Lawmakers pass several budget bills in closing days

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

The Democratic-led Legislature ping-ponged budget bills back and forth over the final days of the 2013 legislative session.

Lawmakers passed an omnibus $2.8 billion higher education bill that included a $250 million increase in funding.

It includes a two-year, undergraduate tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota and at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).

“It’s (higher education) no longer going to be the bank to backfill other places we cut,” said Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee chairman.

Included, too, is the so-called “Minnesota Dream Act” granting about 750 undocumented students who attended high school in Minnesota in-state tuition rates and eligibility for state grants.

“They’re here today because their parents came,” Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said.

But it’s unfair, McNamara said, that undocumented students could edge out residents for education grant money.

House Republicans criticized the higher education bill for failing to make a “dent” in the perceived bureaucratic bloat at the University of Minnesota.

In other action, the Democratic-led Legislature passed an omnibus $11.2 billion health and human services finance bill.

The big bill ,  which is $50 million less than the budget forecast,  includes a 5 percent increase for nursing home providers.

“This is the largest increase in nursing home funding in over a decade,” ssaid Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

The bill improves insurance coverage for autism treatment.

It recommends that medical assistance (MA) cover an early intensive intervention benefit set for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Further, effective July 1, the bill provides MA coverage for the assessment, evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of autism.

Additionally, it requires large employers purchasing insurance in the individual market and the state employee insurance program to include autism coverage,

“I know it’s really difficult to come up for funding for this,” Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said of the $13 million cost to the state.

Eaton carried autism legislation.

In the omnibus jobs, commerce and housing bill, the Democratic-led Legislature provided about $346 million in savings to business by reducing the unemployment assessment rate.

“It may well be the most significant business tax cut in the state’s history,” Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said.

The bill creates a solar energy standard of 1.5 percent by 2020, with a policy goal of reaching 10 percent by 2030.

One provision ridiculed by House Republicans prohibits any business from using a barber pole to attract customers unless the business has a licensed barber.

Another provision slammed by Republicans cuts $1 million in payments the city of St. Paul makes on a state loan for the Xcel Energy Center, entirely forgiving the loan in 2016.

One focus of the $313 million omnibus environment, natural resources and agriculture finance and policy bill is pollinators — bees.

The commissioner of agriculture is direct to submit a report by January, 2014, on a proposal to establish a pollinator bank to preserve bee species’ diversity, to efficiently and effectively create and enhance pollinator nesting and foraging habitat, to review certain pesticides, among other tasks.

Some $300,000 was slated for the initiative.

“We have lack of food, we have lack of nesting,”  Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Finance Committee Chairwoman Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said of bees.

In regard to silica sand mining, one provision in the bill prohibits mining within one mile of a designated trout stream unless a silica sand mining trout stream setback permit has been issued by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) commissioner.

Before a permit can be issued, the mining proposer needs to perform a hydro geological evaluation and collect any information necessary to assess potential impacts to hydro geological features,

These silica sand provisions concern proposed sand mining in the southeastern part of the state.

Further, the legislation requires the Environmental Quality Board by Oct. 1, 2013, in consultation with local units of government, to develop model standards and criteria for mining, processing, and transporting of silica sand.

The Minnesota Department of Health is directed to adopt an air quality health-based value for silica sand.

In other areas, the bill authorizes the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to recreate and restore Hall’s Island or a similar island for wildlife on the Mississippi River, just north of the Plymouth Avenue bridge, adjacent to Scherer Brothers Lumber.

“What in the world are you doing?” McNamara, R-Hastings, asked.

Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, during floor debate, sharply criticized the DNR for using revenue from recent hunting and fishing license fee increases to hire new staff.

“Fifty new bureaucratic employees,” Hackbarth said.

The bill provides $7.6 million in general-fund money to the DNR for additional ground and surface water analysis.

The $2 billion omnibus public safety bill, besides increasing the salaries of Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges, and district court judges, contains gun-related provisions.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, enjoys a lighter moment while standing in for House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, on the Speaker's podium. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, enjoys a lighter moment while standing in for House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, on the Speaker’s podium. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

One requires the courts,  when placing a person, including juveniles, charged with committing crimes of violence into a pretrial diversion programs to transmit the information as soon as practicable to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Additionally, by July 1, 2014, courts must electronically enter into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System information on all persons civilly committed during the period from January 1, 1994, to September 28, 2010, not yet entered.

Democratic legislative leaders set aside the issue of gun-purchase background checks, with House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, saying no consensus could be reached on guns.

Transportation advocates were hopeful that additional transportation funding would emerge from the session.

The governor, House and Senate transportation leaders proposed a variety of tax increases — Dayton looked to a metro-wide sales tax increase for transit, for instance.

But ultimately lawmakers passed a $5.2 billion transportation finance bill, containing no new taxes other than a statewide $10 county wheelage tax option.

A Greater Minnesota transportation sales tax option is also provided.

Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, presents her higher education finance bill on the Senate floor. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, presents her higher education finance bill on the Senate floor. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

t allows county boards, without referendum, to impose up to a half-cent sales tax for highways and transit.

“That’s it. There’s no additional taxes in the bill,” House Transportation Finance Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Contained in the bill is $37 million in general-fund, one-time funding to the Metropolitan Council for Southwest Light Rail.

Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, considered the funding one of the “barnacles” on the bill.

The transportation finance bill contains $300 million in bonding slated to so-called corridors of commerce.

Hornstein, summing up his bill, said lawmakers are watchful and anxious to get funding for their local transportation projects.

But they shy away from raising enough transportation funding to do it.

“That’s a problem. That’s an ongoing problem,” Hornstein said.

The omnibus transportation policy bill dealt with more than motor vehicles.

One provision makes it legal for bicyclists to use a horn or bell to alert motorists and pedestrians a bicycle is approaching.

This wasn’t actually legal before.

Tim Budig can be reached at [email protected]

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