The 2014 Legislative Session started just six weeks ago with a $1.2 billion budget surplus. We worked efficiently to pass a number of major bills that take an honest approach to balancing the budget by passing tax breaks for hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans, enhancing our budget reserve to ensure future economic stability and making wise investments in our supplemental finance bill to stimulate the economy. It is important to note the Senate budget does not include any accounting shifts–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 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 sets an automatic threshold for future surplus revenues. Every respected economist supports a higher budget reserve to protect Minnesota from economic volatility.
o Providing $344 million in tax breaks for more hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans – including tax cuts to businesses, families, students and teachers. These tax breaks include positive developments including the option for teachers to deduct up to $250 of out of pocket expenses that they invest in their classrooms and the expansion of the Working Family Credit for 16,000 new Minnesotans. The alignment of Minnesota’s tax laws with the federal government’s also eliminates the marriage penalty, which could provide an average savings of $115 a year for 650,000 married couples in Minnesota.
o Making smart investments of $210 million to create jobs, keep Minnesota healthy and invest in our children. The expansion of credits such as the Angel Investment Tax Credit will spur millions of dollars in investment in Minnesota and ensure that more Minnesota businesses have the chance to benefit from these investments.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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 with certain safeguards starting in 2018.
Some of the most important legislation I’ve been pushing includes:
Legislation to bring down the cost of college education – I am chief author of legislation to allow students to refinance their student loans through the Office of Higher Education. It would guarantee lower interest rates for all Minnesota students graduating from Minnesota schools – either public or private. The students could refinance high interest loans that range as high as 9% to 12 % down to 3% or 4%. The provision is currently part of the supplemental finance bill. I also sponsored legislation that would establish tax credits to encourage Minnesotans to participate in the state’s 529 college savings program. Although this bill did not advance this session, I plan to continue work on it next session.
Bonding money for the Minnesota Zoo –The Minnesota Zoo is an important state asset that is a gateway for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. In addition the Minnesota Zoo provides as much as $146 million a year in economic impact to the state with 1.4 million annual visitors. However, the zoo is aging and we must take care of a significant backlog of repair and replacement projects to preserve this important asset. I am working to secure the necessary bonding funds to finish the most critical of those projects—completing the transformation of the Zoo’s main entrance and related exhibit areas, expanding exhibits for meerkats and snow monkeys, completing the renovations of Discovery Bay to provide a home for highly endangered Hawaiian monk seals and making essential infrastructure repairs.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done this session. After more than a decade of chronic deficits, the budget surplus presented legislators with an opportunity to show some sound fiscal restraint, provide additional funds for the budget reserve to withstand future economic volatility and plan for the future. But, it’s also an opportunity to make Minnesota work better for the people we are honored to represent.