Sunday, March 18, 2007

Week of March 18, 2007

Shoreview Town Hall Meeting Wrap-Up: Sen. Rummel and I had a very good town hall meeting with six constituents from Shoreview and North Oaks on Sunday. One constituent said she enjoys the blog but would appreciate more substance on issues I'm working on. I will try to do that starting this week.

The budget: There are a lot of headlines out there about the budgets being proposed by the Governor, the Senate, and the House. I'm getting a lot of calls and e-mails asking about taxes of all types, so let me sum up what is going on.

* The Surplus: The headlines and sound bites about the surplus are often misleading. There is about $1 billion in one-time money in a surplus for this current fiscal year, which ends on June 30th. The other surplus discussed is for the FY2008-09 budget, which starts July 1, and it is also about $1 billion if you don't account for inflation. If you do use inflation to project the future budget, there is not really any surplus. The Governor seems to be rejecting any idea of sending out rebate checks for this year's surplus, since it would then put us in a deficit situation for FY2008-2009.

* The Governor's budget: This budget includes some new spending. In education, he includes 2% more on the education formula in 2008-09 and 2% more in 2009-2010. The second part is contingent on some requirements for school districts to have a certain number of "three-star" schools. His clean water proposals would project that we clean up our impaired waters in about 100 years. Property tax relief would net a reduction in property taxes for the average home in the $35-$40 range.

* The Senate: The Senate has been considering a wide variety of taxes, especially in transportation. It would generally be accurate to say that the Senate is looking at more revenue than the House--metrowide sales tax on transportation, gas tax increase dedicated to roads and bridges, a dedicated sales tax for outdoor funding, etc. On education, there would not be more money on the formula compared to the governor but there would be more funding for special education that would free up more resources for school districts.

* The House: The House DFL leadership came out with a more modest proposal to fund our "Stick to the Basics" agenda focused on education, health care, and property taxes. Here is a link to our budget proposal. It includes 3% and 3% on the education formula in the next two budget years, phasing in health care coverage for all uninsured children over four years, and giving property taxpayers more than half a billion dollars in permanent property tax relief. As a member of two finance committees, I can tell you that we are cutting budgets and saying no to a whole lot of new spending in order to fund these three priorities. I do not have "the fine print" yet on how a typical homeowner in our district would benefit on our propety taxes, but I will pass that on when I get it. The figure I saw in the Pioneer Press on Saturday said the average homeowner just on the property tax would likely see a $100 cut.

To fund these priorities, in addition to doing some cutting and saying no to a lot of other stuff, our proposal would increase tax compliance for people who have not been paying their taxes, close a corporate loophole for so-called "foreign operating corporations," and create a fourth tier in the individual income tax (at nine percent) for individuals with $226,000 in income or couples with $400,000 in income after deductions. The revenue from this income tax bracket would go directly to the property tax relief package.

What do you think? Let me know at

The Pioneer Press had a front-page article on Wednesday on "tax incidence" that would be of interest to the budget discussion. It points out that the middle class is paying more in taxes as a percentage of income than some other income brackets.

On Sunday, I attended a budget planning session of the Environmental Finance Committee.

On Monday, I attended the Environment & Natural Resources Committee; a caucus for that committee; a DFL House Caucus; a short floor session; Energy Policy & Finance Committee; and MN Heritage Finance Committee. I also met with a group of visiting local government officials from the Russian Far East (I studied in the USSR in 1989 through a U.S. government exchange program).

On Tuesday, I attended the Environmental Finance Committee; a short floor session; and the Environment & Natural Resources Committee. I also presented three bills today. One was HF1665, which is the bill mentioned last week that would let consumers freeze their credit report paying by something other than a credit card. It passed unanimously in the Commerce & Labor Committee on a voice vote. This bill was proposed to me by a constituent in Lino Lakes. The other bill was HF1895, which was brought to my attention by a law student working with indigent clients. The bill would allow indigent Minnesotans to get a free photocopy of their court file. (Most courts do this anyway, but the bill was designed to have legal backing for any courts that aren't sure whether they should do it or not. It has negligible fiscal impact.) The bill passed in about 60 seconds in the Public Safety & Civil Justice Committee. The third bill, HF2144, was a proposal to create an ombudsman at the MPCA on groundwater pollution issues. My intent was to start a dialogue with the MPCA about the need to communicate better with communities affected by leaking landfills, so I asked that the bill be tabled but I wanted to present the idea for feedback.

On Wednesday, I presented HF457 (the metal theft bill) to the Public Safety Finance Committee. This is the bill that is designed to thwart thieves of metal like copper wire and pipe. (Links to articles and the bill are on the right.) The bill had a rocky start back in February in another committee and I've worked hard during the last month and half to do my homework and get it right. The amendment I introduced Wednesday morning was well received because I had either removed controversial provisions or modified them in order to make them actually work in practice. One of the Republican critics of the bill said something to the effect that "the bill has come a long way" and that it was now "a good bill." (He introduced an amendment anyway to take out one section but the amendment failed.)

