Progress for Northwest Minnesota
2015 Legislative Session included big wins for education, workforce housing & bonding
When the 2015 Legislative Session began back in January of this year, I had several priorities in mind focused on the needs of Northwest Minnesota. To begin with, several things needed to change in order to help struggling, small rural schools receive additional funding. Second, I wanted to pick up where we left off last year with our progress on building more workforce housing. We all understand the significant need for more affordable housing in our corner of the state, and that was very present in my mind this session. Thirdly, as Chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, I knew I would be helping to put together a bonding bill this year.
Schools in our part of the state are experiencing greater difficulties in hiring and retaining teachers than ever before. Part of the reason is due to recent changes in teacher licensing laws that have dramatically changed how many teachers were available to apply for openings. District administrators tell stories about going months without receiving a single applicant.
In response to this crisis, we streamlined the licensure process. We made it easier for teachers to get their licenses by removing unnecessary barriers, while still maintaining the high standards to which Minnesota teachers are held. This provision also helped streamline out-of-state teacher license requirements, which is especially important for areas close to a state border.
This year we also addressed the long overdue issue of school facilities funding. Two years ago, I served on the School Facilities Financing Working Group, in which we studied the disparities between all school districts across the state and researched how much funding would be needed in order for districts to carry out the backlog of projects that were needed to maintain their school facilities. This session we secured nearly $32 million for school facilities funding, and that amount of money increases in future biennia. This is an issue of equity that puts all school districts on a more level playing field.
Finally, we also addressed the QComp (or Alternative Compensation) program by adding $9.5 million to the program and eliminating the cap — opening it up to all districts across the state. QComp offers teachers career advancement options, job-embedded professional development, performance pay, and more – thus greatly helping retain quality teachers. This was an important issue for me because until now many schools in our district couldn’t quality for the program because of the cap. That put them at a distinct disadvantage because the program brings in a lot of extra aid money into districts that desperately need those additional dollars. Just as facilities funding helps level the playing field, so does lifting the QComp cap for all districts.
This session also saw a big focus on the need for more workforce housing in several areas across the state, including ours. As we all know all too well, small communities like Roseau and Thief River Falls are in great need of more market-rate housing to serve the many employees who work for big employers like Polaris, Digi Key and others. At the legislature this is still a relatively new issue that we continue to learn about and find ways to address the issues. This year we were successful in expanding a pilot-project area that began in our part of the state last year. This program received $4 million this year to help kick-start development projects in high-need areas across the state.
Another issue tied to the workforce housing issue is the growing need for skilled workers. This is a topic that saw a lot of discussion this session. I authored a bill to address both the need for more skilled workers in fields like manufacturing and fabrication and the high costs of higher education. My bill provides $5 million for a pilot project that offers free two-year tuition to students entering ‘high-need’ fields at a MnSCU campus. The state grants will be first-come, first-served and are available to students whose parents’ combined income does not exceed $90,000 per year.
This session ended unexpectedly, with the Governor vetoing several bills and calling a Special Session. This Special Session, held in early June, gave us the opportunity to craft a new bonding bill that invests $373 million into needed infrastructure projects across the state. Bonding bills are essential to taking care of state-owned infrastructure and helping maintain what makes Minnesota a great place to live, work and play. This bill invests in transportation through Trunk Highway Bonds, places an emphasis on immediate needs at our state college and universities, offers flood relief and mitigation and takes care of critical needs like wastewater facilities and water pipelines. I look forward to this fall when we begin a series of tours across the state to look at project proposals and meet interesting people in small towns and cities in every corner of Minnesota.