With an insider’s eye, Hot Dish tracks the tastiest bits of Minnesota’s political scene and keep you up-to-date on those elected to serve you.

Contributors in Minnesota: Patrick Condon, J. Patrick Coolican, Patricia Lopez, Ricardo Lopez, Abby Simons, and Glen Stubbe. Contributors in D.C.: Allison Sherry, Jim Spencer and intern Beena Raghavendran.

Posts about Minnesota state senators

Talk of sports subsidies swirls at Capitol

Posted by: Patrick Condon Updated: March 25, 2015 - 2:50 PM

Even as Gov. Mark Dayton and top state lawmakers vow no state money to help build a new Minneapolis stadium for the Major League Soccer franchise announced Wednesday, leaders of the House and Senate are preparing to mount a push to approve Super Bowl-related tax breaks requested by the NFL. 

Minneapolis is hosting the 2018 Super Bowl. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said Wednesday that last year, he and the other three top legislative leaders signed a letter to the NFL promising their best effort to secure Super Bowl-related tax breaks that several previous host cities extended. 

The letter was requested by leaders of Minnesota's Super Bowl host committee and was included in their ultimately successful bid package to the NFL, Bakk said. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader David Hann confirmed this account. 

"We had an agreement we would help them try to figure out how to do this," Daudt said. 

Bakk said he met a month ago with Ecolab CEO Doug Baker, a leader of the host committee. Baker told him the NFL was requesting $2.8 million in tax breaks over Super Bowl weekend, specifically in exemptions to taxes on hotel occupancy, sales taxes on NFL events and the state income taxes that team players, coaches and owners competing in the big game would normally be subject to. 

"We didn't absolutely commit, but I do feel the four of us felt like now that we've got it, it wouldn't be fair not to follow through," Bakk said. He said recent Super Bowl hosts Indianapolis and New Orleans extended similar tax breaks. 

Bakk said he and Daudt agree to try to find room for the provision in this year's catch-all tax bill. Daudt said even though the cost to the state is relatively small, he expects the issue to be controversial. 

"If we can find a way to make that work and a way to pay for it, I'm happy to look at it," Daudt said. "Obviously it's going to require some discussion." 

Dayton said Wednesday he is not in on discussions between Bakk, Daudt and the host group, though he previously had made public appearances with members of the group to tout Minnesota's bid.

"I believe that having to pay the income taxes of millionaire players and multimillionaire owners is excessive," Dayton said, openly questioning whether the provision could find sufficient support in the Legislature. Dayton said he likely wouldn't veto such a provision, but also said he would not promote it. 

Details of the Super Bowl tax breaks emerged even as an official announcement came down Wednesday from Major League Soccer that it awarded a Minnesota franchise to an ownership group led by another Minnesota business titan, former UnitedHealth CEO Bill McGuire. That bid has been linked to the ongoing construction of the new football stadium, since that facility has been designed to potentiall accomodate professional soccer. 

Despite that, McGuire's group is mulling a new stadium on the other side of downtown. Under the state's stadium agreement with the Vikings, team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf would have exclusive ownership rights to any soccer team that played in the Vikings stadium for the first five years. 

Bakk, Daudt and Dayton have all said they do not support state subsidies for a separate soccer stadium. That has led to suggestions of pressure from the Vikings, but Bakk said that's not the case. 

"We're building a stadium that can be used for soccer. We're not going to build a second one," Bakk said, adding he thinks that would be hugely unpopular with voters.

Bakk noted that the Vikings won't own the new stadium, and suggested McGuire's group could play in a temporary spot for five years before relocating to the Vikings stadium. 

GOP lawmakers tout $7B, 10-year road and bridge plan with no gas tax hike

Posted by: Patrick Condon Updated: March 23, 2015 - 12:38 PM

Republican leaders of the Minnesota Legislature said Monday they have a plan to raise $7 billion over the next decade, without raising the gas tax, to pay for repairs to roads and bridges. 

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other GOP lawmakers unveiled their proposal at a State Capitol press conference. It's a counterpoint to earlier, 10-year transportation proposals from Gov. Mark Dayton and Senate Democrats, who both favor a larger, $11 billion roads-and-transit plan funded with a new wholesale gas tax to accompany the existing per-gallon tax, higher license tab fees and a Twin Cities sales tax increase for transit projects. 

"We think this is what Minnesotans have been asking for," Daudt said. "They've been telling us they want an investment in our road and bridge infrastructure, and they don't want a gas tax increase."

The Republican proposal creates what its backers dubbed the "Transportation Stability Fund." It would re- direct to roads and bridge projects a series of existing vehicle-related sales taxes that currenty feed the state's general treasury. Those include a sales tax on auto parts, a sales tax on rental vehicles, and a sales tax on vehicle leasing. 

