A weekly message from your Senator

 Dear Constituents and Friends,

We are five weeks away from adjourning from the 2017 Legislative Session. Conference committee members have been appointed and we are now waiting for them to meet and find compromise in the differences between the House and the Senate on bills and the budget for the state. State commissioners are involved in the budget negotiations with the conference committees this week. I fully support Governor Dayton’s request that the House and Senate set joint conference committee targets no later than Friday, April 28. That gives conferees two weeks after the Legislature returned from the Easter/Passover break and leaves more than three weeks to negotiate the details of the omnibus budgets before the May 22 adjournment date.

With a $1.5 billion remaining budget surplus projected for the next biennium, I share the concern over many proposed cuts and shifts used to balance the state budget. I also support the request that is there are agency cuts that these be clearly defined, rather than implementing vague across the board percentage cuts. It’s fair to ask exactly what programs should be cut – should it be from meals for seniors, programs to help our most vulnerable, or energy assistance programs to help those in need?

Instead of cutting spending, the proposed budget from the majority pushes spending into future budgets. This puts Minnesotans on the hook for future debts when we can pay them now with our surplus – and pay them on time. This is something I cannot support. Decisions such as these shifts and gimmicks might be easy for the short term, but are dangerous for the long term. The Minnesota Management and Budget office agrees these decisions will seriously jeopardize the state’s long-term fiscal health. I will continue their fight for fiscal responsibility and will not consign our state to another decade of deficits.

There is also a proposal pushing for tax breaks. Although I support modest tax breaks, these tax spending levels are not sustainable and they come at the expense of working Minnesotans and families in need. The budget proposed by the majority also does not invest in things Minnesotans care most about. For example, the education budget bill does not invest enough money in schools. Many school districts are worried about being forced to cut programming and teachers. The higher education bill does not adequately fund the University of Minnesota or state colleges. Students and faculty are worried about program cuts and tuition increases. The tax bill’s investment in Local Government Aid (LGA), while it increases for one year, actually penalizes many communities in the future, cutting up to $13,000 worth of aid for individual cities in our region starting in 2019.

The transportation bill is funded largely through a one-time use of general fund dollars that are supposed to pay for education, health services, and other priorities. Moreover, it does not invest in transit at all. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is pushing back because transit services, whether in the Twin Cities metro area or in Greater Minnesota, is a vital link in our state’s transportation system.

As we enter into the final weeks of the 2017 session, we are hopeful the majority will get their budget targets set on time – which is April 28 – and make some concessions with the Governor for a better budget for all Minnesotans.



Preemption bill 

The preemption bill passed the Senate floor this week, despite the many concerns expressed by members. The legislation will strip away the power of local governments to pass labor benefit policies such as earned sick time and higher minimum wages. This bill would also retroactively prohibit the enactment of compensation benefits the cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul have recently implemented.

Local governments often take action in response to a challenge identified by community members. This bill will push decisions that should be made closest to the people up to the state level. This bill restricts the authority of local governments to implement what is best for their communities. This one-size-fits-all approach, is backed by business groups in reaction to ordinances that were established in Minneapolis and Saint Paul that required qualifying workers to have access to paid leave benefits. Proponents of this proposal worry that individual cities across the state will establish their own benefit policies, which will result in differences across the state.

Labor, social justice, and local government organizations are in opposition to the proposal, arguing that local elected officials are capable of determining what is best for their residents. Beyond the local government argument, some of the opponents argue that there is moral obligation to families who do not have access to leave benefits. For many families in these cities and across the state, it is a choice between putting food on the table or taking their child or parent to the hospital. (HF600/SF580)

Some Minnesotans may be in line for another tax refund this year

Tuesday marked the last day to file or apply for an extension on state and federal income taxes. The date was three days later than the typical April 15 deadline due to Monday’s holiday in Washington, D.C.

Taxpayers are able to check on the status of their state income tax refund by contacting the Minnesota Department of Revenue at “Where’s My Refund?” or 1-800-657-3676. For those that were unable to pay all taxes owed by the April 18 deadline, the Department of Revenue may be able to work out a payment plan. Visit the website or call 1-800-657-3909 during business hours.

The timing of this year’s filing deadline comes just as the legislature prepares to negotiate a tax budget with Governor Dayton. The budget commits about $1.35 billion of the state’s $1.6 billion budget surplus to tax cuts, while the Governor invests about $285 million in direct tax relief. A less obvious, but very important difference is that the majority's budget spend significantly more in future years. For instance, the cost of an estate tax cut for about 1,000 heirs inheriting more than $2 million balloons to more than $116 million by 2020. Governor Dayton prefers targeted tax relief that will not strangle the state’s budget in future years. Finding balance among the three proposals while saving enough to invest in education, health care, and other state obligations will be the key to ending session by the May 22 deadline.

