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Sen. Torrey Westrom Capitol Report: Feb. 8, 2013

This week has been a busy one filled with committee hearings, floor session, constituent meetings, planning town hall meetings and the Governor’s State of the State Address.

Governor's State of the State Address: Governor Mark Dayton delivered his annual State of the State address this Wednesday. He again stressed his plan to raise taxes as a key part of his two year budget proposal. The Governor's budget relies on some $3.6 billion in new taxes, including a broad $2.1 billion expansion of sales tax on new goods and services. Details continue to emerge on the impact of the Governor's sales tax expansion. For example, consumers would pay an estimated $77 million in new sales taxes on clothing purchases, $108 million on haircuts and other personal care services, and $199 million on auto repair services. The Governor's overall budget plan calls for spending $37.9 billion over the next 2 years, and longer range spending of $41.9 billion for the following two years. This four year spending total would represent an increase of $6.7 billion or nearly 20 percent from current state spending.

2nd Amendment: DFL House Members introduced legislation to expand gun control that was heard in committees this week that would infringe upon our right to bear arms. These bills were presented in the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee. Taking away the right to own guns from law abiders will not stop unlawful citizens from owning and using them. Law abiding citizens should be able to exercise their rights under the second amendment. I will continue to be an ardent voice for the 2nd Amendment and uphold my oath to the Constitution we all took upon swearing-in.  To refresh everyone’s memory on what our Second Amendment says, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” I’ve been receiving a flood of e-mails from concerned citizens in District 12 about this issue. As one of them stated, “You need the Second Amendment to protect the First”. 

State Employee Contracts: On Thursday, the Senate passed (on a vote of 40-25) Senate File 58, ratifying five collective bargaining agreements and two compensation plans approved by the Legislative Coordinating Commission Subcommittee on Employee Relations. These contracts included a two percent across-the-board salary increase plus step increases for eligible employees, and no changes in healthcare insurance premium percentages (0% single/15% family).  

Transportation: This week, the Transportation Committee heard overviews about MAP-21, the federal transportation financing program. Passed by Congress last year, this program provides states some flexibility in determining how to best spend federal transportation funds and includes incentives for reducing freight bottlenecks. The committee also reviewed reports from Governor Dayton's Transportation Finance Advisory Committee and the Itasca Project. These reports looked at the state's infrastructure needs, proposed tax increases to finance projects, and the return on investment from constructing transit corridors.

Judiciary: The Judiciary Committee this week continued to discuss and learn more about the budget and data practices.  Additionally, there was an important bill that passed the committee to help Minnesotans who would like to file an appeal on their state taxes with the Minnesota Tax Court. Under current law, Minnesotans who wish to file an appeal must get it to the Tax Court so that it is received by the due date.  Senator Newman's Senate File 28 will change this rule so that, just like when you file your tax returns on April 15th, a postmark is sufficient to meet the due date deadline. 

The Health Insurance Exchange bill continues to move through committees: The Minnesota Insurance Marketplace Act was passed by the Tax Committee on a party line vote. A substantial amendment was adopted that changed the funding mechanism for the exchange from a 3.5 percent withhold on insurance premiums to a transfer of funds from the health impact fund to cover the cost of exchange operations.

Health and Human Services: A bill to expand Medical Assistance coverage passed out of the Health and Human Services Finance Committee on Wednesday. This bill expands coverage for persons up to 138 percent of the federal poverty guideline. Senators expressed concerns about the bill because the expansion is offered by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act. While the federal government says they will pay for the cost of newly eligible enrollees for the first few years of the program, the expansion will cost an unknown amount down the road that the state will be expected to cover.

Education: In the Education Committee, school districts and the Chancellor of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) described the increasing partnerships and cooperation between secondary schools and higher education, which is enabling students to leave high school with a number of completed college credits free of charge to the family. Early college experiences in high school also seem to be affecting the graduation rate positively by engaging students with more challenging and/or more applied learning. 

Members of the Education Finance Committees in the House and Senate held a joint hearing to consider a Task Force Report on Integration Revenue Replacement. This source of revenue has a history of not being evenly available to all school districts with some districts receiving several hundreds of dollars per student and others none at all for no clear reason other than past political decisions. The Task Force Chair testified that its recommendations will begin to clarify the purpose and oversight of these funds. However, dissenting views from the Task Force believe the report of the majority did not include the true reform measures necessary to ensure that this revenue is used to measurably improve student academic performance, which has shown to be lagging among minority students.