Minnesota Democratic lawmakers neared a breakthrough in a year-long deadlock on raising the state's minimum wage from one of the nation's lowest to one of its highest on Monday night.
If they can work through other details, the state’s minimum wage would leap from $6.15 an hour to $9.50 an hour.
While the House and Senate still have a distance to go before the new wage becomes law, the move toward a $9.50 an hour wage floor marks a significant victory for advocates who have been campaigning for months to get the all DFL-controlled Legislature to back a major leap for the state’s wage floor.
On Monday evening, Senate negotiators on the minimum wage increase said they now support finding a compromise to raise the minimum to $9.50. Last year, the Senate backed only a more modest increase, while the House -- and Gov. Mark Dayton -- supported the higher level.
"This is the crux of the bill," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. Tomassoni is a veteran lawmaker and a Senate negotiator on the minimum wage measure.
The deal is far from done.
On Monday night, House negotiators rejected the Senate's proposed hike because it included only the wage for big businesses and not other key parts of the measure.
"I just don't think we can take it piece by piece," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. He told his fellow lawmakers: "usually every concession has a price."
Among the outstanding issues: whether the minimum wage should automatically go up with inflation, if employers should be allowed to pay young workers less than the minimum and over how many years the new wage should be phased in.
Senators, who have spent months enduring pressing from traditional DFL allies to back a large wage hike, said their move to support a $9.50 an hour wage for most employers took significant work.
"I don't understand why your can't support your own language," Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, told Winkler.
Leaving the committee after talks broke down, she said she was "shocked" that the House refused to go along with the Senate's move toward $9.50.
A bill that would allow Minnesota to join the states that want to change the way the U.S. president is elected advanced in a Senate subcommittee Monday.
The Subcommittee on Elections of the Senate Rules Committee approved the measure on a mixed voice vote, sending it to the full Rules Committee.
Sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, the bill is aimed at having the U.S. president elected by national popular vote rather than by a vote of the electoral college. It would do so by having states agree to award their electoral college votes to the winner of the national election. Currently 48 states award all electors to the candidate who wins the most vote in that state.
Supporters say the bill would end the threat of the 2nd place finisher in the popular vote winning the presidency, such as occurred in 2000, and would ensure that candidates compete for all votes, and not just in selected “battleground states.”
Ten states have passed the National Popular Vote law, but it would not go into effect until states with a majority of electoral votes have signed on, supporters say.
Opponents on the committee questioned whether such a change would affect the way presidential elections are run. Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, a former Secretary of State, raised fears of multi-state recounts if the national election total was too close to call. Under the electoral college system, she said, such recounts are limited to a few states.
A new poll from SurveyUSA/KSTP found that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton leads his Republican rivals by double digits.
According to the poll, which had a margin of sampling error of 4.2 percentage points, the governor has between 17 to 21 percentage point leads over the Republicans hoping to oust him. Against each of the six Republican candidates the pollster matched against Dayton, the governor netted more than 51 percent of the support and the Republican hopefuls garnered 34 percent or less.
See more detailed results here. The station said it will release polling results on the U.S. Senate race on Tuesday. The recent polling results fit with findings from other recent polls.
The Star Tribune found last month that Dayton's approval rating was at 58 percent, the highest of his term.
Late last year, a Public Policy Polling poll found Dayton had a lower approval rating and led his rivals by 10 to 11 percentage points.
The relatively high numbers for Dayton do not give the governor, who won his first race by a margin so narrow it triggered a recount, a guarantee of re-election. Much can change between February and November when Minnesotans go to vote.
Photo: Star Tribune archive from Election Day 2013
A new report by the Minnesota Department of Revenue shows that property taxes held steady this year, down about $8 million after all state property tax refunds.
“This drop in property taxes is good news for Minnesotans, who for years have been hammered by double-digit property tax increases," DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said. "Thanks to the relief provided by the DFL Legislature last year, property taxes are actually going down statewide, for the first time in 12 years."
The amount of savings is less than Dayton and Democratic legislators predicted last year, but Minnesota Department of Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans called it “great progress.”
Republicans had warned that Democrats' desire to lower property taxes by increasing aid to local governments wouldn’t work, arguing that cities and counties would merely bulk up their budgets without lowering local property taxes.
"Despite Democrats repeated promises to reduce property taxes, Minnesotans learned today they are facing the highest property tax levy in state history,” said Hanska Rep. Paul Torkelson, the Republican lead on the House Property and Local Tax Division Committee. “Governor Dayton and Democrats set the target and they missed. After Democrats took $2.4 billion in new taxes and fees this past session, hardworking taxpayers can't afford to pay more."
Revenue Department officials found that city, county and school levies went up about $125 million this year, but that was before $133 million in state property tax aids and credits were returned to taxpayers.
Since 2002, property taxes rose an average of $332 million each year, according to the Revenue Department.
Frans said the state has finally broken the cycle.
“Overall, the number is one we are pretty satisfied with,” he said.
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.