Republicans leading the Minnesota House have established a new legislative subcommittee that's charged with delivering oversight of the Metropolitan Council, a municipal body with wide jurisdiction in the Twin Cities area that has frequently been the target of Republican criticism.
The new Subcommittee on Metropolitan Council Accountability and Transparency will be chaired by Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines. Last October, Runbeck called the council an "unelected, unaccountable board" that's "not responsible to any authority but its own."
The Met Council is comprised of gubernatorial appointees from districts throughout the seven-county metro area, and which has a hand in setting transportation, land-use and wastewater policies and programs. The agency has been a major player in the construction of light rail lines, including the current push to develop the new Southwest line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.
"We are forming this subcommittee to hold the Met Council accountable and ensure they are meeting the needs of people in the metro area," Speaker Kurt Daudt said. "This unelected board has grown more powerful over the decades, and legislators want to ensure that the Met Council is listening to the needs of all its constituents both in the cities and suburbs, providing the services for which they were given authority."
The panel will be comprised of seven members, four Republicans and three Democrats who all hail from areas covered by the Met Council.
Recently, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Adam Duininck, a Met Council member and DFL political operative, to be the council's new chairman. A separate legislative proposal recently introduced by Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, would give communities under Met Council jurisdiction more involvement in the process of approving Met Council members. Similar proposals are likely to be considered by the new House committee.
Duininck said Wednesday that House Republicans let him know the new subcommittee was in the works. He said he was open to discussions about boosting Met Council accountability, but also warned that an entity like the council, by its nature, is often a target of criticism.
"I would just say there is oftentimes tension between local governments and a regional planning body," Duininck said.
A draft opinion from a key state board finds no conflict of interest on the part of Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, who recently took a job with a group that lobbies the Legislature.
The draft opinion of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board can be seen here. (Beginning page 61.)
Republicans had accused Tomassoni of a conflict of interest after taking a job with the Range Association of Municipalities and Schools, an Iron Range group that lobbies the Legislature for state funds. Tomassoni has said he won't begin as executive director until after this legislative session, will take a leave-of-absence during future legislative sessions, and will not lobby his colleagues on RAMS issues.
A letter from the board summarizing the opinion reads, in part: "A conflict of interest occurs from a specific decision or action that meets certain criteria. A conflict of interest is not created by a legislator’s employment or occupation. As drafted this opinion is consistent with prior advisory opinions issued to members of the Legislature on this subject."
Republican leaders of the Minnesota Legislature gave a chilly reception to the budget proposal that Gov. Mark Dayton released Tuesday, arguing that it spends too big over the next two years and doesn't go far enough in setting priorities for state government.
"He is spending every penny of this," House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said of the state's current $1 billion budget surplus. "We are also a little disappointed in the lack of returning some of the money back to Minnesotans."
The budget blueprint that Dayton submitted to legislators Tuesday calls for a total of $42 billion in state spending for the two years that start on July 1. Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, pointed out that the size of the two-year budget was $34 billion when Dayton took office.
"That is a big increase in spending," Hann said.
By far the largest share of spending boosts in the Dayton proposal would go to schools, both an increase in per-pupil payments to schools, and specific increases in programs that target early learning. Republicans criticized that approach, saying education programs demand "reforms" aimed at increasing student performance.
"It spends more money doing the same things we've done the last 15 to 20 years, and we have not seen any results so far, and somehow we're expected to believe that's going to improve education and make it excellent?" Hann said.
Daudt did say he supported Dayton's proposal to boost spending for early reading programs. But he said he was disappointed Dayton did not propose additional state money for nursing homes, which has been a high priority for the new House Republican majority.
The only major piece of tax relief in Dayton's proposal is a $100 million child care tax credit. Republicans said they were open to that, although Daudt said Dayton's proposed income ceiling of $124,000 might be too high. "I'm not sure that's the kind of folks that need that kind of tax relief," Daudt said.
Republicans were not forthcoming with details of their own budget priorities. Daudt said Republicans would not start assembling budget bills until after the next state economic forecast, in late February. He also said Republicans were not yet ready to say how much under $42 billion the next budget should be.
Gov. Mark Dayton has prioritized spending millions more on education, particularly on early childhood education and efforts to tackle the state's achievement gap between white and minority students.
Dayton unveiled his $42 billion budget proposal Tuesday, offering lawmakers his wishlist of spending priorities for the next two years. The spending plan proposed by the DFL governor will set the framework for budget negotiations during the legislative session.
The $42-billion budget proposal for the upcoming biennium 19.4 percent more than what was spent during the 2012-13 biennium, the first two-year budget under Dayton.
Dayton, who is serving his second and final term, is working with a projected $1-billion surplus that allowed him some financial cushion in setting his agenda for state spending.
Education and human services comprised the largest parts of the budget aimed at children, with increases of $373 million and $44 million respectively.
The governor has made education a priority during his second term and his budget showed a boost in spending intended to reduce the achievement gap.
To that end, Dayton is requesting the Legislature increase the per-pupil spending formula to $5,948 by 2017 to give local school districts additional resources to reduce classroom sizes, hire more counselors and invest in technology.
