It was a busy week at the Capitol last week as we began to read through the finer details of Governor Dayton’s tax plan. When Governor Dayton spoke to the House and Senate Republican Caucuses to unveil his budget, one of our colleagues asked the governor directly for a comprehensive list of what would be included and what would be exempt under the new sales tax proposal. Unfortunately, we have yet to see such a list.
Given the Dayton administration’s stonewalling on this issue, I plan to continue to ask the tough questions when I have the opportunity to speak with administration officials in committee. For instance, last week the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) officials testified before the Transportation Finance Committee. After reviewing the budget proposal, I asked the commissioner if car purchases were excluded from the lower 5.5% sales tax – rather than the current 6.5% - under the governor’s tax plan. Initially, the MNDOT officials wouldn’t provide a clear answer before the committee, but the Minnesota Department of Transportation later confirmed to me that Governor Dayton’s tax plan does, in fact, exclude car sales from the lower tax rate.
If buying a car wasn’t costly enough, it may become more difficult to drive the car under a proposal put forth by the Governor’s Transportation Advisory Committee that wants to impose a gas tax of 40 cents per gallon. Although the plan would be phased in over 20 years, the gas tax passed in 2008 is still being phased in. At a time when gas is nearing $4.00, we can’t be asking for more from hard-working Minnesotans who use their car to get to work and transport their family from place to place.
I’m also very concerned about the rising cost of the state employee contracts that are moving through legislature. Given the limited amount of money the state has to spend each year on its overall budget, we need to look at what impact the automatic increases in pay and cost of living adjustments has on other budget priorities. For instance, public defenders are underpaid and overworked because there is so little money allocated it puts a cramp on delivering justice and slows down the court system when public defenders have to make twenty appearances a day. I also believe it’s only fair we take a hard look at state employee salaries and maybe ask for a little more to fund important priorities likes the public defender program when the governor’s budget asks small businesses and middle class families to pay more in business and sales taxes. At a time when insurance premiums are growing for people employed in the private sector, there was no reform to the generous benefit packages for public employees. Coming out of a period where many families’ incomes dropped significantly, and when many wives or husbands took a second job to help make ends meet, these contracts contain a 9-10% increase in salary for employees over the next two years. Failure to institute any significant reform in the contracts or to consider the state budget as a whole leads to important services getting squeezed. Fully funding basic services of government – like public safety and the courts – should not be take a back seat to costly state employee contracts.
Thank you to Minnesota Hospital Association members Jennifer Mysters, Gretchen Frederik, and Rayleen Fairfield of Buffalo Hospital for meeting with me in my office in St. Paul last Wednesday to talk about health care issues facing our community and our state. I also enjoyed meeting with Dan Flicker of Buffalo, Charles Krause of Buffalo, and other members of Minnesota Milk Producers to discuss dairy issues.
On Friday, I had the pleasure of touring the Buffalo Hospital, the second largest employer in Buffalo, at the invitation of the hospital’s president Jennifer Myster. I was impressed with the kind of service that Buffalo Hospital provides to all of Wright County. Also, I loved that the hospital showcases local art throughout their building. I have a few pieces of local art from Buffalo in my office, but hope to have more!
Later, I had lunch with Buffalo Police Chief Mitchell Weinzetl at BJ’s Cafe to discuss how the state can partner with local law enforcement agencies to more effectively address the issue of mental illness and chemical dependency in our criminal justice system. I joined a working group with Chief Weinzetl for mental illness and look forward to finding solutions to the complex problems of this community faces in our correctional system.
On Saturday, I attended a town hall meeting with Congresswoman Bachmann at the Monticello Caribou Coffee. It was great to speak to a full room, seeing old friends, and meeting new friends like Larry and Renae Lee of Monticello. I was impressed with the number of people who braved the cold to attend the event.
As the legislative session moves forward, I am interested in your feedback. Please feel free to contact me by e-mail at Rep.Marion.ONeill@House.MN or contact my office at 651-296-5063. You can also send me mail to my office address: 229 State Office Building, 100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155. Please feel free to share this e-mail with your family, friends, and neighbors so they can sign up and stay in touch.