Westrom, Otremba both see a lot to like about sessionAlthough they’re on opposite sides of the political aisles, the two House members representing Douglas County each claimed victories in the just-completed legislative session.
By: By Al Edenloff, Editor, Alexandria Echo Press
Although they’re on opposite sides of the political aisles, the two House members representing Douglas County each claimed victories in the just-completed legislative session.
Representative Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, noted that some of the biggest things the Legislature accomplished came in the days and hours just prior to adjournment.
“We capped property taxes, balanced the budget and did not raise taxes,” he said in an e-mailed news release Tuesday.
“This was a session where tax hikes were blocked in favor of fiscally responsible spending to help our bottom line, fund our core priorities and move Minnesota forward,” Westrom added.
Representative Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie, said the session was one of the most productive ones in recent memory. She noted that the Legislature passed bills to provide property tax relief, health care reform and cost reductions. It also increased funding for schools and nursing homes and enacted a balanced budget that closes the state budget deficit without a general tax increase.
In addition, the session also enacted transportation and public works bills that will create thousands of new jobs.
"When we look at the list of accomplishments for the citizens of Minnesota, it's hard to believe we've only been here for three months," said Otremba in an e-mailed news release Monday. "We got in and got right to work to deliver better funding for schools and nursing homes, lower property taxes, more jobs and safer roads and bridges.
"The fact that we were able to put more money into schools and nursing homes – two of our highest priorities – in the face of a $935 million deficit and without raising taxes is pretty striking," Otremba added.
The shorter-than-usual session, Otremba said, included a comprehensive public works bill, or bonding bill, a constitutional amendment to allow voters to decide on funding to preserve the environment and natural resources, and transportation bill decades in the making that will deliver safer roads and bridges.
"Minnesotans should be proud of the bi-partisan work done by the Legislature this session," said Otremba. "We worked harder, faster and more efficiently than ever before, and for the first time in years finished on time. The end result will go far toward making rural Minnesota and our communities stronger, safer and more economically vibrant."
A last-minute deal, Westrom said, balanced the books, getting the state out from under a $1 billion shortfall.
The final budget-balancing deal included a property tax cap at 3.9 percent for three years, $60 million in local government aid, $25 million for direct property tax relief, a tax credit for veterans, and a cost-of-living increase for nursing home employees, Westrom noted.
“We also provided limited expansion for the uninsured that rely on public assistance programs and implementation of tax credits for those in the private market,” Westrom said. “Furthermore, schools will receive additional one-time funding.
The property tax relief passed this session has been a long time coming, Otremba said.
"Property taxpayers in Greater Minnesota and across the state have been asking us to slow down rising property taxes that are stretching their family budgets to the limit,” she said. “The mix of property tax relief to homeowners, LGA and levy limits in the tax bill make good progress.”
The final days of session also included agreements on health care reform to expand affordable health care for more Minnesotans and bring down health care costs to those who do have health insurance, Otremba noted. She was especially pleased with a provision to expand MinnesotaCare coverage to farmers, something she has been working on for several years.
To help balance the budget, the state trimmed the rate of growth in spending increases by $355 million and generated $129 million in tax revenues by altering corporate taxes to conform with federal IRS codes.
About $500 million from the state’s reserve “rainy day” funds was applied to balance the budget.
The budget-balancing job would have been more difficult, Westrom said, had the bonding bill not been trimmed by more than $200 million earlier in the session, getting it down to within the spending limit recommended by the state’s economist.
“A handful of non-essential projects were struck down by Governor Pawlenty and upheld by Republicans, narrowing our focus to priorities like local sewer and water, local roads and bridges, the environment and higher education infrastructure,” Westrom said.
Republicans, Westrom said, worked hard to bring more jobs to Minnesota, increasing the tax base to provide the state with more revenue.
“Creating job incentives, staring down more anti-job creation taxes proposed by the DFL, and expanding the successful JOBZ program were all efforts by House Republicans to help families around the state and bring about a better economic future for everyone,” he said. “We were fortunate that the rural JOBZ program was not cut by the Twin City Democrats in the end and that no taxes were raised on our small businesses.”
Westrom said the Legislature made progress on a variety of other fronts, including education. For K-12 students, this session brought temporary increased funding. For college students, the state increased overall higher education funding, including state grants to help make tuition more affordable.
Efforts to reform the health care system laid the groundwork for what could be long-term reform, according to Westrom. A bill provides tax credits to encourage private market coverage, gives meaningful information on cost and quality so purchasers and individuals can make an informed choice, he said.
“It also realigns incentives to reward providers for the quality of the care delivered, instead of just the quantity of services,” Westrom said.