Friday, January 16, 2009

Week of January 11, 2009

DTV conversion: Our telecommunications committee heard from experts about the impending conversion to digital television signals. There is a ton of information available about what you may need to do on-line.

My transportation project for the session: Senator Dibble and I are working on an initiative to find efficiencies for community based transit (CBT). CBT is transit that serves seniors and the disabled. Because of all the "silos" of money from the federal government that fund different programs, many of the vans and buses for these services are idle when they could be serving additional people. CBT is expensive--dial-a-ride service is often $20-$25 per ride one-way, although riders usually only pay a few dollars so that they can afford it. This is three or four times as expensive as mass transit. State agencies have been working on this so we have an opportunity to save money and improve service. More to come!

State of the state: The Governor gave his State of the State address on Thursday. During the last speech I heard from Tim Pawlenty at the Chamber of Commerce two weeks ago, I agreed with 95% of what he said about the need to get smarter with state and local government spending. Another time in the last month or so he suggested that a fiscal crisis can bring people together and the barriers that we put up to good ideas will be lowered out of necessity. Another good speech that focused on problem solving. However, I was pretty confused with the State of the State. The Governor said that taxes are out of the question (no surprise) and talked about removing a lot of costly state mandates for local governments. But then he outlined a bunch of new mandates for school districts, additional spending for K-12 schools, and a cap on tuition for higher education. I look forward to seeing how are we going to pay for these new projects and mandates in about two weeks when his budget is released.

Per diem: WCCO did what seems like an annual story about legislative per diem. Yours truly is third from the bottom out of 201 legislators.

Suburban DFL co-chair: At a meeting of the DFL Suburban Caucus on Monday, I was elected co-chair along with Rep. Bev Scalze and Rep. Mike Obermuller. There are 39 Democrats from the suburbs out of 87 members.

Revenues down for last two months of 2008: We received an update from Minnesota Management & Budget (the old Department of Finance) that shows that tax revenues in the last two months of 2008 were below forecast, or more than $100 million, or down 4.5% percent overall, with sales tax down 4.4%, corporate tax down 42%, and income tax down 3.3%. That means that there could be additional budget cuts before the end of the current fiscal year that ends June 30th.

Budget trends commission: The Budget Trends Study Commission issued its recommendations this week. The legislature asked a group of former finance commissioners and other experts to help figure out how to even out Minnesota's tax revenue over time. Their report covered a variety of issues including: the impact of Minnesota's changing demographics on the budget; revenue volatility; trend growth rates; current spending pressures; long term revenue forecasts; and projected expenditure obligations. The recommendations included boosting our budget reserves so that the state can weather a major deficit without cutting major services or raising taxes excessively; taking note of a long-term demographic shift to an older population with fewer taxpaying workers; and reining in health care costs. The Commission noted that it will be hard to change the tax system to provide more even revenue flows and even then the volatility will not go away. The U of M has commented more on this on-line.

One Minnesota Conference: All legislators were invited to attend a conference on Wednesday to hear about global and economic trends that affect what we do at the state. One of the better speakers talked about how states and regions have done well economically when they figure out what they are good at and then create "clusters" of businesses and industries that feed into that strength. Other speakers talked about how states can boost economic development of these clusters--like "green jobs"--with tax credits, grants, and investment in higher education institutions. So I had to ask a question, "In a time of fiscal austerity, how can the state boost the green economy without tax credits, grants, and investment in higher education?" The audience burst out laughing, mostly because it correctly characterized our fiscal situation and lack of options. Dark humor I guess. The panelist responded that even without funding, government can set rules of the game for the market.

Blaine airport public meeting: A citizen group called Concerned Citizens of the North Metro Area is having a meeting regarding the possible expansion of the Anoka County Airport in Blaine. The meeting is Thursday, January 29th from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Mounds View Community Center. Blog readers will recall that citizens were not happy about Anoka County trying to push for expansion at the legislature without much public input.

Schedule: Monday included a meeting of the DFL Suburban Caucus, a short floor session, a meeting of the Tax Committee, and a meeting with local Education MN members; Tuesday included meetings of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the Tax Committee, and Health Care & Human Services Policy, plus meetings with Healthy Legacy about their legislative platform and DFLers on the Environmental Policy Committee. On Wednesday, I was at the Humphrey Institute for the OneMinnesota Conference. Thursday included meetings of the Environmental Finance Committee, the DFL House Caucus, Health Care & Human Services Policy, and Environmental Policy, plus a floor session for the State of the State address and a meeting of the Ramsey County legislative delegation. Friday included a meeting of the Telecommunications Regulation and Infrastructure Division, and a training for committee chairs and vice-chairs.

Visitors: Representative of Parks & Trails Council of MN; representatives of bio-degradable plastics industry about compost issues; DNR staff about drinking water legislation follow-up; lobbyist for Coalition of Greater MN Cities about local government aid; lobbyist for MN Paratransit Association about legislation; former district resident about internship; staff from Chief Clerk's office about tracking legislation in omnibus bills; House Research staff about legislation I'm working on

Constituent contacts: Lino Lakes resident pleased that I'm third from the bottom in per diem; Shoreview resident who liked the Governor's speech; district resident about workers comp issue; North Oaks resident against allowing the school year to start before Labor Day; Shoreview resident against higher per diem; Shoreview resident against cuts to K-12 education; Shoreview resident against tighter licensing of interior designers; Lino Lakes resident against requiring private homes to have sprinklers (the Pioneer Press ran a story about some experts proposing this); Lino Lakes resident commenting about the $700 billion bailout and how it should go to regular people instead of banks; Shoreview resident suggesting that property taxes should be replaced with a 2% income tax to local governments; Shoreview resident about internship; Shoreview resident against Rep. Rukavina's idea of an income tax surcharge; Lexington resident with ten suggestions for balancing the budget; Lino Lakes resident wanting the state to get subsidies back from Northwest Airlines and against per diem; Shoreview resident about a matter with drivers and vehicle services; Shoreview and North Oaks residents sending cards with legislative platform of MN Utility Investors