It is satisfying to see that representatives of both parties can disagree without being disagreeable on bills such as this, and I have learned a lot about a variety of statutes by working on this bill. The bill now will be "laid over for possible consideration in the omnibus public safety finance bill." That means that the bill will no longer stand alone as HF457 and will be part of a bigger bill with other public safety budget items. So my work is done for a while on this bill.

I also attended the House DFL caucus and a DFL energy committee caucus, as well as the Energy Policy & Finance Committee, where we discussed and passed the "C-BED" bill. C-BED stands for Community-Based Energy Development, or a way to encourage locally owned renewable energy production (like wind). This is the fourth of four big energy related bills this session. The other three include the renewable energy standard (passed and signed by the governor), a conservation and efficiency bill, and the global warming mitigation bill. These bills will have long-lasting positive impacts for the state, although there will likely be some short-term disruption in the next few years.

My son's sixth birthday was today. I was happy to not have a committee meeting this evening after 6:00 p.m. to help celebrate, although many of my colleagues will probably be in committee till midnight working on bills before the Friday deadline. Most of our greater Minnesota legislators miss a lot of family events because they are in St. Paul from Monday to Friday, so I feel fortunate!

On Thursday, I attended a caucus meeting of the Heritage Finance Committee; a morning meeting of the Environmental Finance Committee; a short floor session; a meeting of the Environment & Natural Resources Committee; and an evening meeting of the Environmental Finance Committee. Another 7:00 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. day!

On Friday, I attended a short floor session and a meeting of the Energy Policy & Finance Committee. But before that, I had a great visit to Top Tool, a company in Blaine right across the interstate from my district. The issues at the legislature that were mentioned as being critical to them include workforce development and health care for small businesses. They are concerned about a shrinking pool of qualified applicants for positions at the company.

"Sierra Grassroots News": There was a brief blurb about me in the Sierra Club's national web site. I only mention it because there is some information for people who do not know me that illustrates how I integrate economics with environmental protection.

Constituent contacts: Lino Lakes resident supporting property tax relief; district resident against entitlement programs; Lino Lakes resident concerned about excessive tax credits, flag bill, ethanol, and equipment sales tax rebate; Circle Pines resident against Governor's anti-tax comments; Centennial Legislative Action Group; Shoreview resident seeking property tax relief; two Lino Lakes residents against tax increases; North Oaks resident supporting legislation (HF1046) to regulate dog and cat breeders; two Shoreview residents against tax increases; Shoreview resident opposed to marginalization of on-line charter schools; an unidentified resident using MPR's budget balancer feature showing his budget priorities; Shoreview resident seeking improved education funding; North Oaks resident against tax increases; four Lino Lakes residents seeking improved funding for special education; Shoreview couple against benefits for same-sex partners in city governments; two Lino Lakes residents supporting increased K-12 funding; Shoreview resident seeking reinstatement of funding for suicide prevention programs; Shoreview resident seeking changes in the way the state funds special education; Circle Pines resident asking about drivers license issue; Lino Lakes resident against cigarette advertising; Shoreview resident against the "Stand Your Ground" bill (HF498); Shoreview resident supporting bills regulating atrazine; Circle Pines resident with ideas about lowering property taxes; Shoreview resident about rebates for seniors on their property taxes; Lexington resident about an upcoming event; Shoreview mayor about 50th Anniversary celebration in our fair city; two Shoreview residents supporting comprehensive sex education; Lino Lakes resident supporting HF 1332, a bill to have MN divert holdings from companies doing business with Sudan over Darfur; Lino Lakes resident against tax increases; Lino Lakes resident concerned that adults without children will not be able to access MN Care; Shoreview resident about LGA, health care, and other issues; Shoreview resident suggesting ways to balance budget; unidentified resident supporting drug tests for welfare recipients

Non-constituent contacts: I am going to enter info here should it be something of interest to the district--the volume of this contact type is increasing and it has marginal value.

Visitors: Purchasing supervisor from MN Department of Administration about ways we can save money buying supplies, computers, etc. for the MN House of Representatives (The legislature has exempted itself from cost-saving opportunities with state contracts--go figure); two members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) from the district. One of the IBEW's positions is to cut back funding for MnSCU because the union believes that the university system is cranking out too many graduates who compete with those in the trades (I'm sure that there are more details here than I'm aware of, but that is the first time I've ever heard this idea before); representatives of St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly of the AFL-CIO; Sierra Club lobbyist; lobbyist and employee of Xcel Energy about their position on the cold weather rule

Invitations: I am going to enter info here only should it be something of interest to the district.

Information sent: I am going to enter info here only should it be something of interest to the district--the volume of this contact type is increasing and it has marginal value.