An alliance of green energy, labor and faith groups said Thursday they would mount a campaign to get Minnesota to increase its current renewable energy standard, which requires that at least 15 percent of the energy sold in the state come from renewable resources.
The group, which calls itself the Minnesota Clean Energy and Jobs Campaign, wants that increased to 40 percent by 2030.
“Energy efficiency creates jobs that people can live on,” said Justin Fay, the manager of the campaign. “Construction jobs doing home or business retrofits and designing and manufacturing the components needed to make our buildings more energy efficient all will create good jobs for workers.”
Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, signed the 15-percent renewable standard into law in 2007. It has since become a target for some Republicans who call it an unneeded burden on energy production, and the alliance may have trouble getting support from the House’s new Republican majority.
Still, members of the new coalition said they saw the potential to build bipartisan support, and noted that a number of the state’s most prominent utilities are already exceeding the 15-percent standard.
Top priorities on the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s 2015 legislative wish list include tax relief for small and midsize businesses, rolling back automatic increases in the minimum wage to account for inflation, and adjusting how transportation infrastructure is funded in the state.
The chamber’s policy team on Thursday laid out priorities in five areas, including tax relief, education and workforce development, health care, transportation and labor and management.
Tax Reform: Chamber officials say Minnesota ranks nearly last in a survey of tax-friendly states. Tax relief for small businesses—which employ more than half of Minnesotans in the private sector--could promote economic growth, they say. Eliminating the taxing of “phantom income,” or income that is taxed even if it is reinvested in the business, is a start, said Beth Strinden Kadoun, the Chamber’s director of tax and fiscal policy. Other proposals include reducing Minnesota’s corporate tax rate, which at 9.8 percent is third highest in the nation, and enhancing the state’s research and development tax credit. Although Minnesota was the first state in the nation to pass such a tax credit, the rate has since been surpassed by other states.
Transportation: The Chamber ‘s goals for transportation funding—the likely hallmark issue of the 2015 legislative session, include passing a 10-year funding plan to improve the state’s infrastructure, and funding it through more than fuel taxes, vehicle registration and the motor vehicle sales tax. Bentley Graves, the Chamber’s director of Health & Transportation Policy, said 33 states use money from the general fund to pay for roads and bridges, and that Minnesota should be among them.
“We’re not suggesting that any dedicated sources go away, we’re talking about how to get additional investment in the system,” he said.
Other ideas include “value capture” mechanisms, which would place more of the cost of road construction projects on property owners who would benefit most.
“The idea is to have a very close tie between those who pay and those who benefit, rather than just a blanket approach,” Graves said.
Chamber representatives will argue against a wholesale gas tax increase, but wouldn’t say directly whether they were opposed to a standard gas tax increase.
Labor Management: Increases in the state’s minimum wage should be decided by the Legislature, not set to automatically increase, said Ben Gerber, the chamber’s manager of Energy and Labor/Management Policy. Gerber said Minnesota will be the only state in the upper Midwest
“We see a real problem with setting things on autopilot,” Gerber said. “We elect legislators, we hold elections to put people in office to make these tough decisions, especially on an issue like the minimum wage, that legislators should be making that decision and it shouldn’t be put on an automatic index.”
While the automatic increase doesn’t take effect until 2018, Gerber said the increases could largely impact rural businesses and border communities. Minnesota is the only state in the upper Midwest with indexing and could lose business to neighboring states, he said.
Other targets include exploring ways to reduce the rising costs of the worker’s compensation system.
Education and Workforce: The chamber’s goals include ensuring access to college credit programs for all high-school students, reforming teacher tenure to allow administrators to pick their teams regardless of seniority, reforming struggling charter schools and reducing standardized testing, while requiring basic skills in reading, writing and math for graduation.
Healthcare: In Minnesota, where 80 percent of Chamber members are small businesses with less than 100 employees, the Chamber supports a state-based exchange like MNsure, Graves said. However, the organization backs reforms to increase oversight, seizing upon the expertise of business and health industry experts when governing the system and ensuring employers have as many options as possible.
Read an outline of the Chamber's goals here:
State lawmakers spent more than three hours Friday mulling the economic benefits and privacy pitfalls of unmanned aerial devices, more commonly known as drones, while contemplating how to regulate them, if at all.
From attorneys and civil rights advocates to law enforcement and college professors, witnesses explained to a joint committee of legislators in a fact-finding hearing to learn how the devices work, how they’ve been regulated in other states, and their risks and rewards. Lawmakers left the hearing acknowledging that the information is useful should bills be drafted for the 2015 legislative session as concerns grow about potential high-tech spying.
A pair of University of Minnesota professors testified that they received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to use drones on in research facilities across the state, while Le Sueur County Geographic Information Systems Manager Justin Lutterman said the county was among the first local governments in the nation to get FAA approval to use a drone to map drainage ditches. The device’s high-tech cameras create 3-D mapping, completing in 15 minutes tasks that would ordinarily take a week, and at 16 to 20 times cheaper, he said, leading lawmakers to acknowledge distinct economic benefits to the technology.
Donald Chance Mark, Jr., an Eden Prairie Attorney whose firm specializes in aviation and has researched drone regulations, said the FAA receives 25 reports per month of drones in national airspace. Still, the agency has yet to establish a comprehensive set of laws surrounding drones, suggesting state legislatures take regulating them into their own hands. Twenty states across the country already have passed drone-related legislation.
Still, he said, “I’m not blaming the FAA for lagging behind,” he said. “The proliferation of these is just amazing.”
The FAA currently prohibits commercial use of drones without a specialized permit, yet realtors are using the devices to market or survey property, while drone companies are marketing their wares to farmers at trade shows.