If passed, this tax bill would be the second tax-relief package approved in 2017. The legislature worked quickly to approve a tax conformity bill in January that updated Minnesota’s tax code to federal changes adopted since Jan. 1, 2015. As a result, some taxpayers may have an additional state tax refund coming later this year. Once all 2016 taxes are processed, the Department of Revenue will begin revising 2015 tax documents and identifying any taxpayers that may be owed additional refunds based on these updates. No taxpayer will owe additional money, but some may see checks in the mail before the end of the year. Taxpayers should not file amended returns unless they are contacted by the Department; in most cases, taxpayers do not have to take any action and refunds will be automatically issued. Minnesotans most likely to be impacted by these changes include teachers with classroom expenses, those with higher education tuition payments, homeowners paying mortgage insurance or who experienced foreclosure or short-sale, and small business owners.

Teacher licensure bill advances in Senate, concerns about teacher quality raised

A bill to revamp the state’s Board of Teaching and create a tiered educator licensing system was debated and passed by the state Senate on April 20. The Senate language was included in the E-12 education finance bill that passed in late March and will replace the House licensure language on House File 140. 

The bill also seriously changes the alternative teacher preparation provider requirements, making it easier for an alternative program, such as Teach for America, to be established in Minnesota. These changes could threaten teacher preparation quality. Concerns include elimination of student teaching requirement for alternative preparation candidates, mandatory teacher prep program approval with minimum educator standards, and removal of higher education partnership requirement.

Four tiered licensure areas are designed with licensure qualifications, duration, and renewal set up. The bill provides parameters for design and implementation of the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) and removes the MDE licensing function and places it all with a new board – a change which has bipartisan support. The Board of School Administrators will remain a separate entity to license school administrators. The PELSB will shrink from 11 to nine members and include two administrative members. Teachers will make up the majority of the board membership. The higher education member is eliminated, even though the board is tasked with approving teacher prep programs. No current Board of Teaching member can be a member of the new board. No teacher member may hold a position with the union.

Several concerns are cited with the tiered system in this bill. The bill allows for unlimited renewals for Tier 1 licenses, with no incentives to move on to higher levels of licensure. The licensure board is also required to grant a Tier 1 license at the request of the school or charter board. Furthermore, years served in Tier 1 cannot be counted towards continuing contract rights. This sets up a process for individuals with no teacher training or pedagogy to teach for as long as they want in a Minnesota school.

The bill also requires licensure candidates to participate in school district’s mentorship or teacher evaluation programs, which is a positive requirement. However, many districts don’t have mentorship programs and they would need money to implement one.

Changing the alternative teacher preparation program requirements threaten program and teacher quality. The legislature remains committed to providing quality teachers for Minnesota’s future generations.  (SF4)

Students need better investment to afford college

Three competing proposals under discussion at the legislature would dramatically affect college affordability for students across Minnesota.

Governor Dayton proposed investing $62 million additional dollars into the state grant program that helps Minnesota students pay for college without incurring more debt. The additional investment would help make college more affordable for more than 85,600 students, with an additional 8,829 students qualifying for financial aid.

On the other hand, the Senate’s higher education budget includes only $10.8 million for the state grant program, meaning only 1,192 additional students would be served. The House higher education budget invests $15 million, providing grant funds to 3,262 more Minnesota students.

The average Minnesota student leaves four years of college or career training with $27,000 in student loan debt—this is the fifth highest in the nation. The price of tuition doubled between 2000 and 2012; between 2013 and 2015, Governor Dayton and the legislature reversed the cuts of the previous decade, increasing higher investments by 20%.

Omnibus Legacy Bill sent to the floor, includes controversial funding for buffers

The Senate Finance Committee heard and approved the Omnibus Legacy Bill Thursday and forwarded it to the Senate floor. The bill appropriates biennial funding of $529 million from the four legacy funds established by the “Legacy Amendment” that was approved by Minnesota’s voters in 2008, as follows:

  • Outdoor Heritage Fund -- $104.6 million (FY 2019 funds will be appropriated next year)
  • Clean Water Fund -- $211.6 million
  • Parks and Trails Fund -- $89.8 million
  • Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund -- $123.4 million.

The bill maintains the recommendations of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council for appropriations from the outdoor heritage fund, retains a 40:40:20 distribution for parks and trails (40% to the DNR for state parks and trails, 40% to the Metropolitan Council for metro area parks and trails, and 20% to greater Minnesota parks and trails), and establishes an ongoing 5% fund balance in each of the four funds.

The bill faces strong opposition from a number of environmental groups and clean water advocates who are concerned about the clean water fund portion of the bill that shifts $22 million in grants to the state’s 90 soil and water conservation districts to help with buffer compliance. In 2015, legislators funded this work with clean water fund money, but said future funding, beginning in 2017, would come from the state’s general fund. 

This bill continues to fund buffer compliance work from the clean water fund, which critics say violates the spirit of the Legacy Amendment and means deep cuts to several clean water programs that would otherwise be funded, including drinking water and groundwater protections. An amendment to reverse that position and instead fully fund the recommendations of the state’s Clean Water Council failed on a voice vote. The bill will be heard next on the Senate floor.  (H.F. 707