Saturday, April 4, 2009

Weeks of March 29 & April 5, 2009

Hi, folks! With our policy committee deadlines on March 26 and April 7, we've been working late at the Capitol. It's kept me from updating you, but now here it is.

Survey: If you've sent me e-mail as a constituent during the last two years, you should have received an e-mail from me asking you to take an on-line survey. If you didn't get an e-mail on this and you are a constituent, please e-mail me at and I'll send you the link. I've received almost 400 responses in 72 hours.

Bonding bill: Last week we passed the House version of a bonding bill. Usually in a budget year the legislature considers a smaller bonding (or capital investment) bill to address acute needs for state buildings and the like. Rep. Alice Hausman, the House Capital Investment Committee chair put together the bill and it is about $200 million, with funds to be spent on a limit amount of state projects like "asset preservation" for state buildings--that means paying to fix up those buildings, bring them up to code, etc. The Senate has a much bigger bill that has lots of non-emergency projects in it. (I prefer the House version.) The bill is now in conference committee. I introduced a bill this year (HF2182) that would require all proposals for bonding to have specific outcomes listed publicly so that the legislature can compare these projects for merit. Too often in the past the legislature will put together a bonding bill that has projects in it where the public does not have a way to confirm the project's purported benefits. It is too late to get a vote on this bill this year but I have asked for an informational hearing.

Alzheimer's Disease statistics: I recently received a useful report on Alzheimer's disease and its impact in Minnesota. Minnesota data is on page 23. The value of unpaid care in MN is $1.685 billion with 175,000 unpaid caregivers helping out Alzheimer's patients.

21st Century Tax Commission: Last year the Governor appointed business leaders to a 21st Century Tax Commission to help promote business growth in Minnesota. The group released its report and we had a hearing on it in the Taxes Committee. The group suggests repealing the corporate tax and cutting taxes for S-Corps, limited liability corporations (LLC), and partnerships. To make up for the lost revenue, the commission recommended extending the sales tax to clothing and other exempt items. The Governor has praised the tax cuts but didn't agree about raising the other taxes. I appreciate the fact that the commission did what a lot of people don't do when they come to the Capitol--they asked for a cut in taxes in one place but explained how they would pay for the deficit it would create.

Green Acres: On the House floor we recently voted to make changes to the Green Acres law. Green Acres is a program that allows certain agricultural land to be taxed at a lower level if the owner (usually a farmer) agrees not to plant on it. The idea was to preserve non-cultivated farmland as suburban sprawl takes place. There were quite a few abuses in the program outlined by the Legislative Auditor last year, and the legislature ended up repealing the program in 2008. There was a huge amount of opposition to it from many Green Acres program enrollees, and the new law delays some of the changes and creates a new rural preserve program. One problem with Green Acres is that each county gives the farm owner the tax break and then spreads the cost of it to all other property owners to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. There is no state money involved. In Ramsey County it is a pretty small program--the increased cost for an owner of a $185,000 house is $1 a year and in Anoka it is $23 a year. But in Wright County it is $146 a year, in Carver County it's $168 a year, and in Chisago County it's $104 a year.

Next wave of foreclosures: In committee, the MN Foreclosure Partners Council spoke to us about the "next wave" of foreclosures that are likely to take place. The first wave was due to subprime mortgage resets that totaled about $1 trillion in assets nationwide. The next wave would be for the resetting of Alt-A and Option ARM mortgages in 2010 and 2011. The total amount of assets in these mortgages is up to $1.6 trillion nationwide.

TIF: Recently the Taxes Committee heard proposals by local governments for tax increment financing (or TIF). House Research has several web pages about TIF, but the basic definition is that TIF is a method of financing real estate development costs to encourage developers to construct buildings or other private improvements or to pay for public improvements, such as street, sidewalks, sewer and water, etc. TIF pretty much sets aside the new property tax revenue from the development to pay for the improvements, thereby paying off the costs but keeping the new revenue from going into that city's property tax base until a certain number of years pass. Cities come to the legislature to extend the TIF financing period (e.g., five years to ten years) or to make other changes. One of the proposals recently was for Arden Hills' proposal for the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP), or HF1468.

In 53A, here is the percentage of our net property tax capacity that is locked up now in TIF by city: Blaine 4.8%; Circle Pines 14.8%; Lino Lakes 2.4%; Shoreview 5.6%. (There was no TIF data for Lexington or North Oaks.) Here are the percentages for our school districts: Centennial 10.8%; Mounds View 10.1%; and White Bear Lake 5.0%.

