Minnesota Legislature in 2014: More hits and misses

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 16, 2014 - 6:31 PM

For the most part, Minnesota is once again ‘The state that works.’

Minnesota’s lawmaking season ended last week with a productive flurry. A bonding bill with statewide reach, property tax relief for homeowners and renters of modest means, an overdue pay raise for long-term care providers, longer workplace leaves for new parents, and a spur to better Internet service in Greater Minnesota are headliner accomplishments of the 2014 session’s closing days.

It’s not everything this page had hoped for. But in an era in which gridlock has become the Washington norm and Americans increasingly doubt government’s ability to improve their lives, the 2014 Legislature’s output is reassuring. “The state that works” — Time magazine’s famous 1973 assessment of Minnesota — may not be as apt as it was 40 years ago. But it’s truer today than it was in 2012.

The campaign season begins today. Legislators are heading home, and their leaders are stumping the state to put their partisan spins on two years of lawmaking under DFL control of both the Legislature and the governor’s office. These are the achievements we’d agree are boastworthy and errors and omissions we’d lament:

• Fiscal stability is back. A recovering economy refilled state coffers this year, and legislators, to their credit, did not spend them dry again. About half of a forecast $1.2 billion surplus went to tax relief, both to repeal ill-advised business taxes and to put more money in the hands of low- and middle-income Minnesotans through both income and property tax relief. The state’s reserve fund was enlarged by $150 million, and a mechanism was created to allow it to grow during good times in the future.

But: High income taxes for upper earners remain a competitive drag, and the state sales tax base is still too narrow. DFLers botched a chance to widen that base by insisting on doing so at the expense of businesses. They retreated, halting momentum that had been building for tax reform.

• Minnesota is investing in education again, enough to sustain a tuition freeze for another year at the state’s public colleges and universities, bring all-day kindergarten to all school districts next fall and provide preschool scholarships for 4-year-olds from low-income families. However, the scholarships approved in 2013 were too small to reach the neediest children. A $4.6 million infusion and formula change should fix that problem.

• Low-wage workers will be helped by a minimum-wage increase to $8.50 starting in August and $9.50 by 2016. Those workers are disproportionately female, and they will also gain from the nudge toward pay equity and workplace protections included in the Women’s Economic Security Act. The low-wage home- and community-based caregivers for the elderly and disabled are in for a raise, too, after a near-freeze in pay since 2009.

But: The minimum wage’s steep climb will be disruptive for some businesses. It’s linked to inflation in future years, with the executive branch permitted to freeze the wage when economic storm clouds gather. That’s an untested approach that bears watching for unintended consequences.

• Infrastructure improvements are on the way, courtesy of a bonding bill that clears some of the deferred maintenance backlog that has developed on higher-education campuses. It also acknowledges a state role in providing downtown civic improvements in Minneapolis, St. Paul and regional centers around the state.

But: The state’s most obvious infrastructure deficiency is its crumbling roads, deteriorating bridges and inadequate transit for a growing and aging population. The Legislature directed $87 million in cash to local roads and bridges. But its new spending for state roads will do little more than fill potholes. Unwillingness to develop a long-term transportation upgrade plan is a failure of stewardship.

And: Some $200 million in projects whose costs would ordinarily have been spread over 20 years via bonding will be financed from this fiscal year’s surplus instead. That’s an unnecessary burden on today’s taxpayers, borne so that politicians can claim they held total borrowing for the two-year cycle to an arbitrary $1 billion limit. We hope it’s not a precedent for future years.

• Compassion and justice were served in 2014 in several ways. We applaud the opportunity for chronically and terminally ill Minnesotans to gain access to marijuana derivatives for medicinal purposes, and the lawmakers who would not give up on their bill despite powerful opposition.

It’s good to see the state’s antibullying law strengthened, its nursing licensure background check requirements bolstered, its civil forfeiture law narrowed to allow for loss of property only upon conviction and its gun laws amended to deny guns to people under domestic violence restraining orders. Requiring smartphones to have a “kill switch” so that they can be remotely disabled if lost or stolen puts Minnesota in the lead among states in preventing phone theft. Allowing former offenders a chance to wipe their records clean increases their ability to build law-abiding lives.

But: The Legislature’s unwillingness to end the legal limbo that confines former convicts in the state Sex Offender Program has put the program at risk of being declared unconstitutional — which in turn could put the public at risk. In this case, partisan mistrust trumped responsibility.

There’s enough on each side of the Legislature’s 2014 ledger for candidates to give voters an issue-rich, substantive campaign this summer and fall. Minnesotans shouldn’t settle for anything less.

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