Legislators weigh in on upcoming session

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Area legislators were talking about politics and the new legislative session that begins on Jan. 8.

“We’ll pick the pieces up and go on,” said Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, of the aftermath of the election in which Republicans lost control of the statehouse.

Dettmer argues against state tax increases, citing possible federal tax increases.

“It’s a double whammy,” he said of state and federal tax increases possibly occurring simultaneously.

Looking ahead to the session, Dettmer indicated he was receptive to revenue-neutral tax reform.

“That would be something I would definitely be willing to look at,” he said.

Dettmer, a U.S. Army veteran, has veterans’ issues as a legislative focus.

He’s interested in exploring the formation of an employment “pipeline” for Minnesota veterans to energy-related jobs in North Dakota — a state Dettmer recently scouted in exploring employment opportunities.

North Dakota is booming.

The state’s population increased by 2.17 percent between July 1, 2011, and July 1, 2012, the fastest growth of any state, according to U.S. Census Bureau.

The unemployment rate for recently serving Minnesota veterans is one of the highest in the nation, and Dettmer argues job opportunities in North Dakota offer the kind of lifestyle that military veterans are used to — being away from home, working in rotations.

“It’s something I’ll bring up in committee,” Dettmer said of the “pipeline” idea.

Dettmer will also pursue a phase-out of a state tax on veteran retirement pay. According to Minnesota House Research, Minnesota is one of only six states that taxes military pension incomes.

When soldiers leave the military, Dettmer explained, they’re given a list of veteran-friendly states.

Minnesota is not on that list.

Retiring veterans are often in their 40s — young enough to buy homes, get new jobs, pay taxes, Dettmer said.

Minnesota, long term, is losing money, not gaining it, by taxing veterans’ retirement pay. he argues.

“The first day of the session I’ll be dropping it (a bill) into the basket,” he said.

According to legislation advocates, Minnesota should have about 32,000 retired military veterans living in the state, but only an estimated 15,000 actually do.

On other issues, Dettmer said bonding bills have no place in the first year of the session.

“This is supposed to be a budget year, not a bonding year.”

Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, is one area legislator who will be chairing a legislative committee.

Hortman is Chairwoman of the House Energy Policy Committee.

She identified several energy-related issues her committee will be exploring.

For instance, the committee will be examining regulations concerning the sale of power generated by private individuals. Some homeowners or other private individuals using solar panels or wind turbines do or could potentially produce sizeable amounts of electricity, Hortman noted.

This raises questions: How much power should they be allowed to produce?

And on what payment level should utilities pay them for their power?

Hortman’s committee will also debate whether the same steps taken to assist the development of wind power in Minnesota be taken to assist solar energy development.

The committee will examine the “waste to energy” cycle — right now, it’s cheaper for garbage haulers to landfill potential recyclable materials, Hortman noted.

One debate that will not take place is the lifting of the state’s moratorium on nuclear power.

It’s really a moot point, because no one is proposing to build a new nuclear power plant in Minnesota, Hortman explained.

“There’s no reason to have a kind of knock down, drag out fight over this,” she said.

Another area legislator chairing a House committee is Rep. Michael Nelson, DFL-Brooklyn Park, overseeing the House Government Operations Committee.

Nelson, for one, doesn’t believe the private sector is inherently more efficient than government.

“That’s a false rap in my mind,” he said of the perception.

As for Democrats “overreaching” or pursuing too vigorously pursuing an agenda, Nelson suggests caution in dealing with social issues.

“We’ve got to be careful with what we do,” Nelson said.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, will be leading the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee.

Bonoff has been in discussions with higher education officials in recent days.

Although Bonoff would not discuss possible linkage between the higher education funding that her committee oversea and tuition freezes — she doesn’t negotiate in the newspapers, she quipped — the senator believes the relationship between high schools and post-secondary education in terms of guiding students into career paths needs to be strengthened.

Bonoff, in mentioning local issues in her district, cites the proposed Hollydale transmission project proposed for the cities of Plymouth and Medina.

According to Excel Energy, the project would involve upgrading about eight miles of existing 69-kilovolt transmission line to 115-kilovolt, constructing almost a mile of new 115 kilovolt transmission line and building a new substation.

Bonoff expressed a number of concerns — she wants to see the project stopped or at least have lines buried underground, she explained.

The senator also mentions the addition of a third lane to I-494 as a legislative priority.

Rep. John Benson, DFL-Minnetonka, hopes this session will be remembered for tax reform, correcting the structural imbalance in the budget, inserting Minnesota into the federal Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.

Benson foresees no problems arising from Democrats having full sway at the State Capitol as long as their sense of perspective remains sound.

“Not get carried away with the idea we can just run roughshod over the opposition party,” Benson said.

In the area of human services, Benson spoke of additional funding for nursing home workers.

Benson, a retired teacher, stresses empowering teachers.

About 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years and Benson questions whether private business could absorb such a turnover and flourish.

“The job of teaching is really key,” he said of improving the educational system, a goal additional funding alone will not guarantee.

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, in a quick look back at the election, points to the two proposed amendments and it being a presidential year as contributing to Republican reversals.

“I think that really backfired on conservatives,” he said of the photo ID and marriage amendments.

“We would have had about 20 (Republicans left in the House),” Davids quipped had the so-called Right to Work amendment been placed on the ballot, too.

Davids takes for granted that Democrats will raise taxes.

“They will raise taxes on everybody,” he said.

Davids also expresses concern over the number of metro lawmakers in key House power positions.

“I’m a rural lawmaker. This is totally one-sided,” Davids said.

“This is frightening,” he said.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, speaks of House Republicans providing first-class constituency service for over upcoming months and next election making sure the party does better “data mining” in order to reach conservative voters.

Scott intends to take up again legislation dealing with parental child custody rights. Legislation she worked on last session was ultimately pocket vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

But in his veto letter, Dayton expressed hope that conflicts over the legislation would be resolved and a bill sent to him this session that he could sign.

Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said a big area of legislative concern for him is property taxes.

About 30 percent of the small business property tax burden is state, he said.

And small businesses are the mainstay of Greater Minnesota, he explained.

“To me, this is real important,” Gazelka said.

Gazelka speaks of quickening the pace of the business permitting process.

Dayton worked with Republicans on this last session, Gazelka said, and believes bipartisan legislation can be crafted again.

Gazelka expressed dismay over the length of the permitting process regarding the proposed Polymet mining operation in Northern Minnesota.

“To me that’s silly,” he said of permitting process extending over many years.

Gazelka believes tax increases will be one legacy of the upcoming session.

He argues that in sense it’s deceptive to argue the state has a $1 billion projected budget deficit without mentioning the state budget reverses have been replenished with about $1 billion in one-time money.

Republicans were good stewards, Gazelka argues.

“It’s a much, much better (budget) picture,” he said.

“I hope they (Democrats) take the reins wisely,” Gazelka said.