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Jobs and energy panel shifting priorities

Rep. Pat Garofalo’s bill contains some controversial positions, including two that strike at the minimum wage level. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Rep. Pat Garofalo’s bill contains some controversial positions, including two that strike at the minimum wage level. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

At the close of a Wednesday night hearing, a minority caucus member trying to track proceedings asked for a point of clarification.

Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, knew that the omnibus bill before the committee cut any state money for broadband projects. But he wanted to be sure he understood correctly that the broadband office was being moved from the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) to the Department of Commerce.

No, corrected the committee chair, Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington. The office was being eliminated altogether.

If that moment suggested the sweeping changes contained in the bill, the preceding announcement hinted that the author knows it’s still a work in progress. Garofalo said he and others would make their next stop at the nearby Burger Moe’s restaurant, and any of the dozens of legislators and lobbyists on hand were welcome to join them and continue the discussion.

The expansive portfolio of the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee is suggested in its title, and borne out in its omnibus bill, an ambitious, 164-page proposal that would rewrite state budgeting and policy across a handful of major subjects. No fewer than five nonpartisan staffers have been detailed to monitor its disparate sections touching on employment law, economic development, housing and power production, to name just a few.

Working within a reduced budget target, Garofalo’s bill slashes spending for DEED by $16 million and the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority (MHFA) by $10.5 million. Garofalo was mindful of the various “workforce housing” needs of Greater Minnesota, but would rather leave the structuring of public incentives up to localities: The bill allows tax increment financing (TIF) for qualifying districts in need of workforce housing.

The exclusion of broadband funding was less popular among rural-minded advocates. The Legislature approved $20 million for broadband grants last year, and even that amount was just one-fifth the number called for by some boosters. In a press release issued Thursday, Heidi Omerza, president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, said the funding cut “essentially kills” the nascent broadband program, and she noted that the state had received more than $44 million of grant requests in the program’s first year.

“It is deeply concerning that the House GOP has chosen to eliminate the funding needed to expand this vital service,” Omerza said.

Among the few areas that would receive increases are the state’s tourism bureau. Explore Minnesota would get $2.8 million above its base funding over the next two years, $1 million of it reserved for a “match” fund to leverage private marketing investments; the state would provide $1 for each $6 of private funds spent.

Garofalo’s bill also contains some of the more controversial House Republican positions offered yet this session, including two that strike at the minimum wage level. One proposal, Garofalo’s own, creates a two-tiered minimum wage that would lower tipped employees to an $8-an-hour minimum, provided their salary and tips reached $12 an hour. Another element would prohibit local units of government from passing their own minimum, effectively blocking Minneapolis or St. Paul from enacting their own, higher wage threshold, as has been done in cities like San Francisco and Seattle.

The bill also adds legislative authority over the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), which would be forced to pass its clean energy proposals through the state Capitol before submission to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Also curtailed would be the long-term housing and development goals for the Metropolitan Council, which would also be subject to legislative approval.

On sustainable energy, Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Center, accused Garofalo of trying to “eliminate 30 years of conservation legislation,” instead creating a task force to study an alternative. Garofalo replied that he wants the “best and the brightest” minds to craft a new version of the conservation improvement program, now more than two decades old.

The bill language would force a sunset date of December 31, 2016, on the current energy conservation scheme, and Garofalo said it would be a “complete and utter failure” on his part if no new language was agreed to by then.

“If they can get this done, it’ll be the first thing we take care of next session,” Garofalo said.

Garofalo said the budget spreadsheet had been redone 18 times already. More versions are sure to come in the near future, given the distance between the House GOP target and their Democratic counterparts. Gov. Mark Dayton has called for the preservation of base-level increases for economic development passed in 2013, and highlighted those investments on Monday with a visit to promote a DEED-supported expansion of Andersen Windows.

The Senate has yet to roll out its own jobs bill, but moved on Thursday to increase that committee’s initial budget target. In light of projected savings on pensions and other expenses, the DFL added $11.5 million to its environment, economic development and agriculture target, bringing that committee’s limit to $56.5 million above its base-level budget.

How that money will break down across those categories — the House committee structure treats environment and agriculture separately — is still undecided, and the Senate committee has only one upcoming meeting calendared, with a limited agenda scheduled for Monday.

Garofalo, meanwhile, was hopeful but realistic, advising members and lobbyists that the committee could begin taking amendments on the bill as soon as Friday, while also reserving the hearing room for 8 a.m. start times on both Saturday and Monday.

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