Bipartisan work gives greater Minnesota legislative success

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ST. PAUL—The 2017 Legislature may do pretty well by greater Minnesota.

"We got there because it was a bipartisan effort. both parties brought real strengths to the table," Deputy House Minority Leader Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, said hours before a special session was to adjourn Wednesday morning. "I use the tax bill as an example."

The tax bill that is expected to be agreed to and signed would contain an agricultural property tax credit on school construction that all sides wanted, a Social Security tax break brought up by Republicans, local aid increases from Democrats and business tax cuts by the GOP that would especially help small firms around greater Minnesota, Marquart said.

"They came together on it," he said. "That is a big key."

The legislative session began in January with Republicans taking stronger control of the House and getting a one-vote Senate margin, mostly due to a strong electoral showing in rural Minnesota. Still, Democrat Mark Dayton remains the governor and has a strong motivation to fight for his pet projects because the budget being passed Tuesday night and Wednesday morning is his last.

Greater Minnesota has become a political battlefield.

Democrats have alleged that Republicans did not serve rural Minnesota well as they controlled the House in recent years.

Less than two weeks ago, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, accused the Dayton administration of "waging a war on agriculture" and a few days later other Republicans said the governor was not treating greater Minnesota well.

While details of all bills were not final Tuesday afternoon, May 23, several signs of compromise were easy to spot.

Take, for instance, changes farmers demanded to the 2-year-old law the requires them to place vegetative buffer strips between cropland and water. That is a Dayton signature conservation law, and he said he would veto any delay or change in it.

He eventually agreed to the GOP-proposed plan to give farmers an eight-month "waiver" in meeting the law, not using the term "delay." He also agreed to other relatively minor changes.

In the tax bill Marquart mentioned, many Republicans long have wanted to hold steady or reduce Local Government Aid to cities and County Program Aid. A deal among Dayton and legislative leaders left increases for both accounts, less than Democrats called for but more than the GOP wanted.

Compromises could not be reached everywhere, but as Dayton often says, both sides have to move for a budget deal to be reached.

"It's not everything that I want," Dayton said. "You give and take."

Here is a look at some of areas of special interest to greater Minnesota, with changes still possible:

Environment

Environment-related spending and policy changes come in a lot of bills, but the most discussed issue has been buffers.

"The buffer stuff is huge," House Environment Chairman Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said.

Dayton upset a lot of farmers when he began pushing for a law, passed in 2015, to require buffers between water and cropland. While he had GOP support for the measure, Republicans did not like how it was progressing and the law was changed in 2016 and they returned this year demanding that the enactment be delayed a year and other changes be made.

The governor would hear none of it and said the bill had to remain the same until next year.

But, Fabian said, farmers are in the field now and "alternative practices" other than planting buffers have not been finalized, and farmers will not be able to do the work needed by the Nov. 1 deadline.

The compromise legislation allows farmers to apply for an automatic waiver that means they will not need buffers, or alternative measures, installed until July 1, 2018. That gives farmers 11 months to comply with the law.

Several bills contain money to help farmers and local governments meet the buffer law.

The bill also narrows the list of what can be considered public waters, which Fabian said under existing law could be a puddle.

Plus, the environment bill increases several Department of Natural Resources fees, including day passes to state parks from $5 to $7 and annual park passes from $25 tro $35.

Parks, especially small ones in rural Minnesota, are being neglected, Fabian said, so more money is needed.

Some fees were requested by those who pay them, such as the snowmobile registration jump from $30 to $105 over three years. Fabian said the agreement was that more money will go to snowmobile clubs to maintain trails.

Also in the environment-outdoor area, $64 million in lottery proceeds will be distributed to more than 60 projects, including nearly $20 million for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program that can be used to help install buffers.

The "legacy" sales tax increase voters approved in 2008 will amount to nearly $530 million, with $211 million going to clean water, $105 million to outdoor heritage and $90 million to parks and trails. The rest goes to arts and culture projects. More than $20 million of the clean-water fund is to be used by local soil and water conservation districts for buffers.

