NEW ULM - Area legislators Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Rural Hanska) and Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) shared their criticisms of this year's session of the Minnesota Legislature, along with reviews of a few bills they supported, with New Ulm residents Friday at the local Pizza Ranch.
They focused their criticisms on the newly passed income tax hike on the top 2 percent of Minnesota' income earners: couples earning more than $250,000 annually or individuals earning more than $150,000. The DFL-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton pushed the measure as a "tax fairness" measure in last year's elections.
Dahms said he is sure the tax will eventually drive the top income earners into states with lower income taxes. The argument has been commonly used by Republican politicians in recent years as an argument against top income tax increases.
However, several recent studies, including papers by the National Tax Journal on New Jersey in 2011 and by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality in 2011, have shown minimal to no link between increased top income taxes and the movement of top income earners.
Torkelson said he is concerned the tax will have a negative impact on Minnesota business. Dahms said that raising taxes to solve budget deficits will not solve the systematic state deficits, and that it will lead back the state deficits present before the Republicans took control of Legislature two years ago.
For the rest of the omnibus tax bill that was passed, Dahms and Torkelson were highly supportive of the reforms to the Local Government Aid (LGA) formula, though they criticized the new system giving a larger chunk of the funding to metro cities. They also praised the elimination of sale taxes on Minnesota cities and counties, which they said would likely save significant money for all local government entities.
However, they criticized the property tax relief portions of the bill not passing anything aimed at helping with farmland property taxes. Torkelson said the farm land boom pushed farm land values to surprisingly high levels, and the high value has consequently produced a big pump the tax bills.
One item of this year's session that Dahms and Torkelson largely approved of was the "lights-on" Transportation Finance bill, which they both voted to pass. They both said they strongly supported the bill because it worked towards helping to complete Highway 14's four-lane expansion project with items like the "Corridors of Commerce" program, which provides funding for unusual highway corridors projects that MnDOT finds challenging to finance under is budget. They said they would have supported the initial proposal for more expansive work on transportation and overhauling the state funding for road work, though they did have some issues with only pursuing it through an increased gas tax.
Dahms and Torkelson said they do not have any objections to any alternative transportation funding at this point, though they believe it should be in a user fee format. Torkelson said his concern is to make sure the final funding source is not too complicated and that it allows legislators to see who it will impact in the state. Both said that next session they expect funding for the "Corridors" program and potentially Highway 14 will come from the bonding bill.
Torkelson and Dahms also supported the legislation that plants new habitats for bees and provides efforts to research why the bee populations are dramatically dwindling. The legislation was a source of ridicule by some Republican legislators and political workers as an example of "overreach by the DFL."
Torkelson defended the legislation, which eventually passed in a omnibus bill, as essential for Minnesota's agriculture. He explained the bees pollinate one-third of all food crops. He said the ongoing phenomenon of bee habitats dying off or collapsing puts this important process at risk.
"I understand that at first, you can think, 'we have funding for bees?' But, the bees are vital for the state," said Torkelson.
He also said a large industry of bee keepers in Minnesota helps crops here in the summer months, then they take their bees down to states like Texas or California in the winter months. He said that helping the bees in Minnesota can have a large impact around the country.
The final bill seeks to have plants to provide food for bees planted in state parks and provides for reports on the issues facing the bee populations.
Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.