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Home / News / Bonding bill is to be centerpiece of legislative session

Bonding bill is to be centerpiece of legislative session

This year’s legislative session is widely regarded as a “short” session by lawmakers and public policy activists. The regular session begins Wednesday and lawmakers must scramble to get their policy bills heard by the first committee deadline on March 28.

The centerpiece of the session will be the bonding bill that borrows money to pay for capital projects. But a full agenda that affects the economic and social fabric of Minnesota is swirling beneath the bonding bill’s sheen. Some notable pieces of legislation include:

Eminent Domain

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Kelo v. city of New London, Connecticut ignited a zeal for reform among legislators and activists who don’t want private property taken for economic development.

Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, and Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, have teamed up with the Minnesota chapter of the Institute For Justice to advocate new statutory definitions for blighted properties and public use. Their bill also overhauls several legal matters related to eminent domain actions.

Johnson, who chairs the Civil Law and Elections Committee, has held meetings on eminent domain leading up to the session.

Municipal groups oppose sweeping overhauls of eminent domain, fearing changes to the law will impede redevelopment efforts of condemned properties.

Some legislators are also hesitant to pass sweeping reform of eminent domain.

Sen. Pat Pariseau, R-Farmington, is offering what she calls a very small bill that doesn’t delve into the appeals process or attorney fees. Pariseau said her bill just defines public use. It also says property or an interest in property can’t be conveyed to a private person or a use that is not a public use.

“It simply puts up definitions of public use that we don’t have (already in law),” Pariseau said.

Gay marriage

In 2004 and in the last session, legislation was introduced that would put a constitutional amendment question on the ballot that asks if only a union between one man and one woman counts as a valid marriage in Minnesota.

The bill passed the GOP-controlled House last March by a vote of 77-56.

In the Senate, where DFLers hold the majority, the bill has stayed in the Judiciary Committee despite procedural efforts to bring the bill up on the Senate floor.

The text of the bill is less than a full page. But the brevity of the language is compensated for by the volume of supporters of the amendment who have protested daily during recent legislative sessions. And as The Associated Press reported this month, the issue is also turning up large volumes of cash contributions for organizations on both sides of the issue.

Since the bill has already passed the House, the second committee deadline of April 4 is the time by which Senate panels have to act on the legislation.

The bill didn’t pass out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2004. Committee Chairman Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, said the bill will be debated again this year. “I promised last year the bill will be given a hearing (this year), and we will,” he said.

Telecom

Several states including Minnesota are considering legislation that would foster competition in the market for video services.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, who is the chairman of the subcommittee on Telecommunications and Technology, said he plans to address the issue.

“There’s likely to be a bill relating to making it easier for competitors to enter the market with cable companies for providing video services. Right now the barriers to entry are pretty high, and we have a de facto monopoly in many communities, especially in the metro area,” Kelley said.

Some states are looking at doing away with cable franchises authorized by local governments in favor of a statewide franchise.

Kelley said such a proposal isn’t likely to be addressed in a short session. Rather, Kelley said, he plans to look at legislation that would allow new entrants into the market to start operating in a smaller service area than the existing operator. State law currently requires newcomers to provide the same coverage as the established carrier, which can make starting up very costly, Kelley said.

Pensions

The Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement has been busy in advance of the legislative session. Commission Chairman Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, and the commission are addressing dwindling funds that have plagued public employee pension programs, especially since the economic downturn earlier this decade.

One of the top issues this session is consolidating the Minneapolis teacher pension fund into the statewide teacher retirement fund.

The Minneapolis teacher fund, which goes back to 1909, has been controlled by the city and the state at various times in its history. A recent valuation shows the fund has 45 cents in assets for every dollar it will need to pay out to beneficiaries. It could run out of money in the next seven years, Pogemiller said.

The Senate passed legislation approving the consolidation last session. The measure is still before the House.

Lawmakers are also looking at increasing the employer and employee contributions to other statewide funds.

“I’m optimistic it will pass,” Pogemiller said.

Education

Republican legislators and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are continuing to push for a proposal that school district revenues spend 70 percent of their revenue on classroom instruction.

Rep. Karen Klinzing, R-Woodbury, who is a high-school teacher, has announced legislation similar to a proposal from last year that would scale back what she sees as “too many levels of costly bureaucracy between the superintendent and student.”

But legislators, including Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, contend that Minnesota schools contribute an above-average amount of their revenue to classroom instruction and need “full and substantial funding based on state aid, not local property-tax increases” to enhance their learning programs.

In another education initiative, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) is calling for lawmakers to extend the academic year from the current 170 days to 200 days for students. The MASA proposal, which would take place during a four-year transition period, would boost the number of days for teachers to 230.

The idea is to give students a deeper education and allow teachers more time for professional development and classroom training, according to MASA.

Kelley, the Hopkins senator who chairs the Education Committee, said the school year extension idea has significant costs attached to it. Therefore, the issue is likely to be taken up in a later budget-year session.

Kelley said higher education in Rochester and improving school nutrition programs are likely education topics this session.

Energy

Supporters of a renewable energy standard were defeated last session. They are calling for new requirements again this year.

The standard would require utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. It would be phased in with a 5 percent standard by 2010, 10 percent by 2013, 15 percent by 2015 and the final standard of 20 percent by 2020.

The proposal was stripped out of the omnibus energy bill on the floor of the House last session. The mandates were opposed by business groups, including the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, that favor allowing renewable energy production to respond to market demand.

Lawmakers have devoted considerable attention to renewable energy in recent sessions. Last year, Pawlenty signed legislation requiring 20 percent ethanol in gasoline sold in Minnesota by 2013. A new tariff was passed to foster investment in community-based wind energy development.

Plans to promote renewables are still in the hopper. Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, wants tax credits for ethanol plants that run their plants on biomass.

Stadiums

No one is more aware that a Minnesota Twins ballpark proposal hasn’t rounded all the bases at the state Capitol than its House author, Brad Finstad, R-New Ulm. In a press release in February, he drew his own baseball analogies to sum up the situation at the Legislature.

“In baseball, when an outfielder drops a fly ball or an infielder lets a grounder roll through his legs, an official scorer makes a decision as to whether or not the play was a legitimate base hit.

“If we asked the official scorer to rule on how the Legislature handled the Minnesota Twins stadium debate last year, I have no doubt that he would give us an error as we let an unprecedented opportunity slip through our grasp.

“But unlike baseball, the Legislature will get a second chance to reverse this scoring decision, as we can still save the Twins without using one cent of your state tax dollars.”

Last year, the Twins and Hennepin County agreed to finance a new ballpark that was reliant on an increase to the county’s sales tax. The group needed legislative approval for the tax and also requested the Legislature to allow the tax hike without a referendum.

The Twins stadium debate is now colored by a Hennepin County judge’s ruling this month that the team can leave its current confines at the Metrodome after the 2006 season.

A coalition of citizen groups opposed to the stadium proposal is surveying legislative and gubernatorial candidates on where they stand on stadium issues. The group is taking note of the volatility of stadium issues at the Capitol and at the polls.

“The stadium will be part of this legislative session, so it is critical that voters and taxpayers know where candidates stand on this controversial tax issue,” said Laura Lehmann of Citizens for a Stadium Tax Referendum.

Going into the session, lawmakers seemed more willing to consider a football stadium for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. More controversial is a professional football stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.


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