RAMS Legislative Report
April 23, 2019 from Gary Cerkvenik – RAMS Lobbyist
The Minnesota Legislature returns today following a 10-day break for Easter/Passover. Less than four weeks remain to complete the state’s business until the constitutionally mandatory end of the session on May 20. Minnesota has the only split legislature of the 50 states, with the Senate controlled by the Republican Party and the House controlled by the Democrat Farmer Labor Party.
The Governor and the House have proposed significant increases in spending through federal tax conformity, a 20-cent increase in the gas tax, extension of the health care provider tax, etc. The Senate has not included these items, and thus the two main parties are apart significantly on how large the budget will be over the next two years. By agreement, the House and Senate will pass their respective major spending bills and appoint conferees by May 1, and the Senate, House, and Governor will try to set “spending targets” by May 6th. Conference committees have to agree by May 13.
The big issues are the size of the tax bill, will there be a gas tax increase, will there be a bonding bill, and will there be a provider tax extension?
On our specific RAMS issues:
Broadband. It looks like there will be a sizable broadband appropriation in the range of $35-50 million to fund statewide broadband issues. The House failed to include our proposal to fund the middle mile project at $3.2 million. We will continue to try to get this earmark in the conference report. Our own Rep. Ecklund is the leader on this work.
Taconite Municipal Aid. The RAMS initiative to increase Taconite Municipal Aid to 1983 levels, add an annual escalator, and to get rid of the reduction in aid provision when production drops below 40 million tons is in the House Tax Bill, thanks to the diligent work of Rep. Lislegard. The Senate bill does not include this provision.
The Hill Annex mine has received a specific appropriation to keep it open as a state park in the House Environmental Finance bill.
Funding for $4.5 million for the Caniesto mine, Hill Annex mine, and St. James pit water diversion projects did not survive in the House or Senate omnibus bills. However, $200,000 is in the House bonding bill for the Western mines only, specifically leaving out St. James.
LGA. Good news, as the House appropriates an additional $30 million for LGA, bringing it up to a level achieved several years ago. And it also includes $5.4 million one-time grant to Virginia to finish paying for the Hwy 53 project, advocated by Rep. Lislegard and Sen. Tomassoni.
The RAMS initiative to provide additional money for older building maintenance did not get into either the House or Senate Education finance bills. However, upon investigation, there is an older building aid formula that many Iron Range schools receive, and we will continue to work to increase that formula.
Summer school. Great news, Sen. Tomassoni manage to get $802,000 in the Senate Education Finance bill for the 6-school summer program. We hope to retain this in conference in the House.
Our proposal to mandate US Hwy 169 four lane construction in the MN DOT ten-year plan did not get a hearing. However, we are working with MN DOT to advance funding for this project.
Buhl School. Sen. Tomassoni is working to try to include funding for the renovation of the Buhl School in the Senate bonding bill if one develops later in the session. Unfortunately, North Homes, Inc., decided to suspend its current effort to expand children’s mental health programs into the Buhl school, so that hurt our effort. We remain focused to try to expand programming in this area for our region.
RAMS fought off efforts by St. Louis County to take 5 cents per ton from the Iron Range School account and efforts to appropriate $5 million for the DJJ Fund for a scholarship program for area community colleges, including a school in Duluth.
Your RAMS Executive Director continues to play a leading role on Wild Rice for our industry and communities, as well as advocating for area mining projects. Sen. Eichorn has been a leader on the Wild Rice issue and how it may effect our jobs and communities.
In terms of a bonding bill, the Governor proposed $1.2 billion with no local projects. The House released their bonding bill at $1.5 billion. The Senate has not held any bonding hearings this session. Most folks believe there will be a small bonding bill agreed to at the end of session, but much smaller than the House or Governor desire. As this gets more serious, we will report in greater detail.
Finally, both the House and Senate have appropriated large sums of grant money to continue to build out ATV trail systems from the Quad Cities to Voyageurs National Park to Ely and Lake County. Sen. Bakk, Rep. Ecklund, Sen. Tomassoni, Sen. Eichorn, Rep. Lueck, and Rep. Lislegard have been leaders on this issue.
2019 – APRIL LEGISLATIVE UPDATE…
As of today, April 8, 2019 there have been 2824 bills introduced in the House with the Senate just a few bills behind. Out of that mass of bills 4 have actually been passed by both parties and sent to the Governor and approved. With the Easter recess coming next week, the Minnesota Legislature is facing many long days in St. Paul with major bills including a balanced budget, education funding, health and human services, transportation, health care tax for MN Care and a possibly moderately sized bonding bill all needing to be resolved before the May 20 deadline.
Governor Walz in his “state of the State” speech offered up a hope for compromise and indicated a willingness to moderate his position on his proposed $.20 gas tax over 4 years. The Senate has made it clear they will not support a gas tax in any form so this debate will be interesting. Funding for education provides another debate with the Governor proposing 3% year one and 2% year two for the basic per pupil formula that would result in an increase of $520 million dollars. The Senate proposal is 1% each year and would likely result in more local referendums to keep districts solvent. Stay tuned for futher updates.
DAILY SESSION UPDATES
RAMS – 2019 LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES:
- Broadband expansion across the Taconite Assistance Area –(long term goal). RAMS is a member of MN Rural Broadband Coalition (Director Giorgi serves on the Executive Board) this year and that group will provide more visibility, focus and advocacy for broadband funding. Support funding of the Office of Broadband. Fund the Border to Border Broadband Fund ($70 million recommendation) Fix the Border to Border Broadband Fund – certain policy impede the advancement of broadband expansion and a new standard for broadband networks should be included at 100 Mb/20 Mb when installed.
- Protect and preserve Local Government Aide payments while working with Governor Walz to return the LGA formula to the 1993 levels.
- Amend the Municipal Tax Aide formula in the Taconite Tax Formula to provide for an increase to our municipalites, something that has not occurred since 1983. By dedicating the price inflation index or escalator clause to the Municipal Aide formula, communities would be assured of a slight adjustment each year in the fund dependent of course on total taconite tonnage.
- Request that the MN DOT plan include completion of Highway 169 to complete 4 lanes of traffic from highway 65 to the Scenic highway. This project was started in the mid “60’s and is still unfinished. It currently is not in the 10 year DOT plan for our region and that needs to be addressed.
- Address the future operation of the Hill Annex Mine (State Park). The DNR should continue to operate the park as it has significant historic value not only in the region but for the state.
- Address the need for additional funding for rural mental health care that includes addressing the severe shortage of juvenile mental health care beds and facilities. RAMS supports legislative funding that would provide for a new youth mental health crisis center to be located in the former Buhl High School.
- Support funding for the routing and pumping of rising pit water levels in the Canisteo Mine Pit chain as well as the St. James pit in Aurora. $4.5 million has been estimated to assure these pit water levels will be contained and controlled to assure communities are safe and have a reliable potable water supply.
- Support an annual increase in the education formula as well as support for Senator Bakk’s legislation to provide funding to the Iron Range School collaboration that will provide summer school opportunities for vocational curriculum programs. Funding for aging school buildings is also on the list.
- Support legislation that will provide funding to communities who will be faced with a new Presidential primary and restrict the dissemination of party declarations information.
- RAMS will pursue funding for a fiber optic connector loop that runs through Carlton, Aitkin and Pine Counties that will enhance the NESC middle mile fiber and provide reduced broadband rates, assure redundancy for the entire network, improve and increase many times over the gigabit services available across the network. For $3.5 million dollar investment, this would benefit 7 counties.