Saturday, June 23, 2007

Per diem rankings for state legislators

In reviewing the political websites from the time I was on vacation, I see that the Pioneer Press published a list of per diem that legislators accept. Good for them! Click on this link to see the article and member expense report for a pdf file ranking all House members. Readers of this blog will know that earlier this year, I took a dim view of the increase in the per diem rates for members of the House. We never got the chance to vote on the increase on the floor since it was all done in the Rules Committee. On the list you will see that my per diem for the entire session was just above $3,000, or $35 per day for weekdays only. House members can accept up to $77 per day for seven days a week, which would add up to roughly $11,000 for the five months of the session. My per diem is ranked 133rd out of 134 House members. (My colleague Steve Simon does not accept per diem. There are several former legislators on the list who did not get re-elected or retired who are on the list because they got one small expense reimbursement check and had $0 per diem.) All legislators have the same salary of $31,140.

Weeks of June 10-23, 2007

My family spent June 14-22 in Germany on the first real vacation we've taken together for many years. My wife travels to Dusseldorf for Ecolab regularly so we took the opportunity to all go once school got out. My wife also has some distant cousins who live in the state of Hessen (or Hesse), so we got a very good look at how regular Germans live. Here are some observations that might be interesting from a public policy viewpoint.

Transit: Wow! Compared to the United States, Germany has a higher population density, less parking, smaller streets, and higher gas prices. This creates a need for efficient transit. We never rented a car and took the train and other transit just about everywhere, except for the rural area where Michelle’s cousins live. (Even then there was a two-car tram—about the size of the Hiawatha trains—that ran about five miles away.) The main train stations in the cities served as transit hubs. You can pick up intercity rail trains (IC and ICE), suburban rail (S-bahn), subways (U-bahn), buses, trams, and even rental bikes at the station. The connections were convenient, the schedules were regular, and generally everything worked well. I realize that we can’t duplicate this system in Minnesota to the same degree, but growth and congestion are such in the Twin Cities that transit has become necessary to cope with growth and to give commuters more options. This is why I supported funding in the bonding bill for the Union Depot in St. Paul to serve as a transit hub and for the Rush Line Corridor that would run into suburban Ramsey County.

Smoking: Smoking in public places is rampant. There are no-smoking train cars and sections of restaurants, but it doesn’t matter. When I asked my daughter about the biggest difference between the U.S. and Germany, she said, “You can smell smoke inside a lot. It stinks!”

Recycling: Many of my recycling colleagues praise Germany’s Green Dot program, where manufacturers pay for costs of recycling their packaging. Coke bottles come in refillable plastic bottles and some glass and plastic containers have a deposit. In many towns, recyclable containers are put in one bag and paper is put in a rolling cart. But I was told that every town and district has a different way of organizing the program, which is a problem we have here. They do have organic curbside collection in some places, and a lot of people including my wife’s cousins have backyard composting bins. But just like the U.S., glass recycling is a problem. In highly automated recycling programs, glass breaks into small pieces and can get mixed in with the paper, causing quality programs at paper mills. So while there are deposits on some glass bottles (especially those specialized beer bottles with the attached ceramic cap and rubber seal), on the street in just about every town you can see neighborhood glass recycling containers about four or five feet tall and three or four feet wide. (We call them recycling igloos.) There are always three—one for clear, one for brown, and one for green glass. Glass containers are usually prohibited from the bags you put at your curb.

Even with the Green Dot program, my wife’s cousins pay 800 euros a year in a small town for bi-weekly garbage and monthly recycling—ouch! That’s about $1,220 a year. In Shoreview I pay about $27 a year for recycling and about $240 a year for weekly garbage, which includes a 9.75% state Solid Waste Management Tax and a 31% County Environmental Charge.

Energy: In the state of Hessen in the middle of the country, electricity costs about 20 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, or about $0.20. Our cost is about half that. There is an incentive or subsidy program for homeowners to install solar panels to heat their water, and you will see small panels about 2’ by 3’ on some roofs. Windmills are everywhere in the country, with usually six to eight of them together on hillsides. In my wife's relatives' houses in a small rural town, they use fuel oil for heat, and the fuel tanks are in the basement of the house! The tanks are rigid plastic totes, like ones we use in the U.S. for storage and transportation of chemicals. Ours--which are steel--are underground.

Hunting: Having served on the Environment & Natural Resources Committee in the House, I’ve learned a lot about hunting regulations in Minnesota. In Germany it is a whole other ballgame! My wife’s second cousin is what I would call “the town hunter.” My wife’s cousin took me on a tour of his area to show me his hunting blind so I peppered him with questions about the rules. He lives in a rural area in a town of 300 people. Although the different German states have slightly different regulations based on when the hunting season starts, the general hunting laws are the same. In Minnesota, to hunt on someone’s farmland you just need to ask permission. In Germany, one person gets the hunting “franchise” through a lease on local farmland. He works this out with the local farmers, who get some revenue from the franchise. No one else can hunt in this franchise area without the permission of the hunter who has the lease. He hunts mainly wild boar, which breed twice a year with about five or six young to a litter. He is financially liable for any damage to crops in his area by wild game. To be eligible to be a hunter, you must go through a one-year training program and a rigorous written examination.

