The commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has written a sharply worded letter to the Republican chairman of the House Environment Committee, laying out a series of objections to environment legislation unveiled this week.
Rep. Denny McNamara's bill funds key environment agencies while also making significant policy changes to the way Minnesota protects its air, water and land.
John Linc Stine, the PCA commissioner, faults the bill for taking money from various dedicated cleanup funds to pay for agency operations and for provisions that would "reduce activities that protect public health and the environment."
The committee will hear testimony this evening and amendments Thursday before expected passage later this week.
The Minnesota Legislature could be in for lively floor debates Thursday as the Senate takes on its omnibus liquor bill—where attempts to repeal the ban on Sunday sales is likely to come up on the floor, while the House takes on a litany of gun bills.
Liquor: The Senate is scheduled to take up the liquor bill during an 11 a.m. floor session. The omnibus bill includes a number of measures like allowing Sunday growler sales from taprooms and the so-called “Bloody Mary bill,” which allows 8 a.m. Sunday sales at some restaurants and hotels. But like its House counterpart, it’s absent a measure to repeal the state’s 80-year-old ban on Sunday liquor sales. However, House Speaker Kurt Daudt said last week that he guarantees it will come up on the House floor, and has a 50-50 chance of passing. If it does clear the House, Daudt said, it’s likely to become law. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he also expects Sunday sales to arise on the floor, though its chances of passing are “unlikely.” Bakk said the bill’s larger hurdle is in the House. Last year the Senate rejected a Sunday sales amendment 42-22, while in 2013 it was voted down by the House 106-21.
A bipartison coalition of Sunday sales proponents expressed renewed hope for a repeal this session, after House Speaker Kurt Daudt changed course, saying he now backs Sunday sales. However, repeal opponents including the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association have also maintained their own strong lobbying efforts, saying liquor stores would be forced to open Sundays to keep up with larger competitors, increasing costs without profits.
Guns: The same afternoon, the House is scheduled to take up a handful of gun-related bills on the floor. The schedule includes repealing the state’s ban on firearm suppressors—more commonly known as silencers—a term disliked by suppressor proponents who say they cut down on the noise of a gunshot, but don’t silence a firearm completely. The suppressor debate packed a House committee hearing last month, where both opponents and proponents gave their impassioned viewpoints.
Other measures include removing the requirement for gun owners with a permit to carry to notify the Department of Public Safety before they enter the Capitol armed, and a measure to make it easier for firearms dealers and collectors to sell weapons to buyers in states not bordering Minnesota.
The cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth would see a combined drop of $85 million in local government aid from the state of Minnesota under legislation being pushed by the Republican majority in the state House.
"Frankly, the premise behind LGA (local government aid) is that cities that don't have the tax capacity would get assistance in infrastructure and basic functions of the city," said Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, who introduced the measure. "You've got these cities where a large portion of their budget is coming from LGA."
Quam's provisions have been included in a broad package of property tax changes that's under consideration Wednesday in the House Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division. Rep. Greg Davids, chairman of the House Taxes Committee, said the LGA cuts were likely to be included in his House tax bill, which is set to be unveiled next week.
"You wonder how it got to the point that Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth are getting so much more than other cities across the state per capita," said Davids, R-Preston.
Under the House GOP proposal, Minneapolis would see its yearly LGA allotment cut by $40 million a year. That's more than half of the total LGA payment to Minneapolis in 2013 of $64 million. St. Paul's LGA would be cut by $34 million, after getting $50 million in 2013; and Duluth, which got $27 million in 2013, would take an LGA cut of $20 million.
"Our entire fire department budget is $14.8 million," David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, told the House panel. "We could eliminate our fire department completely and we would still have to find $5 million to cut."
The money would not be shifted to smaller cities but rather cut entirely from state spending rolls. The House GOP property tax proposal, assembled by Rep. Steve Drazkowski, includes significant reductions in the state's commercial/industrial property tax, state property taxes on seasonal recreational property, and property tax reductions for farmland owners.
Quam noted that the other Minnesota city defined as "first class" under state law -- Rochester -- gets significantly less in LGA than the other three cities. In 2013, it was $5 million. LGA rates are determined by a complex formula that considers local tax capacity per capita, but also considers various "need" factors over which city officials have little control, like the age of housing stock and amount of property that's exempt from tax rolls.
Still, the LGA reductions face significant opposition in the state Senate, where the DFL majority is comprised of numerous members from Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. There are no House Republican members from any of those cities.
A major fault line between Republicans and the administration of Gov. Mark Dayton revealed itself today in a House committee, where Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, began hearing testimony on his major environment budget bill.
The heads of four state agencies with responsibility for protecting Minnesota's environment stated their opposition to the bill, saying it would fund their agencies in part by shifting money from special cleanup funds.
McNamara, the Republican chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, alleged that the agency heads were not being transparent about administration pots of money.
"My frustration is I don't know what's in the bill!" he exclaimed in the hearing room, packed with lobbyists, activists and agency staff.
The bill also includes a number of contentious policy changes opposed by the Dayton administration, including provisions that would give the Legislature the power to approve or disapprove new environmental regulations.
The committee will continue to hear testimony this week and will likely pass the bill to the full House.
Top researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School made their case to legislators Tuesday for a $30 million infusion they say will help spur medical innovations and help develop cures for diseases such as HIV and prostate cancer.
The Senate's higher education omnibus bill, which lawmakers are finalizing this week, will include the $30 million for the medical school, said Higher Education Committee Chair Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonak, who called it a "significant investment.
Bonoff and members of her committee heard a brief presentation by Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, and U Medical School researchers who testified that the increased state funding will help elevate the school's standing nationally.
Cohen said that if the school doesn't receive the money, it would threaten its ability to retain high-caliber researchers who could leave for other top ranked medical schools or universities.
The medical school, which ranked in the top 15 in National Institutes of Health funding in the 1970s and ’80s, since has dropped to 30th nationally and 12th among public medical schools — which resulted in a drop in NIH funding.
Officials blame the drop on the loss of 90 tenured and tenure-track faculty from 1995-2001. U Medical School Dean Dr. Brooks Jackson said restoring the faculty could boost Minnesota’s ranking from 30th to 20th in as little as five years.
"This [the additional funding] is important if we want to elevate the stature of the medical school," Jackson told legislators. "This proposal will go a long way in getting us there."
The additional money would pay for 50 research faculty members over the course of eight years, improving research and attracting the best and brightest students.
Dr. Badrinath R. Konety, a specialist in bladder and prostate cancer, told lawmakers that many experts in his field were trained at the University of Minnesota, which had gained a strong reputation for research on the types of cancers he specializes in.