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Propane aid begins legislative session

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota legislators opened their 2014 session today battling the polar vortex.

With the session starting at noon, the House plans to provide a $20 million boost to Minnesotans struggling to pay heating costs this winter. No opposition surfaced in two unofficial committee hearings before the session launched, and House leaders planned to overturn rules so they could pass the bill today without official committee action first.

After the initial House propane vote and a few routine actions, the Taxes Committee planned to take up a long list of bills, mostly designed to overturn taxes the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton approved last year.

In an unusual move, the House planned to suspend its rules so the heating aid could be approved on the first day.

"Minnesotans have been put in a difficult position because of the spike in propane prices," bill sponsor Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, told the House Ways and Means Committee this morning.

His bill would provide $20 million to a program already in place.

The fuel price that last fall was $1.60 a gallon spiked at $6.67, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said. Prices now are about $3.89.

“The supply issue has eased and stabilized,” he said, even with higher-than-normal prices.

The propane crisis, as state officials call it, comes because extra propane was needed to dry wet crops last fall, followed by bitterly cold weather caused by a polar vortex weather pattern. Also, a pipeline bringing propane to the state was down for a time.

Today's action would do nothing to keep prices down next year, the commissioner said in response to a question by Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls. However, there is talk about lawmakers finding ways to encourage more propane storage in Minnesota.

A pipeline that has supplied 40 percent of Minnesota's propane will stop transporting the fuel in April, which Rothman said will force more transportation by railroads and highways.

“Propane suppliers in rural northern Minnesota are literally going 24-7 to provide their customer with enough ... to last a week when it is 25 below zero,” Rep. Tom Anzelc, D-Balsam Township, said.

The Senate could take action on Radinovich’s bill later this week or early next week.

The House Taxes Committee was to take up two-dozen bills, mostly dealing with eliminating some taxes placed on businesses last year.

Also on the first day of session, the House and Senate planned to name negotiators to hash out details of a proposed increase in the state minimum wage.

The session lasts through May 19.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.