Legislature to focus on budget, education as 2013 session startsPublished 10:55am Tuesday, January 8, 2013
It’s the legislative season once again.
The year’s big topics are already starting to take shape as the Legislature reconvenes at noon today for the 2013 session. As this year is not a bonding year, the state government will be wrapped up other issues, foremost the budget.
“I think our No. 1 priority has to be on balancing the budget,” said Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin. “We need to focus on having a structurally balanced state.”
Sparks said the Legislature would need to avoid using economic gimmicks to put off open and honest discussion of the budget.
Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, agreed the budget would take priority. The budgeting process would require legislators to consider the needs of the state and accurately assess what kind of revenue it needs.
“Local Government Aid will be a topic of discussion for sure,” Sparks said, noting how leveling off property taxes was a matter of great importance for many people.
In Austin, LGA funding makes up about 48 percent of the city’s general fund, which is about $14.2 million, and the city expects to receive about $7.1 million in 2013, the same amount annually given to Austin since 2010.
Austin Finance Director Tom Dankert said though the state may not feel as much of a need to tinker with LGA — Minnesota faces a $1.1 billion budget shortfall this year, compared to more than $6 billion in 2010 — city officials will still pay a great deal of attention to how state legislators change the LGA formula this session. Legislators and officials from the League of Minnesota Cities have assured Austin officials LGA levels will most likely remain frozen, however.
“I’m assuming that our LGA is going to be the same as it has been for the past couple of years,” Dankert said.
Poppe anticipated many issues would come up regarding quality of life questions in the fields of education, health care and housing.
“It will probably be related to education,” she said. “How do we pay back the schools and continue to make progress on good education reform and making sure students are getting what they need?”
Sparks said he thought the budget forecast was a step in the right direction for returning borrowed money to the schools.
State finance officials released an updated budget forecast in December, which Minnesota Management and Budget officials said allowed for repayment of $1.3 billion of a total of $2.4 billion owed to school districts around the state in delayed state aid.
Austin Public Schools Superintendent David Krenz stressed the money being paid to the schools was no bonus.
“That’s the critical component; that people understand this is not new money,” Krenz said. “We had to go out last year and borrow money to pay our bills.”
And K-12 funding isn’t the only initiative in the field of education. There will likely also be the matter of state funding for higher education, which has been falling behind in support.
With the 2012 election still in recent memory, Poppe said, there’s still a high chance the topic of election reform will come up.
“There will still be people that want us to look at the system and try to figure out: Do we have the best system we can in Minnesota?” she said.
Following last year’s bonding bill projects, the Austin area has few major projects to address, apart from flood mitigation. In Albert Lea, a high priority for several local entities is to lobby for $7.5 million in state funding for the restoration of Fountain Lake, according to officials with the city of Albert Lea, the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce and the Shell Rock River Watershed District.
The efforts follow the watershed district’s purchase this fall of a 51-foot dredge, pumps, pipes and other equipment for the project. The entire project is estimated to cost $15 million, including the costs of engineering, permitting and land acquisition. Local officials hope to start the project in 2014.
“It affects so many different things,” said Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams, who noted the effect a restored lake can have on economic development, quality of life and tourism.
As the newly-appointed chair of the Senate’s Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, Sparks said he plans to bring legislation forward there to help cultivate a good business climate and job growth.
Of course, there are many topics that will capture the Legislature’s attention that have yet to arise, in part because any legislator can introduce any bill they choose. Often, it’s difficult to forecast what a session will bring, as it takes shape as it goes, Sparks said.
—Sarah Stultz and Trey Mewes contributed to this report.