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Paynesville Press - July 27, 2005

Representatives glad special session is over

By Melissa Andrie

Following a much-publicized special session and partial government shutdown, the Minnesota Legislature recently finished work on a two-year state budget. The legislative session this year went into a seven-week special session that culminated in a partial state government shutdown before an agreement was reached between the House, Senate, and governor.

Local members of the House of Representatives share their thoughts this week on the special session, budget package, bonding bill, and plans for next year.

Area representatives are: Rep. Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport); Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph); and Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City).

Rep. Bud Heidgerken
As part of a legislature that caused the first government shutdown in state history, Rep. Bud Heidgerken (R-Freeport), whose District 13A includes northern Kandiyohi County and western Stearns County, said, "I'm to blame as well. I'm part of the process."

During the special session, he did not take the controversial "per diem" pay for legislators and did take part in a bipartisan group of about 20 members of the House and Senate that gave legislative leaders and Governor Tim Pawlenty a suggested budget outline.

Though embarrassed about the partisanship shown at the capitol, Heidgerken does see one positive aspect of the lengthy special session: work groups comprised of members from both legislative houses were able to address rural issues that would not have been taken care of otherwise, he said.

With a revamping of the political process, Heidgerken believes that the legislature could become more effective. Having work groups with both House and Senate members throughout the regular session, such as those used during the special session, would help, he feels. He said he will submit a bill the first day of the 2006 legislative session that, if passed, would prohibit candidates for state legislature to run as part of a political party. This - along with setting term limits for legislators, as a number of legislative leaders have held office for many years - will help compromise, he believes.

Heidgerken was part of a group that worked out the final education bill. A four percent increase made on the basic per-pupil formula for each year of the two-year budget was crucial, he said.

According to Heidgerken, two provisions in the education bill were especially important for rural areas. These were higher state reimbursement of school milk costs, which promotes the dairy industry, and money for rural schools to update telecommunications technology. Additionally, an initiative started by the governor that gives aid to schools choosing to base teacher salaries on performance has $86 million budgeted, only half of which can go to metro-area schools.

"We did accomplish a lot this year," said Heidgerken, who said local governments also benefit from this year's budget, though they did not receive as much aid as he had hoped.

Children, the elderly, and the disabled are the "major obligations" of the state, according to Heidgerken, and he had reservations about the health and human services bill, which affects all of these groups. A provision he authored that would have given Stearns County nursing homes a metro designation, thereby increasing their funding levels, was taken out of the bill. (Currently, Stearns County is considered semi-rural, the middle of three geographical designations.)

However, some money in the bill was not yet allocated to a particular cause, and he said he is working with the governor and legislative leaders attempting to get some of that money to fund a redesignation.

He also felt the increase to nursing home funding (2.26 percent for each year of the two-year budget) was not enough, and he "vastly preferred gaming money over a cigarette tax." The health impact fee on cigarettes (75 per pack) is a tax, he said, and he believes it does not increase government revenue fairly.

The bonding bill had some good aspects, said Heidgerken, but there was "a lot of pork" included, especially for the Minnesota Zoo, which he said is only one of two state-funded zoos in the nation. Bonding bills borrow money for capital improvements, and this "credit card spending" is something that he doesn't agree with.

Regular session accomplishments, according to Heidgerken, included ethanol bills that he projects will bring the average price of corn up 15 to 20 cents in the area. The state was the first to pass a bill requiring all gasoline to be at least a 10 percent ethanol, which will increase to a required 20 percent in August 2013.

Next year, Heidgerken hopes to change the nursing home funding structure if he does not have luck devoting the undesignated health and human services funds to that. He will also advocate a bill providing interest-free money to dairy farmers wishing to expand, which did not pass this year.

Rep. Larry Hosch
"First, thank goodness. We're done," said a relieved Rep. Larry Hosch (DFL-St. Joseph) after the final budget bills were passed and signed into law by the governor. This not only prevented a second partial state government shutdown but also ended a whirlwind first legislative session for Hosch, whose District 14B includes the city of Paynesville and Paynesville Township.

Hosch found the "politics overwhelming" in his first year as a legislator. The shutdown was unnecessary and caused by a small number of political leaders, he said, while he felt powerless to influence the political process during the special session. Being one of 201 lawmakers is difficult, so it is important for each to have an equal voice, he said.

With this aim in mind, Hosch supported a proposal brought up in the House of Representatives every day of the special session that would have allowed the entire house to set the budget by discussing it on the house floor. The proposal had majority support, but it needed a 60 percent vote to be enacted, which it did not have. It may not have made the process quicker if passed, said Hosch, but it would have made legislators accountable, because constituents would have been able to see how each voted on budget proposals, rather than only what the leaders recommended.

Next year, he would like to pass legislation to reform the special session process by requiring that all bills be allowed a public hearing within seven days of being introduced, Hosch said. (Currently, once a special session has started, all bills are referred to the rules committee in the house that introduces them and may never receive a hearing.)

Another change that Hosch said he will advocate is removal of the optional pay for legislators during a special session.

In an attempt to negotiate an end to budget negotiations, Hosch took part in the bipartisan group that offered a budget package in the last week of the special session. Though the proposal was not passed, Hosch believes this put pressure on the leadership to finish their compromising.