Taxes

One of the biggest issues in farm country is that schools find it tough to finance new facilities because the repayment burden falls heavily on ag property taxes.

The tax bill agreement includes a provision to eliminate 40 percent of school construction taxes from farmland. School officials hope reducing taxes that much will help convince farmers to back construction projects.

Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton schools, where Marquart teaches, tried to pass a school bond referendum in 2015, but 80 percent of voters opposed it. The same happened with nearby Barnesville and Detroit Lake schools.

Marquart said a DGF committee he was on decided to try to bond issue again, but only if the state approved the tax credit in the bill.

Also in the tax bill is more than $100 million in income tax cuts for Minnesotans' Social Security benefits. Since greater Minnesota has a higher percentage of older people, the move is expected to help the area outside the Twin Cities more than in the more populated area.

Many Democrats fought a Republican plan to lower statewide property taxes on businesses' first $100,000 of value, but it is in the bill.

Marquart said that move will help small businesses around greater Minnesota because their facilities often have lower property values.

Agriculture

One of the easiest budget bills to pass often is one funding agriculture programs, but nothing was easy this year.

After much haggling and compromising, the ag bill eventually passed easily.

Ag programs will get nearly $5 million more than expected in the next two years, mostly for department administration. In all, the Agriculture Department will receive $105 million from the $123 million bill, with the Board of Animal Health and Agriculture Utilization Board Institute getting the rest.

Dayton and Republicans argued over whether farmers had to get prior state approval before applying some pesticides. Negotiations resulted in a language compromise accepted by both sides.

The Dayton administration gave up on its proposal to increase a pesticide fee on farmers, but accepted one for non-agricultural waste pesticide products.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, said $850,000 that will be used to partner with local communities to control the spread of noxious weeds is important. It will be especially helpful in southwestern Minnesota, he said, where invasive Palmer amaranth is spreading rapidly.

Another $150,000 is headed to help farmers install roll bars on their old tractors.

Guns

Guns often are among the hottest issues during a legislative session, but not in 2017.

The most-discussed item was the "stand your ground" measure that would have allowed more freedom to use deadly force in self defense. But that did not make it into a final bill.

"The 2017 legislative session was adjourned last night without a single dangerous gun bill being passed—or even being voted on," the Protect Minnesota anti-gun organization wrote to members Tuesday. "This is an amazing accomplishment in a year when the 'gun rights' party is in control of both the House and the Senate."

One provision clarifies that off-duty law enforcement officers would be allowed to carry guns into private establishments, although the owners may ask for credentials to verify the person is an officer.

A nearly annual debate has been decided, at least for now. A bill awaiting the governor's signature prohibits the state from banning the use of lead shot. State officials wanted to ban hunters from using lead shot in southern and western Minnesota, an attempt to keep wildlife from being poisoned.

The state's 12,000 muzzle-loader hunters will be able to use sights on their weapons. Hunters also may add blaze pink to their hunting outfit, which now must only be blaze orange.

Other issues

• Broadband apparently will receive $20 million for the next two years. The high-speed internet funding is far below what broadband experts sought, but above the $6 million House Republicans proposed.

• The public safety bill requires the state Corrections Department to get an outside assessment of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton as well as cost for the state to open and operate it. The report is due Jan. 1, 2018. The Appleton provision is a drastic change from the original plan to require the state to lease the privately owned facility for excess state prisoners. It is a 1,600-bed facility, but proposals have called for the state to use fewer cells than that.

• The greater Minnesota-centric Minnesota State college and university system will get slightly more money than the University of Minnesota: $1.4 billion versus $1.3 billion. While the University of Minnesota tuition cannot be regulated by the Legislature, the Legislature says the Minnesota State system must hold tuition increases to 1 percent in the 2017-2018 school year and freeze them the following year.

• With more money headed to cities and counties, although not as much as many wanted, about a dozen small counties will find a special bonus. A quirk in existing law allowed for some sparsely populated, agriculture heavy counties to get less state aid than they should; the tax bill would raise funding for those counties.

Session Daily ,  a nonpartisan Minnesota House Public Information Office online publication, contributed to this story.