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Paynesville Press - April 5, 2006

Local Senators preview session

By Melissa Andre

The Minnesota Senate began the 2006 legislative session in early January, and local senators express their thoughts on the session this week. One priority issue is agreeing on a bonding bill for capital improvements, and the Senate has already passed its version.

After the House approves a bonding bill, negotiations will be made in a joint committee with members of the two houses, taking into consideration Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposal as well.

Local senators are: Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar), whose District 13 includes northern Kandiyohi County and western Stearns County; Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville), whose District 14 includes the city of Paynesville and Paynesville Township; and Sen. Steve Dille (R-Dassel), whose District 18 includes all of Meeker County.

Comments from constituents are welcomed by the legislators.

Local House representatives offered their opinions on the session in last week's Press.

Sen. Dean Johnson
Senator Dean Johnson Bipartisan support from senators of all geographic areas in the state was seen for the Senate bonding bill, according to Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar). The bill's focus on higher education, on environmental clean-up and protection, and on local bridge building is important for the future, said Johnson, while noting that about $1 was put into the $990 million bill for each $3 in funding requested.

The state Senate has already passed a bill on eminent domain, as well, since the legislature is looking to clarify property rights rules after a recent national debate on whether government entities can take private property for other private use. That will not be allowed if the Senate bill passes the House and gets signed into law, said Johnson, though the government will still be able to take private property for public use when necessary.

Clarifying the language on the transportation constitutional amendment -to be voted on in the November elections - is important, said Johnson. From a rural perspective, the amendment - which, if passed, will dedicate gas tax money to transportation funding - needs to designate a clear percentage to roads, rather than having the only amount written into the amendment going to mass transit funding.

Controversy has surrounded Johnson in connection with another possible amendment, one defining marriage as between a man and a woman and preventing other relationships from being the legal equivalent of it. The senator's taped statements that he had been reassured by multiple Minnesota Supreme Court justices that the court would not overturn the current state law that makes same-sex marriages illegal in Minnesota created an uproar this winter. To resolve an ethics complaint, Johnson - who has admitted to embellishing his discussion with one justice, though the chief justice has maintained that no discussions took place between Johnson and any court member - made a public apology on the floor of the Senate on Monday, March 27.

Immigration laws are also a big topic at the capitol, and Johnson believes that state laws on immigration must help those immigrants who are already part of our workforce and who enter the state with good intentions to go through the naturalization process.

Johnson supports the plans for new stadiums for the Twins, Vikings, and Gophers, but believes that those not attending the games should not have to pay for them. He does not want to see the money taken out of the state's general fund, because that would cost money to citizens who may not benefit from the stadiums.

Caution is important in handling the $88 million surplus in the budget, he said, since a legal case is still pending on whether the cigarette tax put in place last year is appropriate. If not, $360 million would be lost in state revenue if it is determined to be illegal, said Johnson.

However, he believes that if the money is invested, it will be put into property tax relief, early childhood funding, and a clean water program.

This session, though short, will be productive, said Johnson.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach
Senator Michelle Fischbach Funding was included in the bonding bill for a connection from the Rocori trail to the Glacial Lakes State Trail, which was one of the top priorities for Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) in this year's bonding bill.

A constitutional amendment that, if voted into the state constitution by the citizens of Minnesota, would make affordable health care available to all Minnesotans is not clear enough, said Fischbach. She does not support the proposal, since the term "affordable health care" is very ambiguous, leaving space for abuse of the amendment.

Fischbach supported the proposed marriage amendment when there was a vote to bring the discussion of it to the floor of the Senate.

A possible amendment dedicating part of the sales tax, possibly 3/16 or 1/4 of one percent, to environmental issues is seen as a good idea by Fischbach. On the other hand, she does not want to see an increase in the sales tax, so then that money would need to be set aside from the general fund. A version increasing the sales tax by 3/16 of one percent has passed the Senate Rules Committee.

Cities are normally required to hold a referendum to pass a local option sales tax, and Fischbach does not support stadium proposals in which the city where the development is occurring is allowed to increase its sales tax without a referendum.

Fulfilling federal regulations about clean water is one important consideration for Fischbach, as the Senate discusses the budget for the year's supplemental budget. Though $88 million does not go very far, she said she would like to fill in where some cuts were made and possibly do some education funding.

Fischbach is also looking to introduce some bills regarding topics like tax deductions, which she does not expect to get passed this session but which she will work on for multiple years. Her goals for the session are "a reasonable bonding bill, a reasonable budget, and getting some of the important things done this year."

Sen. Steve Dille
Senator Steve Dille Sen. Steve Dille (R-Dassel) supported the bonding bill passed by the Senate, and he expects the House to pass a smaller bonding bill and the final version to be somewhere in between the amounts. A health care amendment should wait, according to Dille, because the state currently has a task force working on a plan for universal health care in the state, which will bring its proposals to the legislature in 2007.

Though he supports the Senate plan to have money for a conservation amendment coming from an increase in the state sales tax, Dille does see cause for concern in it. Having funds dedicated to specific areas can become a problem during a recession, he stated, because it "limits options" when the budget is being balanced, and he does not want to see money being taken out of education, health care, and social services because a constitutional amendment giving money to conservation must be observed.

Dille supports the marriage amendment proposal, though he does not foresee its passage this year. The focus of the legislature is wrong where immigration matters are concerned, believes Dille. He feels that having a goal to maintain the current population would be best, so as not to strain the environment in the state. This could include birth control info, he said, or encouraging parents to have two to four kids.

Despite his support of methods of renewable energy, Dille wants to make sure that the state does not move so quickly on them as to become uncompetitive. Renewable energies have higher costs now, except ethanol, which is low because of the price of corn compared to fuel, so the state needs to use caution to keep a good business environment, he said.

Stadium costs could be avoided in the state by extending the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus around the Metrodome, giving the university the dome, and having the Gophers share with the Vikings for a few years, said Dille. The Vikings could get a new stadium eventually, he thinks, and he added that the Twins should have their stadium proposal passed.

A bill coauthored by Dille would encourage school districts to include character education in their schools, following a system tested to result in less vandalism, less bullying, more respect, and better performance and achievement.

(Editor's Note: Andrie is a 2004 graduate of Paynesville Area High School and a sophomore at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. She is covering the 2006 legislative session for the Paynesville Press.)

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