Tag Archives: Tom Bakk

Session endgame heats up with marriage equality vote Thursday

The Minnesota House of Representatives will vote on H.F. 1054 — the marriage equality bill — on Thursday.  The movement of this bill to the floor is a signal from leadership in the DFL majority that they have the necessary 68 votes to pass the bill, as Speaker of the House Paul Thissen has indicated he would not bring the bill up for vote unless there was sufficient votes to pass it.

In recent weeks, there has been substantial movement among rural DFL legislators towards the bill, including Hinckley’s Tim Faust and Crosby’s Joe Radinovich just within the last few days.  With passage seemingly assured at this point, the interesting thing to watch will be if any suburban Republicans vote yes on the bill as well.  21 House Republicans — including Chaska’s Joe Hoppe and Chanhassen’s Cindy Pugh — represent districts that opposed last November’s marriage amendment.  As of now, none of them have publicly indicated their support for marriage equality.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk says he has sufficient votes in his caucus to pass the bill in that chamber as well, but does not intend to bring the bill to the floor until after the House vote.  Governor Mark Dayton has indicated he will sign the bill if it passes both chambers.

Ten states currently have marriage equality, and Delaware’s legislature is also voting on the issue this week (with passage expected).

Meanwhile, negotiations designed to produce a compromise budget between the House, Senate, and Governor are ongoing.  As noted previously, untangling the three tax plans is likely to biggest source the most difficult challenge faced by the negotiators.  With less than two weeks left in the session, the pace is likely to be rather hectic to get through all the necessary business by then.

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Which tax provisions will survive?

Yesterday, after an inexplicable and embarrassing false start, the Minnesota State Senate passed its version of the omnibus tax bill.  The bill now moves to conference committee where it will be reconciled against the House’s version of the bill as well as Governor Mark Dayton’s budget proposal.  This may prove to be more work than expected, given that all three parties in the negotiations are DFL-controlled.

On a net basis (tax increases less new aids and credits), all three proposals raise between $1.5 and $1.7 billion dollars, but they get there in notably different ways:

1415summary

Let’s dig into the details.  Here are some of the key provisions in each plan:

1415details

Some elements should come together pretty quickly:  increasing LGA, increases to tobacco taxes, and reduction/removal of corporate exemptions for foreign source royalties and operating companies.

Other pieces are going to be more difficult.  House DFLers have committed themselves to paying off the remaining K-12 funding shift this session.  The temporary 4% surcharge on income is designed to get them to that point, raising $1.2 billion on its own.  However, both Dayton and Senate Democrats have listed the surcharge as not acceptable, and neither of them make any moves towards paying off the shift in their proposals.

Meanwhile, the Senate has stayed committed to advancing sales tax reform — proposing an expansion in goods and services subject to taxation while lowering the rate to 6% — while Dayton (in his updated budget) and House DFLers have stayed away from such proposals.

House DFLers have also advanced an increase in alcohol taxes that has run into substantial controversy.  Neither Dayton nor the Senate have embraced such a proposal.

So how do we get to a final bill?  Well, as it turns out, much of the Governor’s proposal ends up serving as a middle ground between the legislative proposals.  Dayton’s income tax rate increase on the wealthy touches a smaller group of taxpayers than the Senate version, which may be acceptable to the House.  But in order to get the House on board, Dayton and the Senate are going to have to make a significant move towards paying back the school shift.  How to do that?  By adopting the Senate’s cigarette tax revenue plan or the House’s plan which includes alcohol tax increases.  The House is likely also going to have to scale back (or eliminate) their property tax reforms.  Taking those steps should be able to ensure that at least half of the remaining shift is paid off.

With less than three weeks remaining in the legislative session, DFLers haven’t given themselves much time to hash through these issues, given the fragile nature of the coalitions they have had to put together to get these bills through the respective chambers.  It will be interesting to watch and see how the negotiations unfold.

How to go the right way on legislator pay

The Minnesota State Senate passed their version of the  State Government omnibus budget bill on Tuesday by a narrow 34-32 margin.  5 DFL members defected from the rest of the majority, primarily over the issue of pay raises in the bill.  Under the provisions of the bill, the Governor would get a raise from $120,000 to $128,000 effective in 2016 (and would be adjusted for inflation every year after that), while legislators would have their salary pegged as 1/3 of the governor’s pay.  That would represent over a $10,000 raise over the current legislative salaries of $31,140.  Commissioners of state departments would also see higher pay as well, going up to 133% of the Governor’s salary.