There is a two-gun limit on ownership of handguns. (I found a Canadian report at on German firearms regulations.)

Agriculture: It is interesting to see all over the country how diversified the crops are on local farms. You won’t see huge plots of one crop like corns and soybeans in Minnesota. You’ll see wheat, rapeseed, and corn in plots of about ten acres each or so.

Early childhood: I went with Michelle’s cousin to pick up his four-year old grandson at a pre-school—they call it kindergarten. Kindergarten in Germany is not connected to a primary school as it is in the U.S. It is for children from age three to six and they are all in the same classroom. The idea is that the younger children learn from the older children. The teacher to student ratio is roughly the same as in Minnesota—or about 1 teacher for about seven to ten kids. The four-year old cousin likes Sponge Bob and his other German cousins like Bob der Baumeister (Bob the Builder)!

Other public education: My kids had the chance to attend a primary school class where my wife’s cousin teaches. The kids were 10 years old and were taking their first year of English language. (English is required!) My daughter and son got to teach a bit, showing postcards of Minnesota and talking about basic stuff like colors, numbers, etc. My daughter observed that kids get called on my raising their hand up with the index finger up only. The class was about 25 students. My wife’s cousin will teach the same class over the course of four years (about 1st through 4th grade in our system) and then start over. The kids were also taking a bike safety class from a police officer. The school has a bike course that was a mini-version of the street set-up at the MnDOT licensing station in Arden Hills off of County Road I.

By the time students in Germany get to what we call middle school, they get tracked into one of three systems to prepare them for life. At the lowest level, they get tracked for vocational education and at the highest they are tracked for the university. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either an important way to create job security or a very constraining system that limits your choices.

Taxes: All Germans have to pay a “church tax.” You can pick which church you want it to go to, but this is something that takes many Americans aback.

Booster seats: All kids up to age 10 have to sit in booster seats in a car. One cab we rode in had seat cushions that popped up.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Funding Disparities on K-12 Education

A received a question from a constituent about the K-12 education funding formula. If you look at the total amount per pupil received for all school districts in the state, you'll see that districts like Minneapolis and St. Paul receive significantly more than districts like Mounds View, White Bear Lake, and Centennial. Why the difference? I posed this question to our research staff and I'd like to present what I got back. (I could explain it in my own words but not so precisely as he did.) You'll see that all districts start with the same dollar amount per pupil at $5,734.

"One key difference relates to the amount of compensatory aid that, say Minneapolis, receives as compared with a suburb in your district (e.g. Centennial, district #12). For example, for FY 2008, under the base, Minneapolis would receive $12,353 in revenue per AADM (average adjusted daily membership, or pupil). As with other districts throughout the state, the basic formula provides the biggest chunk of that amount: $5,734 per pupil (or 46.4% of the total for Minneapolis).

"For Minneapolis, the second biggest revenue contributor is compensatory aid, at $1,586 per pupil (or 12.8% of the total). Compensatory revenue is based on each school building's count of students that are eligible for a free or reduced price meals. Because Mpls/St. Paul have a higher proportion of students meeting this criterion (which is basically measures levels of students living in poverty) — those two school districts receive more compensatory revenue to help address the additional needs of these students.Special education revenue is the third biggest revenue source for Minneapolis. For FY 08, under the base, special education revenue contributed $1,503 per pupil (or 12.2% of the total).

"In contrast, for Centennial, compensatory aid only comprises $39 per pupil (of the $8,213 in revenue per pupil). This is significantly lower than the amount of compensatory aid that Minneapolis receives. This is because Centennial has few students eligible for free and reduced price meals.Another potential source explaining the revenue per pupil discrepancy between Mpls/St. Paul and the suburbs stems from special education. While Centennial still receives a considerable amount of special education revenue ($900 per pupil under the base FY 08, or 10.96% of its total) — Minneapolis receives 67% more special education revenue per pupil than Centennial (or $1,503 per pupil).

"Evidently, Minneapolis incurs more special education expenses to address the needs of its students receiving special education — accordingly, Minneapolis receives more special education funding to help pay for the costs of providing special education related services.While the following source of revenue is relatively small compared with the basic formula and special education — another difference between the suburbs and Mpls/St. Paul may also stem from the higher amounts of LEP revenue (limited English proficiency) that Mpls/St. Paul receive as compared with the suburbs. (For instance, under FY 08 base, Minneapolis would receive $155 per pupil in LEP revenue while Centennial only receives $7 per pupil.). Obviously, this is because Minneapolis has more students eligible to receive LEP revenue.

"In case you are interested, the following link to a look-up table allows one to enter in the number of a particular school district and you can see the particular revenue sources that make up that district's revenue — when you compare Minneapolis or St. Paul with the suburbs — you can see where the discrepancies stem from. HTTP://"

What next?

