A group of DFL senators said Wednesday that they hope to revive rural and small-town economies in Minnesota by linking together a series of bills to boost worker training, deliver more workforce housing, incubate new businesses and greatly expand broadband internet access.
Together, the initiatives if made law would total nearly $200 million in additional state spending over two years.That puts them in competition with a whole raft of other possible uses of the state's current $1 billion surplus, but the senators said there should be enough to go around and that the state's struggling rural economy needs attention.
"We're not just throwing money at the problem," said Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm. "We're trying to fix a problem with money."
Challenges facing rural Minnesota have been at the top of the legislative agenda this year, after a November election in which 10 Republicans unseated DFL House members from rural districts. Of the five senators at Thursday's Capitol news conference, two represent districts where both House members are Republicans. That dynamic looms large for senators as they face re-election in 2016.
But the senators said their initiatives aim to address real economic dilemmas facing Minnesota's small towns and rural areas. Their proposals include:
- $27 million for new career counselors at workforce development centers in rural Minnesota.
- $50 million in tax credits aimed at generating private investment to build housing for workers. The money would help establish an "Office of Workforce Housing" charged with distributing the tax credits.
- $40 million for grants to small communities for public infrastructure, to attract new businesses or help existing businesses expand.
- $15 million for a new job training program for rural Minnesota. "The people in rural parts of the state simply haven't experienced the explosive job and economic growth that the metro has seen in the last few years," Tomassoni said, pointing to what he called a "skills gap" between what outstate Minnesota businesses need and the skills of potential applicants.
- $100 million to continue an ongoing push to expand high speed broadband access in rural areas. "Broadband access is a great equalizer," said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing.
A number of the DFL initiatives have backing from some Republican lawmakers, too. The senators bristled at the idea the legislative package is an attempt to shore up political support from rural Minnesota; but Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, said if successful it would likely be noticed by rural voters.
"I'm convinced that if we have a real trained and educated workforce put to work in rural Minnesota, we'll do just fine," Saxhaug said.
The dispute over how long Minnesota law enforcement should be able to store data collected by automated license plate readers took a tense turn Tuesday, when a measure that appeared bound for the Senate floor must now clear another committee hurdle.
The devices, commonly known as LPRs, are small cameras mounted in squad cars or in fixed mounts that scan license plates and store information on where and when a vehicle was located when the scan was taken. Revelations about the devices in 2012 raised calls by privacy and civil liberties advocates — as well as ordinary citizens — on how police classify and retain the data.
For the third consecutive session, lawmakers have sparred over whether LPR “hits” on innocent people should be deleted immediately—what privacy advocates want, or kept for 90 days-- what law enforcement wants.
This session, a 90-day retention bill sponsored by Sen Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, over protests from Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, who authored a competing bill arguing for zero retention. While the committee opted not to move forward with Petersen's bill, Latz’s bill headed to the Senate floor for a vote.
But Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who co-authored Petersen’s zero-retention bill, asked Latz to refer the bill to the Transportation and Public Safety Committee, which Dibble chairs. Latz declined, saying his bill does not fall under that committee's jurisdiction.
Petersen and Dibble objected, and the three sat side-by-side before the Senate Rules Committee Tuesday afternoon to figure out just where it should go next. It's the second time in as many days that the differences of opinion between them has been public.
“First and foremost, it’s a custom of the Senate to honor the reasonable requests of (Chairman Dibble),” Petersen told the Rules Committee. “I don’t think anybody would claim that it is neither a public safety or transportation issue.”
Dibble argued that Latz’s bill includes data managed by Driver and Vehicle Services, which falls under the auspices of the Transportation Committee. Latz countered that the language pertains to the Data Practices Act, which is solely under Judiciary Committee authority.
Pointing at other potential motives, Latz mentioned the “substantial differences” in retention periods between he and Dibble’s bill, adding that an identical 90-day retention bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee last year and headed straight to the Senate floor without protest.
“The only time any interest in hearing this bill in front of the Transportation Public Safety Committee appears to have arisen this year when there was apparently a change of mind by Sen. Dibble about the 90-day retention period.” Latz said. “I respect his right to change his position on that, it happens, but that seems to be (behind) the request for referral.”
Dibble bristled, saying “I think it is inappropriate for Sen. Latz to suggest any motive on my part. He has no idea why I requested this other than the statements I’ve made in public already.”
Dibble maintained that his intentions in hearing the bill have nothing to do with the retention period, and that while he doesn’t intend to offer an amendment to change it, he wouldn’t stop one from being offered.
The Rules Committee differed on whether Dibble’s Committee should have the right to hear the bill.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said it’s important to be mindful of “jurisdiction creep” and to be mindful of the authority committees hold, as well as the potential for backlog.
Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, sided with sending the bill to Dibble, saying “there are lots of reasons bills go to committees.”
“It’s unfortunate that it came to this point,” she said. “When a chair requests something, we should at least honor it."
On a split voice vote, the bill went to Dibble’s committee. Afterward, Latz said he was “disappointed and frustrated” but respects the process. He said he has “no doubt" an amendment will be made to change the LPR retention-length from 90 days to zero, and if it succeeds, he will ask that the bill be referred back to his committee.
After the hearing, a pleased Petersen stopped short of saying whether he planned to offer that amendment.
“I’m sure we’ll find a willing member,” he said.
Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, offered up an amendment to a campaign finance bill today that would allow legislators to raise money on the first day of a legislative session before it begins and on the last day of the session post sine die.
The bill, authored by Sen. Jim Carlson, makes numerous changes to campaign finance and ethics law. It would define a "regular session," during which legislators could not raise money from lobbyists, to include the entire first day and the entire last day of each annual session.
But Metzen's oral amendment would strip out that language and allow, for instance, legislators to have coffee-and-doughnut breakfast fundraisers with lobbyists on the first day of a legislative session before gaveling in, traditionally around noon.
The amendment and the bill passed the Senate Rules Commitee.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Monday sought to downplay his public dispute with Gov. Mark Dayton, who last week criticized his fellow DFLer as "conniving" and a "backstabber."
"If the governor wants to make it personal, he can," Bakk said Monday, in his first substantial public comments since Dayton's surprise blowup last week. "But I'm not going to get into a tit for tat, personal attacks back and forth. It's just not my style."
Standing before a mass of reporters and cameras after a Senate floor session, Bakk, DFL-Cook, did show some umbrage at the governor's suggestion he can't be trusted. "I've built a pretty strong image around here of being someone who's candid and honest," Bakk said.
The relationship between the two powerful DFLers, never too warm, soured in a big way after Dayton's recent decision to hike pay for 23 of his cabinet officers by as much as $35,000 a year. In total the raises amount to about $800,000 a year in additional state spending, and Dayton got the authority to make them from a 2013 law change that Bakk and other DFLers backed.
Last week, in the face of harsh criticism from Republicans over the raises, Bakk successfully pushed a Senate floor amendment to delay the raises until July 1. That prompted Dayton's open ire, apparently because the governor believed he had an agreement with Bakk to resolve the matter a different way.
Bakk said the day before the Senate vote, he laid out for Dayton several possible scenarios for how the Senate would respond to the pay raises.
"The governor wasn't asked to pick one of the options that I laid out to him," Bakk said. But he took exception to Dayton's description that he was "blindsided."
"I think that's incorrect," Bakk said. He said he believes the salary increases will probably prove to be justified, but he thinks Dayton might have considered making them in three smaller steps rather than all at once.
Last week, Dayton said he would no longer deal with Bakk one-on-one. Bakk sought to minimize the ramifications of that in relation to the DFL's ability to pursue an ambitious legislative agenda this year.
"My office has already had a couple conversations with his office over the last couple days. We'll see where it goes from there," Bakk said.
The pay raise fight is now enmeshed with a stopgap spending bill moving through the legislative process. With the pay raise delay attached to the Senate's version of that bill, the focus now shifts to the state House which could act on the matter this week. Republicans who now hold the House majority have been highly critical of the raises, but Dayton has threatened to veto the stopgap bill if it includes the pay raise delay.
Dayton, who made a brief appearance in the Capitol on Monday, told reporters he had little more to say about the dustup for the time being.
"We both have a job to do for the people of Minnesota and it's imperative we do that job constructively together, and that's my expectation," Dayton said. But asked if his issues with Bakk could be settled, Dayton responded, "I don't know."
(This post has been updated)
The two most powerful DFLers at the state Capitol had a bitter, public falling-out on Thursday as Gov. Mark Dayton accusing Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of "stabbing me in the back" amid an ongoing controversy over pay raises for state agency commissioners.
That came hours after the DFL-led Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to delay those salary hikes until July 1.
Dayton's rebuke of Bakk at a late afternoon news conference was unusually harsh. It followed Bakk's successful charge on the Senate floor earlier in the day to delay until July 1 Dayton's recent raises, which total $800,000 in additional pay per year to his 23 cabinet officers.
Dayton said he was strongly opposed to delaying the raises, and also said Bakk's maneuver came without warning.
"I'm very disappointed because I thought my relationship with Senator Bakk has always been positive and professional," Dayton said at an afternoon news conference. "I certainly learned a brutal lesson today that I can't trust him, can't believe what he says to me, and that he connives behind my back."
Through a spokeswoman, Bakk released a statement declining further comment except to suggest that he believed Dayton misunderstood their discussions about the pay issue.
Dayton's raises, which total about $800,000 in additional state spending per year, "most likely are warranted," Bakk said in a Senate floor speech. "But I think the challenge is, those of us in the Legislature and the public haven't had the opportunity to have a discussion about how pay has lagged for these department heads."
Under Bakk's amendment, which senators attached to a stopgap spending measure, Dayton would regain the authority to dole out the raises on July 1.
"Might he do it differently? That's yet to be seen," Bakk said.
Bakk's amendment passed 63-2, with just two DFL senators dissenting: Patricia Torres Ray of Minneapolis and Sandra Pappas of St. Paul. Republicans backed Bakk's move, but were unsuccessful in passing a more aggressive amendment that would have yanked the pay raises and Dayton's authority to make them entirely.
"I don't see why anybody in this body would not want to reassert our legislative authority," said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville.
House Republicans have also sought to undermine the pay raises in recent days, with that body's version of the stopgap spending bill also including a provision subtracting money from several agency budgets that's equal to the amount those department commissioners got in original pay.
Dayton said if the House adopts the Senate changes to the stopgap spending bill, he will veto it.
Dayton has bristled at House Republican criticism of the raises, noting numerous House employees make similar salaries. He has defended the raises as necessary to attract top talent to his administration.