A coalition of bipartisan Senate lawmakers said Wednesday that their key priorities for the 2015 legislative session will include education, transportation and child protection reform.

The 23 nearly evenly-divided Senators, dubbed the “Purple Caucus” first formed in 2013 under the leadership of Sens. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, and Jeremy Miller, R-Winona. The caucus has met on a regular basis during the session to bring ideas and specific bills forward for discussion in a casual environment, and this week marked the first time they came forward with their goals for the session.

“We acknowledge that it’s conflict and strife that makes headlines,” Reinert said. “But what the caucus has done over the last few years is significant.”

Reinert said the Caucus isn’t out to support a specific bill, rather than to back initiatives in general—although some bills behind the initiatives are already moving through the Legislature.

The goals include:

Transportation: The caucus is advocating for core infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, while branching into other areas including airports and transit—although there are no specific initiatives the caucus is backing just yet. Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, however, advocated for using part of the state’s budget surplus to begin the overhaul.

“With a surplus of almost $2 billion--not that that is the entirety of the financial solution for transportation--but when you start thinking about the backlog of bridge and road repair projects that we have in this state, there is an opportunity for us if we prioritize our needs, to provide a jump start to that repair. “ he said. Weber added that he wants to ensure there is fairness in funding between the metro and outstate Minnesota.

There is no specific bill the Purple Caucus is ready to back at this point as negotiations continue. Reinert said the Purple Caucus does not back Weber’s stance.

“What I would point to in Sen. Weber’s comments is there is a lot of shared agreement in the caucus that we have to do something moving forward,” and that a per-gallon gas tax isn’t the answer.

Education: The caucus wants an increase in the per-pupil funding formula for K-12 schools, while doing away with unfunded mandates.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, called education “the moral, economic and racial issue of our day.” And said the Legislature must work to close the state’s achievement gap—the largest in the nation. Nelson said the Purple Caucus backs legislation directing a 3 percent increase in per-pupil funding “without strings,” meaning school districts can use that money to best serve the students in their district.

“Local school boards and leaders in the communities best know what the challenges are and what the barriers are, and also what the solutions are for those. This money is allowing those school districts to determine what is the best way to prepare our kids for college and career.”

Nelson said another piece of legislation exempts school districts from new unfunded mandates.

Child Protection: The first of a number of expected bills reforming the state’s child protection laws is expected to be debated on the Senate floor Thursday after having passed the House. The multi-pronged legislation is the result of a Child Protection Task Force that included lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and more initiatives are expected at the end of next week.

Miller said while they may not agree on everythign, it’s refreshing that the Purple Caucus members can hash out ideas “without the bickering and finger pointing.”

“It really is a platform for members to get together and focus on areas where we agree rather than on areas where we disagree,” he said. “In politics today there’s too much focus on areas of disagreement and not on areas of agreement.”

Photo: Left to right: Purple Caucus members Sens. Julie Rosen, Jeremy Miller, Carla Nelson, Roger Reinert, Susan Kent and Bill Weber.

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