Mark said potential legislation could involve registration of drones and licensing of their operators, pilot training or limiting the size and weight of the devices.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization’s primary concern when it comes to drones is the potential that they could create constant surveillance.
“If we do nothing, there is a chance we could get there,” Stanley said.
So far the organization said it would approve of law enforcement’s use of the drones in emergency situations, but would take a "wait and see" approach on private sector regulation of drones, start first with law enforcement regulation.
Bill Franklin, Executive Director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, said no law enforcement agency in the state owns or uses the devices, and that embracing the technology is likely far down the line.
"We're still trying to get computers and dash cams in all Minnesota squad cars,” Franklin said, but added that they would comply with the law if drones were used to gather evidence in future investigation.
Outgoing Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville, remained skeptical, however, saying law enforcement has challenged data privacy-related policies in the past.
“We don’t want to impede your ability to get the bad guys, but frankly there are some bad guys within your ranks,” Holberg said.
Franklin responded that the organization has remained forthright, and has been and remains willing to negotiate on a number of issues.
Jay Reding, an attorney who owns and operates drones, told lawmakers that regulation requires knowing about drones and how they work. For instance, the skills required to pilot a drone are far different from that of a 737 jetliner. A ban on commercial use of the devices is also mostly ill-advised, he said. Hobbyists can fly drones within certain parameters legally, but if they make as much as $1 doing so, it's prohibited.
“There needs to be a common-sense, risk-based approach,” he said.
A man charged with pulling a gun during a dispute in Montana where Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt was present was found guilty of felony assault last month.
Daniel Benjamin Weinzetl, 25, of Cambridge, pleaded no contest to assault with a weapon in Park County District Court Nov. 17. In exchange for the plea, prosecutors dismissed additional felony charges of aggravated assault and criminal endangerment. A sentencing date has not been scheduled.
Weinzetl was charged in connection with a Sept. 7, 2013 incident after he and Daudt, R-Crown, traveled to Livingston, Mont. to buy a vintage Ford Bronco. Daudt, who was the House Minority Leader at the time, got into an argument with the seller that escalated, according to court records. While Daudt and the seller argued, Weinzetl pulled Daudt’s black handgun from the car and allegedly pointed it at the seller’s "entire family, including the children," documents said. Daudt was not charged in the incident.
The charges came to light in January after a report aired on KSTP-TV. Daudt acknowledged he was present during the incident but said he made every effort to defuse the situation. Daudt said earlier this year that he didn't tell the House Republican caucus about the incident because he wasn't charged with anything.
Daudt, 41, was elected Speaker of the House last month after Republicans regained control of the Minnesota House.
Weinzetl, a construction worker, was found guilty in 2010 of assaulting a police officer and obstructing the legal process after a March 2010 incident in which he punched a man outside his home. When an Isanti County Sheriff’s deputy arrived at the house, Weinzetl shoved and punched the deputy, breaking his glasses and tearing his uniform, according to records.
Minnesota lawmakers and the governor will have a nice cushion with which to craft a budget after the Minnesota Management and Budget Office on Thursday reported the state will see a $1-billion surplus.
The surplus, though expected, will set the table for the start of the upcoming budget process as Minnesota legislators figure out what to do with the windfall.
State budget officials said Thursday that the surplus is the result of higher tax revenues, mainly in sales and individual income tax collections, and reduced spending in health and human services. Moreover, the budget surplus from the 2014-15 fiscal year, which ends in June, was projected Thursday to be $373 million after diverting a portion of it to the state's budget reserve.
Budget officials said the drop in spending on health care is largely because of a different composition of enrollees receiving medical assistance.
State budget director Margaret Kelly on Thursday said that though the number of enrollees in medical assistance grew slightly from a previous forecast, the uptick of enrollees have been largely adults without children. Since that forecast, the rate of familes with children and individuals with disabilities enrolling in medical assistance has also dropped.
Since February, when the Minnesota Management and Budget agency published its last forecast, the state’s economy has expanded largely as projected, aided by stronger employment growth. The job gains have shrunk the unemployment rate to its lowest level in more than eight years — 3.9 percent.
Minnesota's economic outlook, however, was downgraded Thursday from the February report. State economist Laura Kalambokidis said that despite a turnaround in the labor market, wage growth is now projected to grow more slowly in 2014. Furthermore, it's likely that millennials burdened by high student-loan debt are not buying homes, which is reducing the rate of household formation.
Still, the budget forecast shows that the the state's fiscal picture has brightened considerably since February 2013, the last time the state faced a deficit, which stood then at $627 million.
Thursday’s forecast will guide the governor’s budget proposal, which Dayton has said he will present to the Legislature on Jan. 27. State lawmakers will craft their budget proposals based on a later February forecast, which includes updated economic data such as holiday retail sales and the country's fourth-quarter economic output.
Gov. Dayton has not yet gone into great detail on his priorities, but they are likely to include a request to fund child-care tax credits during next the next legislative session, set to begin next month.
“I’m not going to make any decisions until I see the revenue projections, but that’s still one I would give a high priority,” Dayton said Tuesday.
The tax credit would be intended to help families afford the cost of child care — a goal also supported by DFL legislators. The governor’s budget proposal may include funding requests for transportation, or a specific proposal may be introduced separately early next year. Dayton said during his re-election campaign that funding basic maintenance of the state’s infrastructure will be a key legislative priority.
The $1-billion surplus will likely make for a smoother session. Republicans are back in the majority in the House, but having extra money to work with would help the GOP, the DFL governor and DFL-controlled Senate create some common ground for compromise.
Dayton and legislative leaders on Thursday are expected to react to the complete report that was released at 11 a.m.
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