Monday, May 26, 2008

Tornado & Storm Damage, Memorial Day

On Monday, Memorial Day, I made a quick tour of the district to check on storm damage after yesterday's heavy weather.

Please keep the families who just lost their homes, suffered loss of human life, or who were injured just to the northeast of district 53A in Hugo in your thoughts and prayers. The Twin Cities chapter of the American Red Cross has set up a center in Hugo today and the Governor will be visiting. You can contribute to the Red Cross effort on-line.

The Star Tribune reports this: "Donations toward the tornado relief effort can be sent to: The Hugo Relief Fund, Lake Area Bank, 1400 E. Hwy. 96, White Bear Lake, MN 55110. Volunteers at the Hugo Fire Department are accepting donations of water, food, personal care, bedding and other items for the storm victims. There is no call out yet for volunteer labor. The Hugo Fire Dept. is at 5323 140th St. N., in Hugo."

Lino Lakes in my legislative district suffered a lot of hail damage. Just about every home I saw just off of Birch Street and east of 35E showed major holes in the siding from golf-ball sized hail. There were quite a few broken windows as well, but no one seems to have lost a roof. Just a half-mile south in Shoreview, there was no damage whatsoever.

Storms like this attract unscrupulous contractors offering to fix your house. If you are going to be requiring work on your home, the Attorney General's office has a handy primer for how to protect yourself as a consumer.

The City of Lino Lakes has a great web page about dealing with solicitors offering to fix storm damage.

Today is also Memorial Day, a time when we remember those who have fallen in our nation's service. PBS has a nice web site where you can read and submit eulogies for those veterans.

While most Americans recognize the service of those who served roughly from World War II to the present, I've been on a personal mission to recognize two earlier veterans in my family.

My great-great-great grandfather Sgt. John Gardner served in the 131st Pennsylvania Infantry during the Civil War. In December 1862, he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia. His wife gave birth to their tenth child a few months later. He is buried in a small church cemetery outside Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania but when I visited there about 15 years ago I found that all the grave markers from that period had either been neglected or vandalized many years before. The army will actually give you a new white marble headstone if you pay for installation, but my sister and I have struggled for years to get the cemetery association to respond to us so that we can put up a new grave marker for this veteran.

John Gardner's father James Gardner served in the War of 1812 in the Pennsylvania militia. When the British burned Washington, the Governor of Pennsylvania called up the militia to defend Baltimore, and James's unit took part. I have located James's wife's headstone in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and I think James's grave is next to hers. But again, the grave marker is gone so I don't have any proof that he is there yet.

So be grateful that Americans are tending graves and putting out flags in cemeteries nationwide today. Make sure that those veterans are not forgotten!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Session Wrap-Up

Twin Cities Public TV reporter Mary Lahammer noted in her blog today that "this session will have delivered on all the biggest issues: education, health care, property taxes, transportation, and the environment." She rightly gave a huge amount of credit to the Speaker of the House, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who has been able to lead a diverse group of Democrats and successfully negotiate among Senate leaders and the Governor. I have a lot of respect for the Speaker--she treats people like we would want to be treated. That means she uses persuasion and not arm-twisting and treats people with respect even though she might disagree with them.

This was an exhausting session, but we came to do a job and get it done. In 2006, I ran on the five topics that Mary Lahammer mentioned: education; health care; transportation; environment; and property taxes. As the 2008 session wraps up, the legislature as a whole accomplished the following:

* Boosting funding for our K-12 education system by $850 million by focusing on funding state and federal special education mandates, thereby freeing up money from the state formula for other obligations and shrinking the funding disparity between Minneapolis/St. Paul and the suburbs
* Restoring the massive cuts to early childhood education programs made in 2003
* Ending the era of double-digit tuition increases at public colleges and universities

Health Care
* Providing health coverage to more than 112,000 Minnesotans, including 37,000 children
* Creating cost containment methods for those of us who have health insurance, including payment reform, investment in prevention, electronic medical records, and coordinated care for chronically ill patients

* Passing a landmark transportation funding bill that will fix our 13 fracture-critical bridges, speed up congestion relief projects, install more suburban park-and-ride lots, and continue building a transit network

* Passing strong renewable energy legislation that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases
* Promoting more conservation and efficiency in our current energy use
* Putting a dedicated outdoor funding constitutional amendment on the ballot in November

Property Taxes
* Passing property tax relief for suburban homeowners by increasing funds for the Property Tax Refund (PTR) program
* Passing transportation bill that reduces pressure on cities and counties to levy more taxes for roads and bridges

The legislature did this and balanced the general fund budget without a general tax increase, even with a deficit of about $1 billion.

