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The 2006 Minnesota Legislative session ended this past week. Our local representative Larry Hosch provides a final report on the results of the session.
Believe it or not, there were several accomplishments this year. I
know it is customary for politicians to always make lemonade out of
lemons, but I truly believe we were successful in many areas, not just
for the state, but also for central Minnesota. Some of the success
stories from this years session includes local bonding projects, early
childhood education funding, tax reforms, environmental policies, school
funding and Stearns county nursing homes. The following is a more
detailed description about each area.
BONDING: Overall, we passed a bonding bill that stayed true to its
intentions, which is to fund projects that have statewide or regional
significance. Often times there is a temptation to include pork barrel
projects, but for the most part, the funded projects stayed true to the
goals of state bonding.
Some of the funded projects of significance for our area include
funding for the Richmond wastewater treatment plant. This project was
one of my priorities for the year since it impacts the Horseshoe Chain
of Lakes and the Sauk River and also the local residents are in
desperate need for financial help. We were able to obtain low-interest
loans for Richmond that will help the city to fund the construction of
this plant with a reduced financial burden on the residents of the city.
We were also able to obtain funding for the acquisition and
preservation of the Avon Hills area. This funding came from a program
called scientific and natural areas (SNA). The goal of this program is
to preserve rare, untouched land. Another project that was funded
through the bonding bill includes the acquisition of property along
Kraemer Lake in St. Joseph that will eventually be used as a regional
park. Lastly, funding was also provided for the extension of the
Glacial Lakes trail from Paynesville to Hawick.
Other projects included in the bonding bill that impacts our area
include funding of the Northstar commuter rail, funding for St. Cloud
State University, property acquisition around the St. Cloud airport, and
funding for the St. Cloud technical college.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: I am particularly excited about our
accomplishments for early childhood education. Study after study has
shown that some of the best uses of our dollars involve early childhood
education. The return on our dollar invested in this area is simply
spectacular with a $12 return on every $1 spent. The following is a
detailed explanation on the budget appropriations for early childhood
- A $2.7 million increase in funding for Early Childhood Family
Education (ECFE) (to $112 per child from $104) and expansion of ECFE to
include relative care givers.
- $1 million to the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF) for a
demonstration of the Northstar Quality Improvement and Rating system
(QIRS) which will provide parents with information on the quality of
child care providers in Minnesota and provide grants and bonuses to
providers to help improve quality
- $287,000 to reinstate the Minnesota School Readiness Kindergarten
Assessment and intervene with children identified as "not ready." (The
assessment will be done on a sample of 10% of entering kindergartners.
We need to continue to work to expand the assessment to all children
- $1.2 million to provide a 15% accreditation differential rate to
accredited child care providers under child care assistance.
- $10.6 million to provide a 6% increase in child care provider
reimbursement rates, which have been frozen at 2001 levels for five
- $3.8 million to reduce (but not eliminate) the waiting list for Basic
Sliding Fee child care. Currently, there are approximately 5,000
children on - the waiting list in 44 counties across the state.
- $143,000 to promote early childhood health and developmental
screening by increasing the amount paid to school districts for children
SCHOOL FUNDING: We were able to provide our schools throughout the
state some help with their increased costs associated with higher energy
prices. The legislature provided our schools $3.67 per student to
compensate for these increased costs. Locally, we were also successful
in obtaining an appropriation for the ROCORI school district. In
response to the tragic school shooting, we were able to get funding of
$190,000 to offer a continuation of district activities that were
developed in concert with the district's federal School Emergency
Response to Violence, or Project SERV, grant. The grant may be used to
continue the district's recovery efforts and uses include: an assessment
of educational adequacy; an organizational analysis; a strategic
planning overview; a district assessment survey; continued recovery
support; staff development initiatives; and any other activities
developed in response to the federal Project SERV grant.
NURSING HOMES: In the past, many of our nursing homes in Stearns
County have been receiving artificially low reimbursement rates from the
state due to arbitrary geographical lines. This year however we were
successful in ensuring that all Stearns county nursing homes receive the
same reimbursements as neighboring counties that near the twin cities
area. This is a very significant change and will provide our nursing
homes an additional $1.8 mil. a year. I am particularly happy with this
success and it is my opinion that our workers in our nursing homes are
absolute saints and are underpaid and overworked. This funding should
help not only in staff pay, but also service quality for all our loved
ones in nursing homes.
TAXES: There were two significant accomplishments associated with
taxes. This years tax bill included the elimination of the marriage
penalty for all married couple and also revising the income limits for
the alternative minimum tax, otherwise known as AMT. Overall, I think
both of these provisions are good as they are wide ranging and affect
most tax payers and especially the middle class. These provisions
overall make our states income tax more progressive and ensures that
middle class tax payers aren't penalized by the alternative minimum tax.
Although these are very good provisions, I am very disappointed that we
couldn't provide property tax reform and relief. I will go more in
detail about his issue in my upcoming e-mail.
ENVIRONMENT: We were able to pass a nation leading mercury reduction
bill this year that received broad bi-partisan support. The legislation
calls for the state's three largest coal power plants (Xcel's Sherco and
Allen S. King facilities and Minnesota Power's Clay Boswell facility) by
2014 to lower their mercury emissions by 90 percent. It is estimated
the new regulations will eliminate about 1,200 pounds of mercury from
the environment each year once it is fully implemented. The bill also
contains provisions to encourage reductions in other harmful pollutants
(sulfur dioxide, etc.), and for technical feasibility and cost reviews
of the utilities' compliance plans by state agencies.
PROPERTY TAX RELIEF: As this years legislative session started, I was
optimistic about property tax relief becoming a reality. With a modest
budget surplus and both parties expressing that one of their top
priorities was property tax relief, I really thought we would accomplish
something positive in this area. Unfortunately however, politics and
partisan posturing prevented us from addressing this much needed area.