Despite feeling frustrated with the "finger-pointing" and the way the legislature waited to hold late-night marathon negotiations, Hosch was pleased with the budget that was finally passed.

The K-12 education bill, which was "probably the most significant investment in education in 20 years," according to Hosch, included a $800 million increase in a budget totaling $12.6 billion. After three years with no increases, this was important for education, said Hosch, though he regrets that $139 million of the increase is an allowance for property tax increases by districts.

However, local governments got an increase in aid, which should lead to some property tax relief, Hosch said. This was "great" according to the representative, who said that property taxes in rural areas create significant inequities. Local governments were also helped by a primary election bill saving cities and townships $75,000 in his district alone, he added.

A funding increase for nursing homes to provide cost-of-living increases to workers was, Hosch felt, the best part of the health and human services bill.

Another issue addressed by that bill was fetal pain, with a provision mandating that doctors tell women who are at least 20 weeks pregnant when fetal pain during abortion could be eliminated by the use of anesthesia. Then, upon request from the mother, painkillers must be given. However, Hosch found it "difficult to vote on the issues on their own merit," because of the way they are put together in large bills.

He did not support the 75-cent health impact fee placed on cigarettes, because, he said, it uses a small minority to provide funding for the whole state. However, this measure was included in the health and human services bill, also.

A success from earlier in the year, Hosch said, was the $944 million bonding bill that included $365,000 for the Lake Koronis Recreational Trail to be joined to the Glacial Lakes State Trail and $500,000 to improve the Glacial Lakes State Trail between New London and Richmond.

The worst effect of this year's bickering was a loss of trust among the public, said Hosch, who hopes to gain some of that back next year by bringing accountability to the political process. He also hopes to pass a bonding bill that includes money for a waste water treatment plan in Richmond.

Rep. Dean Urdahl
Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City), whose District 18B includes all of Meeker County, echoed Pawlenty in saying that "the process was ugly" this year, but the product was positive. "Politics, policy, and philosophy" caused the stalemate, he said, especially with a split of 99 Republicans, 101 DFLers, and one independent in the legislature.

Urdahl said he didn't understand why the Senate turned down an offer on the last day before the shutdown that he felt was more generous than the final budget package passed two weeks later. That deal included a $867 increase for education, which is $67 million more than was in the final package.

A lack of trust among leadership led to many of the problems throughout the session, he feared, but said, "I don't know how to change it. I just don't." He said that, like many legislators with other jobs, he lost money during the special session, especially while not accepting any "per diem" or lodging money. However, there was good compromise, Urdahl said, so that "the bill was good, and the people were the winners."

The increase in education funding was one example of success, he felt. He believed that reforms in the teacher pay structure should have been done at a later time, when no budget deficit needed to be dealt with but is glad that it is optional for school districts.

The health and human services budget was raised by about 16 percent, which is beyond inflation, but slowed the rate of spending nonetheless, said Urdahl. This was done by prohibiting those eligible for other health insurance policies from taking state-subsidized insurance. However, Minnesota is still "one of the most generous states in the nation in terms of benefits it provides through health care," he said.

Other parts of the health and human services bill that Urdahl supported were the "long overdue" pay increase for nursing home workers and a 25 percent restoration of money that had been cut from aid to parents of disabled children. It was good to include the fetal pain provision, too, he added.

The "taxless tax bill," brought about by the governor's commitment to not raise the income or sales tax and a desire to keep property taxes down, has set the state up to face another large deficit, said Urdahl. Though it was blocked by the Senate and he had "mixed feelings about it," Urdahl said he would have voted for a racino - Pawlenty's proposed racetrack/casino mix - if his vote had been "critical to the bill's passage." He is concerned about the effect that gambling has on families but sees a need for a revenue increase for the state.

With what he felt were a number of good projects, Urdahl said the bonding bill was a big accomplishment for this year's session.

His main goal for the session remained unaccomplished, Urdahl regretted. A tax relief bill for dairy farmers doing modernization, which he authored, "fell in the 11th hour," so he was seeking support for it for next year's session.

Another bill he supported - the "cheeseburger bill," which would prevent customers from suing a restaurant if they became fat because of food purchased there - did not pass, either. However, Urdahl said, "This isn't a Burger King legislature. You can't have everything your own way. It's more like a White Castle legislature. It might not be quite as you like it, but it'll work."

He does foresee a second special session in the fall to deal with a Twins stadium wish, hospital issues, and maybe some transportation. (Pawlenty said that if a general agreement was reached on some outstanding issues, he may call the legislature back for another special session this year.) Putting more money in the transportation formula for counties and townships to access is something Urdahl would support. He felt that this year the legislature did a good job with the bonding, education, health and human services, and agriculture bills, but that the transportation budget was lacking.

Working to pass the dairy farming and cheeseburger bills, as well as a job creation bill he has been involved with for a couple of years, are Urdahl's biggest goals for next year's session.

That session will start on March 1, 2006, much later than this year's early January convening. However, the second year of each biennium is normally shorter, and Urdahl felt it will be positive to start later. It may help legislators get to work right away, he believed and the bonding bill is the only thing that has to be done during that session. "All other bills are window dressing," he said, "very important, but not essential."

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