In addition to their base salaries, legislators also earn a per diem for their legislative activities, and a housing allowance of $1,200 per month is available for those who live more than 50 miles away from the State Capitol.  Per diem for most legislators runs about $10,000 per year.

There are some legitimate reasons to consider a pay increase for state legislators.  (And, in fact, despite the largely party-line vote, there is broad bipartisan agreement that a pay increase may be justified.)  First, they haven’t  received a pay increase since 1999, meaning that, adjusted for inflation, legislators are being paid about 30% less than they were then.  Second, there is concern that low legislative salaries may be a barrier to attracting people to run for office or retaining them while they are there.  This may be a factor in the increasing age of the Legislature, which in the House has increased by five years since 2000.  Third, the demands on our officially part-time Legislators are increasing, as the job continues to edge closer to being a full-time year-round commitment with yearly special sessions and fall/winter committee meetings on top of normal constituent outreach and service.

While those are all valid, increases to legislator salaries shouldn’t come without some reform to make the process more rational. (And let’s not forget the dreadful optics of increasing their own pay while the minimum wage languishes and state compensation rates for nursing home and home health care workers have stagnated for years.)  Here’s three specific reforms we should get in return for opening the door to increasing legislative salaries:

  • End in-session per diem:  Legislators are eligible to take per diem seven days a week while the Legislature is in session (even if there is no official business on that day).  As a result, the per diem requested by most legislators during the session tends to be pretty tightly distributed.  There’s little value added to administering such a process — let’s just increase legislative salaries to reflect an average number of days the legislature is in session per year and leave per diem to only cover days outside of the normal legislative session.
  • Standardize per diem rates for the House and the Senate:  Currently, State Senators get a higher per diem rate than House members.   The purpose of a per diem — to compensate a legislator for expenses incurred — doesn’t change based on the body the Legislator serves in.
  • No pay for legislators or the Governor if a budget is not reached:  If a state budget is not agreed to by the start of the fiscal year, then legislators and the Governor don’t get paid for the time until a budget is reached.  No salary, no per diem for the special session.  And when the budget does finally get passed, they don’t get that money retroactively.

To take a more radical approach, Minnesota could adopt a compensation plan similar to Ohio’s, which ditches the per diem and allowance model altogether and has a set schedule of pay based on a legislator’s role (leadership positions get bumps in pay).  Either way, it’s not too much to expect some reform to come along with any increase in salary for legislators or the Governor.

(It should be noted that the House DFL majorities have come out firmly against pay increases, leaving them out of their version of the State Government bill, which will likely set up some interesting Conference Committee discussions to hash out a final version of the bill.)

Legislative gun bills: sound and fury signifying little?

This week has been “gun week” at the Capitol, as the House Public Safety Committee has held hearings on a number of proposed bills that expected to be whittled down and consolidated into an omnibus gun violence reduction bill.  Much of the coverage of hearings thus far has focused on the occasionally heated words going back and forth over the issue and the various proposals.  Thus far, there have been 17 bills introduced in the House, and eight in the Senate (as of February 6):

gunbills

But which of these bills is likely to make the cut, and be approved by the Legislature?  Despite the DFL holding majorities in both houses, passage of any significant gun control legislation is far from a certainty.  Many rural DFL legislators hold positions that more closely align with the National Rifle Association than their metro colleagues.  Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk earned high marks from the NRA until last session, when he voted against the so-called “Castle Doctrine” expansion bill.  In the House, Iron Range DFL Rep. David Dill believes he has enough votes to block many of the above initiatives.  And, Governor Mark Dayton has been lukewarm at best about new gun regulations.

The final package of bills is likely, in fact, to be rather incremental — not the sort of “gun grab” that many gun proponents have been warning against.   What’s likely to be in there?  Here’s what I expect:

  • A form of the Goodwin/Rosenthal bills making it more difficult for violent felons to get their firearm rights restored.
  • Improved mental health screening as part of the background check process, although it may look quite different than the Schoen bill
  • The Latz/Lesch bill (also supported by Sen. Julianne Ortman) expanding the crime of violence definition and modifying criminal penalties for illegal firearm possession

Some other possibilities include the Johnson bill to criminalize false gun theft/loss reports and a modified version of the Simonson body armor bill that would instead increase penalties for those who commit crimes while wearing it.

However, the more controversial proposals — like the Hausman bills on assault weapons and large capacity magazine bans — likely don’t have the votes to make it out of the Legislature.  Even Paymar’s universal background check bill appears to be on thin ice from a votes perspective, despite the fact polling shows broad support for it.

