Gov. Mark Dayton signed off of $20 million in emergency state aid for low-income heating assistance.
A bitterly cold winter, combined with a propane shortage, has nearly depleted the state's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. When legislators returned to work this week, they rushed to shift the money out of the general fund before the program could run out of money in early March. The measure passed both houses unanimously and moved to the governor's desk on Thursday.
“The amount of propane needed to heat Minnesota homes, farms, and businesses during this exceptionally cold winter and the skyrocketing cost of propane threatened to exhaust our state’s LIHEAP funding and put our citizens out in the cold," Dayton said in a statement, after signing the emergency relief bill into law Friday morning. “We are continuing to do everything possible to keep Minnesotans safe and warm during this emergency.”
Some 180,000 Minnesotans depend on the program pay their heating bills this winter. For many, those bills have been even more burdensome this year as a Midwest propane shortage sent fuel prices skyrocketing. More people applied to the program, needing help with larger and larger home heating bills, and the assistance fund struggled to help them all.
In a statement, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, whose agency oversees the low-income heating assistance program, estimated that nearly 180,000 Minnesota households will receive heating assistance by the end of this winter -- "a 30 percent increase over last year."
The state expanded LIHEAP assistance this year to Minnesotans who earn less than 60 percent of the state median income.That opens the program to a family of four earning less than $52,370 per year, or a household of two earning less than $35,612. The Minnesota Department of Commerce projects that roughly 30,000 to 40,000 newly-eligible households will apply for heating assistance this year.
LIHEAP applicants who heat their homes with propane and heating oil also qualify for up to $1,000 in crisis payments – an increase of $500.
For information about how to apply for heating assistance, contact the Minnesota Department of Commerce website or by calling 800-657-3710. The state also operates a propane hotline for residents who are having trouble obtaining or paying for the fuel: 800-657-3504 in greater Minnesota or 651-297-1304 in the Twin Cities.
Minnesota’s strengthening economic recovery has left the state with a budget surplus of $1.23 billion, a dramatic jump from just a few months ago.
The surplus is another sign of the strength of the state’s economic recovery and will set off a new round of budget fights as Minnesota legislators figure out what to do with the windfall in an election year.
Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Schowalter said the economy “continues to steam along,” and he has an upbeat outlook.
“I don’t want to get too much irrational exuberance here,” he said earlier this week, “but things are going well.”
Schowalter said the new, two-year federal budget deal has ushered in fresh confidence after years of repeated budget and debt ceiling showdowns in Washington.
“There is no budget crisis, and that helps people plan and understand where they are at,” Schowalter said.
Budget watchers have seen hints of the good news as monthly tax revenue collections beat projections over the past few months. “I think that is one of the good economic indicators of the activity already going on,” he said.
Minnesota’s economy continues to outpace the nation, Schowalter said, and “there doesn’t seem to be any signs of that slowing down.”
Minnesota has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, standing at 4.6 percent. The state created nearly 46,000 jobs in the past year, one of the fastest-growing states in the nation.
Legislators have been in session less than two weeks and are already figuring out ways to spend the money.
Leaders in the Minnesota House want to set aside at least $500 million for tax relief, which has to be booked as spending in state budgets. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans want to use a significant share of the money to bulk up the state's budget reserves to prepare for the next economic downturn. Many legislators want to use a share of the money to increase transportation spending, or even use it to pay cash for the multimillion-dollar State Capitol renovation.
“Our priority, number one, is the tax relief,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “What this shows is that Democrats have collected too much money from the taxpayers. Let’s send it back.”
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk supports some tax relief, but also wants to set aside money to build up the state’s rainy day fund. He is concerned spending all the money now could cause problems in future years.
“The one thing I feel pretty strongly about is the budget reserve,” said Bakk, DFL-Cook.
GOP gubernatorial candidate Marty Seifert came to the Minnesota Capitol on Thursday to announce the selection of Rep. Pam Myhra as his running mate.
“Pam is a person that is immensely qualified,” Seifert said in front of blue-and-white campaign signs.
Seifert, a former legislator, previously recruited her to run for the Minnesota House. He called her a “work horse, not a show horse.”
The pick highlights the geographic diversity of this ticket, Seifert said. He is from Marshall and Myhra is a two-term representative from Burnsville, one of the Twin Cities suburbs that could be a battleground in the gubernatorial race.
“We have a good balance to bring the conversation back to the mainstream, rather than the far left, where we have been wallowing for the past few years,” Seifert said.
Myhra called her running mate “trustworthy and a strong conservative.”
“He has the right mix of experience and Minnesota values to be a great governor,” she said.
Myhra, 57, said she will not run for re-election in the House and focus on being Seifert’s surrogate on the campaign trail.
If elected, Seifert said Myhra would become the state’s ambassador and a leader in the state’s literacy efforts.
Seifert is the second GOP gubernatorial candidate to select a running mate. GOP Sen. Dave Thompson selected fellow Republican Sen. Michelle Benson as his lieutenant governor.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s lieutenant governor, Yvonne Prettner Solon, has decided not to join him in his quest for a second term. Dayton selected his chief of staff, Tina Smith, as his new running mate.
Just two days into their 2014 legislative session, the Legislature made the bipartisan decision on Thursday to offer low income Minnesotans more help with high heating bills.
The $20 million measure now lands on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk. He asked lawmakers to quickly approve the extra aid and is expected to quickly sign it.
"In tough times, Minnesotans come together to help those in need. I’m glad we were able to do so once again," state Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, said in a statement. Radinovich, who narrowly won his first election, carried the heating assistance measure.
The House and Senate both approved the measure with bipartisan unanimous votes.
Dayton raising the income requirement from 50 percent of poverty to 60 percent, opening the program to families earning up to than $52,370 for a family of four.
The federal government also allowed Minnesota an additional $15.8 million this year to help with spikes in propane prices.
But without the extra state money, the low-income heating assistance program could run out of money as early as next week.
The state also set up a toll-free hot line for Minnesotans affected by this winter’s propane shortage: 1-800-657-3504 in greater Minnesota or 651-297-1304 in the Twin Cities.
Photo: An all green board, full of yes votes, to offer low income Minnesotans more heating help/source: Jennifer Brooks, Star Tribune
Facing a tight deadline, DFL House leaders are rushing ahead with a tax-relief proposal that could save Minnesotans $500 million over the next year.
Roughly 1 million Minnesota taxpayers will see a tax reduction, including 650,000 married filers whose taxes would go down an average of $120. The package includes tax relief for married couples, parents of adopted children and those who lost their home to foreclosure.
The proposal also includes the repeal of three new business sales taxes on warehousing services and telecommunications equipment and repair.
DFL House Speaker Paul Thissen said Thursday that the House could approve the entire package next week. The House Taxes Committee is expected to pass the measure Thursday, and likely with bipartisan support.
The Senate would then need to consider the proposal, which generally has strong support of DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.
Some legislators are racing to complete the tax measure as Tax Day looms and the much-criticized warehousing tax is set to kick in next month.
The proposal hinges on Friday's new economic forecast, which is expected to show a budget surplus of close to $1 billion.