In the past three years we have seen double digit property tax
increases. These increases are the results of state responsibilities
being passed down to our schools, cities, and counties and also
increasing costs associated with health care and energy. Both the House
and the Senate passed bills aimed at providing property tax relief, but
this is where the similarities ended. The House passed a property tax
rebate plan that would have provided homeowners with a one-time rebate
of 9% on their property taxes. The Senate passed more of a property tax
reform plan that would have offered changes to our property tax system.
The Senate plan was targeted more towards long-term relief, rather than
one-time dollars. The Senate plan called on the state "buying back"
local school property tax levies, and also increasing local government
aid to our cities. Both plans, while well intentioned failed to come
together as a compromise. During the taxes conference committee it
appeared that a consensus could not be reached. This in my mind, is the
biggest disappointment from this years session. Although a compromise
could not be reached, the conference committee was able to offer some
tax relief in the forms of eliminating the marriage penalty and AMT
reform, I discussed these provisions in my earlier e-mail. It should
also be noted, that due to limited revenues, both property tax relief
and the other tax reforms could not have been done together, it was one
or the other.
CONSERVATION FUNDING - "MORE DUCKS AND BIGGER BUCKS": Once again,
dedicated conservation funding failed to pass this year. Again, both
bodies passed dedicated funding for conservation efforts but their
approaches were dramatically different. The House of Representatives
passed a bill that called for dedicating 3/16% of the existing sales tax
to conservation, clean water and the arts. The distribution would have
dedicated 60% of the money to fish and wildlife resources, 30% to clean
water initiatives, 5% for parks and trails, and 5% for the arts. The
Senate version differed from the House by dedicating 3/8% of new sales
tax revenues to the previous stated efforts. The breakup of revenues
would have dedicated 34% to fish and wildlife resources, 22% to parks
and trails, 22% to clean water and 22% to the arts and humanities. A
compromise could not be reached on the merits if the dedicated funding
should come from existing, or new resources.
My opinion of this issue is that there should have been a compromise on
this issue. Ideally, for me, I would have liked to have had 1/4 of a
new sales tax to go primarily to fish and wildlife resources and to
clean water initiatives. Some people would like to argue that this
would be a tax increase by the legislature, but I see this reasoning as
flawed. First and foremost, this debate calls for a constitutional
amendment that would go to the voters in the upcoming election. This
question is up to the voters and would not constitute a increase by the
legislature. Also, with the past budget deficits and cuts, I really
think it would be impractical to use existing sales tax dollars as we
would have to fill in the "hole" in the budget. This "hole" would
prevent us from addressing my top priorities for next year which is
education and property taxes. I really hope that we'll be able to
address this issue next year with more moderation and a greater
commitment to resolving this issue once and for all.
DAIRY INVESTMENT TAX CREDIT: Once again, the dairy investment tax
credit failed in the waning hours of the legislative session. Both
bodies, for the second year in a row passed this bill. The bill would
allow for our dairy farmers to receive a tax credit for the investments
they put into their dairy operation. Since Stearns county is the 16th.
largest dairy county in the country, the largest in our state, and
larger than any county in Wisconsin, this is a very important piece of
legislation for our area and economy. I can't really give you an
analysis of why this once again did not pass as this issue is not a
partisan issue. My best reasoning on this issue is that the conference
committee members for the tax committee consisted mostly of members from
urban and suburban districts. I am confident however that we will soon
pass this legislation through the legislature.
LEGISLATIVE REFORM: After last years "meltdown" in St. Paul, and it
being my first year as a Representative I came to the conclusion that
there needed to be some significant reform in the legislative process.
This year I introduced a 10 item reform agenda that would have, in my
opinion offered more transparency, accountability and compromise in the
legislative process. During this years session, I was very encouraged
that many of my ideas received broad bi-partisan support and
consideration. Among some of my provisions, we were able to advance
three significant proposals.
The proposals that moved forward in the legislature included banning
all per diem payments during special sessions, prohibiting legislation
being attached to larger omnibus bills that didn't pass at least one of
the legislative bodies and requiring time limits on conference
committees to come to a resolution. These three provisions were
included in the House state government finance bill. Unfortunately
however, House leadership pulled this bill from the House floor just
before a vote would have taken place. We debated this bill for over ten
hours and it looked like a vote would take place, but once again, a
select few were able to prevent the entire legislative body to vote on
these issues. Even though this was a disappointment, I was very
encouraged that we were able to get as far as we did this year and that
there was significant public debate on these proposals. I think next
years prospects a very good for legislative reform as there could be
upwards of 30 new legislators in the House due to a large amount of
retirements. I will continue to make real, significant legislative
reform one of my top priorities.
CLEAN WATER LEGACY ACT: This year we were able to pass the clean water
legacy act that included policy and funding provisions. Overall, I
think this is some good progress, but many people felt that we came up
short on this issue. Complete funding for the clean water legacy act,
which is aimed to address the federal clean water act is $40 mil. a
year, but funding for 2007 included only $18.2 mil., but in my mind this
is better than nothing. The funding will be used to address and
mitigate identified impaired waters and also to conduct total maximum
daily load (TMDL) studies to address needed corrections to water runoff
and infiltration to our lakes, rivers and streams. There was also some
concern with some of the policy language involved in the clean water
legacy act that deals with phosphorous credits for run-off, but all
policy provisions can be reviewed, addressed and changed by the
legislature if the bodies choose to do so. Therefore, there were
successes in this area, and also some disappointments, but as I always
say, "baby steps forward are better than staying still."
Representative Larry Hosch
Please see my website for further information - www.house.mn/14B