A Republican state representative drew boos from colleagues during a floor debate Tuesday night with a remark that a rail line connecting north Minneapolis to the state prison in St. Cloud would be "convenient."
During an hours-long and often contentious debate on the House GOP-drafted transportation budget, Democrats unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to include funding for a study on the feasibility extending the Minneapolis-to-Big Lake Northstar Commuter Rail line on to St. Cloud.
Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, noted that the proposed route would take Northstar right past the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud.
"Boy, wouldn't that be convenient to have that rail line going from the prison to north Minneapolis?" Newberger said. Scattered boos could be heard in the House chamber.
Newberger quickly backtracked. "I'm not casting any aspersions on north Minneapolis," he said. "I know some folks got their ire up, and rightfully so. Sometimes as we're speaking - that's what came into my mind.
"If I offended anyone from north Minneapolis, I apologize," Newberger said.
The Minnesota Senate on Tuesday unanimously approved $893,000 in emergency state funds to respond to the avian flu outbreak, although a political squabble over a non-related provision attached to the legislation by the DFL's Senate majority may slow down distribution of the money.
The House passed the avian flu money on Thursday. It's divided into two pots: $514,000 for the state Department of Agriculture, and $379,000 for the state Board of Animal Health.
"There is some urgency," Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield, said Tuesday during Senate debate.
Dahle noted that the number of Minnesota turkey farms affected by the outbreak has been rising; it most recently was tallied at 28 farms in 14 counties. Minnesota is the nation's largest turkey producer.
However, a day earlier in Senate Finance Committee, DFL senators attached a provision that would move up a yearly date on which the Minnesota Management and Budget office reports the size of the state's budget reserve to legislators. Backers said it's meant to give lawmakers more time to prepare for the legislative session and the scope of resources available.
On Monday, House Speaker Kurt Daudt released a statement saying he did not want unrelated measures attached to the avian flu money. "The legislature has a tradition of not adding unrelated provisions to disaster relief and emergency response bills," Daudt said.
That makes a House-Senate conference committee on the bill likely, meaning a likely delay of several days in getting the bill to the desk of Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature. At a news conference Tuesday just ahead of the Senate action, Dayton praised lawmakers for acting quickly on the measure.
GOP senators warned in Tuesday's floor debate that the provision added by Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, would slow down the progress of the avian flu money. DFL senators united to defeat a GOP amendment to remove the unrelated measure.
"This provision you're talking about has nothing to do with avian flu," said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. Neglecting to strip it out "will delay disaster relief to the farmers of this state."
House Republicans unveiled about $2 billion in tax cuts on Monday, a package that GOP leaders said would lower taxes for more than 2 million Minnesotans through a new state personal or dependent exemption.
Tax cuts are a top priority of the new GOP majority in the House, and the personal or dependent exemption is the centerpiece of their tax omnibus bill. It's estimated to cost the state $539 million in lost tax revenue over two years.
"Our priority in this tax relief package is clear: middle-class Minnesota families," said House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers. She said the exemption could save a middle-class family of four $500 over the next two years.
The GOP also proposes elimination of the statewide general property tax, which is paid by corporations and businesses. That would cost the state $453 million in two years of lost revenue. The GOP bill doles out smaller tax cuts in a number of other areas, from a tax credit on student loan payments, to a reduction in the estate tax, to tax incentives for research and development.
The personal or dependent tax exemption would be a one-time benefit, and would expire after two years. The elimination of the business property tax would be permanent.
House DFL leaders criticized the proposal as too focused on tax cuts for business owners. "With a $2 billion surplus and growing economy, we should embrace this chance to create more opportunity for all Minnesotans to get ahead," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
Gov. Mark Dayton and the Senate DFL majority have proposed far less in tax cuts than the House GOP, although the Republican plan does incorporate some tax cuts requested by Dayton, including tax credits geared toward school expenses.
A detailed overview of the GOP tax bill can be found here.
House Republicans' major tax legislation was released today, and, as promised, it offers up at least $2 billion in tax cuts to a range of Minnesotans, from income tax filers to Social Security recipients, military veterans to people with college debt, businesses and a plethora of other groups.
A summary of the bill can be found here.
"The overall direction is tax relief to middle-class Minnesotans. It's about helping seniors, military veterans, farmers and students," said Rep. Greg Davids, chairman of the House Taxes Committee and a Republican from Preston. Republicans will hold a news conference to discuss their plan Monday, and the House Taxes Committee will hold hearings on the Davids bill all week.
The GOP tax plan will face stiff resistance from DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has proposed spending much of the projected $1.9 billion surplus on education and especially pre-kindergarten. The DFL-controlled Senate's budget targets are similar to Dayton's.
Davids said the biggest items in the bill include a $1,000 exemption for all income tax filers. A more modest form of Dayton's proposal for a child care tax credit is also included. Families with significant estates will get a break, as will Social Security recipients, retired military veterans, teachers seeking graduate degrees, doctors who perform charity care, buyers of propane tanks, cigarettes and bullion coins and many others.
Davids said last year he was unpersuaded about the problem of student debt, but became convinced a refundable tax credit on college loans, though a major hit to the state treasury, would draw new professionals from out of state and keep young Minnesotans here.
The bill also includes all the provisions of a major bill authored by Property Taxes and Local Government Finance Chairman Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, which cuts taxes, especially for farmers and businesses that own property and Minnesotans with seasonall cabins. That legislation has come under fire from many metro legislators because it cuts $85 million from local government aid, but only to Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, which are DFL strongholds.
The Drazkowski bill will cost $363 million over the biennium, but because it phases out the commercial and industrial statewide levy over seven years, state coffers would take a ballooning hit over the longer term.
The Davids' tax legislation would also require significant offsetting cuts in government or increases in different revenue in the longer term because the cost of many of the provisions would increase over time.
Davids said his experience as House Taxes chairman in 2011, when the state faced a $6 billion deficit, made him keenly aware of the dangers of long term structural deficits. "I don't want the state to be in that situation again," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said he will not repeat his own experience of voting for tax cuts in the 1990s, only to see the state's budget in frequent crisis during the following decade.
Update: House DFL Minority Leader Paul Thissen released a statement that read, in part, "Republicans have made a choice that tax cuts for corporations and special interests are more important than educating our kids or investing in Minnesota's future."
A massive property tax bill that was making its way toward passage of a House committee this week offers big savings to farmers, businesses, industrialists and cabin owners, while also pushing bold policies like giving local voters a chance to undue a levy tax increase with a "reverse referendum."
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, who is chairman of the Property Tax and Local Government Finance Division, is also known as a leader of the conservative wing of the Republican caucus.
The biggest item in the proposal is a major exemption and eventual phase-out of the commercial and industrial statewide property levy, which is a tax on businesses but also seasonal cabins. The measure would exempt the first $500,000 for commercial and industrial properties and the first $200,000 of seasonal cabins. It would cost state coffers $433 million during the biennium. The eventual phase-out would drive costs of the tax cut higher in the future, with a price tag of $917 million in the second biennium that would continue to grow.
The bill also tries to address the high cost of school bond levies for agriculture interests by providing a refundable income tax credit for farmers equal to 50 percent of the property tax they pay attributable to school debt levies.
The bill would save some money by reducing local government aid to just three cities, Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, by a total of $85 million.
The total cost of the bill is $363 million over the biennium.
The House Taxes Committee is expected to incorporate these tax changes into its major bill, which Republicans say will offer $2 billion in tax cuts, in the coming days.