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Legislature briefs: Langseth says bonding bill needed quickly

Reps. Paul Marquart of Dilworth and Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington announce a tax-reform package that would eliminate many tax breaks and lower income taxes on low- and middle class taxpayers.

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota House has about two weeks to complete its public works bill if the maximum number of jobs will be created, according to the senator who leads the public works committee in that body.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said on Monday that if the Legislature and governor do not agree on a public works package - known as a bonding bill - by April 1, some of the projects can not be completed this year.

Langseth's comments came shortly after the Senate tentatively approved its bonding bill 56-8. House committees still are working up their version, which is expected to be smaller than the $367 million one Langseth shepherded though the Senate. The full House is not expected to debate it until next week at the earliest.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, frequently says he opposes a bonding bill this year unless it is required to match money the federal government is spending on construction projects.

"If it was $1.98, it would be twice as rich as it should be," Langseth said of Pawlenty's feelings.

The Republican governor sent Langseth a letter last week saying that he objected to the senator passing his bill out of committee without consulting Pawlenty's office.

One of the few changes made to Langseth's bill on Monday was to give Stillwater $650,000 for a flood-control project. The Senate approved that amendment on a voice vote, bringing the possibility of nine times that money from Washington to match state funds.

The Stillwater funds come from $26 million otherwise undesignated money for flood control.

"I think in the next two weeks, you will be hearing a lot about floods up in northwest Minnesota," Langseth warned.

Some Republicans questioned Langseth's estimate of 3,500 jobs being created by the bill. Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said it appeared Langseth's figures "are being pulled out of thin air."

Health reform planned

Minnesota's health system does a good job of making people well, but not enough to prevent them from getting sick, Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, says.

But he said that would change under a proposal he and other health-care legislative leaders support.

Huntley, chairman of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, announced a series of measures they said would trim health care spending while also improving service to Minnesotans.

Among their proposals were:

- Eliminate unneeded laboratory services.

- Stop payments for when medical providers make mistakes.

- Give preference to birthing centers that are less expensive than hospitals.

- Provide 24-hour emergency dental and mental health services.

-- Create a mid-level dental practitioner.

-- Buy medical supplies in bulk.

Any health-care changes must save the state money in the next four years, Berglin said, given Minnesota's budget deficit. However, she added, some proposals may cost money in the next two years before money is saved later on.

Berglin predicted hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved in those four years if the recommendations are accepted.

Dr. Maureen Reed, a one-time lieutenant governor candidate, said now is the best time to make changes. With the current economy, she said, some Minnesotans are skipping medicine because they cannot afford to buy drugs.

Tax reform eyed

Two House tax leaders propose cutting income tax rates for middle- and lower-income Minnesotans while eliminating a series of tax breaks, especially those given to rich Minnesotans.

The proposal by DFL Reps. Ann Lenczewski of Bloomington and Paul Marquart of Dilworth is to be considered by the Tax Committee that Lenczewski leads, but she said it has not gained support from her party's leaders.

The Tax Committee chairwoman did not call for an income tax increase of wealthy Minnesotans, as Democrats are expected to support, but she said that proposal could come later and still would fit into her reform plan.

Marquart is to announce a property tax reform plan next week.

Among tax breaks the pair proposes eliminating are:

- Job Opportunity Building Zones income tax benefits.

- Long-term care insurance credit.

- Charitable contribution deduction.

The plan would provide families with more flexible tax deductions, Lenczewski said, allowing them to decide how to spend their money.

Wealthy Minnesota benefit most from Minnesota's current system of tax breaks, she added.

Marquart said that since rural Minnesotans tend to have lower incomes, they probably would benefit from the concept.

Predictably, Republicans did not like the plan.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, questioned Democrats' credibility: "Democrats raised the gas tax, sales tax and motor vehicle registration tax in 2008, all of which are among the most regressive taxes in our system, so it strains their credibility with taxpayers to now all of a sudden be so outraged at how the tax burden hits middle and low-income Minnesotans."

Lenczewski admitted the plan, which she said would not raise or lower total tax receipts, will not breeze through. "It could be a pretty rough trip."

But Marquart said this time of state budget deficit is a good time to make changes. "The public is giving us a license to reform."

Olson debated

The Democratic-controlled House and Senate refused Monday to allow debate on proposals to ask California to keep Kathleen Soliah, also known as Sara Jane Olson, while she is on probation from charges that she planted bombs under police cars in 1974.

Olson, who lived quietly in St. Paul 24 years before being arrested in 1999, is due to get out of prison, possibly today, after serving seven of her 25-year sentence. California plans to send her to Minnesota, which under agreements with other states cannot refuse her.

The House would not hear the proposal on procedural grounds. Senators voted 44-20 against bringing up the issue.

Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, said asking California to keep Olson "is the right thing to do."

"It is going to mean a lot to those in uniform," said Ingebrigtsen, a former Douglas County sheriff.

But Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, opposed Ingebrigtsen's effort.

"This is a vote in favor of forgiveness and reconciliation," said Kubly, a Lutheran minister.

Olson spent her first few years in Barnesville, in western Minnesota, where her father was a coach.

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