Additionally, the budget would also eliminate the Head Start waiting list, provide support for at-risk children ages 0-8 and offer free breakfast for all students in pre-kindergarten up to third grade. Currently, about 2,500 children are on the waiting list for Head Start and an estimated 83,000 students would be eligible for free breakfast, according to the governor's office.
Higher education was not neglected in the proposed budget, which is slated to received $93 million under Dayton's plan. Part of that would in part go toward holding down tuition costs, an effort to curb the growth of student-loan debt. A fact sheet distributed by the governor's office estimates students would save between $600 and $700 yearly on tuition.
With his eye on boosting the national prominence of the University of Minnesota Medical School, Dayton's $93-million higher education request includes $30 million to hire 50 research faculty members over the next eight years and attract high-caliber students.
Dayton's budget proposal also includes $100 million for child-care and caregiver tax credits. Households earning up to $124,000 would be eligible for the credit, which would give direct tax relief averaging $481 per family to about 130,000 families statewide. The credit also would apply to dependent care for the disabled and elderly.
The budget proposal also reduces funding for the Park Board by $3.7 over those years -- or $1.8 million a year. Read reporter Eric Roper's deeper look at that proposed cut here.
The governor has also asked for $30 million to expand broadband internet access in rural Minnesota. An estimated 450,000 households lack access to internet at state speed goals, according to an estimate from the governor's office.
The Minnesota Management and Budget Office will release another budget and economic forecast in late February or early March that state lawmakers will work with to craft their own budget proposal.
Follow Hot Dish Politics as we bring you more details on the full budget proposal.
The key lawmakers behind the state’s push to legalize Sunday liquor sales unveiled their latest attempt to repealing the state’s 80-year-old ban, saying overwhelming public demand could bring success in 2015.
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, said this year's bill is simple and straightforward. It’s a change from a spectrum of bills offered by the duo two years ago, which included giving communities the opportunity to opt in or out of Sunday sales. They went nowhere, so Reinert said the focus remains on a full repeal. It’s likely the shortest bill he’ll author this session, he said.
Both Loon and Reinert have been vocally optimistic about this year’s chances to make Sunday sales a reality, with the support of House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Gov. Mark Dayton, who said he would sign the bill. However, Dayton made clear Thursday that pushing Sunday liquor sales legislation was "not a high priority."
"I think to say you can have all the shopping you want on Sundays except for alcohol and automobiles just doesn’t fit the modern era," he said. Still, "It’s not something I’m going to expend a lot of political capital on".
Loon’s bill, one of many filed this session, has 20 co-authors from both parties. In a state where 75 percent of residents live within 30 miles of a neighboring state where Sunday sales are legal, they say it’s time for special interests to listen to overwhelming public demand.
“There are certain powerful forces on the other side of this. What is on the pro side of this is the people of Minnesota,” Reinert said. “Here we are in a state that in the last couple of years has made marriage equality law, has dealt with the issue of medical marijuana, but somehow liquor sales on Sunday is too much? That’s a bridge too far?
The effort continues to face staunch opposition from the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association, who argue Sunday sales will simply spread six days of sales over seven days, resulting in higher overhead costs without the profit. But Loon and Reinert were flanked by four local liquor store owners who say being forced to close on Sunday cuts into their profits.
Louis Dachis, owner four Merwin Liquors locations in Minneapolis and Ace Spirits, a boutique liquor store in Hopkins, said a typical Saturday generates twice the amount of sales of a weekday. He expects Sunday to be the same. At his smaller store, he would likely cut hours on a slower weekday, such as Tuesday, to make up for the cost of being open on Sunday. No matter what, it should be up to him, he said.
“What we’re asking for is the opportunity to make those business choices and to better serve our customers and improve our business.”
David Hansen runs Hansen’s Liquor in Stillwater, “just a stone’s throw” from the Wisconsin border, where Sunday sales are legal.
“I am literally right on the border of Wisconsin,” he said. “This could literally mean the difference between success and failure for my store.
Mick O’Connell, owner of Booze Mart in St. Paul, said he pays the rent on Sundays, as well as the electricity bill to keep the coolers running and the beer cold.
Each month, he said, “You’re taking away four days that I can’t sell liquor. Literally 14 percent of the year, I can’t make a dime off my business.”
Tamra Kramer owns Vom Fass, a specialty liquor store in the Mall of America. Her customers want it, she would generate an additional $50,000-100,000 in profits annually.
Loon said the first step is attempting to get a hearing, so the bill might gain traction. They anticipate roadblocks in the DFL-controlled Senate, who blocked last year’s bid to allow the Sunday sales of “Growlers,” or refillable glass beer containers from taprooms, after concerns from the Teamsters union that they may have to work Sundays. Loon said she’s open to accommodating them by amending the bill, and is open to listening to other concerns.
“I will say publicly I am happy to put language in the bill that would make the Teamsters comfortable,” Loon said. “As I understand it, their concern is their members working on weekends to make deliveries. I know that liquor store owners can manage their inventory and operate in a way that would not be necessary. I am happy to write into the language of the bill that they would not be required to make deliveries on the weekend. If the Teamsters are listening, please come and see me.”
Photo: Tamra Kramer, Owner of Vom Fass, a specialty liquor store at the Mall of America advocates for Sunday liquor sales. Behind her are the bill's key legislative sponsors, Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, and Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie
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