Personal achievements

Of course, I wasn't personally responsible for all of these things but I was part of a team that got it done. But I worked on a lot of things that became law or created a process for future change.

* Passed legislation that resolved the Mounds View School District conflict-of-interest impasse (HF2785/SF2653, now 2008 Session Law, Chapter 176)

Health care
* Got the Health Department and hospice advocates together to make sure that homeless adults could qualify for hospice care through General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC), which helps to reduce uncompensated care at MN hospitals (HF3185)
* Introduced legislation that would help cut administrative costs for publicly funded health care programs (HF3810). This bill was just a discussion draft for next year and I will be meeting with local doctors on how to make this legislation possible in 2009.

* Passed legislation that requires public water authorities to adopt a conservation rate structure in order to promote more water conservation (part of HF3238, became part of HF1812, Article 5, Sections 20-21, passed legislature, now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 363)
* Passed legislation that cuts the number of duplicative reports on water supply (part of HF3238, became part of HF1812, Sections 14-16, passed legislature, now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 363)
* Passed legislation to fund groundwater monitoring wells in the Twin Cities metro area (HF3005, became part of HF380, now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 179, see Section 7, Subdivision 5)
* Passed legislation to allow more funding of algae-to-biofuel research (HF2903/SF2996, now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 258)
* Passed legislation to fund the final link of the Rice Creek Regional Trail in Lino Lakes (HF2461/SF2280, became part of the bonding bill-HF380-and was line-item vetoed by the Governor) [Note: Partial funding may now be available from some Metro Parks dollars still available to Anoka County through the LCCMR--lottery funds--in SF2492, Section 2, Subdivision 3(i), now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 367]
* Passed legislation to promote more recycling of construction waste, composting of organic household waste, and cost effective recycling of hazardous household waste (HF3540, parts moved to HF1812, Article 5, Section 3, and SF3056, Article 32-33, now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 363)
* Passed legislation that will make it easier for metro-area cities to start collecting compostable household waste at your curb like food scraps and non-recyclable paper (part of HF3540, then became sections 32 and 33 of HF3056, now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 357)

Property taxes
* After the Senate passed a tax bill that would provide property tax relief by focusing only on local government aid (LGA), I led a group of two dozen suburban legislators in promoting direct property tax relief to taxpayers through more funds for the property tax refund (PTR) program (HF4188). This idea was embraced by the House Tax Committee and was included in the final tax bill (HF3149), which passed the legislature and is now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 366, Article 1, Section 1 (right at the top of the bill)

* Passed legislation to combat the theft of metals like copper wire and pipe from abandoned homes and utilities (HF457, became part of HF829, now 2007 Session Law, Chapter 54, Article 2 & 7)
* Passed legislation to provide predatory lending protections for owners of manufactured housing (aka mobile homes) (HF3477, now 2008 Session Law, Chapter 273)
* Passed legislation to make it easier to pay for your credit report freeze (HF1665/SF1578, now 2008 Session Law, Chapter 211)
* Passed legislation to allow Anoka County to build a new regional library in Lino Lakes (HF2763, inserted in House Tax Bill-HF3149, passed legislature, now part of 2008 Session Law, Chapter 366, Article 5, Section 10-search on "Anoka")
* Passed legislation to confirm what is covered as "court costs" for legal advocates representing low-income Minnesotans (HF1895/SF1700, included in HF829, passed legislature, now part of 2007 Session Law, Chapter 54, Article 5, Section 16)
* Passed legislation updating the "cold weather rule" that requires utilities to turn the heat back on for Minnesotans who originally didn't pay their bills but later set up a payment plan with the utility (HF2097/SF1857, included in SF2096, Article 2, Section 13, now part of 2007 Session Law, Chapter 57, Article 2, Section 13)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Week of May 11, 2008

Session wrapping up: We experienced long days and nights on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The final loose ends are being tied up on most bills on the floor of the House and Senate. As of the evening of Sunday, May 18th, we have now passed the last four big bills remaining: the big budget-balancing bill (HF1812), the omnibus tax bill, the health care reform bill (vetoed once already), and a bonding bill that deals with Central Corridor, a veterans facility, and the Lake Vermillion Park. All four of these bills are linked together as part of the budget negotiations among the Governor, House, and Senate. I will do a separate blog entry in a day or two summing up the session.