A new organization in Minnesota called P.S. Minnesota has suggested that the state needs to create a new funding framework that reflects actual needs in Minnesota' school districts and simplifies the process. You can link to their five-page white paper on the web. Next year a study will come out on just what this formula might look like. The Governor made a line-item veto of the funding for the consultant to complete this study, however.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Weeks of May 27 & June 3, 2007

After putting a lot of other things on hold until after the session ended on May 21, I found myself overwhelmed with family and other stuff for the last two weeks.

Here are some of my activities during this two-week period. On Friday, June 1, I met with a researcher at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the U of M for an interview/survey on the legislature session. In the afternoon, I met with staff at the MN Geological Survey about ground water issues. This is one of my objectives for the break--to build some expertise on what we know and don't know about our ground water resources. This became something of interest because of the leaking Highway 96 landfill in North Oaks.

On Monday, June 4th, I met with Met Council staff about suburban transit issues, including bus service in Shoreview. I also met with staff from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) about follow-up to my metal theft legislation. The BCA has a theft alert system that my bill requires scrap metal dealers to sign up for, and I want to make sure that the dealers know how the BCA's system works during the next few months. It's one thing to pass a law, but it's another to make it work, so I am committed to working with the dealers, law enforcement, utilities, contractors, and others who have been victims of aluminum and copper theft. In the afternoon, I attended a meeting of the "Waste Streams Policy Committee" of the Solid Waste Management Coordinating Board (SWMCB) at the MN Pollution Control Agency. The MPCA and the SWMCB are working on ways to recycle more construction and demolition debris instead of landfilling, and I wanted to get up to speed.

On Tuesday, June 5th, I attended a celebration of the passage of the electronic waste recycling bill at the Association of MN Counties and a picnic for DFL Senate District 53.

On Wednesday, June 6th, I met with a representative of the MN Historical Society about site visits by legislators before the next session. This was in my capacity as Vice-Chair of the Heritage Finance Committee. I don't usually list a lot of family stuff here but I thought I would mention that in the evening, six year old Ben pulled off an unorthodox version of the hidden ball trick while playing catcher up in Lexington. In "coach's-pitch" league, the coach pitches about four or five balls to the hitter before the catcher or umpire returns the balls in order to speed up the game. (The kids swing and miss a lot.) With a runner on third, a hitter hit a grounder to short but there was no throw. Ben stands on the plate, tags the runner from third, and pulls out one of the balls from a previous pitch and yells, "You're out!" I told him later that it didn't count :)

On Thursday, June 7th, Senator Rummel and I met with the Lexington City Council to discuss the results of the legislative session.

On Friday, June 8th, I attended the quarterly Shoreview Business Exchange at the Community Center.

On Saturday, June 9th, my supporters and I marched in the North Oaks Community Fair parade, but not before my wife called to say that I had left home with my son's baseball glove and bat in my trunk and he had a game!

Smoking ban article: The Shoreview Press published a story this week about the effects of the statewide smoking ban. Several bar owners are quoted as being opposed to the ban. I thought readers would be interested to hear that I was never contacted by any business in the district about the ban during the legislative session. According to my records, 32 constituents contacted me in favor of a smoking ban and eight contacted me against the ban or parts of it.

Constituent contacts: Blaine resident about Sen. Metzen's DWI; North Oaks resident supporting special session to re-pass tax bill; Lino Lakes resident pleased with environmental votes; North Oaks resident pleased with environmental votes; Circle Pines resident pleased with environmental votes; Shoreview resident pleased with environmental votes; Lino Lakes resident pleased with environmental votes; Shoreview resident asking about incorporating inflation into budget projections; Lino Lakes resident asking about K-12 education funding formula; Shoreview resident happy about salary supplement for state employees; Shoreview resident concerned about data privacy of Record Locator Service included in health and human services bill; Shoreview resident asking whether House tried to override veto on property tax relief bill; North Oaks resident pleased about smoking ban vote; North Oaks resident supporting higher weight limits for trucks; Shoreview resident supporting legislation for developmentally disabled adults; two Shoreview residents supporting restored bus service in Shoreview; Lino Lakes resident pleased with salary supplement for state employees; Lexington resident seeking help on a special education matter; Shoreview resident against increased truck weight limits and asking if I received contributions from the trucking industry (see link to my campaign finance report to see that the answer is no); Lino Lakes resident about a proposed Vikings stadium in Minneapolis; Circle Pines resident pleased with salary supplement for state employees; Lino Lakes resident pleased with salary supplement for state employees; Shoreview resident against taxes generally; Shoreview resident pleased with vote on dedicated funding for the outdoors; Circle Pines resident pleased with education funding vote; Lino Lakes resident upset about rising rents in low-income senior rental complex; several North Oaks residents about Highway 96 landfill and potential effects on private wells by new high capacity drinking water wells for St. Paul; Lino Lakes pleased with vote on dedicated outdoor funding for the outdoors; Lino Lakes resident asking about K-12 education funding formula