It was just six short weeks ago that the 2014 Legislative Session started. After more than a decade of chronic deficits, we came to the capitol with a $1.2 billion budget surplus. This surplus presented legislators with an opportunity to invest in programs and budgets that have been cut for years. It also gave us the opportunity to show some sound fiscal restraint and provide additional funds for the budget reserve to withstand future economic volatility and finally plan for the future.
We made great progress in the last six weeks. We worked efficiently to pass a number of major bills that take a balanced and honest approach to balancing the budget. We passed tax breaks for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans. We enhanced our budget reserve and made wise investments in our supplemental finance bill to fund some great programs and stimulate the economy.
I think it is also important to note the Senate budget does not include any accounting shifts or gimmicks–it’s an honest and efficient budget designed to move Minnesota forward. Some of the major accomplishments for the biennium include:
• $1.2 billion budget surplus: Minnesota has the first budget surplus for the current and next biennium in seven years. We passed a balanced budget package that included:
o Making smart investments of $210 million to invest in our children, help seniors, help veterans and their families, invest in workers and create jobs.
o Increasing the budget reserve from $661 million to $811 million: In July, $150 million will be transferred into the state budget reserve and the legislation we passed sets an automatic threshold for future surplus revenues. Every respected economist supports having a higher budget reserve to protect Minnesota from economic volatility.
o Providing $344 million in tax breaks for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans. Families, students, teachers and businesses all benefit from these important tax cuts.
• Gained more than 133,000 jobs: Minnesota has fully recovered all jobs lost during the recession. Making smart investments in our economy is paying off.
• Increased the minimum wage: At $6.50 an hour, Minnesota had one of the lowest minimum wages in the nation. We passed legislation to increase it to $9.50 and provide some inflationary increases starting in 2018.
o $9.50 minimum wage phased in for businesses with gross sales over $500,000 in 2016: $8.00 in August 2014, $8.50 in August 2015.
o $7.75 minimum wage for businesses under $500,000 in gross sales in 2016: $6.50 in August 2014, $7.25 in August 2015.
• Passed safe and supportive schools: Minnesota had the weakest bullying legislation in the nation. We worked hard to develop compromise language to protect our kids while respecting concerns school districts, school boards and parents asked us to address.
• Repaid our schools: Paid back $2.8 billion the previous administration borrowed from schools to “balance” the state budget.
• Funded all-day kindergarten: All-day kindergarten is now a reality for every Minnesota child — saving some families $2,500 a year per child.
• Froze tuition for college students: Froze undergraduate tuition at public Minnesota colleges for two years. Also passed the largest investment in financial aid for college students in 25 years. This will help more than 100,000 Minnesota students afford higher education.
All those accomplishments make me so proud to have fought for the things I believe in. In addition to the accomplishments above, I have worked hard on the following bills:
School breakfasts. I am chief author of legislation to provide universal and nutritious breakfasts for all Minnesota students. I was able to secure a $569,000 appropriation for this year and I have a commitment for the next two years. This money will cover the cost of feeding every kindergartner starting school next fall a healthy breakfast.
Vision Therapy. I am chief author of bipartisan legislation to establish a $500,000 vision therapy pilot program. Up to 25% of all school age children have vision problems significant enough to impair academic performance. The rate may be as high as 60% for those children labeled as having learning problems. Because visual factors such as Convergence Insufficiency (CI) cause difficulty with early reading, children with CI are often diagnosed as learning disabled. The purpose of this pilot project is to screen for vision issues, provide vision therapy for children who test positive and identify vision problems before students are identified as needing special education.
Obesity Study. Among other things, I am also chief author of a bill to provide $50,000 from the General Fund for a study aimed at fighting childhood obesity. The nine-month program would serve 80 children who have been diagnosed as obese. The study is a collaborative effort developed by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, and the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Currently, when a doctor or school nurse identifies an obese child, there are no programs to refer that child to. The purpose of the study is to develop an intervention program for referrals and teach children healthy habits.
We are making some great progress this session. As we move into spring, our focus will turn to the 2014 bonding bill. The Senate’s bonding bill will make statewide investments in infrastructure projects, create jobs and strengthen Minnesota’s economy.