K-12 education funding bill: On Tuesday, the House and Senate passed HF6 that would provide an additional $51 per pupil to our school districts in the next year. This would not be added to the traditional funding formula that distributes dollars according a complex set of variables--it's $51 per pupil no matter what district you're in. Rep. Garafalo (see photo) asked me a question on the floor about how this bill would affect Centennial School District, implying that the bill would hurt the district because of bill language about debt levy equalization. Since this is a common "gotcha" technique by the House Republicans, I kind of told him to stick it in a nice way, indicating that my constituents heard for 16 years why their previous representative offered excuses for why he couldn't support education funding bills, and that this argument sounded like one more excuse. In addition, the Governor already threatened to veto previous legislation that we had in 2007 would have "fixed" the debt levy equalization issue. Centennial advocates also e-mailed me indicating their support for the bill. Apparently my words hit home with some folks on our side of the aisle, and about 20-30 people thanked me for my comments!

Unfortunately, the Governor vetoed HF6 at 11:45 p.m. on Friday night. However, after day and night negotiations, this funding was restored in HF1812 as part of the deal among the Governor, House, and Senate on Sunday.

We grill the DNR over use of state resource on a conference: Readers may be familiar with the recent story about how the DNR used state resources to raise money for a game warden conference. The MN Conservation Officers Association was the host organization for the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association in July 2007, and 304 employees from the DNR were required to attend the conference. On Friday (May 9), I was on the House Environmental Finance Committee that held an informational hearing on just what the DNR was doing on this conference. The Star Tribune had a follow-up article on Saturday in which I was quoted. Having hosted a national recycling conference in 2005, I know what is involved to organize these things, so I was outraged to see that the DNR was soliciting sponsorship on state time. This is illegal. But the DNR is going to hire an outside firm to investigate the situation, even though the Legislative Auditor is doing one anyway. The head of the enforcement division and his wife, who is also a DNR employee, have been put on paid administrative leave.

Legislature gets rid of major subsidies in Mall of America proposal: Due to major pressure from legislators in the House (including me), House leadership put together a new proposal to help finance a parking ramp for the Mall of America II project. Instead of filching money from taxpayers like us in the northern suburbs by tapping the "fiscal disparities" pool, the House and Senate have proposed having mall patrons pay an additional sales tax at the mall complex (since a parking fee was not acceptable to the mall) and a tax on lodging for hotels around the mall complex. The proposal also includes a requirement that employees at the new mall be paid a "living wage." This kind of puts the onus on the City of Bloomington, which has been seeking state funding for the mall and now would be the responsible party for raising these taxes. I'm not a big fan of subsidies for private businesses, but this is about the best result because it gets better wages for workers and avoids having the rest of us subsidize this business.

Bonding bill supports Rice Creek Chain of Lakes Campground/Visitor Center: Readers will know that the Governor used a line-item veto for completing the Rice Creek North Regional Trail in Lino Lakes in the bonding bill. However, one item that stayed in the bonding bill was funding for the Metropolitan Council for parks. This funding will result in the construction of a new visitor center at Rice Creek Chain of Lakes that will combine with the campground building, which some will know is kind of shack. A short trail will connect the campground with Centerville Beach on Centerville Lake.

Rice Creek Trail funding options: Anoka County is working hard to find additional funds to complete the Rice Creek Trail after the Governor's veto. One source is about $525,000 that it has available from the Legislative Citizens' Commission on MN Resources (LCCMR--or money provided from lottery proceeds) that it has not expended yet. That provision is in SF2492, which passed both houses on Saturday.

