Senator Chuck Wiger: Legislators approaching home stretch
Legislators are now headed for the home stretch. Our main mission is to prepare a balanced state budget as required by our Constitution, and get it done by May 22. If legislative leaders and the Governor work together–as the people expect them to–various differences will ultimately get resolved so we can move ahead.
We have been quite busy–weeks of committee hearings, area meetings, dozens of visits in our community and at the Capitol, hundreds of emails and letters, and more. This input helped shape various budget proposals that passed the Senate and House. The Governor’s priorities–particularly for education–will now get greater attention as conference committees meet to discuss and resolve issues. I hope to again be a conference committee member for the e-12 policy and finance bill.
In addition to the state budget, we expect to take action on a capital investment bill addressing many needed projects in MN, particularly in higher education. I’m sponsoring proposals for facility improvements for Century College, and also seeking funds to complete the Lake Links trail around White Bear Lake.
My highest priority is education. Students are our future, tomorrow’s workforce. The Senate recently acted on the E-12 public education bill. It is disappointing that with a $1.65 billion surplus, the bill that passed invests only $300 million into public education.
As the ranking DFL member on the Senate E-12 Education Finance Committee, I emphasized on the Senate floor that this investment falls short of what we need to do for Minnesota students and families. At a minimum, school districts need a healthy increase in their per-pupil funding formula to keep up with inflation. The bill that passed the Senate was an investment of less than half of Gov. Dayton’s $709-million education proposal.
While there is some money in the bill for voluntary pre-kindergarten programs, it does not come close to meeting the demand. Funding quality pre-K programs is the best strategy for giving kids the early start they need to read by third grade and graduate from high school on time. This is the way we produce the World’s Best Workforce.
The bill does include grant money to fund a program that I authored that will help students in 8th and 9th grade transition to high school. The White Bear Lake, Mahtomedi and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school districts will receive funds to assist students navigate the transition. The House version of the budget bill does not include money for the Race2Reduce water conservation program beyond next year. I commend the staff and students who have put so much passion into this program. Even Gov. Dayton made a special visit to White Bear Lake to recognize Race2Reduce as a model conservation program for the state. I will do all I can to restore proposed funding cuts.
Another measure that took a solid seven hours of debate was the $900 million tax bill. The legislation includes two proposals that I authored. One will give property tax relief to the surviving spouses of disabled veterans. Another provision brings estate tax relief and moves Minnesota into conformity with federal regulations.
The Health and Human Services bill includes funding for our must vulnerable citizens and led to passionate statements on the Senate floor. The legislation cuts $335 million from public programs and masks the severity of the cuts through shifts and gimmicks. The legislation uses one-time money for ongoing programs, and shifts payments out into the future.
The Higher Education budget bill also was criticized for not adequately funding core academic programs to maintain educational quality at campuses across the state. The Senate Higher Education bill is one-third the size of what Gov. Dayton recommended.
A particularly contentious floor debate took place during a Senate session that began at 7 p.m. after a long day of hearings. Three major budget bills covering jobs, state government and the environment received a vote that night. The state government debate grew heated as senators debated the arbitrary 7. 5 percent cuts to every state agency. One positive development was that an unexpected amendment to protect Minnesotans’ online privacy rights passed with bipartisan support. The measure was a timely reaction to Congress repealing online privacy rights and allowing Americans’ information to be sold.
Debate on the Environment Bill drew some of the sharpest criticism. The measure exempts hundreds of thousands of acres of land from the state’s buffer law, putting Minnesota’s water quality at increased risk for pollution. Protecting the environment has always been one of my top priorities as a legislator. I was recently elected co-chair of Minnesota’s Legislative Water Commission.
The House and Senate agreement on reinsurance – a bill that spends $543 to temporarily “fix” the health insurance individual market also passed, despite significant opposition. The concern is that this is an expensive one-time fix that doesn’t guarantee lower health insurance premiums.
The Senate also reconsidered the REAL ID bill several weeks after it failed on the Senate floor due to unnecessary, controversial immigration language. Minnesotans concerned about their ability to board an airplane next year can rest easy because the REAL ID bill passed with bipartisan support.
Senators also voted on and approved a $400 million transportation bill. The money to fund this bill is shifted from the general fund – a move that is unsustainable. Transit funding is also completely left out of the bill and this could mean cuts to existing bus line routes.
When senators return to the Capitol on April 18, conference committees will begin to reconcile differences between the House and Senate budget and policy bills. Governor Dayton will be actively involved in negotiations as he has the ability to veto or reject budget or policy proposals.
Ultimately, we will need to reach compromises. I pledge to do my best to actively listen and seek consensus so we can move on for the best interests of our great area and state.
Need more information, have a question or want to share advice? As always, feel free to call me anytime at my office at 651-296-6820, or my cell/text is 651-770-0283. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again for the honor of serving and representing you.