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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Cheryl Youakim (DFL)

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Legislative Weekly Recap - May 16-23, 2016

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Hello Everyone,

Many of you have seen the news by now that the Minnesota Legislature adjourned on Sunday night at midnight and it wasn’t a pretty ending. The chaotic last few hours were not the institution’s finest. Minnesotans deserve better - business as usual is no longer acceptable. I will be joining many of my colleagues next session pushing for reforms to ensure transparency and accessibility to the process.

While session was cut short this year due to construction, we still had 10 weeks to work on issues facing Minnesota. But the process and human nature pushed decisions on the larger bills off until the final moments. On the last day of session, we were presented with a Tax bill to quickly review and vote on. Last session, the House and the Senate both passed tax bills and appointed conference committees to work out the differences but time ran out and no tax bill was passed in 2015. This session, that same conference committee was expected to take up where it left off. That committee did not meet in earnest until the last week of this session and we saw their final product on the very last day. The final tax bill included tax credits for those paying off student loans, tax relief for farmers and small businesses and a little increased funding for city and county governments to offset property taxes. One area of concern, is a provision that was stuck in at the last minute that took the inflationary increase off of the tobacco tax. I can think of better ways we could have spent $32 million than tax breaks for tobacco companies. But, I believe the good outweighed the bad and I voted yes on the final bill.

During those final hours of session, a 598 page supplemental budget bill showed up on our desk that had 19 pages of spreadsheets attached. The bill spent $187 million in 2017 and covered all areas of state government. While the bill was put together by a conference committee of House and Senate members, over the last few days of session, many of us did not see the final product until the wee hours of the night. We received this large bill only a few hours before we were expected to debate and vote on it. With a $900 million surplus, I was hoping that this bill would have had spent more of the surplus but it was woefully inadequate in many ways. One of those areas that fell short was higher education. While the Minnesota State College & University system had requested $21 million to close the gap on their funding this year and the U of M had requested $38.85 million the final bill only provided $5 million total in higher education funding. Funding fell short in many other ways as well. There was no increased funding for child-care assistance, not enough investment in needed cyber security and no increase for healthcare workers who take care of our seniors and disabled. I voted no on the final supplemental budget bill, not because what it contained but because of the investments that it did not make.

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The 598-page supplemental budget which legislators and the public were given no time to review in total.

But I have to say that the biggest disappointment is that, once again, there was no compromise on a comprehensive transportation bill. In the final hours, the bonding bill was coupled with a smaller one-time investment in transportation that may have doomed the bonding bill from the start. Transportation investment should stand on its own. While everyone has agreed that the state needs roughly $600 million in additional funding a year to maintain our transportation infrastructure, there was no agreement on how to fund that need. A small increase in the gas tax was a non-starter and increasing tab fees were thrown out, as well as an increased transit tax to build out our bus and light rail system. While the transportation conference committee met sporadically during session, there was no final agreement. One of the main sticking points was investment in our transit system. In the last weeks, House Speaker Kurt Daudt said that they would only accept one-time funding for roads and bridges and that he would not support any new money for transit. Personally, I believe transit is a very important piece of our transportation system and cannot be discussed in a vacuum. Speaker Daudt also repeatedly called for the demise of the Southwest Light Rail Transit project despite overwhelming support from the business communities and all of the cities along the line. Now, I understand that folks are entitled to their own opinions but, they are not entitled to their own facts. Speaker Daudt continues to make false statements in the press about this project and it has become rather trying.

In the last hour of the session, we were handed two spreadsheets. One had a list of bonding projects to be included in a bonding bill and the other was a single page listing the transportation projects that were also to be included. My DFL colleagues and I were given 15 minutes in the hallway, outside the House chambers, to discuss the bill before we were asked to come in and vote on it.

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DFL legislators had to hurriedly review bonding spread sheets in the hallway because the bill was put forward by the majority just minutes before the end of the 2016 session.

To our surprise, when we returned to our desks, there was no bill to go with the spreadsheets on our desks, nor was there a bill available online. We were told that no amendments would be able to be drafted to the bill though amendments from one side of the aisle had mysteriously appeared for us to vote on. What ensued were multiple questions from the floor, microphones being turned off, discussion suppressed and a rush to a vote in the last 15 minutes of session.

As the dust settles this week, there will be more revelations on what was included in the bills that were rushed through in the final hours. It has already been revealed that a mistake in the bonding bill, had the bond appropriations listed as $1.2 million instead of $1.2 billion. There were projects and policies that were left out of bill language, there were surprise provisions slipped into bills and deals that were made and then broken. It remains to be seen if the Governor will call a special session to complete what was left undone. While I hope that he does call a special session to complete the bonding bill, it would serve everyone well to have a cooling off period. An immediate special session would do no one any good.

Many of you have contacted me about the fate of the Southwest Light Rail project, wondering what is to become of it. During session, Rep. Flanagan and I reached out to our colleagues on both sides of the aisle to explain the importance of the project to our region. In the final week, Rep. Selcer, Rep. Flanagan and I met with Lt. Governor Tina Smith to relay the importance of the project. We have pushed for the project and will continue to do so. I believe we have strong partners in the Met Council and the Governor to find the 10% of state funding needed. But, we need to keep up the public pressure. Please contact Governor Dayton’s office and share a personal story of why this investment is important to you.

While there were many things to be frustrated about this legislative session, there were still some accomplishments made. Utilizing our $900 million budget surplus, we were able to pass some modest tax cuts that will help ordinary Minnesota families. Included are Governor Dayton’s Working Family Tax Credit, expansion of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, and a groundbreaking Student Loan Tax Credit which will provide relief from the student debt crisis. Veterans will see a tax cut with an expansion of the Past Military Service Credit, and farmers will see lower taxes through enactment of the School Building Bond Agricultural Credit. We passed sweeping reforms to our drug sentencing that will make sure large drug dealers go to jail and addicts get treatment. While the bonding bill did not pass, Perspectives Inc. was included in the final package. Perspectives is a St. Louis Park-based program that helps homeless women and their children break the cycle of addiction. I will continue to push to make sure it is included in any bonding bill that may appear during a special session.

The bottom line is that while the final hours were frustrating and there is still much work to be done with transportation funding, we did accomplish some things that moved Minnesota forward. Please continue to contact me with questions and concerns. Until next session, I will only be sending updates out once a month. Thank you to all those who reached out, raised your voices and have been advocates for our community. I am sure I will see many of you around town in the coming months, please do not hesitate to come up and say hello.

Have a great summer!