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Paynesville Press - August 3, 2005

Area senators report on year

By Melissa Andrie

Work for state legislators was prolonged this year as the regular session was followed immediately by a seven-week special session that included a partial state government shutdown. Negotiations came to an end in the first part of July, but only after about 9,000 state workers spent time off the job when their departments were not funded by the constitutional deadline.

Eager to move beyond the political stalemate, local senators share proposals for legislative reform and other future goals as well as opinions on the special session, budget, and bonding bill this week. (Bonding bills are normally passed every other year, but one was passed this year when the legislature failed to pass one last year; another may pass next year so that they again alternate years with the budget.)

Area senators are: Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar); Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville); and Sen. Steve Dille (R-Dassel).

(Local House members reviewed the session in last week's Press.)

Sen. Dean Johnson
The 51-day special session overshadowed five months of good work, said Sen. Dean Johnson (DFL-Willmar), the senate majority leader, though he believed it played an important role in providing results for education and health care funding.

Of the $12 million in special session costs, $10.3 million is the loss calculated in wages for state workers who were idled during the shutdown, Johnson noted. He himself did not take the disputed "per diem" pay or mileage compensation during the special session, and he reviewed all requests for compensation carefully to make sure they were legitimate.

When considered within the overall state budget, Johnson said that the cost of the special session was very minimal.

Much of the reason Johnson thought the legislature did not pass a state budget during the regular session is the complexity of the government. With 1,200 lobbying groups and more modes of communication used by constituents, considering issues has become quite complex, he said.

In addition, Johnson said that over 3,000 bills are introduced each regular session, while - outside of budget bills - only slightly more than 300 are signed into law. He felt that this wasted time and that an appropriate measure would be to place a limit on the number of bills each legislator can introduce.

Imposing earlier deadlines for bills - especially budget bills - to be introduced and to make progress through committees would also help by forcing quick action to be taken, Johnson believes.

A shutdown was not necessary, and state workers were "innocent bystanders," Johnson said, because a resolution that would have continued the previous budget while negotiations were finished was passed four times by the Senate. (The Republican House wanted a continuing resolution with a time limit, while those passed by the Senate had no limit.)

However, he said that he will "personally take the blame or the credit fore what happened on the 30th," which was the constitutional deadline for passing a budget. Johnson said that the budget proposed by Pawlenty on that day was $200 million short of being balanced, and it was not apparent to him where the money was going to come from when he adjourned the Senate two hours before the deadline.

The budget that was passed is balanced, and education is "simply going to be strengthened" from it, Johnson believes. A $800 million funding increase education received will allow for rehiring of staff and capital improvements.

Johnson said that "the jury is out" on the $86 million initiative offering aid to schools that base teacher salaries on performance. Two districts that have implemented this "new twist to education" report mostly positive results, he mentioned.

Johnson had varied thoughts on the tax bill. Local government aid, which amounted to a $48 million increase, was something he advocated, calling it necessary for public safety. However, there was a failure to close corporate tax loopholes, though doing so would have been "a fair approach to taxation," he believed.

In the health and human services bill, the increase in nursing home funding (2.26 percent) was positive, according to Johnson, as well as continuation of state health care coverage for many Minnesotans.

A 75 health impact fee on cigarettes will be good for health care costs, Johnson believed, because it is projected to cause a four percent drop in the number of Minnesotans smoking. There was a strong constituent division on the tax, and he had difficulty deciding to vote for the health and human services bill that contained it.

The minimal transportation bill did disappoint Johnson by not providing any additional funding for roads, bridges, or transit.

Passed in the regular session, the bonding bill will improve the state's infrastructure, said Johnson.

Measures controlling methamphetamine use, providing stricter penalties for sex offenders, increasing the minimum wage, and increasing the minimum amount of ethanol used in gasoline to 20 percent by August 2013 were other good things to come out of the regular session, said Johnson.

A shorter session could be important to controlling the legislative process, he thought, and he is pleased that next year's session will begin in March. Since the budget forecast will come out at the end of February, the legislature will save time and money by not meeting before it has the direction the forecast will provide. He foresees the session lasting eight to ten weeks, because legislators will be "more skittish next year," since it is an election year.

In that session, Johnson hopes to pass a bonding bill, look at proposals for Minnesota Gopher and Minnesota Twins stadiums, fund transportation even more, and clean up Minnesota waters.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach
A fairly even division between Republicans and DFLers caused the stalemate that left her "incredibly frustrated byhow long it took," said Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville).

Fischbach "wouldn't have any problems" supporting legislative reform, including halting per diem pay during special sessions, for which she did not apply.

Requiring budgets goals - to be used as target amounts - would also help the legislature to a more timely finish, she believed. Normally, an overall budget target is set, and a goal for each department's budget is determined before negotiations begin in full, but that was not done this year. Fischbach believed that an internal consequence - like halting hearings on other bills until targets are set - would help prevent this.

Another reform she would consider supporting is a return to nonpartisan legislative elections, said Fischbach. Prior to 1978, candidates for state legislature did not run under a party. Instead, they formed a platform and ran solely on that, and such a system "may help cut down on some of the contention" seen in recent years, Fischbach said. "Everyone was pretty passionate," she noted, and part of this was due to loyalty to political parties.

The final four budget bills underwent little substantial change in the last month of negotiations and could have been done earlier, said Fischbach. Nonetheless, she was pleased with the result and "supported the entire package."

These bills included the education bill, which Fischbach felt was very positive. There were "good decisions on the education issues," especially the increase in school funding, she said.

