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Session success or flop for greater Minnesota?

A couple of days after the November 2014 election, Republicans celebrate taking control of the Minnesota House, thanks to winning 10 seats that had been Democratic. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

ST. PAUL – Republicans took control of the Minnesota House this year by ousting 10 greater Minnesota Democrats in last November's election, and immediately promised to make 2015 the greater Minnesota legislative session.

A look at greater Minnesota legislative issues

The session has ended and rural Republicans think things went well.

"I'm happy," Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria said.

Do Democrats agree? Not so much.

"When you look at those high expectations, I thought it was a big flop," said Assistant House Minority Leader Paul Marquart of Dilworth.

As Franson and Marquart show, the session received mixed reviews from those outside the Twin Cities.

Figuring out how greater Minnesota did during the legislative session is inexact given the fact that the Legislature will be back in special session to pass an education funding bill and deal with some unfinished business. While in St. Paul, lawmakers may be asked to make other changes that could affect greater Minnesota.

Greater Minnesota Republicans and even Democrats like Marquart say the biggest victory for those living outside the Twin Cities came in the health care bill, which added $138 million to nursing home aid, allowing the facilities to raise wages and keep nurses and other staff that often use rural nursing homes as training grounds before moving on to better-paying jobs.

The same legislation would require all nursing homes to receive the same state aid level as those in the Twin Cities. Current law provides less money for rural homes.

"That's incredible," said Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, a third-term lawmaker in charge of increasing nursing home aid.

Greater Minnesota residents should be happy, he said. "They will see the doors staying open on their local facilities."

Many nursing home operators were waiting to see what legislators did this session before deciding whether the homes would be open or closed. The added money is expected to keep most open.

The issue that best illustrates differences between Republicans and Democrats this year may have been transportation, perennially a prime greater Minnesota issue. Lawmakers could only pass a basic transportation funding package instead of one that would have spent billions of dollars over the next decade.

Most Democrats wanted to tack a new tax onto fuel sales to fund the work. It would have added 16 cents a gallon to gasoline at first, then gone up as fuel prices rose.

"It is going to take more revenue," said Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook.

But many Republicans said their biggest accomplishment was killing the gas tax plan.

"Minnesotans won by not having more money taken out of their wallet by gas tax," Franson said.

Added suburban Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury: "Minnesotans do not want a gas tax."

House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said the issue will await lawmakers when they return March 8 for the 2016 session.

Even without the multiyear, multibillion-dollar transportation funding bill sought by Democrats and Republicans alike, some new road and bridge money came out of the Legislature.

Cities of 5,000 or fewer population will split $12.5 million in road aid. They have not received such state aid before.

Marquart said his community, Dilworth, likely will only receive about $50,000, not enough to put a seal-coat topping on many streets.

The bill also spends $5 million on greater Minnesota transit, $5 million for railroad safety and nearly $1 million to put emergency response teams in Duluth and St. Cloud.

Democrats sharply criticized rail safety funding, saying they support Gov. Mark Dayton's proposal to build railroad crossings with overpasses in Moorhead, Willmar, Coon Rapids and the Prairie Island Indian Community to reduce the chance of car-train collisions and to reduce congestion caused by long oil trains. Some hope those crossings will be part of a special session public works funding bill.

The parties worked together to get $19 million to help fight the bird flu that has resulted in 8 million turkey and chicken deaths in the state. The help includes a low-interest loan program for farmers to repopulate their flocks and mental health help for farmers whose flocks were affected by the outbreak.

One little-noticed provision in the vetoed education bill, which likely will be part of new legislation in a special session, would allow school boards in all sizes of districts to approve a levy for money to maintain and repair school facilities. Only about the half-dozen largest ones have that power now.

Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said that is a major way to keep big and small districts on equal footing. Small districts have been able to take the levy request to voters, but have a tough time passing them, Kresha said.

The vetoed legislation would have provided $32 million for school facilities.

One of the issues that failed was farm property tax relief.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, proposed lowering farm taxes on school construction projects, but it disappeared for the year along with the GOP's hope to cut taxes by $2 billion when the tax bill failed to advance.

"There is no doubt the biggest issue was the rural property taxes in Minnesota," Marquart said.

"Property taxes are going to go up, there is no doubt about that," Marquart said, because of the failure of the Drazkowski bill as well as lawmakers not increasing state aid to cities and counties.

While House Democrats opposed many of the eight budget bills, and say greater Minnesota got few wins, Senate Democrats and Republicans in both chambers generally voted for the bills.

"With divided government, neither party will get everything they want," Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, said. "It's about negotiating a reasonable balance between differing values."

Rep. Ben Lien, D-Moorhead, was an example of Democrats who say they are disappointed with what the Republican majority delivered, or did not deliver, for his area.

"They did not deliver on this message and missed many opportunities to invest in broadband development, rail safety and infrastructure, Local Government Aid and direct residential and agricultural property tax cuts," Lien wrote in a newsletter.

"As this session has progressed, one disappointment after another is setting back the progress we made over the last two years," Rep. John Persell, D-Bemidji, said. "We could have used the $2 billion surplus to invest in families and kids and improve the economic climate in northern Minnesota, and fund the 5 percent increase for care providers."

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities urges lawmakers to return to the drawing board before a special session.

"In failing to pass a tax bill during the regular session, legislators and the governor missed a rare opportunity to address crucial needs in greater Minnesota," said Heidi Omerza, president of the coalition and an Ely City Council member. "Now with the special session, they have a second chance to pass a tax bill that includes an LGA (Local Government Aid) increase, workforce housing tax credits and meaningful property tax relief in Greater Minnesota. They shouldn't let this opportunity pass them by."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.