2008 Session Begins Quickly

The 2008 legislative session began Tuesday at an unusual speed with committees already meeting into the evening. Legislators were on the fast track to passing a major transportation funding bill and a constitutional amendment dedicating funding to the outdoors, environment and arts.

The constitutional amendment passed the House and Senate floors Thursday with bipartisan support. The amendment, to be placed on the ballot in November, asks voters whether the state Constitution should be amended to raise the sales tax by 3/8 of 1%, with the money dedicated to funding clean water, the arts and natural resources. If approved, the sales tax would raise about $276 million a year.

Committees also spent time debating an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $7.75 an hour, the establishment of a victim’s compensation fund spurred by the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse and compliance with the federal Clean Air Act and California vehicle emissions standards. With four weeks until the first deadline, committees will be meeting feverishly in order to hear all of their bills. Next week will likely be consumed with the passage of the transportation funding bill off the Senate and House floors as other committees finish putting the finishing touches on a capital bonding package.

Transportation Funding Package 

After much anticipation and speculation, the DFL started the session with an aggressive, controversial, transportation funding package. Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed a similar, smaller transportation bill last year. This year, the Senate has a veto override majority. DFLers in both bodies feel confident the House can sway enough Republicans to break with their party and vote for a transportation funding package, in order to override the Governor’s anticipated veto.

The transportation funding bill, S.F. 2521 authored by Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing) and H.F. 2800 sponsored by Rep. Bernie Lider (DFL-Crookston), is estimated to bring in $8.4 million over the next decade and generate 33,000 jobs. Highlights of the bill include:

  • $2.2 billion in trunk highway bonds for FY2009–2018
  • A 5-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase phased in over two years
  • Up to 2½-cents-a-gallon debt service surcharge
  • Annual gas tax indexing to the Consumer Price Index
  • An increase in vehicle tab fees upon purchase of a new vehicle
  • A ½% metro-wide sales tax

The bill passed the House Transportation, Capital Investment and Finance committees. It will be heard in the House Tax and Ways and Means Committees next week and a floor vote is expected before next Friday. The Senate Transportation Policy and Budget Committee passed the bill out of committee on Thursday and will be heard in the Senate Finance Committee on Monday.

Gov. Pawlenty stated he felt the bill was overreaching and that he will have his veto pen ready when the bill makes it to his desk. In what many legislators and lobbyists may see as déjà vu, the transportation bill could be the first of many vetoed bills.

To read complete coverage of the transportation bills, go to http://www.twincities.com/localnews/ci_8244836 or http://www.startribune.com/local/15545087.html.

Gov. Pawlenty's State of the State

The Governor gave his sixth State of the State address in St. Cloud on Wednesday. Focusing largely on education and taxes, Pawlenty reiterated his support for education reform and accountability and his no-new-taxes pledge. He also stated his plans to create the 21st Century Tax Reform Commission to study Minnesota’s tax codes and recommend changes to make Minnesota’s tax system more business friendly. “We need to reduce taxes and regulations that discourage job growth, income generation, investment, entrepreneurial activity, research and exports. We’ll need to do that in a manner that also leaves our state budget in a stable condition,” Gov. Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty highlighted a number of other initiatives, including: his renewable energy proposal to fund low-interest loans for home-based solar panels and other energy technologies; containing health-care costs through electronic medical records and through the prevention and management of chronic diseases; and his Strategic Entrepreneurial Economic Development (SEED) initiative to help new business development in greater Minnesota.

The Governor also used his State of the State address to send a clear message to DFL legislators that he will veto any tax increase that makes it to his desk. “In the meantime, I still have an important tool to restrain taxes and spending. I call it the taxpayer protection pen, otherwise known as the veto pen.” Despite his opposition to tax increases, Pawlenty said he was still optimistic that legislators could come to a bipartisan agreement on transportation.

To read more about the State of the State address, go to http://www.startribune.com/business/15588472.html.

You can read the complete text of the Governor’s State of the State address on http://www.startribune.com/politics/state/15587867.html.

The DFL Response

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark (DFL-St. Cloud) and House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher provided the DFL response. Disappointed with the Governor’s lack of emphasis on the current budget deficit and job growth, Sen. Clark said she felt there was “a lack of vision” in the speech.

Speaker Kelliher said she felt Pawlenty should have addressed the immediate needs of the state. “An economy that has lost 23,000 jobs, that has the highest unemployment that it’s had, I could say for one that I was disappointed and my guess is that other legislators were disappointed.” Kelliher said she would like to see the transportation and bonding bills passed quickly so they can help jumpstart the economy and infuse the state with new jobs.

Climate Change, Auto Emissions Debated

On Thursday, the Senate Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications committee received an update on the work of the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCCAG). Edward Garvey, director of the newly created Office of Energy Security, presented the MCCAG’s preliminary plan and timeline for the final report, which is scheduled for completion by April 25, 2008.

Several Democrats on the committee expressed disappointment that after the lengthy MCCAG process, which began in April 2007, the final report would not be available in time for action this year and that there were not more policies deemed ready for immediate implementation. Many more hearings on climate change are expected, as several members of the legislature are considering introducing legislation of their own to address the global warming problem.

Important Dates

February 28 February Forecast is released

March 14 First Policy Deadline

March 19 Second Policy Deadline

March 19-25 Easter Break

March 28 Third Policy Deadline