Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
Session update - Looking back and looking ahead The Legislature is taking a few days off for the Easter/Passover break, and I want to take advantage of this pause to update you on some important issues at the Capitol. There are about six weeks left in the legislative session, with more than two-thirds of our calendar days behind us. With policy deadlines behind us and budget targets to division heads, omnibus budget bills will start making progress to meet the April 16 committee deadline. Another vital deadline is April 22, when all the omnibus budget and tax bills should be ready for action on the House and Senate floor. Leaving time for conference committees to meet and agree on compromise bills, omnibus bills must be back on the House and Senate floor for final passage by May 7. The final deadline of the session is the constitutionally determined last day of the legislative session-May 18. This week we took on a couple big issues: the omnibus education bill and a measure that attempts to lessen mandates the state passes on to schools and local governments. Here, followed by updates on some of the session's top issues, is a brief rundown of those. Education budget The first omnibus budget bill out of the gate, early and K-12 education, wasn't an impressive effort by the Senate DFL. The plan starts with about a billion-dollar cut to schools, and affects some districts more deeply than others. One-time federal funds are available to plug into the gaping holes in the current biennium, as does the consolidation of three existing local levies (transition, equity and operating capital) into one statewide tax. The bill also does not meet DFLers own demand for four-year balance, after the removal of a section that would have reinstated the statewide school property tax. Watch for the House to complete and pass a their education finance bill next week, although leaders of that body have said they will try to protect education from cuts. Status updates on major bills Bonding bill Earlier this session, the Senate fast-tracked and approved a $367 million borrowing bill geared toward construction and improvements at state-owned facilities. Governor Pawlenty has said the bill is too large and does not reflect the seriousness of the state's economic crisis, but he would be willing to work with lawmakers to find a resolution that prioritized construction-ready or emergency projects. The House passed a $200 million bill just prior to the break, and the measure will go to a joint conference committee to resolve differences after lawmakers return next week. Shared services mandate A Senate bill will require all school systems statewide to use service cooperatives, regional centers, intermediate school districts or the state's purchasing agreement services to purchase all of their business services and goods. Opponents of the mandate say the measure is not needed and takes away local flexibility. The House is now considering the measure. Ending the nuclear ban An unexpected floor amendment earned surprising approval as the Minnesota Senate recently approved an end to Minnesota's 15-year ban on new nuclear power plants. Minnesota receives most of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, but bi-partisan advocates have said that adding nuclear power to a mix of renewable sources will help curb greenhouse gases to meet mandates like the state's 2007 Next Generation (NextGen) Energy Act. The approval does not constitute the approval of new nuclear plants, but rather opens the door slightly so that lawmakers may include this key component in future discussions of energy needs and goals. The issue faces an uphill battle in the House after a committee last week rejected a similar bill after hours of heated discussion. Newborn DNA/genetic information House and Senate committees have approved a measure that would allow the government to collect and store genetic information from newborns. Parents would be provided notice that blood samples and genetic information were being collected, but would need to take action in order to refuse or reject the tests or storage of the data. There is strong opposition to the measure, but it is currently making progress in both houses. Transportation stimulus Governor Pawlenty has signed a bill that gives the Minnesota Department of Transportation the go-ahead to seek and spend federal stimulus dollars on roads, bridges and transit projects. While current law prohibits the department from spending money without legislative approval, the new law authorizes them to spend the one-time $600 million federal-stimulus money. Watch for more road building projects to be announced in the metro and statewide. Environment & arts tax The new sales tax for arts, cultural heritage, clean water, parks and trails and the environment is set to take effect in July. The various groups in charge of designating where the money will be spent have already been at work. The additional new three-eighths of one percent increase in sales tax is expected to generate roughly $240 million dollars during its first year. Various interest groups have lined up to get their piece of the pie. The Lessard Council has already designated over $68 million, the amount that will go to environment and wildlife habitat, to 19 projects that were bid this winter. Watch for bills outlining spending for clean water, parks and trails and the arts to shape up in legislative committees. Senator Michelle Fischbach is serving in her fifth term in the Minnesota Senate. She encourages and appreciates constituent input and can be reached at (651) 296-2084, by mail to 145 State Office Building, St. Paul MN 55155 or by e-mail at.