Issues range from property taxes to teacher evaluations
The boards of advocacy associations from a variety of policy areas have issued their priority wish lists in time for the start of the 2012 legislative session. Many of the issues of significance for groups ranging from business to labor are rooted in last year’s session, which saw Republican majorities in charge of both chambers for the first time in 40 years. In the aftermath of 2011, issues like education and state government operations are among the subjects of greatest concern to the Capitol’s seasoned association lobbyists. Among the issues expected to get play this session are the following:
Market Value Homestead Credit
State lawmakers felt the blowback from local governments last year after they eliminated the market value homestead credit as a cost-saving measure. The change eliminated a source of funding for local governments that was used to ease rising residential property taxes. In its place, lawmakers passed an exclusion for homeowners that offsets the loss of the credit. Local governments, however, have gotten squeezed. Farm groups like the Minnesota Farmers Union, whose members have witnessed steep increases in the value of agricultural land, would like to see the credit reinstated.
The credit, which lawmakers had not fully funded in the past, probably won’t be coming back. But the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) has teed up some nuanced changes that are intended to “mop up” some of the ill effects of the 2011 budget, said LMC lobbyist Gary Carlson. One big problem: The market value changes instituted last year have reduced the levy authority of certain municipal entities, such as economic development authorities and housing redevelopment authorities. Cities are further hampered because state law limits them to borrowing no more than 3 percent of their municipalities’ taxable market value.
“We’re going to try to fix that up,” Carlson said. “In the process of designing that bill, it’s now grown to 50 pages long because we’ve tried to clean up a lot of other statutes.”
While the bill will be heavy in technical language, it could become a flash point in the fight between DFLers and Republicans over the fallout from last session’s actions on property taxes.
Last year’s education finance bill included a priority item for Republicans in establishing a teacher evaluation system by the 2014-15 school year. The compromise that Gov. Mark Dayton ultimately signed into law requires that 35 percent of the evaluation be tied to student performance as determined by criteria established at the local level. Business groups like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership felt like they left the session with a half-empty glass because the bill did not tie the evaluations to tenure decisions, which the Education Minnesota teachers union opposed. Jim Bartholomew, education policy director for the Business Partnership, said his group’s goal is to see legislation that establishes a link between the evaluations and tenure decisions as of 2016.
“It begs the question, now that we have the evaluations, are we going to do anything with the results?” Bartholomew said.
That move would also affect the current policy that makes seniority the determining factor in teacher layoffs (the “last in, first out” policy). That move has been opposed by the union and most DFLers. Although Education Minnesota has concerns about some aspects, the union has welcomed the teacher evaluation system in concept. On its website, Education Minnesota includes the implementation of the evaluations on its priority list for 2012.
Teacher professional development
On the heels of the teacher evaluation legislation, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) is calling for an expansion of a 2011 change to funding for professional development. Last year, lawmakers enacted a two-year suspension of the set-aside of 2 percent of state general fund money for professional development. MASA wants the 2 percent set-aside permanently repealed. The change would give schools flexibility to tailor their spending on professional development to their “strategic plans and Minnesota’s standards of education,” according to MASA’s 2012 legislative platform.
Counties took a hit in 2011 when state lawmakers increased their share of the costs for handling civilly committed sex offenders. Although the state runs the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, county attorneys play a role by taking referrals from the state Department of Corrections to determine if they should be civilly committed in the program. Counties had historically paid for 10 percent of the costs of civil commitment. That was increased to 25 percent as part of last year’s budget agreement. Also, the 17 percent share for chemical dependency treatment costs was hiked to 23 percent.
Keith Carlson, executive director of the Minnesota Inter-County Association, said he doesn’t expect the cost change to be reversed. But he hopes some changes can be made to alleviate the county’s sex offender costs. The sex offender issue has become a major point of contention at the Capitol because the number of people in the program has increased, driving up operation costs.
“What we want to see is changes to the process and to look at some intermediate sanctions,” Carlson said. “Right now it’s all or nothing — they’re either let free or they’re put into confinement and treatment. We’re saying that some of them can have some level of supervision and treatment in less restrictive environments that would be less costly, but also be cognizant of the public safety concern.”
The LMC is raising a couple of concerns stemming from last year’s state government shutdown. The shutdown created wide-ranging hardships for liquor stores, highway builders and others. Cities encountered numerous difficulties, such as an inability to renew licenses and a slowdown in economic development, while state building inspectors were off the job. LMC wants lawmakers to allow public employees’ existing licenses to continue in a future shutdown. The group also wants lawmakers to identify certain types of inspections that local governments can undertake during a future shutdown so projects can move forward.
State job classifications
The 2011 state government finance bill tried to address Republicans’ longstanding complaint that state employees are grouped into too many job classifications — some 1,700 categories and accompanying subcategories. The bill that Dayton signed called for a report that contemplates reducing and consolidating executive branch job classes into 50 job families.
Labor unions expressed concern over the move and warned that the reduction could oversimplify the vast array of functions that state employees perform. On Thursday the House State Government Finance Committee will hear an update about the classification report study.
“That’s one that we’re going to be watching very closely,” one union lobbyist said.