Likely the most controversial of all budget bills passed this year, the health and human services bill had many positive aspects, according to Fischbach. It removed a $5,000 cap placed on outpatient fees and prescription drug costs for adults without children in the MinnesotaCare insurance program two years ago, an action she advocated. Premiums in the program - which are based on a sliding scale according to income - were increased slightly, but Fischbach said this reasonably "offset increases in health care."

A cost-of-living increase in wages for nursing home workers was another measure Fischbach was pleased to have included in the bill.

The 75 cigarette fee - which went into place on Monday, Aug. 1 - was a "reasonable solution" to the budget deficit, said Fischbach, though she added that she's generally "not a proponent of taxes."

Growth within this department will need to be controlled, she said. This year, the health and human services bill grew, but at a lower rate (a 15 percent increase rather than the 19 percent increase that would have occurred with no changes to the funding). Fischbach felt the department should be reviewed for ways to become more efficient and suggested consolidating forms, making them easier to understand, and continuing to review eligibility in state-subsidized health insurance. Such initiatives would help ensure long-term sustainability, she hopes.

Two additional budget bills passed at the end of the special session - the tax and transportation bills - were "fairly noncontroversial," said Fischbach, who supported them both.

A major success of the regular session, according to Fischbach, was the bonding bill passed in April. Important projects in the bill included the Lake Koronis Recreational Trail ($365,000 was approved to connect it to the Glacial Lakes State Trail), capital improvements to state colleges and universities, and a Sauk Rapids bridge plan.

The March 1 start date for 2006 should help the legislature, Fischbach felt. Though no official actions will be taken during the first two months of the year, preliminary work can be taken care of in committee meetings. (Because the legislature is in the middle of a biennium, committee assignments will remain the same and work on many bills that were not passed this year can continue next year.) This should prepare the legislature, getting everyone "all keyed up and ready to go March 1st," Fischbach said.

Two things Fischbach would like to see happen next year are legislative reform and a bonding bill that includes money for a wastewater treatment plant in Richmond. She plans to pursue additional ideas between sessions, looking at things she feels need addressing in preparation for the next session.

Sen. Steve Dille
"Senate Democrats tend to be very liberal," while Pawlenty is the "most conservative governor Minnesota has had in about 75 years," said Sen. Steve Dille (R-Dassel). This, he believed, was the basis of problems leading to the special session and partial government shutdown.

There was "not very good political leadership," Dille added, which was another part of the problem, he felt. The lack of compromise among the leaders disappointed him, and he noted that the "state of Minnesota is very disgusted with us."

Dille was part of a group within the Senate that drafted a budget proposal in an effort separate from negotiations among the leaders. It was a bipartisan group that was ready to introduce its ideas when the leadership finally had a breakthrough in negotiations and came to an agreement, he said.

As the only Republican in the Senate to vote for the lights-on bill that would have continued the expired budget for an indefinite period of time, Dille believes that legislators needed to be more moderate. It is important to have strong convictions, he said, but there is a need to come together in the "middle at the end of the day."

There were some legislators who put a lot of effort into finishing legislative work during the special session, and Dille does not argue with their right to take per diem pay, but most were bystanders who should not, he said. Dille himself spent five days in a working group for the agriculture, environment, and economic development bill, and - though he has not taken any pay yet - is considering accepting per diem, since he was not getting his farm work done on those days as he would have otherwise.

Pleased that funding increases did occur in the education bill that was passed, Dille said the bill was good overall. It is "okay to experiment with" the teacher performance pay system, he said, adding that he wonders how it will end up working.

Increasing nursing home funding - 2.26 percent per year for the next two years - was a positive start, but the industry is "really in dire straights, said Dille, who had hoped more would be budgeted.

He was in favor of keeping MinnesotaCare insurance available to a large number of Minnesotans, and was relieved that no one was cut from eligibility when the health and human services bill was passed.

The lack of tax increases in the tax bill is misleading, he believes, because of the $139 million in property tax increases that schools were authorized to make.

Though corporate tax reform would have been welcome, according to Dille, a very minimal amount was done, raising only $3 million in revenue. He said he does understand why this was not widely supported, however, explaining that if business taxes within the state were very different from other states, Minnesota would become less competitive. He felt that, ideally, the issue should be addressed on a national level.

Positive aspects in the tax bill included relief for veterans and military families and increases in local government aid, he said.

Dille, who was on the conference committee that produced the final bonding bill for capital improvements in the regular session, was glad to include the Lake Koronis trail in it. The bill is creating 10,000 construction jobs and is an investment in the state that should have made earlier, he said.

He said that last year, when interest rates were lower, he was one of few Senate Republicans to vote for the bonding bill, though most did vote for this year's, which is actually a bigger bill.

After the bonding bill, big successes in the regular session were repassing the concealed handgun carry bill, setting a timeline for ethanol content in gasoline to increase, and increasing penalties for methamphetamine use, said Dille. The raise in minimum wage effective Monday, Aug. 1, (up $1 to $6.15 per hour for employees of business having annual gross sales of at least $625,000 and up 35 to $5.25 for employees of smaller operations) and increased penalties for sex offenders (it is estimated that the space of one-and-a-half new prisons will be required to house them) were also noteworthy, he felt.

Dille was on the Pawlenty's task force for animal agriculture and supported training programs for county and township officers to regulate animals and a dairy investment tax credit that were not passed. Another disappointment was that a feedlot provision he worked on did not pass, said Dille.

Convening on March 1 of next year will be a problem, Dille stated, who said that, as a farmer, "I'm very mad about it. I'm disgusted." With the legislature on a two-year cycle, the second year is normally shorter, and when it begins in February, it only lasts until mid-April. When that happens, his spring farm work is "only goofed up every other year," Dille said. Starting later on a short year means that the session will likely last until the end of May, and "it's a provision that's going to make it harder and harder for farmers to serve," he observed.

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