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Was special session good for Greater Minnesota?

The special session may have ended, but was it very special for Greater Minnesota?

While many of the rural Minnesota projects may not get the funding they deserve, one of the biggest “wins” is considered that of funding for rural Minnesota nursing homes.

An additional $138 million in funding has been approved, as well as a new formula that determines the disbursement of those funds.

While that may be one good piece of news for rural Minnesota, leaders still thought it wasn’t good enough.

“The governor and legislature can skip Greater Minnesota when they take their after-session victory laps,” Coalition for Greater Minnesota Cities President and Ely City Council member Heidi Omerza said. “We were disappointed by their lack of action at the end of the regular session, particularly their failure to pass a tax bill or a major transportation bill, and we are even more disappointed now that they have squandered their second chance in the special session.

“In a year with a massive state surplus, the Legislature and Governor only made small investments in broadband expansion, workforce housing and job training, and they failed to pass an increase in local government aid; investments that would have greatly increased economic growth and stability in Greater Minnesota communities.”

While it was an agriculture-environmental piece of the budget that held up the final vote and pushed legislators in the special session, two other bills — education and jobs and energy programs — passed more easily for the state’s two-year $42 billion budget. There’s also $850,000 left to be designated, which will likely be used next year for tax cuts and transportation needs.

During the regular legislative session, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Minnesota Legislature compromised to make investments in education, infrastructure and other essential services.

Some of the highlights from the 2015 budget session include:

• Sunday liquor sales: Cities can allow 64-ounce craft beer growlers, and bars can sell hard liquor before 10 a.m. on Sundays.

• $525 million in k-12 education, including access to child care and early learning for more children, 2 percent increase in funding for schools, new investments in American Indian Education and more.

Dayton had lobbied for pre-school for all 4-year-olds, but abandoned that during the special session. Instead, there is an extra $125 million (above the already-designated $400 million) for public schools.

• Higher education: $166 million to higher education, which could still result in a tuition hike for colleges who won’t be able to afford a tuition freeze for the next two years. There may be an increase to the State Grant Program funding (financial aid). Depending on the college though, some two-years could see a decline in tuition rates.

• Clean water: a new buffer strip law that will cover an additional 110,000 acres of land around the state’s lakes, rivers and streams in permanent vegetation — helping prevent pollution, and keeping waters clean.

The plan requires most farmers to install 50-foot buffers along public lakes and river, and smaller strips of buffer along ditches.

• Infrastructure investments: $140 million jobs bill that makes needed investments in critical infrastructure projects, including poultry and veterinary labs to prevent avian influenza and such diseases, railway safety grade separations, Lewis & Clark water project and higher education campuses improvements.

• Safer communities: reforms to the child protection system to keep kids safe from abuse and neglect, more law enforcement officers to track down and apprehend dangerous criminals, supportive and safe housing for homeless and sexually exploited youth, workforce housing, stronger laws cracking down on distracted driving and more.

• Health care: new investments in nursing homes statewide, investments in mental health, tax-free ABLE savings accounts for Minnesotans with disabilities and a task force that will help chart the future for quality, affordable health care in Minnesota.

In the agriculture-environment piece, some of the most liberal Senate members said the legislation would weaken environmental protections.

The bill and others include more than $20 million to help farmers whose poultry flocks have been infected by avian flu, including state response, mental health aid to farmers and low-interest loans to those affected.

One of the major complaints of liberals was elimination of the Citizens’ Board, which makes many pollution-related decisions.

The bill also includes a Dayton provision to require crops be at least 16.5 feet away from public water. The governor pushed the buffer legislation, and compromised down from requiring 50 feet of vegetation buffers around all water.

Lawmakers approved spending far less than the governor wanted on public works projects around the state in a year that House Republicans say they did not need such legislation.

The House passed the bonding bill 96-25 and the Senate 48-18.

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