Unearthing the specifics: Bills voted on during session covered wide range of issues
ST. PAUL -- Despite having only 11 weeks to approve legislation, the Minnesota Legislature's final bills covered a huge expanse of issues.Lawmakers approved measures that touched on "the theory of a constructive quit," rules on use of the "Ordina...
ST. PAUL - Despite having only 11 weeks to approve legislation, the Minnesota Legislature’s final bills covered a huge expanse of issues.
Lawmakers approved measures that touched on “the theory of a constructive quit,” rules on use of the “Ordinary Mortality Table” and added to the definition of a barber someone who colors, shapes or straightens the hair of any person. (The law had previously defined a barber as someone who cuts or bobs hair.)
The thousands of pages of legislation for which the state’s lawmakers voted this year certainly tackled some big issues: Money for mental health care; new policy on foster care; tax cuts for families, students, businesses and veterans; and changes in drug sentencing among them. But mining the details of the measures also extracts a slew of little-noticed provisions.
While some of their work is in limbo - Gov. Mark Dayton has not yet signed or vetoed the Legislature’s bills dictating budget changes or tax cuts and credits - here’s a look at what House and Senate lawmakers would like to become law:
The Minnesota Legislature regularly funds programs with specific goals to help businesses, build roads and bridges or specific sectors of the state’s populous. In 2016, the Legislature got very, very, very specific about how it wanted the state to spend its money.
In its short-term transportation plan, lawmakers targeted cash to particular projects, rather than leaving it up to the state to spend the money in the areas engineers think best. That plan, which lawmakers failed to deliver to Dayton’s desk after a last-minute attempt, would have dictated that the state spend money on:
- A specific stretch of U.S. 61 in Red Wing;
- U.S. 12 in Hennepin County (including “safety median improvements from the interchange with Wayzata Boulevard in Wayzata to approximately one-half mile east of the interchange with Hennepin County State-Aid Highway 6”).
- The Interstate 94/Brockton Lane interchange project.
- The Interstate 35 interchange in Anoka County’s Columbus.
The list of exact spending plans goes on and on in the transportation section. When lawmakers short-circuit the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s normal planning process and dictate specific projects, that forces MnDOT officials to rush projects through, a report by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor found this year. Rushed projects have “created extra expenses” and reduced the “ability to gather public input.” It recommended against lawmakers specifying projects.
The earmarks also came in smaller chunks. The Legislature’s budget bill, which Dayton is now deciding whether to sign or veto, allocated $1 million for matching grants over the next two years to the state’s tourism efforts last year. This year, it specified that $100,000, a tenth of the total pot, must go to the Northern Lights International Music Festival, which “offers lovers of classical music three weeks of opera, solo recitals, chamber and orchestra concerts” in seven Iron Range locations, according to the festival’s website.
In the tax bill, lawmakers dole out at least $6 million in one-time payments for specific local governments - in some cases, for specific projects:
- $1.2 million for Madelia.
- $465,000 for Hibbing.
- $52,288 for Stearns County.
- $2 million for Mahnomen County: $1 million for the Mahnomen Health Center and $1 million to be paid to the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
- $1 million to the city of Mahnomen.
- $1.13 million for Hennepin County: $730,000 for the North Branch Library EMERGE Career and Technology Center, and $400,000 for the Cedar Riverside Opportunity Center.
- $150,000 for Lilydale.
The Legislature also specified a creek the state must monitor, two trails and nonprofits the state must support with cash.
More farmland around the Twin Cities might be available to developers after a provision tucked into the tax bill makes it easier to dissolve “agricultural preserves.”
Ag preserves were set up in the 1980s to help farmers resist the pressure to sell their land to developers. Once set up, an ag preserve puts land off-limits to nonagricultural use and gives farmers a property tax break to help them afford staying on the land as values rise.
There are more than 200,000 acres of ag preserves in the seven-county metro area, most in Carver and Dakota counties.
Under previous law, ag preserves last as long as the farmer setting them up wants, with a minimum of eight years. They could be dissolved early only if the governor declared a public emergency.
Now, if a farm’s owner or owner’s spouse dies, the surviving owner or owners can dissolve the ag preserve on their own, as long as they act within 180 days.
The only catch: dissolving an ag preserve like this will incur a tax penalty: 50 percent higher taxes for the current year.
The provision was originally introduced as bills by Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield, and Sen. Dave Osmek, R-Mound.
Money for counselors
After years of emphasizing the importance of school support staff on student success, Minnesota is ready to begin addressing one of the worst student-to-school-counselor ratios in the nation. The state now has just one school counselor for every 792 students.
The Support Our Students grant program got $12 million in funding to help schools hire more counselors, psychologists and social workers.
As more of the state’s students face challenges outside of school such as homelessness and poverty and school enrollments become more diverse, support staff are seen as a key component in the effort to close Minnesota’s persistent academic achievement gap.
To participate in the grant program, schools must provide matching dollars and the money must go toward new staff to help decrease caseloads for existing personnel.
Here comes civics
Minnesota students will be required take a civics test and answer at least 30 of 50 questions correctly before they graduate from high school under a budget bill the Legislature approved.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican who spent decades teaching government in high schools, championed the measure because of what he called a “crisis in civics knowledge in Minnesota.” He designed the requirement to “increase awareness of who we are as a nation and how we got where we are today.”
The exam will consist of questions selected from the 100 questions the federal government uses to test foreigners applying for U.S. citizenship. Failure to pass the test could not prevent a student from graduating, but a school district may record a student’s test results on his or her transcript.
“The main thing is, we can’t have high school students graduating who can name more Kardashians than U.S. presidents,” Urdahl said April 4 when the House passed his legislation.
Although the measure was moving on its own, the civics exam language eventually was tucked into an 800-page appropriations bill that lawmakers passed on the last day of the session.
The Legislature approved adding $35 million to the state’s grant program to build out high-speed Internet connections across the state. Lawmakers galore highlighted that spending plan in the final days of the legislative session. Less noticed were changes lawmakers backed in how that money would be spent.
The broadband language exempts certain construction work from the prevailing wage law, which dictates that workers must be paid specific amounts set by the state.
While most of the work done to connect Minnesotans to the Internet still must obey the prevailing wage requirements, “the last-mile hook-up” will be exempted, said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. As he explains it, installation of the larger fibers that serve as main spokes will still have to pay the higher wages, but the wages of those who install fibers down individual driveways will be exempt.
The broadband language also resets the state’s goals. For years, the state said in law that its goal was that “all state residents and businesses have access to high-speed broadband” by 2015. Since that year came and went, the measure now says the state’s goal is that “all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to high-speed broadband” no later than 2022.
So long, 1891
The Legislature reached way back in history to make some changes to the law. A 1891 law banned the city of Duluth from granting a liquor license to the city of Lakeside after its annexation by Duluth. It took until May of this year for the state to get around to repealing that provision.
Now, pending “approval by the Duluth City Council,” the booze can flow in the area. Last year, Duluth held a referendum on the question. The vast majority of city residents supported the repeal but a narrower margin of residents in the area supported it. Apparently, for some, those lawmakers of 1891 had it right.
“For many years, it’s been controversial. The neighborhoods that have it liked having it,” said Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. “It really took, I think, generational turnover in those neighborhoods.”
Bill Salisbury and Christopher Magan contributed to this report.