This legislative session continues to be interesting and challenging. You have likely heard that talks are continuing on the vetoed General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) partial restoration bill. Another working group is meeting at the Capitol to rework the $1 billion bonding bill that was passed by both houses and pulled back from a certain veto. Gov. Pawlenty has demanded certain priorities, including funding for a sex offender treatment center expansion and security improvements at the state's level 5 prison take precedence over lesser projects, and that the bill be reduced in size before it returns to him.
In the meantime, we have had some mixed but fairly positive economic news, including a state employment report that announced the best jobs numbers in five years. Here is a summary of the other activity this week.
This week lawmakers received the twice annual updated budget forecast, which has become a highly anticipated report at the Capitol. This time, the short-term news was better than expected: the short-term budget deficit has dropped from $1.2 billion to $994 million because of lower spending and more revenue coming into the state.
The figures may show that the economy has reached the bottom and is leveling out. But grim budget projections show that the state still has a spending problem, illustrated by the projected $5.8 billion deficit for 2012-13, a figure $1.3 billion higher than when the FY 2010-11 budget was enacted.
A more realistic look at the problem focuses on spending increases that are currently built into the state budget. When the economy was flush and incoming revenues via corporate and income taxes were readily filling state coffers, all seemed well. But the current economic reality shows us that these projected automatic increases in spending must be reformed because they create long-term pressures on Minnesota's budget.
The forecast anticipates adjusted spending to grow at double-digit levels from the current budget to FY 12-13 at a time when personal incomes are growing in the low single digits, if at all.
Senate Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty called for the Legislature to release a budget solution by March 17. You can find summary documents at the Minnesota Management and Budget Web site at:
The Senate energy committee this week heard a bill that would, after a 16-year ban, allow nuclear power to be considered as an option for Minnesota's future growing energy needs. Deciding to repeal the prohibition is not a decision to construct a new nuclear power plant in Minnesota, but lifting the ban would allow our electricity providers and our utilities commission to consider all options.
State law currently prohibits the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission from approving a Certificate of Need for constructing a new nuclear power plant. The bill passed the Minnesota Senate with solid bipartisan support in 2009, and the issue of nuclear power has growing support from both major parties in Congress and the Obama administration.
Plans for new nuclear power plants are progressing in other states. The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission currently is reviewing 12 applications to construct and operate 20 new nuclear units in 10 states.
A new nuclear facility would create a substantial number of construction jobs and a significant number of positions of support to provide goods and services to that workforce, about 700 permanent jobs that pay about a third more than average. It would also contribute significant and reliable baseload power for future Minnesota energy needs.
Unfortunately, a surprise amendment was passed by the DFL majority members of the committee at the end of Thursday's hearing that gutted the bill of its intent. Although the bill is not technically dead the spirit of the bill that would allow nuclear power to be considered has been shackled and bound with bureaucracy contained in the amendment and its future is unclear.
Minnesota's traditional fall primary will move to the second Tuesday in August under a new law signed this week by Gov. Pawlenty. The change followed the federal Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE)Act passed in October 2009 and requires at least a 45-day period for absentee ballots to be returned and counted for primaries and elections.
It will also bump up some other related political deadlines, from the filing period for candidates to the date campaign lawn signs can go up.
Here are important dates to remember:
Candidate filing period: May 18 - June 1
Absentee balloting period for primary: June 25 - Aug. 9
Pre-primary campaign finance reports due: July 26
State Primary: August 10
State Canvassing Board meeting for primary: August 17
Absentee balloting period for general election: Sept. 17 - Nov. 1
Pre-general campaign financial reports due: Oct. 25
General election - Nov. 2
Sen. Fischbach sponsors zero-based budget
In tight economic times, with a growing state budget deficit, lawmakers need to look for ways to save taxpayers dollars and provide a straightforward system that evaluates the operations and programs for each state agency. Once, the way of doing this would be to utilize a zero-based budget, as proposed in SF 2940.
A zero-based budget is the process of identifying all aspects of an agency, establishing priorities for funding, and providing performance measures to continue funding, and providing performance measures to continue funding anew each year and not from the previous year's spending levels.
Most notable in a zero-based budget is ranking programs in order of priority. It creates an extremely explicit process and one that is open to scrutiny. The greatest hope is that the zero-based budget process would avoid duplicity in state agencies and create efficiency and productivity that will result in spending less tax dollars and continue to provide the best services.