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Back to St. Paul; Roads, budget among top issues in ’15 session

The Minnesota Legislature will return to St. Paul Tuesday with a new dynamic but facing many familiar issues and challenges.

Mower County’s two Democratic representatives — District 27 state Sen. Dan Sparks and District 27B Rep. Jeanne Poppe, both of Austin — are prepared to face the new reality that their party no longer holds the trio-majority it had last year.

Still, there’s plenty of work to do once legislators take office.

“There’s never a shortage of needs in the state, it’s just how do we delve out the resources to help cover the things we need to,” Poppe said.

In November’s election, Republicans took control over the Minnesota House, but Democrats still have control of the Senate and governor’s seat with Gov. Mark Dayton.

With the GOP majority in the House, Sparks said he plans to reach out to his Republican counterparts, and he said he’s had good relationships across the aisle in the past.

“I’m still confident we can still all work together to get things done,” Sparks said.

He plans to reach out to Republican Peggy Bennett of Albert Lea — who was was elected in House District 27A in November —  early in the session.

Bennett said the key to working together with both parties will be to find common ground.

“I definitely want to keep communication open and keep a good relationship with both Republicans, Democrats, whoever else is up there so we can work together,” Bennett said. “Communication is key.”

Sparks, Poppe and Bennett head to St. Paul to start the session on Tuesday. Here are some of the issues they’ll face.

 Big budget

The biggest thing on the agenda for the new state Legislature is the 2016-17 budget.

“Our focus has to be on setting the next two-year budget for the state of Minnesota,” Sparks said.

The good news is that after several years of facing budget deficits, the state is going into planning with a surplus. In 2013, lawmakers raised taxes on cigarettes and high-income taxpayers to help close a projected deficit. The new taxes, worth more than $2 billion, combined with a reviving economy to produce this year’s projected $1 billion surplus.

“It’s very good news, because in the past few budget cycles we’ve gone back with large deficits,” Sparks said.

Yet that $1 billion surplus may be a little misleading. Much of the surplus funding will likely stay within allotted programs, which means legislators don’t have a large pot of money to put into specific issues.

Poppe said the state will also look to replenish some programs, such as the emergency disaster relief fund she co-authored last year that gave money to areas affected by fall flooding without a legislative special session.

However, Sparks said a cautious approach will be needed, as the surplus could shrink with inflation and other changes.

Bennett said she will look to the budget forecast in February for a more accurate picture of the state’s finances and said if there is such a large surplus then legislators need to reduce taxes.

“To me that means we’re taxing people too much,” she said.

She said she thinks the state takes in plenty of money; it just needs to better prioritize its spending.

 On the roads

Transportation funding has been a hot-button issue in the state in recent years. The gas tax, which funds many county-level projects, remained unchanged for more than 20 years before it was raised in the late 2000s. However, many say it’s not adequately addressing road funding needs. Last year, studies by the Center for Rural Policy and Development showed Minnesota faces a $12 billion shortfall in road and bridge funding over the next two decades.

Some of the state’s surplus money could be earmarked for specific road projects that need to get done, according to Poppe. However, she said lawmakers will have to find new solutions for transportation to not only maintain Minnesota’s infrastructure but improve the state’s transportation systems into the future.

“Because we have underfunded it for so long, it’s not just the ability to do some repairs here and there,” she said. “It’s much more a substantial change.”

Dayton’s budget plan calls for raising what he says is the $6 billion Minnesota’s roads need over the next 10 years.

Sparks agreed transportation will be a vital issue for lawmakers, and he said he expects there to be a comprehensive package that includes ongoing funding, not just one-time funding for the transportation infrastructure.

Along with the quality of rural roads, Sparks said such a package must address railroad congestion and traffic congestion in the Metro.

“We need to make sure that we take care of those needs across the state,” he said.

Sparks expected the issues like the gas tax and perhaps a supplemental bonding bill to be discussed.

In terms of the budget, Sparks promised they’ll be mindful of agriculture and property tax issues and said they’ll work to be good stewards of the people’s money. He also expected to discuss nursing home funding and elder care options.

