MN Legislature will start 2015 with wants, limits
State Sen. Kent Eken wants to boost state funding 5 percent for home-based care Minnesota's elderly and disabled receive, as well as giving a similar raise to nursing homes.
State Sen. Kent Eken wants to boost state funding 5 percent for home-based care Minnesota’s elderly and disabled receive, as well as giving a similar raise to nursing homes.
The Twin Valley Democrat suggests a higher gasoline tax for transportation needs and would like more money so state-run colleges and universities can continue a tuition freeze.
Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, agrees that nursing homes need more money, even if a tax increase is needed. He also would not rule out backing a tax increase to boost transportation funding.
The story is the same for many of the 201 Minnesota legislators returning to the Capitol for their 2015 session at noon Tuesday. They have wants -- wants that usually cost the state money that is raised by taxes.
But they need to keep their wants in check if Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders stick to their guns. They say no general tax increase is needed to fund state government, although there is at least some support for considering a transportation-related tax increase.
It is budget time in the Capitol, with nearly five months to write a two-year state budget expected to top $40 billion.
In many recent years, lawmakers arrived in St. Paul facing a budget deficit. This year, they expect to enjoy a $1 billion surplus, and hope it grows when a new economic and budget report comes out in late February or early March.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk warned his colleagues not to expect big spending increases.
“It will be a pretty austere budget,” Bakk said. “We are still in a pretty fragile economic recovery. I think we need to be a little careful.”
That surplus? State finance officials say it will disappear if inflation is considered, spending such as giving pay raises and paying for higher utility bills. But those who get state money should not count on a increase for inflation, many lawmakers warned.
“It doesn’t take long to burn through a billion dollars,” Bakk said.
Since half of the surplus comes from lower-than-expected spending, Bakk said, only about half of it is ongoing revenue.
“I already know most of these groups coming to ask for money will be disappointed,” the senator said.
Democrat Dayton said throughout his 2014 re-election campaign that he does not think the state needs to raise general taxes. In a recent interview, he was optimistic that an improved national economy could enlarge the surplus finance officials predicted in early December.
Dayton said that his office has received $3 billion in requests for the $1 billion surplus, and most are good causes.
The governor said he will focus on improving transportation and education funding, but will not release specifics until he hands out his budget on Jan. 27.
The Republican-controlled House and Democrat-run Senate likely will release their budget plans in March, after the new economic report comes out. Dayton will revise his plan following the report.
In the meantime, legislative committees will begin looking at budget issues, as well as policy issues that do not involve money. However, committees will not be able to make many decisions until spring.
Eken, like many rural lawmakers, put his funding emphasis on nursing homes and home-based elderly and disabled care. Advocates say rural Minnesotans get less state help than those in the Twin Cities.
“We have seen this disparity between metro, rural and deep rural grow greater and greater as years pass,” Eken said, adding that with a surplus now is the time to even things out.
With a new rural majority in the House, and Bakk being from rural Minnesota in the Senate, there is plenty of optimism that rural issues will receive more attention than in the past.
“I think it is good that there is a rural focus,” Eken said, but quickly added: “I think the last two years (with a Democratic House and Senate) were also good. A lot of good things were accomplished.”
Much of the discussion this year will be about transportation, one of the Republicans’ main 2014 campaign issues.
“I’m a rural guy and I see the need for road and bridge work in rural Minnesota,” Anderson said. “It is going to be a high-profile issue.”
Overall, optimism is high around the Legislature before committees debate issues and spending. But for Bakk, the surplus, no matter how small it may be (“razor thin” he calls it), is a good sign.
“There are some tough votes involved, but it just feels pretty good,” Bakk said. “The last time anyone probably felt like this was going into the ‘01 session.”
Finding a compromise is possible, he added. “If everyone comes to the table willing to compromise ... it is not insurmountable.”