Bonding isn’t the only issue on the docket

Published 10:15 am Tuesday, March 8, 2016

By Jason Schoonover, Jordan Gerard and Sam Wilmes

The bonding bill will likely be the chief item of discussion as lawmakers convene in St. Paul for what’s expected to be a short legislative session, but here are some other items District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin; District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea; and District 27B Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, expect to be on the agenda:


Bennett supports the federal lawsuit filed by the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities against the Environmental Protection Agency.

Email newsletter signup

In its lawsuit filed last year, the coalition argued that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s limits on phosphorus levels in wastewater treatment plants are not based on sound scientific information.

The Austin City Council voted last month to spend about $9,000 to join legal actions against the MPCA standards. The city of Albert Lea paid about $6,900 in a voluntary fee in late December to support the lawsuit and an administrative petition to amend or repeal Minnesota Pollution Control Agency waterway standards.

The MPCA enacted stricter water standards about a year ago that would hold cities responsible for managing their phosphate levels, among other things. Several cities and the coalition are pushing back against the new MPCA rules and asked legislators to revoke the standards as lawmakers hadn’t approved the changes.

Austin officials have long voiced concerns, chiefly a potential for $20 million in upgrades to the Austin Wastewater Treatment Facility. Albert Lea officials have said the rule could cost the city somewhere between $8 million and $30 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment facilities to meet the new requirements.

According to the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, the EPA acted in contrary to Clean Water Act standards and admitted so through a Freedom of Information Act request by admitting it had no evidence the MPCA had scientific data to demonstrate the limits were justified.

Sparks, who serves on the Environment Committee, called the MPCA changes a big deal, and he said they’ll work hard to address some of the issues cities have brought up.

“We’ll try to revisit it and get it some more clarification,” Sparks said.

Poppe agreed the state will need to look into the programs.

“We have to make sure it’s affordable to people for an upgrade and ask what actually is the measure for safety? Is it too high, too low or just right?” Poppe said.

The bonding bill could provide funding for upgrades for wastewater treatment and an opportunity to develop an infiltration system or other upgrades, according to Poppe.

Bennett described the cost inflicted on cities from the regulation as unsustainable and pollution reduction as minimal, and said the MPCA should focus more on improving the environment, not on imposing regulations on cities without sound scientific information.


Gov. Mark Dayton is undaunted on a top priority, early education. It could include a retooled push for statewide preschool, but that’s unclear. Expect some answers when the governor reveals a full budget proposal in mid-March.

But Sparks said addressing education can be difficult in a non-budget year.

If anything happens, Sparks said school districts are calling for flexibility.

But Bennett has authored a bill that would increase funding from $6.5 million to $11.9 million for the Minnesota Reading Corps. Another bill would ask the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and Minnesota Department of Education to help guide students, families and educators in planning for a post-secondary education. The agencies would identify scores on high school MCA exams that indicate students are ready to enter either a two- or four-year program.

Bennett, a former first-grade teacher at Sibley Elementary School, described the Reading Corps program as a proven success.

“This is a proven program that research shows help bring students up to grade level in reading,” she said.

The increased funding would be for pre-K, kindergarten and first grade.

Minnesota Reading Corps aims to have all Minnesota children become proficient readers by third grade by providing one-on-one in-school instruction to struggling students.

Bennett disagrees with Dayton’s proposal of a voluntary, universal preschool system.

She said she appreciates Dayton is addressing the issue but said his plan could place private daycare providers and preschool providers out of business.

She advocates scholarships that would give parents the choice to send their child to an accredited private school or public school and target students who need help.

She thanked the Legislature for its $525 million increase in education in the 2015 session and does not expect an education budget bill to pass this session.

She wants local districts and parents to have more of a voice in education.

“They know best,” she said.


The League of Minnesota Cities and Austin have been calling for the state to return local government aid to 2002 levels and change the funding formula, something Sparks said he backs.

“I certainly will support it,” he said.

Sparks said LGA is important to Austin and Albert Lea, and he said 2002 levels don’t sound unreasonable.

Bennett said she will promote local government aid funding for cities in her district and said without it many cities would struggle to provide basic core functions.

“It’s important,” she said.

She said cities such as Glenville, Emmons, Wells and Albert Lea do not have the tax base to maintain core services without LGA funding

She said each city receiving LGA funding should aim to increasing its tax base.

Real ID

Lawmakers were trying to queue up a quick fix to the dispute with the federal government over driver’s licenses that sparked months of concern about possible flight disruptions. The state has until at least 2018 to satisfy the Real ID Act. The first step is removing a ban on taking action to comply that Minnesota legislators passed in 2009.

Body cameras

The debate over how to regulate police use of body cameras is wrapped up in questions of data storage costs, privacy concerns and a belief from law enforcement that the footage should be held mostly private. Minneapolis’ decision to equip all its officers with the body-worn cameras could force the Legislature to finalize a bill — or give them reason to wait and see how it goes.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.