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Legislative notebook: Minn. lawmakers urge better college funding in 2017

ST. PAUL—Several legislators say that state-run college and university needs must be funded.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, who becomes minority leader in the 2017 session, told a recent Forum News Service forum that it is easy to keep state higher education funding down because the schools pick up the shortfall by increasing tuition. But that hurts higher education, he added.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said more money is needed, but will be tough to find since Republicans who control the Legislature do not want to raise taxes.

"We need to get our higher ed institutions back to where they were in funding from the state..." Eken said. "There has been a lot of competition out there."

Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, said he plans to continue efforts to bring the state's higher education systems together with private businesses. If successful, he said, more jobs would be available and education costs could fall.

Many would-be employees do not have the skills needed for jobs that are available, he said.

"The skills gap issue is something Republicans certainly are aware of and I've gotten some indication that they're wanting to work on that," Lien said.

Do Democrats matter?

Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators differ about how much influence they will have in 2017.

In the Senate, Bakk moves from being majority leader to minority leader when the session begins. His Democrats trail Republicans by a single vote.

"If you are one behind, you might as well be six behind," Bakk said. "Senate Republicans have the votes on the floor to execute whatever the issues are their caucus can unite behind. I don't know that we will have a big influence."

Generally, the majority party can pass any bills it wants other than a public works construction measure, which because it borrows money needs a supermajority.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he expects to work with Democrats during his tenure.

Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said Democrats still count.

"Absolutely Democrats will have input in Legislature," he said. "I'm optimistic if the governor and the Republican leadership in the Legislature start working (together) early in the session. I just hope there's none of this partisan showmanship. If we wait to the end of session to get together, it may be too late and they won't get together."

Buffer talk not done

Legislators have passed laws the past two sessions requiring farmers to have vegetation between cropland and water, reducing soil and pollution runoff.

But more work is needed, according to the author of the original bill.

Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, said corrections and clarifications to the existing law may pass in 2017. Also, counties say they need state funding if they are to operate the program, as expected in state law.

A provision in a tax bill that failed to become law earlier this year has some financial provisions to encourage counties to run the buffer program, Torkelson said. The failed bill is expected to be the basis for a new tax bill this year.

One of the issues to be clarified, he said, is just what is a private ditch, which would not need a buffer.

Some want GPS regulation

Some legislators want to reduce the state Department of Public Safety's ability to track the location of ignition interlock devices.

The devices are used in some cases to prevent people convicted of drunken driving to operate a vehicle after drinking.

"The state should not be in the business of tracking Minnesotans," said Chairwoman Peggy Scott, R-Andover, of the House Civil Law and Data Practice Committee. "Our proposal would limit DPS' ability to track those with ignition interlock devices, and limit the state's authority to install similar—potentially unconstitutional—policies."

It is time for lawmakers to look into the situation, a Democrat said.

"The speed at which technology like this is emerging and being utilized by government highlights the need for full disclosure when programs like this are expanded," Rep. John Lesch of St. Paul said.

Less regulation sought

Legislators from both parties are calling for less state regulation, especially on businesses.

"The costs imposed are not being justified by the benefits," Eken said of some regulations being enforced on farms and businesses.

"Agencies don't think about the cost as much as they should," he added.

Republicans long have called for reducing regulations, with more and more Democrats speaking out about it.

Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, said he hopes to create and bring more jobs to the state by streamlining permitting processes.

"If they can do it in six months in Michigan, we should be able to do it in six months in Minnesota," said Tomassoni, who represents an area where mines have years-long waits to get permits to begin work. "We have a natural-resource-based economy in all of rural Minnesota—whether it's farming, mining or logging—and that's how we make our living. I think people sent a loud and clear message last election that we know how to take care of our area. Leave us alone and let us manage it, but give us the tools to do it."

'Increase pension funding'

Rep. Mary Murphy, D-Hermantown, said she is concerned governments are shortchanging pension plans for their employees, something she recommends lawmakers examine.

"It hasn't been increased at other times when the employee's share has," Murphy said of government contributions. "We need to have public pensions on the local, county and state level. We need some new money from the employer's side. That means the state."

Amendments not priorities

Legislative leaders say they are not thinking much about approving constitutional amendments in 2017.

At a Forum News Service briefing, Republican leaders said they do not plan to repeat 2011, when lawmakers gave voters two amendments to consider: requiring photo identification for voting and banning gay marriage. GOP lawmakers did that, in part, to bypass Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who opposed the measures.

Legislators can approve proposed amendments, putting them on a general election ballot for voters to approve or reject. The governor has no official say in amendments.

Both of the 2011 amendments failed.

However, Bakk suggested that Republicans could look at amendments that would improve government.

One that he suggested would change how judges are elected, perhaps allowing the governor to appoint them and when their term is up asking voters if they wanted to keep judges in office.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said lawmakers also should consider establishing an independent redistricting commission.

"It makes sense to put that in the hands of disinterested, data-driven people," she said.

As it is, lawmakers establish new legislative and congressional districts every 10 years, but because of partisan disagreements their plan nearly always ends up in court, where judges draw district lines.

'Allow pipelines' urged

Republicans who control the Legislature generally support moving oil via pipelines, and likely will look at legislation to encourage that.

Many Democrats, especially in northern Minnesota, agree.

"I would much rather see the pipelines fixed, updated and renovated than to see more trucks on the road," Tomassoni said. "So, it's about safety and it's about how we move products through pipes for the next generation to come."

While Enbridge dropped plans to build the Sandpiper Pipeline across northern Minnesota, it still plans to upgrade an existing one.

"They want to update it and make it safer and they want to put in a new, better pipe," Tomassoni said. "There's a lot of jobs there, also. When someone launches several billion dollars in the state, there's a lot of people working, too."

Little long-term talk

Increasing funding for the elderly has run under the radar before the legislative session.

Eken, long a long-term care supporter, said the state needs to prepare for a bigger demand for nursing home and other long-term care solutions "as the baby boomers continue to age and people with disabilities age."

While there is a $1.4 billion budget surplus, Eken said, other ways of funding the need must be found.

One possibility, Eken said, is to pass a constitutional amendment dedicating money to the elderly.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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