After House Democrats proposed $750 million in annual tax increases mostly for transit spending, they introduced a more modest bill this week that would spend $50 million in General Funds and $50 million in Trunk Highway Funds. However, the bill adds more regulations and assessments on private industry, railroads and pipelines at a time when we should be encouraging greater build-out of these systems to transport energy and heating sources to Minnesotans who need them. Notable spending items include $15 million to the Met Council, largely for bus rapid transit, $10 million for winter-related trunk highway repair (pot hole repair), $5 million for railroad grade crossing safety, nearly $4 million for winter-related county state-aid road repair, and tens of thousands of dollars for free statewide transit on Election Day.
Part of the bill also puts the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) in charge of new pipeline construction instead of placing it under the authority of Public Utility Commission and the Office of Pipeline Safety. If this proposal becomes law, it is highly questionable we will ever see pipeline improvements or new construction. Another provision requires railroads to light their rail yards with “Made in Minnesota” solar panels, despite objections from neighbors, railroad companies and surrounding communities. In addition to unnecessarily higher costs, this mandate on a private company has potential constitutional issues.
While I’m happy that the legislature repealed the job-killing business-to-business taxes enacted during the 2013 Legislative Session (I authored a bill to repeal all three), I’m disappointed we were unable to give back the tax money already paid – now repealed – into the state. If you paid sales taxes to repair a tractor or any other piece of capital equipment – even if you saved your receipts – you will not get your money back from the State of Minnesota. This is very frustrating since nearly half a billion dollars remains from our state surplus, which would be more than enough to repay farmers for their unneeded tax contributions.
One of the committees I sit on is the Housing Finance and Policy Committee. The past four committee hearings we’ve held have been entirely devoted to a single bill. This legislation attempts to redirect and further restrict money already appropriated to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. The bill set aside $500,000 from the Challenge Grant Program specifically for families who are facing eviction due to their child’s severe disability such as autism. In another section of the bill, it forces the Housing Agency to create a pilot project with no new money to offer 0% interest loans to members of religious groups with objections to paying interest on loans, and try to close the racial home ownership gap. While I believe the goal of this legislation is well-intentioned, I have serious concerns about costs implications. In fact, the commissioner of the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency – an appointee of Governor Dayton – has said this bill could put the agency’s bond rating in jeopardy. I certainly support making sure people have a safe and warm place to live, but this legislation is not the answer.
Another committee I sit on – the Labor, Workforce and Regulated Industries Committee – heard a bill that would change the definition of what a “teacher” is according to state law to include audiologists, art therapists, or music therapists. The purpose of this law is to force the 70 employees to become part of the union’s bargaining unit. Not only am I opposed to this legislation, but I’m particularly upset at the fact that the author of the bill didn’t bother to ask those who would be impacted how they felt about this proposal. When pressed about who asked the author of the bill to bring this legislation, the author responded: Education Minnesota, the teachers union. I truly expect better of legislators in St. Paul than to put forward a bill simply because an influential special interest lobbyist group wants it without any regard for those who would be affected. We need to remember that education is about students first, not adults.
If you have any questions about these tax changes or concerns about any state legislative issue, you can contact me by e-mail at Rep.Marion.ONeill@House.MN or call my office at 651-296-5063. You can also write a letter to me. My office address at the Capitol is 229 State Office Building, 100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, St. Paul, MN 55155.