Legislature gets mixed marks

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 3, 2001

Local legislators say the impasse at the legislature this year boiled down to surplus money and a budget from Gov.

Tuesday, July 03, 2001

Local legislators say the impasse at the legislature this year boiled down to surplus money and a budget from Gov. Jesse Ventura that threw a monkey wrench into the lawmaking machinery.

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Sen. Grace Schwab, R-Albert Lea, thinks the surplus raised expectations for every interest in the state. The state’s schools, government agencies and communities approached the session with high hopes for record funding increases.

&uot;Everyone came forward with high requests and demands,&uot; Schwab said. &uot;There is no way we could have accommodated all interests, especially when many of us prefer to give much of that money back to private citizens.&uot;

When Ventura released his budget proposals at the beginning of the session, it set the tone for many of the disputes that lasted until the final days of the special session. Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, said the governor’s commitment to tax relief and reform created a historic opportunity.

&uot;Passing the tax bill, with its property tax reforms, and ensuring a rebate was a top priority, and we fully supported the governor on those goals,&uot; Dorman said. &uot;The challenge from there is to appropriate money wisely.&uot;

But DFLers like Rep. Rob Leighton said the legislature will have a tough time explaining why the state’s perennial top priority, public education, came out of the session with less than a cost-of-living funding increase.

&uot;We had a historic opportunity this session, I agree. But the opportunity was for a record investment in our public schools,&uot; said Leighton, DFL-Austin. &uot;When you start the session with a $2.3 billion dollar surplus and fund our public schools at a less-than-inflationary increase, with resulting budget cuts and layoffs, we have failed miserably.&uot;

Rep. Henry Kalis, DFL-Walters, had a different perspective. He said the whole session was geared toward metro and suburban interests. Rural areas are quickly losing their influence in St. Paul, he said.

&uot;When everything is geared toward the cities, from school funding to transportation, to taxes, we lose over and over again,&uot; he said. &uot;It has been the trend, and I see it continuing.&uot;

All four legislators agree that the 2002 bonding session is likely to be just as contentious.

&uot;Hopefully, we learned something from going to a special session. We can’t take these issues right up until the end. We have to start searching for compromise much earlier,&uot; Schwab said.

The Tribune asked Freeborn County-area lawmakers to grade the legislature on eight important issues: K-12 education, higher education, energy, agriculture, transportation, senior issues, welfare, local government and taxes. Each lawmaker also gave a final grade and explained their reasoning.

Here are the results:

Education downgrade

Dorman: C

Kalis: D-

Leighton: F

Schwab: B-

Perhaps the most contentious issue of the session, K-12 education boiled down to funding. DFLers were looking for record appropriations while Republicans, admitting that the governor’s proposal was far too lean, worked to improve the funding, but made tax reform and relief their top priority.

Result: $8.7 billion in the next two years, a 2.6 percent increase for each year.

&uot;In a year of affluence – and we didn’t take care of our schools – I think we missed the boat,&uot; said Kalis.

Tuition hikes?

Dorman: B-

Kalis: F

Leighton: D

Schwab: B-

The state’s public colleges and universities were also asking for big funding increases, but are now faced with raising tuition and tightening their belts.

&uot;Huge double-digit tuition increases will prevent many Minnesotans from starting or continuing their higher education,&uot; Leighton said. &uot;When the session started, I was hopeful that higher education would be a winner this year. I was wrong.&uot;

But Republicans contend that higher education is getting a cost-of-living increase on top of record increases in the last biennium.

&uot;I understand the systems would have like more funding, but I think they created some unrealistic expectations,&uot; said Dorman.

Result: $176 million in new funding

Averting energy crisis

Dorman: B

Kalis: C

Leighton: C

Schwab: Incomplete

The defeat of biodiesel legislation was a general disappointment for rural Minnesota, the legislators agreed. For Dorman, it was a particularly tough loss. Dorman said the biodiesel fuel issue became too politicized in the House.

&uot;We weren’t successful because members of both parties in the suburbs hate the idea, and I think some people were more motivated by the 2002 elections than the policy question,&uot; Dorman said.