Bennett said though she still has more learning to do in the area of roads and bridges she would like to see a moratorium put on issues such as light rail until legislators can look at the state’s funding and determine how to best address roads and bridges.

“I personally don’t think we need any new taxes, including a gas tax,” she said. “We have plenty of money in our state to fund our roads properly if we prioritize it.”

 Sunday liquor sales

With Republicans controlling the House, an effort to allow Sunday liquor sales is likely to return to the Minnesota Legislature and could stand a better chance of moving forward.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, authored a bill last session that would have lifted the ban and allowed municipalities to decide hours and rules for Sunday sales. Loon said she will introduce a new bill in the first week of the upcoming legislative session.

Poppe has previously opposed Sunday liquor laws as she heard most often from many small business owners who don’t want additional operating costs. However, more large companies and chain retailers have lobbied lawmakers to change the rules so they can pull in more revenue.

Greater Minnesota lawmakers may face more pressure to support a change to the state’s Sunday liquor sales policy as people cross state lines to buy alcohol.

“When you’re a border community you have to consider that too,” she said.

Like Poppe, Sparks hasn’t been a big supporter of changing Sunday liquor laws in the past, but he said he’ll keep and open mind and he feels the tide may be changing on the issue.

He thinks more Minnesotans support Sunday liquor sales than in the past, and he said border communities may be losing out on revenue.

Bennett said she hopes to talk with more local business owners about the issue and see how it will affect them.

 Education

Education, specifically policy changes that emphasize specialized skills essential for tomorrow’s jobs, will be another big issue in 2015.

“If we can get more career training at lower costs for students, then we’re going to be doing well,” Poppe said.

Lawmakers will likely look at education issues across the spectrum, from higher education concerns to scholarships for families to get early childhood education services. In recent years, the state has put an emphasis on early childhood education opportunities and Poppe expects the legislature to continue exploring preschool funding.

“Putting money into early childhood is definitely something I think is worth putting some money and time and consideration,” she said.

In addition, lawmakers may look into funding formulas for schools. Poppe hopes the state examines the way it pays metro-area schools more for some students and services than districts in outstate Minnesota.

“We want to have our students have the same opportunities as somebody who might be in the suburbs,” she said.

Bennett, who will be serving on two education committees this session, said inequity in funding has been one of the issues she has heard that people are concerned about. A former first-grade elementary school teacher, she said she is also concerned about bringing more local control back to school districts.

“We need to involve parents more and involve community as well as local teachers and start making decisions about things that best meet our kids,” she said.

She noted she has started meeting with superintendents, finance officials from school districts and teachers to find out their needs.

Education will likely play a big role in the other chamber’s session as well.

“That will probably be a top priority of ours in the Minnesota senate,” Sparks said.

Sparks said the state must work to address the skills gap, an issue that will likely be discussed in several of his committees, including the Finance-Higher Education and Workforce Development Division committee, the Higher Education and Workforce Development committee and the Jobs, Agricultural and Rural Development committee, a committee which Sparks chairs.

 Medical marijuana

It’ll be six months before Minnesota’s medical marijuana program goes live, but Dayton has said he’s willing to consider pleas to expand the list of qualifying health conditions.

While Sparks, who supported last year’s bill, said he’d be willing to discuss the bill, he thinks it’s important to let the bill take effect before expanding it.

“Let’s allow the current law that was put into place to get up and running,” Sparks said.

Dayton says he would listen to the advice of his Department of Health and medical experts about potential changes in the session that starts in January.

“If there are people with medical needs that could be helped with what we will be producing next year then I am certainly willing to consider that in the coming session,” he said.

But Dayton says he’s firm about restricting the forms of the drug.

That means he won’t budge on prohibitions that keep cannabis leaf from the program. Two manufacturers have been selected to provide marijuana in pill, oil and vapor form. Patients must suffer from a certified illness, such as cancer, glaucoma or seizures.

Bennett said she thinks medical marijuana should be treated like any other prescription drug — including studies and regulations.

“I’m all for meeting medical needs, and if there’s other conditions that would benefit from medical marijuana, to me the physicians and such should work with that,” she said, noting she thinks it needs increased regulation.

—The Associated Press and Tribune News Service contributed to this report.