State-backed construction projects, amendments and minimum wage are on tap, as Republicans press for tax relief.
DFL leaders in the Minnesota Legislature want to pass nearly $1 billion in new building projects next year, promise to snuff out inefficiencies in state government and pledge to increase the minimum wage — an issue that caused a deep party rift during the 2013 session.
“We’ll need to resolve our differences on that issue, and I expect we will be able to deal with that,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
Bakk and House Speaker Paul Thissen laid out their plans for the next legislative session Thursday at the DFL booth at the Minnesota State Fair. Democrats face high stakes during the coming session — the last before voters decide whether to continue with one-party control in the Legislature.
Republicans, meanwhile, intensified their criticism of Democrats’ plan to raise the minimum wage, which they say might bump up wages for a few but will push other Minnesotans out of work as companies adjust to the higher employee costs.
“We believe that lower- and middle-income Minnesotans aren’t making enough money,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “The solution is more, better-paying jobs. Raising the minimum wage means fewer jobs, and it’s the wrong direction.”
The exchange of views Thursday gave a preview of conflicting priorities that could dominate the 2014 session.
Bakk and Thissen said they expect to approve about $850 million in borrowing for statewide building projects, mostly wastewater treatment facilities and other infrastructure.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann said in an interview that he wants lawmakers to repeal about $300 million in new, much-criticized business sales taxes DFLers passed earlier this year.
“We think that should be a priority,” said Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
Democrats said tax relief could be tough next year. The state still owes its school districts $411 million borrowed to balance the state budget in past years. State law requires that any surplus first go to repay school debt.
Bakk and Thissen said they also expect lawmakers to wrestle with at least a couple of proposed constitutional amendments.
One nearly certain to come up would make it harder to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. Current law requires only a simple majority of legislators to place a measure before voters. Under one likely proposal, the Legislature would need 60 percent of the members in both chambers.
In recent years, several proposed constitutional changes — like the amendment to ban same-sex marriage and the sales tax to pay for arts and outdoor opportunities — have been highly partisan, barely squeaking onto the ballot. “Amending the Constitution should be hard,” Bakk said.
“I don’t see that there is a need for the change,” Daudt said. “Ultimately it is up to Minnesotans to decide whether they like an amendment, and I trust the will of Minnesota voters.”
Bakk said another proposal could surface asking voters to amend the Constitution so the state’s gas tax would automatically rise with inflation. Hann said using the Constitution to put tax increases on autopilot is bad fiscal policy.
Fairgoers who slipped in to hear Thissen and Bakk pressed the DFLers on an array of issues, including a new tax on agriculture equipment repair.
“All I see are taxes coming at us,” said David Werner, a farmer from Montevideo, Minn. “How can we say the DFL is representing us when they are slapping taxes on the ag-related program they never taxed before?”
Thissen said lawmakers took a big step to cutting property taxes for farmers, which should reduce or eliminate the sting from the repairs tax.
Democrats contend that property taxes soared due to massive cuts in state aid to cities and counties during the eight years of GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “I am pretty proud of the fact that we bent the curve on property taxes,” Bakk said.
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