No big losses and some small wins.
That’s how Bill Blazar, interim president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, assessed the recently completed legislative session.
Business groups came away happy that the Legislature, led by business allies in the newly Republican House, blocked progressive DFL initiatives on working conditions, held the line on state spending, lowered workers’ compensation costs and rolled back some environmental regulation.
Advocates for commerce say they came away disappointed that the Legislature passed neither big business tax breaks nor a major transportation package to improve the movement of people and products. But they remain hopeful the Legislature will come back next year on those issues given a continued state surplus that could top $1 billion.
After the 2013-14 session, which business lobbyists viewed as damaging to business, and in light of the realities of divided government this year, no big losses and some minor gains equal a win, said Blazar and several other business leaders.
“At least nothing bad happened,” said Mike Hickey, state director of the conservative-leaning National Federation of Independent Business.
Business groups spent heavily in 2014 to deliver the majority to House Republicans, with the Chamber’s political arm Pro Jobs Majority and the business-backed Minnesota Jobs Coalition and other groups spending millions to help the GOP flip 11 seats.
Business groups also spent plenty to line up votes at the Legislature this year, with the Chamber, the Coalition of Minnesota Businesses and the Minnesota Business Partnership spending nearly $540,000 to lobby the Legislature, while other industry-focused groups added to the total.
“We like balanced government. We like checks and balances,” said Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, which includes the state’s largest companies, such as Polaris, Ecolab and General Mills.
Blazar said the Chamber was especially happy with the elimination of a 3 percentage point fee on all health insurance policies and some changes to workers’ compensation insurance that should lower costs.
Weaver said the Business Partnership liked the slower growth of state spending adopted by the Legislature, about 5 percent total during the next two years compared to 12 percent during the past two.
He also praised “smart investments in education,” including prekindergarten money directed at scholarships for the state’s neediest children rather than the universal public school approach favored by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Business also helped win changes in teacher licensing that will make it easier for out-of-state teachers to come to Minnesota.
Steve Wise, president of Cass Screw Machine Products and board member of the Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association, said he was pleased with programs allowing high school students to earn college credit and the expansion of an “earn while you learn” business-education partnership.
Even on Dayton’s signature environmental initiative that will create buffers around waterways to prevent pollution, agricultural interests at least felt listened to, according to Tom Haag, who farms 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans with his son and is on the board of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association.
Several business leaders said they liked the environment bill that, among other major policy changes, eliminates the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board, a group appointed by the governor with final say on permits for controversial projects. Business lobbyists said the board injected uncertainty into the permitting process.
Environmental activists say the measure is a step backward in protecting the air, land and water and are mobilizing to reverse the losses.
After a minimum wage hike in 2014, Weaver said business was relieved that there was no momentum this year for issues such as sick pay and giving workers plenty of advance notice on their upcoming work schedule. These employer mandates would hinder business flexibility and make Minnesota uncompetitive, he said.
Javier Morillo, president of Service Employees International Union Local 26 and a leader of the movement to improve working conditions, said his group will be back next year to fight for workers: “We don’t want the focus to be on tax breaks for the wealthy. We want the focus to be on the rest of Minnesota.”