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Capitol Chatter: Again, property taxes to increase

ST. PAUL — Minnesota's Revenue Department tells property owners something they already assumed: Property taxes will rise next year.

The department received data from local governments indicating that overall city taxes will jump 5.2 percent, counties will be up 3.7 percent and townships plan a 2.4 percent increase.

School tax levies next year are expected to be up 7.5 percent, an increase of $186 million. While in other local governments an elected body makes taxing decisions, half of the schools' increase came from the public approving them.

The figures represent the most that governments may tax property owners, but elected officials may lower taxes after hosting truth in taxation hearings. Also, the figures the state released are just averages, and some jurisdictions may raise taxes more and some may lower taxes.

House Republicans pledged to provide ways for local officials to lower property taxes, prompting Democrats to complain when the Revenue Department released the new numbers.

"Minnesota homeowners, businesses and farmers received news ... that they are facing property tax hikes totaling hundreds of millions of dollars," said House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis. "Given our state's strong budget surplus, this is inexcusable."

However, Republicans say local elected officials make property tax decisions, not state officials.

Railroads fight back

Railroads are fighting back when newspapers print criticisms of their safety records.

They have not been very vocal in recent years as state officials and others criticize their handling of North Dakota crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials. That appears to have changed in recent days.

Railroad lobbyist John Apitz wrote a piece alleging that a commentary by key Dayton administration commissioners printed by the Alexandria Echo Press underplayed what railroads are doing to improve safety.

Apitz began: "For Minnesota's railroads, working to keep our employees and the communities we serve safe is the most important thing we do."

He pointed out that railroads voluntarily have increased track inspections, improved technology to discover problems early, lowered speeds of trains carrying hazardous materials and increased training for local public safety workers.

Also, he said, Minnesota's four biggest railroads "will spend $500 million in our state improving infrastructure to safely operate and serve Minnesota's businesses."

Amy McBeth of BNSF Railway wrote to the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune. She complained that the newspaper's editorials and other Minnesotans say railroads are only doing the minimum possible to promote safety.

"Safety is paramount to BNSF," she said, adding that derailments are down more than 40 percent since 2000.

Franken tries again

U.S. Sen. Al Franken again is trying to get Congress to outlaw smartphone stalking apps.

The Minnesota Democrat so far has not convinced colleagues that the apps that track a smartphone user's movements should be banned, so he has reintroduced his legislation.

"A majority of Americans have smartphones now," Franken said. "And disturbingly, a growing number of them have become victims of dangerous cyberstalking. My commonsense bill will help a whole range of people affected by cyberstalking, including survivors of domestic violence and it would finally outlaw unconscionable — but perfectly legal — smartphone apps that allow abusers to secretly track their victims."

The legislation also would give consumers more control over who has access to location data.

Revenue up again

Minnesota state government revenue in October continued its trend of rising.

Minnesota Management and Budget reports revenue rose 0.2 percent, about $4 million, more than previously expected for the month. Individual income tax, sales tax and other revenues exceeded expectations, although corporate taxes fell $29 million.

MMB announced that it would release a comprehensive budget report on Dec. 3. It gives legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton an early look at how much money they will have available in the next legislative session.

Because the 2016 legislative session begins late next year, March 8, another revenue report will be released a few days before lawmakers return to St. Paul.

LGA remains priority

From the it's-no-surprise category: The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities puts Local Government Aid payments at the top of its 2016 legislative priority list.

During the coalition's annual meeting in Alexandria, its leaders said that with a state surplus of at least $1 billion, it is time for lawmakers to return state payment to cities to levels enjoyed in 2002.

"LGA is absolutely vital to our communities," said Robert Broeder, Le Sueur mayor and coalition president. "Many cities rely on LGA to help pay for basic services like police and fire protection and street repairs. Without it, we'd be forced to either cut staff and services or drastically raise property taxes."

Since 2002, the coalition, which represents 85 cities, has either fought attempts to lower LGA payments or fought to restore payments. It usually is atop the group's legislative priorities.

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