"If you ask Minnesotans if the money they spend on cars should be used on roads and bridges, the answer would be yes," said Sen. John Pederson, R-St. Cloud, the lead Senate Republican on transportation. 

Between them, those existing sources would raise $3 billion over a decade for immediate repairs to roads and bridges, and highway improvements in economically strategic areas. Other major sources of funding in the GOP proposal are $1.3 billion from highway bonds, $1 billion in general bonding, $1.2 billion from "realigning resources" at the Minnesota Department of Transportation and $228 million from the projected $1.9 billion state budget surplus. 

By proposing to shift existing sales taxes from the general fund, and skimming a portion of the surplus for roads, Republicans set the terms of a coming clash with Dayton and Senate DFLers. Leading Democrats including the governor have said they oppose taking money out of the general fund for transportation, arguing it leaves less money for schools and other state priorities. 

Daudt said the sheer size fo the nearly $2 billion surplus leaves lawmakers room to shift some toward roads and bridges without shorting other priorities. 

The GOP proposal also includes far less money for transit projects than what Dayton and many DFL lawmakers have sought. While the proposed metro sales tax hike in several DFL proposals would raise hundreds of millions in new, annual transit funds, the GOP plan directs a total of $64 million to transit statewide over the next two years. That would be split equally between transit in the metro area and outstate Minnesota, meaning just $16 million yearly for Twin Cities projects. 


Dayton pitches preschool money in classroom visit

Posted by: Patrick Condon Updated: March 20, 2015 - 10:50 AM

Crouching and sitting on a classroom floor, Gov. Mark Dayton mingled with four-year-olds Friday as he made a pitch for a hefty state spending increase for universal access to preschool in Minnesota. 

"You look like you're 65," observed one little boy. "Close. I'm 68," said Dayton, who interacted with kids for about 20 minutes as they sat in a group and later worked on iPads.

Dayton wants lawmakers to approve $348 million in new state spending so that every public school in the state could provide such classes. It's the biggest single general fund spending increase Dayton has proposed this year, and comprises about a fifth of the state's projected $1.9 billion budget surplus. 

The group of about 15 children in the pre-kindergarten class at Newport Elementary School were well-behaved despite an unusually large crowd of adults accompanying the governor -- aides and security, area state legislators, school district officials and reporters. Their teachers later said the good showing by the kids was a testament to the benefits of early learning. 

"We notice a huge difference between students who do pre-K and those who don't," said Brittany Vasecka, a pre-kindergarten teacher at the school. The classes are half-day and run five days a week. 

In all, 80 percent of students in the South Washington County district attend pre-kindergarten classes, district officials said. Under Dayton's proposal, both districts that already provide pre-kindergarten classes and those that don't would both be recipients of the money. 

"I don't think we should penalize the school districts that have made this commitment," Dayton said. 

But some education advocacy groups have jumped on that lack of a distinction. On Thursday, a business-backed nonprofit called Parent Aware for School Readiness released an analysis contending that about 70,000 low-income kids between birth and age 3 could have access to needed early learning programs if about $100 million less were to be spent on the universal preschool initiative.

In a news release, the group said that districts with high numbers of "wealthier families whose children are already likely to be ready for kindergarten" don't need the funding Dayton's proposal would provide. 

“That ought to be focused on younger children from low income families,” said Ericca Maas, executive director of the group. 

If Dayton and lawmakers were to make preschool access universal to four-year-olds, Maas said, “then next year all of us advocates will be back here saying, ‘what about the three-year-olds.’”

Dayton said he’d be open to more funding for even earlier learning programs. But he said diverting some money away from universal preschool access would run the risk of “pitting four-year-olds against three- and two-year-olds,” Dayton said. 

The DFL governor's preschool initiative is of a similiar character to one of his most-touted successes of his first term, when he and the DFL-led Legislature approved funding for universal all-day kindergarten. Dayton mentioned that success frequently during his successful re-election campaign last year. 

This year, Dayton must navigate the proposal through a GOP-led House, which has different priorities for both the budget surplus and in state management of schools. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other Republicans, while calling universal preschool a worthy goal, have also suggested some means testing might be needed.

House again takes up doing away with 'legislative immunity,' but it's likely to stall in the Senate

Posted by: Abby Simons Updated: March 18, 2015 - 2:11 PM

A Minnesota House panel signed off on clarifying that a long-standing provision that would give lawmakers immunity from arrest during the legislative session is not the equivalent of a “Get out of jail free” card.

For the second year in a row, lawmakers are considering rewording the provision, which has been the source of debate and controversy at the Capitol because some believe it could extend to drunken driving. A bill to do away with its privilege cleared the Minnesota House last year, but the Senate has did not address the issue, and is unlikely to do so again this year.

