primary offense if a passenger in the front seat or anyone under 18 is not wearing a seat belt.

Legislators have spent the last nine months using the census data released last spring to redraw legislative and congressional district lines for the 2002 elections. This process, known as redistricting, occurs every ten years following the U.S. Census to account for shifting populations and to ensure equal representation for citizens.

As House and Senate negotiations have not been able to produce any agreement on redistricting principles or plans, a five-judge panel has been appointed by Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice Kathleen Blatz to decide on Minnesota's congressional and legislative redistricting lines. If the Legislature cannot agree to a congressional and a legislative plan by March 19, the five-judge panel will issue the final court-drawn redistricting plans on that day.

Rep. Al Juhnke

With the 2002 session now in session, the state's $2 billion deficit continues to dominate the agenda.

This is true even though we have a number of other pressing issues in front us this year, things like putting together a bonding bill, completing the redistricting process, finding a stable source of transportation funding, plugging the holes in our emergency response system, the growing financial crisis at our public schools.

We'll eventually come to an agreement on dealing with the nearly $2 billion deficit for the current biennium, mainly because we have to. The solution will be made easier by the sizable rainy day fund we have on hand. However, the really hard choices are in the out years.

Whatever course we take, I want my constituents to know that I'm not going to support any solution that threatens the quality of education in our schools or tries to make rural Minnesota bear the brunt of the state's budget cuts.

In January, the governor offered his proposal for dealing with the deficit, calling it the "Big Fix." While I appreciate the difficulty of the governor's position, I'm not sure I would call it that, mainly because it causes almost as many problems as it solves, particularly in rural Minnesota.

Take his proposed cuts in education. Don't let the governor's rhetoric fool you. Even though he claims he's not going to cut classroom funding, his cuts in special education funding and his proposal to tax school districts are just that. Most special education spending is mandated, meaning that school districts are going to have to dip into their general funds to pay sales taxes.

I'm also concerned about his proposed caps on the levy equalization funding approved last spring. That cut will hit rural schools harder than metro schools because historically very few rural districts have been able to raise their levies all the way to the $415 limit. Most metro school districts are already there.

We all know about the financial struggles of the Paynesville Area School District, which last month announced a plan to deal with its own budget deficit. The plan calls for $500,000 in cuts this winter, followed by additional cuts of $100,000 in 2004, and $150,000 in each of the following three years. As painful as those cuts will be, they will be even bigger if the governor's proposal is passed.

Other school districts in our area face similar predicaments. Willmar School District alone stands to lose $369,000 in funding this year and $950,000 next year if the governor's proposal passes. On top of the cuts, he's also asking the school district to authorize additional property tax levies.

In fact, much of the governor's proposal simply shifts the budget problem onto local units of government. His $146 million cut in local aids will force counties, cities, and townships to increase property taxes on homes and businesses just to meet expenses. Either that or they'll have to cut vital services like police, health care, or road maintenance.

In agriculture, the governor's deficit plan also cuts the state's ethanol subsidies from 20 cents to 18 cents, with the cuts retroactive to the beginning of the budget year. Considering the events of the past year, this proposal is extremely shortsighted. We should be encouraging the use of alternative fuels, particularly those that also strengthen the sagging farm economy. We fought awfully hard to get this important program up and running. Using it as a politically expedient way to balance the budget is just wrong.

I realize we are going to have to make some difficult cuts to balance the state budget. Dealing with a budget deficit is never easy, but it also provides us with a great opportunity to remind ourselves of what's really important. For most of us, that means protecting our schools and rural communities.

Sen. Dean Johnson

The 2002 Minnesota Legislative session started with a flurry of activity at the capitol. Legislators returned to their part-time governing jobs with an oversized agenda and a scarce amount of time to accomplish the business of the state.

A nearly $2 billion projected deficit and a capital investment proposal (bonding projects) are the two largest public policy items facing our state. However, every legislator has his/her own list of goals to accomplish on behalf of their constituents and the state.

With what time is available, I am committed to accomplishing the following goals. The goal outlined below are prioritized by importance, but are by no means expansive.

1) Balance the budget: A 2002-2003 downturn in our state's economy has us examining a projected $2 billion deficit. Minnesota has 30,000 less jobs than just one year ago. A balanced and responsible approach to budget cuts, a use of budget reserves, and a more efficient government is the wisest course of action. More importantly, the cost the average taxpayer has to be minimal and should not impact education or long-term health care.

2) Retain the services and jobs at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center: in response to the deficit, the governor has proposed moving the adult mental health unit from Willmar to St. Peter. This is simply not acceptable, and I will work aggressively to see this does not happen. Due to my efforts, the Senate deficit reduction bill, which passed the full Senate last week, does not include budget cuts or job relocation at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center for the current biennium.

3) An aggressive transportation funding package: As chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Budget Division, I believe the timing is right for a comprehensive solution to our pressing transportation needs. Our roads and bridges are among the highest priorities. A combination of motor vehicle excise dedication, bonding, a modest gas tax increase, and streamlined processes are the answer to more efficient and safer transportation.

The current gas tax is 20 cents per gallon but has not been raised since 1988. More importantly, gas tax proceeds are 100 percent dedicated to the state's highways. Thus it is vital that any increase in the gas tax be put towards our roads and bridges.

4) Local bonding projects: The Granite Falls flood mitigation program, new science labs at Ridgewater College, and the Agricultural Innovation Center in Olivia are worthy bonding projects and should be included in the final capital investment plan.

5) Homeland security: Each of the three political parties has brought forth a plan to increase security and improve our emergency response systems. Governor Ventura has requested that I be the author of the administration's bill.

6) Fight proposed cuts to ethanol production and advocate for a biodiesel mandate: Our state's farmers continue to face multiple challenges in an ever changing global economy. As a state, we need to encourage and promote the goods they produce.

7) Improvement of state parks: I am a coauthor of a bill to provide $31 million of bonding proceeds to maintain and improve our state parks. Expanded services, improved trails, and increased hours of operation would enhance one of our state's best resources.

8) Keep the Twins in Minnesota by passing a ballpark proposal: A tri-partisan stadium task force has rendered a decision after months of testimony: the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings need new ballparks in order to stay in Minnesota. Most importantly, at least 50 percent of any new ballpark plan should be paid by the owners or by private funds. Any new ballpark should not affect the average taxpayer and should be paid by those that use or benefit from the park by imposing user fees.

9) State pension management: As chair of the Committee on Pensions and Retirement, I will continue to help oversee the $30 billion worth of investments of our public employee pensions.

10) Cooperation: Coordination and working together for the betterment of District 15 is a paramount of west central Minnesota. Represen-tatives Juhnke and Kubly work extremely hard on all of our behalf and we plan to continue to work together as a team.

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