Permanent state budget solutions and education legislation will be the focus of the DFL-controlled Legislature this year, according to Rep. Terry Morrow (DFL-St. Peter).
Morrow expects balancing the state budget to dominate the session. The budget has a projected $1.1 billion shortfall, in addition to the roughly $2.4 billion still owed for the school funding shift. The DFL has pushed increased revenues coupled with budget cuts to solve the situation, with Gov. Mark Dayton seeking increased taxes on the top 2 percent of earners. Morrow said the final budget solution would not inherently require raising taxes, but it would aim at overhauling state taxes to make everyone pay a fair, equal percentage of the taxes.
Morrow's biggest concern is restoration of a commitment to rural communities. The trend of reducing Local Government Aid (LGA) and school funding has pushed the cost burden onto regressive property taxes. He said one approach could be restoring funding levels of LGA. Another would be to get serious about consistently funding schools.
"If the state starts meeting more of its responsibilities for things like K-12 education, then schools can rely less on local property taxes for funding. It would translate into less tax reductions for those communities," said Morrow.
He said he would expect at least a property tax relief bill to address problems and offset consequences of the 2010 changes to tax code.
Ultimately, the DFL will attempt to design comprehensive, long-term solutions to the chronic budget problems.
"We need to focus on creating a sustainable budget so that we can avoid these constant peaks and valleys," said Morrow.
The other major focus will be innovation and funding sustainability for education. Morrow expects special attention to early childhood education and keeping college affordable. Morrow said he would work on the college affordability side. He noted that projections put 75 to 80 percent of the jobs in the state economy with requirements of college training or education.
"We have to make sure people don't avoid college because they believe they can't afford it. We can't afford to have people priced out of the economy," said Morrow.
On K-12 education, Morrow said the DFL's quest for long-term budget fixes was also aimed at providing benefits to schools, such as stabilizing funding so schools know what funds are available in advance of future budgets.
Regarding whether the state's school funding shift would be paid back this biennium, Morrow said it would depend on revenue projections released before the session starts.
Another area of concern is transportation. Morrow said there would be a serious look at how Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) projects are funded.
"The gas tax [as funding] is only going to be increasingly uncertain with more hybrid cars coming into the market," said Morrow.
He opposes suggestions of pushing off costs of projects to the local taxes of communities that benefit. He said it has the potential to create a disastrous tax situation for communities already taking on the cost of LGA and school funding reductions.
The four-lane expansion of Highway 14 between Nicollet and North Mankato has been promised by MnDOT and Dayton to be completed by 2017 or 2018. When the final funding for the project goes through, and whether additional funds will be spent to build a bypass at Nicollet, will depend on the Minnesota Legislature.
Timing of the project would likely depend on the views of a new MnDOT commissioner. That person's stances on funding for promised projects like Highway14 should be an important part of the vetting process, Morrow said.
Morrow plans to focus on the Minnesota River. He said to expect legislation to address questions about the Minnesota River Board by either a mission readjustment or a complete restructuring of the organization. He is looking for legislation to help build on the recently reported gains that show improvement in the river's water quality.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at email@example.com)