At session midterm — or, we hope, a bit past — the Minnesota Legislature is on track to win above-average marks in 2014. In its first seven weeks, it cleared a clutter of unfinished business and ill-conceived policies it left behind last year. Its DFL majorities and the DFL governor demonstrated an ability not only to quarrel, but also to compromise for the good of the state.
Already to state lawmakers’ credit: A minimum-wage increase to $9.50 by 2016, larger than this newspaper favored but a much-needed lift for the working poor. Repeal of 2013’s worst tax changes, which clobbered warehousing, telecommunications and business equipment repairs with uncompetitive sales taxes. Income tax relief targeted for middle-class and working-class families. A tougher school antibullying law. Timely assistance for low-income buyers of propane heating fuel when prices spiked this winter. A $150 million boost to the state budget reserve. And — pending a court challenge — approval of a new Senate office building that should end 40 years of “where’s my senator?” confusion and improve the Capitol’s public accommodations.
It’s a boastworthy list. But most items are “old business,” things that could have or should have been done last year.
The session’s new business remains for lawmakers when they return Tuesday from spring recess. With the state budget already set through June 30, 2015, and no deficit to repair (see accompanying text), the work that remains is relatively routine. It ought not consume all of the four weeks constitutionally allotted for it. We propose an informal “Take Mom Fishing” deadline — adjournment in time for the annual Governor’s Fishing Opener on May 10 and Mother’s Day on May 11.
Our agenda for the next three weeks includes:
• A bonding bill. The House’s bid to borrow $850 million for building projects is, by its own author’s admission, “inadequate.” The Senate’s bid is due soon. If it sticks with $850 million, the amount Republicans say this year’s bonding bill may not exceed if it is to win their requisite supermajority votes, this Legislature again will have missed a low-interest opportunity to address the mounting need for new and repaired college buildings, bridges, transit, corrections and wastewater treatment facilities.
The House proposes to add $125 million in cash for buildings to ease the pinch. That overburdens today’s taxpayers, while still underfunding important projects, including the renovation of the State Capitol and Nicollet Mall.
Politicians evidently think they appear frugal when they insist on bonding bills comparable in size to those of the 1990s. Instead, they appear shortsighted. Minnesotans need to let legislators know that they see economic value in efficient, modern public buildings and infrastructure. Responsibly borrowing for those purposes is sound stewardship of this state.
• Tax bill 2.0. A second, smaller tax bill is in the works, and — true to form — House and Senate DFLers are on separate policy tracks. The election-minded House has opted for $45 million in one-time, direct property tax relief to farmers, lower-income homeowners and renters this year, plus another $55 million in assorted breaks to businesses and local governments.
The Senate, which does not stand for re-election until 2016, is less interested in property tax relief. Its bill includes a raft of new and increased income tax credits that would not be visible to most beneficiaries until 2015.
Election-year political pressure will likely push the Senate to yield to the House. We see good policy reason to do so, too. Property tax growth slowed or stopped this year in most places. But the burden remains too heavy for many renters and homeowners of modest means. The House bill uses credits to send state help directly to them, rather than funneling it haphazardly through local governments. It’s a sound approach.
• Supplemental budget. Here’s where the Senate’s longer-range view deserves heed. At $322 million, the House’s bill is arguably affordable in this budget period, which showed a $1.2 billion surplus at the end of February. But it adds nearly $1 billion to the state’s obligations in 2016-17. The Senate version’s 2016-17 impact is $200 million lighter. That lesser future burden is preferable.
It’s hard to quarrel with most of the spending items included in the House’s bill. We’re glad to see an overdue 5 percent increase in home- and community-based services for the disabled in those bills. The $25 million down payment on a public-private matching fund to improve Internet service in Greater Minnesota is a smart investment. The House is right to increase state funding for counties to initiate the next wave of recycling.
But as the midpoint of a two-year budget cycle nears, legislators should consider converting some of the bill’s continuing spending increases into one-time grants. They ought to leave ample maneuvering room for the next cohort of state budget-setters in 2015.
• Transportation. Every legislative session leaves some work undone. But we’re not willing to give the 2014 Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton a pass on addressing the state’s conspicuous need for better roads, bridges and transit.
A tough winter’s toll on road quality is revealing a more fundamental problem: Half of the state’s highways were paved more than 50 years ago. For many, pothole patching isn’t enough to keep them safely drivable. Meanwhile, traffic congestion rates climb each year, as do estimates of the spending needed to keep the existing transportation system operational. That figure in MnDOT’s latest report: $30 billion by 2033, or $12 billion more than expected revenues.
The Legislature’s pattern has been to wait for a full-blown crisis and a green light from the business community before attempting any increase in transportation funding. That pattern is not serving this state well. We favor a commitment to regular incremental increases in the gas tax, license tabs and other sources of transportation funding, starting this year. The House budget bill includes $25 million for filling potholes. It’s a drop in the asphalt bucket. Legislators are shirking this key governmental responsibility.
• There’s more. The Legislature’s refusal to reform the Minnesota Sex Offenders Program to make it pass constitutional muster is another abdication of responsibility. We’re also disappointed by the hard and uncertain road traveled by the bill to legalize marijuana’s use as medicine, as 20 other states do. We wish the pay equity provisions were stronger in the otherwise commendable Women’s Economic Security Act. A bill to make it easier for local governments to use ranked-choice voting ought not have stalled in the Senate, and should be granted an alternative path to enactment.
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Legislators have plenty to do in coming weeks. Disagreement and tension go with the territory. But Minnesotans know that after the agonizing choices legislators faced in the deficit-riddled last decade, this year’s work is comparatively uncomplicated. It ought to be done in time to Take Mom Fishing.