That said, all of the more likely proposals are — despite a lower profile — bills that can make a real impact on gun violence.  Sometimes moderation and incrementalism pays off.

[Featured image is State Rep. Tony Cornish’s “Gun Week” fashion statement, including AK-47 lapel pin, from Pat Kessler’s Twitter stream.]

Keeping the state on track

I wrote this column, which appeared in the February 9 editions of the Chanhassen Villager and the Chaska Herald.

Many observers hoped that this year’s legislative session would be quick and non-controversial. After all, the state has a projected budget surplus, meaning that there will be no repeat of last year’s lengthy budget standoff that resulted in a state government shutdown. Those observers felt that legislators – who are waiting anxiously for the new redistricting maps to be released later this month – would prefer to keep their head down, get some work done, and then focus on their re-election campaigns. 

Not only that, but they pointed to the election of Republican State Sen. David Senjem as the new majority leader as a sign that things would be less acrimonious. Senjem is a Senate veteran who was widely hailed as a conciliatory voice during his previous tenure as minority leader for Republicans. 

It took less than a day for those hopes to be shattered. Senjem and his leadership team (including Chanhassen State Sen. Julianne Ortman) delivered what was perceived by DFLers as a sharp partisan blow – forcing a cut in DFL staff budgets of over $400, 000 while not reducing Republican staff dollars at all in an effort to close a $2.5 million budget gap for the State Senate. This prompted a stinging, sharply worded rebuke from DFL minority leader Tom Bakk over both the cuts themselves and the process that led to them in the first place.

Ortman was also in the middle of the second major partisan controversy of the session – the party-line vote by Republican senators to remove former State Sen. Ellen Anderson as the chair of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Anderson was a well-known environmental advocate when she was nominated by Gov. Mark Dayton last spring. However, her nearly oneyear long tenure on the PUC was not controversial. In 221 votes that Anderson participated in, the fivemember board (consisting of two DFLers and 3 Republicans), returned unanimous decisions 205 times. Of the remaining 16 votes, Anderson found herself in the minority only six times. 

Republicans, meanwhile, pointed to Anderson’s Senate record for evidence supporting their vote, noting her authorship of a bill that gave the state a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. They failed to note, however, that the bill passed on a bipartisan basis and was signed by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. 

Dayton’s response to the Anderson “firing” was intense and personal. In his fiery response, Dayton targeted Ortman (who was just one of two Republican Senators to speak on the floor of the Senate in favor removing Anderson) with pointed rhetoric and some incorrect facts. 

There seemed to be little doubt in many minds – even though it went unsaid by those involved – that the Anderson decision was in part payback for DFL rejections of two Pawlenty appointees. 

So are we doomed to two more months of this nonsense? Let’s hope not – and we can do much as citizens to make sure that we get a session that is productive despite the partisan divisions that paralyze St. Paul far too often. 

First, we should insist that legislators get together quickly on the main deliverable of this year’s session:a bonding bill. Gov. Dayton has released a $775 million proposal that is a mix of infrastructure and support for local projects. Legislative Republicans have yet to release their planned bonding bill, only saying that do not plan on spending more than $500 million and they favor a higher infrastructure component than Dayton. 

Both parties have valid points here. Dayton has the size of the bill correct, as it equals the average bonding investment over the last decade. With interest rates low and the construction industry looking for a boost, this is exactly the right time to invest in our state’s longterm priorities. 

Meanwhile, Republicans are correct that there should be a stronger infrastructure component to the bill. We have crumbling roads and bridges around this state that should be addressed in a more significant fashion. Some local projects specified by Dayton, such as improvements to Nicollet Mall or building a new St. Paul Saints stadium, should wait. 

Second, we can demand that legislators seriously tackle governmental reform that has been left outstanding for too long. 

Included as part of this agenda would be developing a statute that would defuse much of the harm of failure to reach a budget agreement by the end of the fiscal year, freeing local governments and school districts from certain state mandates, consolidating backoffice functions and purchasing across state agencies to maximize efficiencies, and eliminating loopholes in transparency laws that allow legislators to shield some of their income from disclosure. 

Finally, we should expect that politicians on both sides of the aisle to grow up and stop the ridiculous tit-for-tat that passes for discourse in St. Paul. It doesn’t matter who did it first, who did it last, or who did it worst.

We should have higher standards for those who represent us. The decisions they make have real impacts on real people. If a politician is more interested in partisan games than doing the people’s business, it’s up to us to send them home in November.


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