Low Carbon Fuels: In committee we heard a proposal for creating a low carbon fuel standard
The advocates for this policy include the Izaak Walton League and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and they have a set of fact sheets on-line. This would be one of the several dozen proposals we have for how the state can reduce its carbon emissions. The idea is that gasoline could have reduced carbon intensity that would require some reformulation. The two refineries in the state, Marathon and Flint Hills Resources, and their labor unions are staunchly against the policy. We received an interesting map of Canadian and U.S. crude oil pipelines and refineries. I couldn't find it on-line but did find a similar map here. Most of the crude oil in Minnesota comes from Canada. What was frustrating is that no one in the hearing--either pro or con--could tell us what would need to take place chemically to reduce carbon in fuels or what it would cost. We either heard that it was good for the climate or that it was bad for jobs.

Letter in the Shoreview Press: Last week a letter from Joyce Thompson of Shoreview appeared that expressed displeasure at the conduct of our Health Care & Human Services Policy Committee. She came to the Capitol to protest against a bill (HF1341) that would update the state's DNA newborn screening program.

First some background on the bill. For several decades the Department of Health has had a program that has helped save the lives of many children (including the son of Rep. Paul Thissen, who is the bill's author) by requiring that hospital staff take a DNA blood sample after birth. The sample is then screened for more than two dozen genetic diseases, many of which are fatal if not detected. Opponents to this program argue that parents did not know that their child's DNA was being sampled and that the Department of Health kept the samples. HF1341 would require that hospital staff notify parents that the sample will be taken and that parents have the right to opt-out of the testing and to request the destruction of the DNA sample. DNA samples that are still in existence would be destroyed and those that are kept until destruction will have a serial number that is kept separate from the name of the child. The Health Department can only "link" the number and name by appealing to an independent review board. I am satisfied that this legislation now provides an appropriate balance between saving lives and data privacy. However, the opponents still believe that government may have some nefarious purpose for the DNA samples--what that purpose is is not clear to me.

As for the committee, Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Delano)--an opponent of any kind of screening--saw that the committee was going to support the bill and just before the vote moved to strike out several substantial sections of the bill. In this committee, we have what is called a 24-hour rule. All amendments to a bill must be given to the committee 24 hours in advance so that we can actually read the amendment to figure out how it would change the bill. Democrats and Republicans alike have had to comply with this rule. The vice-chair of the committee, Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester), told Rep. Emmer that he was out of order and Rep. Emmer started to lose his temper. After we had a vote to uphold the ruling of the chair on the 24 hour rule, he then stomped out of the room, shouting, "I'm out of here!" and other words to that effect. Rep. Emmer knows this topic very well and apparently didn't prepare. As for the issue of signs in the committee room, we also have a rule about not allowing signs in committee rooms and in the House gallery. This is a little like not allowing signs, buttons, stickers, etc. for candidates at your polling place. You can have signs in the Rotunda, in the hallways, etc., but just not in places where members vote.

Schedule for Week of March 29th: Monday included two caucus meetings and a floor session. On Tuesday, I did a cable TV interview, attended the Health Care & Human Services Policy committee (HCHS), presented my HF403 bill on bioplastics to the Environment & Natural Resources Finance Committee, and spoke to a group of ISAIAH members at a church in Circle Pines about health care. Wednesday included a committee caucus meeting, the House Taxes Committee (presentation of the Governor's 21st Century Tax Commission report), a floor session, an HCHS Committee meeting, the House DFL Caucus, and an evening meeting of the HCHS Committee. On Thursday I presented my HF1373 bill in the Government Operations Committee, and attended a caucus meeting, a floor session, and HCHS and Environment & Natural Resources Policy Committee meetings. On Friday, we had a committee meeting for Taxes on tax increment finance district (TIF) proposals.

Schedule for Week of April 5th: On Monday, Senator Olseen and I visited Northern Technologies International Corp. in Circle Pines to talk about the bioplastics industry. In the afternoon, I attended two caucus meetings and a floor session, and presented my bill HF1584 in the Taxes Committee. On Tuesday, I attended the Taxes Committee and presented HF1333, attended a floor session, presented my bill HF625 in the House Government Operations Finance Committee, and chaired the Environment & Natural Resources Policy Committee where we had an informational hearing on Rep. Hortman's bill on creating a low carbon fuel standard. On Wednesday, Senator Rummel and I attended a half-day workshop at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs' Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy. Several legislators met with industry and environmental group representatives to talk about how to make better policy regarding chemical risks. It is part of an ongoing dialogue. On Thursday and Friday, the legislature was on Easter/Passover Break.

Visitors: Shoreview resident about property taxes; several utilities about my bill HF1584; staff from All Parks Alliance for Change and MN Manufactured Housing Association about my bill HF356; lobbyist and staff from Ramsey County about parks funding; lobbyist from City of St. Paul and Como Park staff about Como's bonding request

Constituent contacts: coming soon--this stacks up a lot!