On Wednesday, the Minnesota House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee approved the bill, sending it to the House floor. But even if it passes, its sponsor, Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, acknowledged that Senate Judiciary Chair Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, was reluctant to take up a measure he viewed as redundant. Winkler said his bill’s likely only shot at landing on the Senate floor is in the form of an amendment to another bill.

“I think the issue is when it comes up for a vote, it’s challenging for legislators to vote against this for pretty obvious reasons,” Winkler said. “So the path is to get some kind of vote in the Senate so they have a choice between moving this forward and being on public record against this.”

Latz confirmed Wednesday that he has no intention of taking up the bill, and said the term “legislative immunity” is a misnomer.

“There is no legislative immunity for criminal conduct under current law, thus there is no legal or statutory problem to solve,” he said. “There is also no confusion by anyone: cops know, prosecutors know, legislators know there is no immunity.”

 Latz pointed out Former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie stopped printing the cards last summer, and his successor, Steve Simon, also will no longer print the cards. The current cards expired in January.

“There are no actual incidents in modern times of anyone in Minnesota trying to use this clause to get out of anything,” Latz said. “Thus, there is no actual problem to solve. There is nothing of substance for the Legislature to do here.”

Last year, Latz, asked Attorney General Lori Swanson to clarify what the law means. Swanson replied that as it applies to modern cases, would not get legislators out of an arrest for DWI or any other crime. However, she said that clarifying the statute would be “helpful and beneficial.”

Latz was doubtful, writing last year that  “I’m not convinced putting something in law twice will actually resolve any misunderstanding of current law,”

The card given to legislators says that under Article 4, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution, lawmakers “in all cases except treason, felony and breach of the peace, shall be privileged from arrest” while the Legislature is in session. Political science students at Concordia University St. Paul have reprised efforts to make it clear that such immunity does not extend to drunken driving or other crimes.

The provision was authored to prevent the detention of lawmakers in order to keep them from voting. Winkler’s bill would direct police who arrest lawmakers for drunken driving to bring them to their respective bodies without delay if their presence is necessary.

Before the Public Safety Committee unanimously approved the bill, Public Safety Chair Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said that regardless of whether anyone is arrested, it’s important to show the public that lawmakers should be held accountable.

“I think it stinks just to have this language, it’s embarrassing and we should get rid of it,” He said.

“Hopefully,” Cornish added, “They have the courage in the Senate to take this up.”

Photo: Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, and Concordia College students present the bill to the House Public Safety Committee.

No vote by Senate education committee on teacher seniority bills but plenty of debate

Posted by: Ricardo Lopez Updated: March 12, 2015 - 2:03 PM

The Senate Education Committee on Thursday spent nearly three hours debating two measures, one already approved by the GOP-led House, that would require school districts consider performance, not only seniority, when forced to lay off teachers because of budget cuts. 

Over the course of the debate, parents, school board members, superintendents and even a neuroscience expert brought in by Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, gave lively testimony on the two pieces of legislation. 

Education Minnesota, which represents 70,000 teachers in the state, has vigorously opposed the legislation, arguing that it would undermine a recently implemented teacher evaluation law. The union's chief criticism is that it would kill collaboration among teachers and instead pit them against one another since peer reviews are a component of teacher evaluation requirements.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, sponsor of one the bills, is the only DFL legislator this session to support revising seniority rules for teachers, putting her at odds with most of the DFL party, which has argued against the proposed legislation.

Bonoff said she rejected that notion and said that teachers are more professional than that. She argued that most of school districts' teacher evaluations plans were designed with teacher input.

"This is not about keeping young people over old people," Bonoff said. It's about "serving students to the best of our ability...this issue is a matter of civil rights."

Josh Davis, a researcher with the NeuroLeadership Institute based in New York, testified that evaluation systems with rankings hurt morale and that teachers with low ratings would be distracted from their jobs.

"When there's any kind of threat [low evaluation rating] to our status... it's very hard to concentrate," he told the committee.

After debate ended, Senate Education Committee Chair Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, said the bills would be laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus education bill. Bonoff said she hopes to include the legislation in final negotiations toward the end of the legislative session. 

For more testimony from this morning's hearing, check out the Star Tribune's live blog from the hearing here.

House File 2, which passed the lower legislative chamber on a 70-63 vote last week, would also would also make it easier for out-of-state teachers to become licensed in Minnesota, a process critics say is currently too cumbersome and requires the help of a lawyer to navigate.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, would require the state’s Board of Teaching to allow educators from neighboring states to transfer their license to Minnesota. The measure's sponsor in the House was Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie.


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