NEW ULM Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska Township) and Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) and Minnesota Chamber of Commerce spokesperson Bill Blazar reviewed the 2013 legislative session at a Hot Topics session Friday.
Dahms and Torkelson emphasized their dislike of the tax increases passed by the DFL-majority, such as an income tax increase on the top 2 percent of income earners and increase in the cigarette tax. They also felt the increased spending will put the state at risk of budget deficits if revenues falter.
"It's been an unbelievable session to suffer through," said Torkelson.
Torkelson was particularly frustrated with what he considers the unhealthy nature of how long term the spending increases extend. He considered it "mind boggling" that the Health and Human Service budget passed with a $50 million cut while tax increases were passed. The reductions come from future spending targets. The overall budget is 6 percent larger than the previous budget due to growing cost from the aging state population. Republicans passed $1.2 billion in cuts to the budget in the prior biennium when they balanced the larger budget deficit.
Dahms and Torkelson uniformly criticized the DFL for passing a bill that allowed day-care providers to unionize. They also praised funding increases to rural Minnesota, like the Local Government Aid increase; however, they criticized how the numerous funding sources significantly increase the percentage of the funding allocated to metro areas compared to rural cities. They criticized the DFL for placing several metro legislators in charge of several committees, particularly having a Minneapolis lawmaker heading the Agriculture committee.
The lawmakers noted that they supported the push to find a new source of revenue to fund the state transportation system. The main push was for increasing the gas tax, but it was pulled due to Gov. Mark Dayton's objection. Although they will advocate for whatever funding source is determined to be passable with Dayton in the 2014 session, they have no idea now what it will be.
Blazar spoke about the Minnesota Chamber's objections on nearly all areas of legislative session. The Chamber was disappointed with no legislation being passed on the Chamber's objectives to further shorten the processing time for environmental regulation and the Chamber's goal of a June primary election. He said the Chamber also objected to new taxes and feels the Legislature lost ground in education by no longer requiring students to pass a high school graduation exam in reading and writing.
On the health care exchange, Blazar said the Chamber has pushed efforts similar to what the Legislature implemented, but the Chamber was dissatisfied with the end result because it was not more open and less regulated. The Chamber also has serious concerns about the program taking $60 million a year to run and the Insurance Premium tax implemented to help fund it.
"In case anybody doubted it, elections do have consequences. The Legislature and [Dayton] took a fundamentally different tack from what it has been doing over the last decade," said Blazar, "I could stand here and say it makes [Minnesota] a lot less competitive. But, the proof on which side is right will be the next two years and how the economy does."
Comments from the audience ranged from statements of frustration over the tax hikes to questions about the status of new transportation funding for Highway 14.
After the meeting, Blazar said the Minnesota Chamber will be forming its official stance on gas tax increase proposals. He expects the Chamber to base its decisions on the 2008 gas tax hike. He said the Chamber backed that increase, but it feels MnDOT has failed to fulfill the efficiency improvements that were part of the proposal.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at email@example.com)