Hill Family Papers go to MHS: The most recent newsletter of the MN Historical Society reports that the MHS is taking possession of Hill family papers. Readers may know that North Oaks was a community that was originally owned as the experimental farm of James J. Hill, the founder of the Great Northern Railroad. (A picture from 1900 from the James J. Hill Reference Library web site--#569--to the right shows the barn on the farm that is still standing.) Some of his descendants live there today. In March 2008, "the Society accepted transfer of the James J. Hill, Louis W. Hill and Maud Van Cortlandt Taylor Hill Papers, 1200 cubic feet of records, from the James J. Hill Reference Library in St. Paul." Hill family foundations are supporting the digitization of the records among other tasks.

Article on manufactured home bill: The Quad Press printed a good article about HF3477, a bill to assist owners of manufactured homes (aka mobile homes). They interviewed the folks at Legal Aid who worked with me on the bill.

Semi-Sesquicentennial: Minnesota turned 150 on Sunday, May 11th, and therefore we are celebrating the state's sesquicentennial. My dad's birthday was the same day and he turned 75. Since he is half as old as the state, that means that we celebrated his semi-sesquicentennial!

Schedule: Say, I forgot to mention last week that on Friday night (the 9th) my kids and I went to visit the original copy of the Declaration of Independence at the MN History Center. I wanted my nine-year old at least to be able to remember that she saw it. The turnout, unfortunately, for this "showing" to public officials and those policy wonk-types was pretty low. I think I was the only legislator there. (There was a reception earlier in the week for legislators and some others.)

On Sunday, my wife and two children walked in the 5K Race for the Cure at the Mall of America. My seven-year old walked the whole way without even whining! There were 50,000 people who participated. They need to work on their event recycling though. :) I wished that those 50,000 people could have written a letter to the Governor asking him to sign the bill that will ban the use in Minnesota of toxic flame retardants like decabromodiphenylether (DBPE), which is present in breast milk worldwide. (The Governor vetoed it this week.)

On Monday the 12th, we started a lengthy floor session on a variety of issues. We got through a bunch of conference committee reports, including bills on regulating dangerous dogs, an omnibus pensions bill, a bill for a constitutional amendment asking voters to allow the creation of a citizen council that would determine legislative pay and per diem, the gestational carrier bill (aka surrogate mother legal issues), adoption records, and some others. The final bill was our major health reform bill--HF3391.

On Tuesday we had a lengthy floor session with lots of stops and starts. We came back Thursday for the same kind of stop-and-start procedure. On Friday, I spoke to a volunteer recognition breakfast at Island Lake Elementary in Shoreview. Then it was off to the floor for a series of bills and caucus meetings until about 10:30 p.m. On Saturday morning we returned at 10:00 a.m. for a session expected to go late into the night and early morning. We ended up recessing at about 11:30 a.m. and I went home to sleep for a few hours, then got called back about 3:30 a.m. on Sunday. We voted on two things and I turned around and went home, got some more sleep, and was back on the floor Sunday morning at 10:00 a.m. A deal was struck early Sunday afternoon and we spent the remainder of the day processing the final bills.

Visitors: lobbyist for Waste Management and National Solid Waste Management Association about conference committee report for HF3506; lobbyist for MN Retailers Association about HF3789 and compact fluorescent bulb education legislation

Constituent contacts: Shoreview resident and Lexington resident supporting medical marijuana legislation; Blaine resident against increase in the minimum wage; Shoreview resident supporting local government health bill; Shoreview resident against gay marriage; Lexington resident against levy limits; three Shoreview residents and Circle Pines resident for HF1875-the statewide health insurance plan for teachers; two district residents and Shoreview resident against newborn DNA testing bill; Circle Pines resident against the Welcoming Schools curriculum that "is indoctrination on gay rights"; Shoreview resident supporting naturopathic doctor registration bill; three Lino Lakes residents supporting HF6, the education finance bill; Lino Lakes resident against using the health care access fund to balance the budget, against state subsidies for the Mall of America, and against public subsidies for a Vikings stadium; two Shoreview residents, Lino Lakes resident, three Circle Pines residents, and Blaine resident supporting health care reform bill; Shoreview resident against income-based property tax relief; district resident supporting tough enforcement of immigration laws

Monday, May 5, 2008

Week of May 4, 2008

Governor signs my manufactured housing bill: The Governor signed HF3477 on Monday, May 5th. This is the bill I authored to provide predatory lending protections for owners of manufactured housing, aka mobile homes.

