The real work of the Legislature began Thursday as the DFL-controlled Senate and Republican House served up contrasting visions of Minnesota’s future. House Republicans, newly in the majority, offered proposals to cut taxes for business and improve roads and bridges without increasing the cost of fuel at the pump, while Senate Democrats hoped to bookend the current education system with free, broad-based preschool and vocational and community college.
Republicans say that by helping business, they will be helping workers. Democrats say that by preparing Minnesotans for work — including a new proposal from Sen. LeRoy Stumpf for tuition-free, two-year college programs — they will be helping business.
With a potential surplus of $1 billion, both sides are able to lay out their visions without the past decade’s on-and-off fiscal crises.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said that with Minnesota students carrying some of the nation’s highest debt loads, the tuition proposal is needed both to make college more affordable and to better meet employers’ need for skilled workers, particularly in rural areas.
The program, which would be made available through the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, is modeled after one begun in Tennessee recently that is drawing a presidential visit on Friday. President Obama will be in that state to tout the “Tennessee Promise,” which uses lottery money to pay tuition for any high school graduate to attend a two-year public college in the state.
Other Senate DFL proposals include loan forgiveness for new doctors and other health professionals who agree to practice in rural Minnesota; a reform of the child protection system; academic credit for high schoolers who partner with local employers for vocational training better, and free, universal preschool for 4-year-olds.
Republicans, who formally took the House majority this week, said their top proposals include about $250 million of tax cuts for businesses, streamlined environmental permits and more authority for the Legislature to override agency rules it deemed burdensome.
They also plan to tackle teacher seniority, giving merit priority over time on the job when considering layoffs. Gov. Mark Dayton in 2012 vetoed a bill that would have eliminated such teacher-tenure protections. On transportation, the GOP will propose that $200 million of a projected $1 billion surplus go to improving roads and bridges. They say they will devote a total of $750 million over four years for transportation through efficiencies rather than tax increases. That approach contrasts sharply with Dayton, who is proposing $6 billion in new spending during the next 10 years, paid for with a wholesale gas tax and an unspecified increase in license fees.
A GOP bill on MNsure would effectively lower the salary for the executive director at the state’s health insurance exchange, and prevent the MNsure board from providing bonuses to top MNsure managers. The MNsure bill also would seek a waiver from federal rules, so that Minnesotans could obtain federal tax credits when buying coverage in the off-exchange market. Currently, subsidies are limited to individuals who purchase coverage through MNsure.
To improve long-term nursing care, Republicans would expand a program of loan forgiveness for health care professionals and use tax benefits to help people save money for their own long-term care.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the bills, while not sweeping overhauls of current policy, would move the state in a different direction from the previous two years of all-DFL state government.
DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen was dismissive, saying Republicans were squandering the state’s healthy economy and sunny fiscal outlook.
“What I see in the Republican proposals is a waste of that opportunity. It’s giveaways to rich Minnesotans and corporations, and it’s short-term band-aids for things that even they on the campaign trail said we need long-term solutions for,” Thissen said.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, was similarly critical of the Democrats’ proposal for free tuition.
“At this point, we have a lot of questions,” Hann said. In particular, he said the programs lack a means-testing mechanism to ensure they are not abused by higher-income Minnesotans.
In a statement, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone said “we are very encouraged that the Legislature has included higher education in its initial priorities for the 2015 session, as demonstrated by the interest in college tuition relief shown today. The affordability of a college degree is a critical issue that is front and center in our legislative request this year.”
The cost for the bills unveiled Thursday has not yet been determined, but Bakk said they would not call for new sources of revenue to pay for the legislation.
Bakk said Stumpf’s bill and another that would allow high school students to earn credit for vocational training is about “making sure that Minnesotans have the kind of skills that meet the needs of our employers.”
Staff writers Chris Snowbeck and Maura Lerner contributed to this report.