Senator Dan Sparks: It’s Halftime at the Legislature

State lawmakers are wrapping up a one-week Spring recess and will return to the Capitol Monday. The mid-session milestone was an important opportunity for all of us to return to our districts, visit with constituents, and have face-to-face conversations about the work being done in Saint Paul

State Employee Contracts and Pensions

During the first half of the legislative session, the Senate unanimously approved new contracts for our outstanding state employees, which Governor Dayton already signed into law. The Senate also unanimously approved a new plan to begin addressing the state’s endangered pension fund. The plan awaits a final vote in the House. I encourage my colleagues to respect the strong compromise crafted by Republican Senator Julie Rosen and DFL Senator Sandy Pappas.

Agriculture

The chairman of the Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Policy Committee recently released his omnibus policy bill (Senate File 3536), which largely reflects ideas brought forth by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). One provision in the bill would ensure that rule requirements implemented by MDA related to water protection and nitrogen fertilizer be enacted into law. I share concerns of agricultural stakeholders in our area who believe that the rule will be released after the legislative session, limiting the public’s ability to respond through legislative action.

Affordable Housing

Affordable housing is a big challenge for many households in Austin and throughout Minnesota. As a result, the Legislature is discussing proposals to address this shortage.

One proposal improves the ability of senior housing projects to qualify and compete for housing resources (Senate File 3700). The bill also requires the funding authority for a project to award funding for the entirety of the project, but no more than 55 percent of the total project cost can be paid for by bonds. Additionally, the bill prohibits a project from sitting on a bonding allocation and not using the resources in a timely manner.

Another proposal establishes a tax credit for housing to be financed by a new Minnesota Housing Tax Credit Contribution Fund (Senate File 3301). The fund would raise revenue via tax-deductible donations. The dollar-for-dollar nonrefundable tax credit would range from a minimum of $100 to a maximum of $5,000,000 for a taxpayer or an insurance company. The total amount of allowable tax credits is $25 million. Any unused credit for a taxpayer or insurance company must be carried into the next taxable year, and credits can be carried forward for 10 consecutive years. In the event a partnership or multiple owners working under a single entity are granted tax credits, the credit must be disbursed on a pro rata basis amongst the shareholders.

A third proposal encourages local governments to establish their own housing trust fund. It would also support programs to help individuals who have a mental health illness get stable housing and appropriate money for Homework Starts with Home, which is a program to help families with school-aged children find stable housing. According to the numbers, the Homework Starts with Home program increases school attendance and decreases chronic absenteeism in comparison to other similarly situated students not participating in the program.

Transportation

According to estimates, our state needs $900 million annually to maintain our current transportation system. A new funding proposal before the Legislature (Senate File 3837) would finance a small fraction of that need by permanently shifting money out of the state’s general fund, which is primarily used to pay for vital services like education and health care.

Proponents of this approach say the state is long overdue for increased transportation spending. Although the increased funding will still be inadequate, any infusion of cash will be put to good use to repair our state’s aging roads and bridges. Opponents of this approach are right to point out that permanently shifting money out of our state budget endangers other priorities like education and health care.

This column was first published in the Austin Daily Herald.

Senator Dan Sparks
Dan Sparks represents District 27, which includes all or portions of Dodge, Faribault, Freeborn, Mower, and Steele counties in the southeastern part of the state.

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