Governor signs my algae-to-biofuels bill: The Governor signed SF2996/HF2903 last Thursday. This is the bill that allows wastewater effluent to count as a renewable energy source. This means that wastewater treatment plants can be phosphorus sources to grow algae into sources for biodiesel. The U of M is doing the research on algae.

Compost legislation amended: Parts of my solid waste bill (HF3540) ended up in other bills, but one provision that needed to get approved in a timely fashion needed to get amended to another bill in order to stay alive. Thursday afternoon, I introduced an amendment to make it easier for compost facilities to get a permit from the MPCA without the same burdensome process one needs for a landfill or transfer station. I spent a good three hours running around organizing it on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon. Eventually the amendment was put on SF3056, which went back to the Senate.

Primary seat belt provision sinks a transportation bill: Something unusual happened Thursday night. The omnibus transportation bill conference committee agreed on a bill that included a primary seat belt provision. This means that a police officer would be able to pull you over for not wearing a seat belt. Right now, you can only be fined for not wearing a seat belt if you are pulled over for another reason. This provision was not heard or voted on in the House but the Senate did approve it and Senators on the conference committee insisted on its inclusion in the final bill. The debate took quite a while, but the House voted to send the conference committee report back to the conference committee by a vote of 72 to 62. (I voted to keep it in the House so we could approve it--meaning I supported the primary seat belt provision.)

Opposition arose for several reasons. First, many House members did not like the Senate pushing so hard on a controversial measure when the House never had a hearing on the idea. Second, some members felt that this provision would lead to more racial profiling by police officers. Third, some members with a libertarian bent felt that this provision would take away individual freedom. So the opponents were most Republicans, inner city Democrats, and Democrats from northern Minnesota. It was an interesting coalition.

Updated report on special interest money in MN politics: Professor David Schulz of Hamline University issued a new report this month (which I just got) called "Price of Admission 2008: Political Money Trends in Minnesota." You can see lots of details of just how much PAC, lobbyist, and big donor contributions flowed to parties and candidates in the last two years. You can also see my campaign finance report for 2006 and 2007 in the links on the right side of the screen, where you can confirm that I didn't accept PAC or lobbyist contributions in the last campaign.

Schedule: On Monday we had a floor session from about 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. on a wide range of bills. On Tuesday, we did not have a floor session but I attended two caucus meetings and filmed a cable TV interview. On Wednesday, our floor session went from about 11:00 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. On Thursday, we were on the floor from 9:00 a.m. to about 1:00 a.m. Friday.

Visitors: Staff from Eureka Recycling about composting amendment; lobbyist for Municipal Legislative Commission on property tax relief proposals; lobbyist for Wells Fargo on upcoming mortgage foreclosure relief legislation; labor representative about minimum wage bill

Constituent contacts: Shoreview resident about primary election process; North Oaks resident against requiring a photo ID to vote; Shoreview couple against HF1724 creating a licensing system for "naturopathic physicians"; Shoreview resident against a greater government role in health care; two Shoreview residents supporting the Central Corridor and the proposed Lake Vermillion State Park; Shoreview resident against taxes and spending generally; Lino Lakes resident supporting a primary seat belt law; Shoreview? resident supporting passage of the omnibus transportation policy bill-HF3800 with a primary seat belt provision; Circle Pines resident in favor of newborn DNA screening; Shoreview resident concerned about utility shut-offs for consumers; district resident supporting the continuation of the political contribution refund program that Republicans sought to eliminate during debate of the House tax bill; Circle Pines resident, Lexington resident about teacher pension issue; Lexington resident and Shoreview resident against House property tax relief bill; Circle Pines resident supporting HF3448 on gestational carrier arrangements (aka surrogate mother contracts); two Lino Lakes residents supporting proposed Lake Vermillion State Park; Lino Lakes resident frustrated with delaying tactics of House Republicans; district resident asking about general budget issues; Shoreview resident against clean car bill; Lino Lakes resident and Shoreview resident supporting my vote in favor of sex education; Circle Pines resident supporting additional funding for K-12 education and Rule of 90 teacher pension proposal, and against merger of two teacher pension funds; Shoreview resident supporting education funding and against subsidy for Mall of America; Circle Pines resident upset with DNR policies in general; Circle Pines resident supporting primary seat belt law & booster seat law