The 2014-15 Minnesota budget is set — or it will be when Gov. Mark Dayton affixes his signature to the last of the 10 omnibus tax and spending bills approved by 2013 Legislature before its regular session expired at 12 a.m. May 21.
This fiscal blueprint is the 21st to be enacted since the Legislature switched to every-year sessions 40 years ago. After some of those exhaustive (and exhausting) exercises, a short agenda remained for the nonbudget session in the following year. At times, governors, legislative leaders and even this newspaper have questioned the need for an even-year session.
This is not one of those years. Even if the budget stays set between now and the resumption of lawmaking on Feb. 25, a heavy workload awaits legislators in 2014. It does, that is, if legislators are serious about seeking to improve Minnesota’s quality of life. Our to-do list includes these items:
• Bonding: This traditional work of the even-year session is uncommonly urgent in 2014. Low interest rates — the residue of the Great Recession — won’t last forever; construction costs are already climbing. But the last several Legislatures have acted as if they were oblivious to the discount the recession offered.
The bonding bill enacted last week totaled $176 million — meager as these things go — and was dominated by the State Capitol’s need for $109 million for the next phase of its renovation. Left undone is a long list of projects badly needed to create affordable shelter for the homeless, repair unsafe bridges, prevent future floods and water pollution, enhance civic life in regional centers, improve educational quality on college campuses and ease crowding in correctional facilities.
Much of the work required to assemble a bonding package was done this year in the House. What was lacking were enough Republican minority votes to achieve the 60 percent majority that bonding requires. Minnesotans who care about items on the bonding list have work to do in the next nine months to round up more GOP support.
• Transportation: Advocates for a boost in both highway and transit funding encountered an unexpected roadblock this year in the governor’s office. Dayton asked eager legislators to put on the brakes until his administration had time to consult with the public and assemble a comprehensive package that would serve the whole state and enjoy more political buy-in than it would have today.
We admire Dayton’s desire to secure Minnesotans’ backing. But we hope he doesn’t take too long. Minnesota’s transportation needs are growing fast. Unsafe state highways — Hwys. 14 and 52 spring immediately to mind — are taking a painful toll. An aging population needs better transit service to keep contributing to society. And for a number of good reasons, including environmental protection, Minnesotans need more mobility options that don’t involve driving.
There will be political temptation to put this issue off until after the 2014 election. But as with bonding, delay only means taxpayers will eventually spend more.
• Tax policy: By setting an April 2014 effective date for a new sales tax on warehousing and commercial equipment repair services, the Legislature gave itself an opportunity to review and — we hope — undo a flawed policy. These new taxes on business inputs hammer Minnesota-based providers of those services while hiding new taxes in the cost of other goods and services. Work should begin now to find an alternative source of the $250 million these new taxes would raise.
• Minimum wage: It’s puzzling that a DFL-controlled Legislature was unable to reach agreement on an increase. Surely a modest increase would have been better than none at all and another year stuck at the federal $7.25-an-hour minimum. But the gap between the House’s bid for a $9.50-an-hour wage floor and the Senate’s preferred $7.75-an-hour level proved too wide to bridge.
Both employers and workers would fare better if lawmakers made frequent small, predictable adjustments in the minimum wage rather than one big leap every decade. We’d like to see a modest increase enacted in 2014, accompanied by a solid promise to revisit the issue two years hence.
• Bullying: Time ran out for debate in the Senate on a bill with the potential to be a life-changer and a life-saver for some young Minnesotans. It would flesh out the state’s bare-bones law requiring school districts to establish antibullying policies. The proposed new statute would define bullying — an essential element missing from the existing statute — and require that schools report incidents of student harassment and intimidation. Each district would need to create a plan that includes training both school staff and students to prevent bullying.
Republicans are resisting this bill with an argument that it interferes with local control and potentially with freedom of speech. That suggests they see bullying as a cultural matter. We don’t. It’s about public safety and the wholesome upbringing of children, matters in which the state has a clear and longstanding interest.
• Sex offenders program: One of the Senate’s finest moments in 2013 was its bipartisan 44-21 vote on May 14 for reform of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. It’s in the cross hairs of the federal courts for locking up convicted offenders indefinitely under the guise of treatment after they have served their prison time. A federal judge said last year that Minnesota should either come up with more legitimate treatment that offered some chance of eventual release, or expect that the court will declare the existing program unconstitutional, and end it.
The Senate’s well-crafted response to the federal court’s challenge was sent to the House, where it was parked in the Rules Committee. We hope House members muster a greater sense of responsibility —and more courage — on this issue next year.
• Gun control: Legislators may think that with the Newtown school shooting receding in the national rear-view mirror, Minnesotans’ interest has waned in better efforts to keep guns out of the hands of people with histories of violent behavior. Ours has not, and we don’t think we are alone. We’re well aware of the political and constitutional sensitivity of the gun issue. But it would be a shame — and a failure of leadership — if it took another horrific shooting closer to home before legislators act. At a minimum, legislation requiring more background checks for gun buyers belongs on the 2014 Legislature’s agenda.