The measures would have required diesel fuel sold in Minnesota to include some biological material or mandated that state vehicles use biodiesel fuels, which use agricultural products.

With energy problems in California making consumers nervous, Minnesota lawmakers took a &uot;go slow&uot; approach. They decided to study the state’s energy needs over the interim to determine a course for the next session.

&uot;I think we still need to give more attention to conservation and alternative fuels,&uot; said Kalis. &uot;It must become a bigger part of our energy policy.&uot;

Result: The Energy Security Act, which sets energy production goals, emissions standards and seeks to avoid a California-like crisis.

Help for farmers

Dorman: B+

Kalis: C

Leighton: C

Schwab: C

All agreed that property-tax reductions for farmers will benefit the area, but all hope for expansion of ethanol production and soy-diesel to help area producers.

&uot;Agriculture was a ‘quiet’ bill this year,&uot; Schwab said, adding that disaster assistance will help many farm families. &uot;Much of the farm aid received comes from federal dollars instead of state dollars.&uot;

Result: Not much. Most of the work will come in the next sessions after the U.S. Congress passes a comprehensive farm bill.

Transportation funds

Dorman: B

Kalis: C+

Leighton: D

Schwab: D

&uot;I think we failed to provide adequate investment in roads and bridges,&uot; said Leighton, who was hoping for more assistance for rural cities and counties. &uot;Unfortunately, the debate often breaks down along metro-versus-rural lines.&uot;

Dorman said he was appalled at the lack of rural representation on the working group.

&uot;This whole issue of roads and bridges is shaping up to be a battleground,&uot; he said.

But some last-minute additions to the transportation bill did provide $10 million for bridge repairs, said Kalis.

&uot;My grade moved up from a C to a B when those funds showed up,&uot; he said.

Result: Aside from the $10 million, added in the final days, no big funding increases for roads and bridges in the state.

Senior reforms

Dorman: B

Kalis: B-

Leighton: C

Schwab: B

Though the reviews are generally favorable, all four legislators agree that reform is needed for nursing home regulations and insurance.

Kalis said if more private insurance money is not injected into the system, the state and its seniors will find long-term care too expensive.

Result: Aid to nursing homes increased by 12 percent with 80 percent dedicated to worker wages and benefits. Qualifying for the state’s senior-drug program will also be a bit easier.

Health and welfare

Dorman: B-

Kalis: B

Leighton: C

Schwab: B

Like senior issues, the legislators agreed that expansion of existing programs was positive.

Schwab said the new Cover All Kids program will insure 20,000 additional low-income children up to age 19.

&uot;That was definitely a bright spot,&uot; she said. &uot;We also enacted some reasonable welfare benefit extensions, but the modifications don’t undermine our reform efforts.&uot;

Leighton said the abortion debate got in the way of legislative business.

&uot;Abortion politics once again reared its ugly head,&uot; he said. &uot;It divides the the legislature as it does the public, and almost caused a government shutdown.&uot;

Result: More health insurance for the state children, and an extension of welfare benefits to about 50 percent of people falling off the rolls. Efforts to place restrictions on abortion failed.

Big tax reform

Dorman: A

Kalis: D+

Leighton: B

Schwab: A

The property tax relief and reforms were popular with three legislators, but Kalis thinks the state won’t be able to sustain the changes.

&uot;We spent too much money on buying down taxes. When we spend that kind of money when the revenues are going down, we’re setting a dangerous precedent,&uot; Kalis said.

But Schwab said keeping more money in the pockets of Minnesotans will help the economy rebound and help families deal with rising costs.

&uot;The tax reform, coupled with the rebate, will give us the ability to pay our bills in the light of increased energy costs,&uot; she said.

Dorman said history will look favorably at the tax bill of 2001.

&uot;We had rate compression, we had property tax cuts, we helped farmers, businesses and homeowners. It’s definitely the big achievement of the session,&uot; he said.

Result: Property taxes cut by an average of about 20 percent, sales tax rebate approved, and state will take over general-education levy, which used to fall on local property taxes.

Overall grade

Each legislator’s overall grade for the 2001 legislature:

Dorman: B

Kalis: D

Leighton: C

Schwab: C+