Local lawmakers are ready
The Minnesota Legislature began its new session yesterday, Thursday.
What is at stake? What will be the highlights, the lowlights and the challenges ahead?
Here's how the three legislators representing District 11 in Douglas County - Senator Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie and Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake - assessed the session in e-mails sent to the newspaper:
Top issues Ingebrigtsen listed included:
Balancing the budget. The Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to make a key ruling on March 15 about Governor Tim Pawlenty's "unallotment" decision. If the court upholds a lower court and strikes down the governor's unallotment authority, the whole $2.7 billion in budget balancing will likely be undone, creating a larger budget deficit.
On the other hand, a court decision upholding unallotment may give the governor additional options for balancing the current budget shortfall, Ingebrigtsen said.
The state's current operating budget contains a $1.2 billion shortfall that must be balanced by the end of session in the spring.
Capital investment. Pawlenty released a capital investment proposal that lays the groundwork for one of the 2010 Legislature's primary duties - to assemble and pass a borrowing (bonding) plan for maintaining state-owned facilities, preventing storm damage, and qualifying for federal dollars.
Pawlenty's 2010 request included a $685 million in general obligation bonding request, with a total of $815 million when user-financed bonds, trunk highway bonds, University of Minnesota and MnSCU bonds, and cash amounts are included.
In Ingebrigtsen's view, the governor's proposal is balanced between the Twin Cities metro and Greater Minnesota with a majority of funds designated for programs that are available statewide.
Job creation. Ingebrigtsen said that while the DFL majority in the Legislature hopes to revive a Minnesota "stimulus" that would pump state money into construction projects, others are hoping for tax cuts, angel investment tax credits, a state-backed loan guarantee, or other financial incentives designed to encourage entrepreneurs that have held back in recent months due to uncertain credit and federal banking reports.
Constitutional spending amendment. The governor has proposed a constitutional amendment that will cap the state's general fund budget at the actual amount of revenue received during the previous budget period.
If passed by the Legislature, voters will have a chance to weigh in on the issue in November, Ingebrigtsen said.
General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC). During the unallotment process, the governor ended GAMC funding earlier than initially proposed, effective April 1, 2010. Hearings have begun on a proposal to restore $292 million of about $396 million in vetoed GAMC funding, and would reduce eligibility, raise the hospital surcharge, and require counties to help pay the cost.
Education funding. Ingebrigtsen is hopeful that the Legislature will explore new options regarding the funding formula in an effort to address the general education funding needs of school districts and develop a more fair and equitable system.
Vikings stadium. Although the Vikings football season is over, the issue of public assistance for a new stadium remains.
"Most Minnesotans would agree that the team is a great asset to the state, but even when riding a wave of success, at least one poll showed that voters opposed state financing of a stadium by a 2-to-1 ratio," Ingebrigtsen said. "The heart of the question legislators are faced with is whether to use public money in the financing of sports arenas for privately-owned sports teams."
Energy alternatives. Expect attention to return to the growing bi-partisan support to strike down Minnesota's 16-year ban on new nuclear power plants again this year, Ingebrigtsen said.
Veterans health care. Discussion will continue about the increasing number of veterans needing health care services, the increasing costs of long-term care and how to deliver it, and the recommendations for improvements for veterans hospitals, Ingebrigtsen predicted.
The Legislature will also look at recommendations for new veterans' cemeteries, he added.
Medical marijuana. A push to legalize certain amounts of marijuana for medical use will likely occur due to Obama Administration statements that they will not arrest or prosecute medical marijuana users and suppliers conforming to state laws, said Ingebrigtsen.
Universal healthcare. Although Congress will continue with attempts to overhaul the American health care system, DFLers will likely continue to offer legislation to fill-in until federal plans would be able to cover intended recipients, possibly four or more years in the future, said Ingebrigtsen.
"What I hear is that 2009 was a tough year for rural Minnesotans," said Otremba. "Some spent their time scouring the classified ads in search of a job. Others watched foreclosure signs spring up in houses next door or struggled with rising health care costs."
In early December, Minnesotans were dealt another blow, Otremba noted, as they learned the current recession continues to contribute to a growing budget deficit in excess of a billion dollars next year and a substantially larger one in the biennium to follow.
"The chief reason for our continued budget struggles is that too many Minnesotans are out of work or earning less," Otremba said.
According to state economist Tom Stinson, the Federal Recovery Act, in coordination with the state's bonding efforts, prevented the recession from becoming a depression by creating thousands of jobs since last February, Otremba said. Another $1 billion jobs-focused bonding bill passed early in the session could put 10,000 more Minnesotans back to work, she said.
Balancing the budget for the long haul and creating jobs will be at the top of the agenda, Westrom said.
"Those two items are deeply intertwined," he said. "Our latest budget forecast projects a $1.2 billion deficit in the current two-year cycle, largely due to the fact a higher unemployment rate has left the state with less income tax revenue."
Westrom said the best thing for Minnesota is if legislators can work together, reaching across the aisle for the good of the state.
"It is crucial we enact commonsense solutions to help government operate more efficiently, improve our sagging business climate and help people get back to work - all while upholding our commitment to the necessities," he said.
But this is not an easy task, he added. He said, for example, the capital investment bonding bill will be sure to create waves. Pawlenty recently announced he recommends $685 million in general obligation bonding, down from the typical $1 billion range for these bills.
"His bill funds core state needs like flood mitigation, public safety, higher education, and transportation infrastructure, but does not include a lot of bells and whistles," Westrom said. "It also prioritizes preserving our existing infrastructure instead of acquiring new assets."
Westrom believes Pawlenty's proposal falls somewhere in the middle of what legislators can expect to be offered this session.
Other issues Westrom believes will make headlines this session include: revamping the health care system, a constitutional amendment to match state spending with revenue it receives, voting requirements and a new Vikings stadium.