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‘Skills gap,’ education top Senate priority list

Mike Mullen//January 9, 2015//

‘Skills gap,’ education top Senate priority list

Mike Mullen//January 9, 2015//

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The first bill introduced by the Senate DFL is a guaranteed success. Though a detail or figure in the disaster relief bill from Sen. Vicki Jensen, DFL-Owatonna, might still need to be nailed down, the state contribution to address recent flooding in southern Minnesota was also among the first 10 acts offered by their Republican counterparts in the House. Barring some anomalous hiccup, the legislation will soon pass and be signed into law.

As for Senate Files 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6? Those might take some doing.

The upper chamber’s returning leadership unveiled its priority bills Thursday morning, highlighting six different proposals that will serve as the foundation for its agenda this session. Ideas on tap include several that would address a so-called “skills gap,” which, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said, is hampering the state’s businesses and could cripple rural economies if left unaddressed. Other ideas released Thursday are concerned with the state’s children: One addresses child safety and welfare, while the other would provide for free preschool for 4-year-old children.

Perhaps the most striking single idea to emerge from the DFL’s list comes from Sen. Leroy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who will carry a bill that would pay for two years’ worth of community or technical college tuition for any Minnesota high school graduate. Stumpf’s bill, which is modeled on a program now being implemented in Tennessee, is meant to encourage higher education and skills training for students who otherwise could not afford college. Stumpf, and a subsequent press release, made the case that the bill would especially benefit immigrants, minorities and children growing up in rural Minnesota, where people are less likely to seek a degree after high school.

Bakk also said the proposal could help drive the state’s unemployment rate even lower.

“We just can’t seem to figure out how to match up the people who are unemployed to the employers that have vacancies,” Bakk said. “There’s a skill-set gap, and much of that is in vocational or technical-type careers.”

The bill’s introduction was either an act of slick coordination or uncanny timing: On Friday morning, President Barack Obama announced his desire to pass a similar measure on the federal level, also indicating that the Tennessee imitative had been the model for his plan.

Reached later on Thursday, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chair of the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, said he understood the impetus behind the DFL’s idea; like Stumpf, he observed that community college had been free for Minnesota residents until the 1970s. But, Nornes said, the financial commitment eventually became prohibitive, and he worried about the “horrendously expensive” price tag that could be associated with the DFL idea.

“I’m not sure if that’s where we want to put all of our higher education funds,” said Nornes, who added that he had not seen the DFL proposal. “It’s something I would certainly have to hear more about.”

Stumpf’s was the first of two packages framed as guided economic development. The second, authored by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, would make public grants available for employers to subsidize training for incoming employees. Under Bonoff’s bill, which includes Bakk as a coauthor, the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) would award grants for jobs where a “competency standard” can be determined; newly hired employees would be paid during their training, and participating companies would need to match some amount of the training costs.

Another Senate bill would incentivize young doctors and dentists to serve rural areas. Medical or dentistry school graduates who operate in currently underserved communities for at least four years would be eligible for forgiveness of about 60 percent of their student loans, on average.

The proposal to make free preschool available to 4-year-olds will be carried by Sen. John Hoffman, DFL-St. Paul, who has served on the Anoka-Hennepin School Board for a decade. Hoffman said the bill would help young children in school readiness and close the achievement gap, while Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, added that it would be a boon to the many families where both parents work full time.

“Minnesota has among the highest participation of women in the workforce,” Sieben said. “So, an added benefit of the 4-K bill … is that it will help families’ economic security.”

The Senate press conference recalled a restaurant server announcing that night’s specials menu:  Items might sound good, but their descriptions were not paired with the corresponding prices. As Bakk explained, Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) does not issue fiscal notes until a piece of legislation has been slated for a committee hearing.

Bakk did say that the projected $1 billion surplus is “not a lot of money” and said many of the programs offered Thursday were “scalable,” meaning they could be implemented at appropriate funding levels without raising taxes.

Asked about the obvious appeal several of the bills would have for Greater Minnesota, Bakk said the agenda was about addressing “critical infrastructure” needs, and not winning rural votes in 2016.

Even still, the DFL contingent present at Thursday’s announcement is noteworthy. Bakk was flanked by assistant majority leaders Sieben and Jeff Hayden (Minneapolis), and Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, was on hand to assure observers that the caucus was still pushing a transportation funding package. The five other senators in attendance — including Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, who presented a bill chief authored by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato — each won election with less than 56 percent of the vote in 2012, and would be likely Republican targets in 2016.

Asked about the expected push for tax cuts from House Republicans, Bakk made reference to a previous effort to stimulate the state economy through “tax-free zones.” The plan, proposed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty and supported by Bakk, “frankly failed,” the Senate leader said.

“I just do not believe that you can drive economic development by reducing business taxes,” Bakk said. “We have no assurance that it’s going to get passed on to the business.”

He added: “If someone could assure me, if we’re going to cut business taxes, that that money is going to get reinvested into the business, I would be more sensitive to the idea of business tax relief.”

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