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Dan Sparks: With first deadline, session picks up steam

By Dan Sparks

State Senator, District 27

We are at the halfway point in the 2019 Legislative Session, and we have a lot of work before us to make sure we pass a budget by the May 20 adjournment. Our first committee deadline is Friday March 15, so committees have been meeting all day and well into the evening to get bills heard so they can continue at the legislature.

District 27 Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin

On Tuesday, Representative Poppe and I testified in the Commissions on Pensions and Retirement on our bill to address the ongoing firefighter pension issue affecting Austin’s firefighters. It permits Austin to allocate a portion of fire state aid to pay employer contributions on behalf of firefighters covered by the Public Employee Retirement Association Police & Fire Plan rather than pay the full amount to the Volunteer Fire Relief Association (VFRA) as required under current statute. I want to thank Tom Dankert and Fire Chief Jim McCoy from the City of Austin for joining us in this hearing, and I am happy to report it is moving forward.

Much of the work of passing bills off the floor and into law happen later in the session, but I’m happy to report that we have acted and passed into law the first two bills of 2019. These bills address two lingering issues that needed action.

The first was urgent funding for the Minnesota Licensing and Registration System (MnLARS) to ensure that contractors currently working on fixing it can continue their work. There’s no denying that the rollout of the update to MnLARS was beset by problems, but my colleagues and I recognize that we need to work together to make sure it’s working for Minnesotans, and these fixes will only continue to improve this program.

The second bill addressed funding for capital investment projects. Last year, money was used from the environmental trust fund to pay for some projects that would normally go in the bonding bill. The legislature came together in a bipartisan way to change the funding source for these projects back to general obligation bonds. This included two local projects, one for $1.6 million to connect recently annexed land to the Austin’s sewer and wastewater facilities, and a $6 million upgrade for chloride treatment for the City of Wells.

I hope that these can be an example of how my colleagues and I can work together this year. Minnesota is the only divided legislature in the country, and I hope that we can choose common sense solutions over gridlock.

One issue that is facing gridlock is election security, an issue that should be a priority for everyone. Currently, Minnesota has $6.6 million in federal funding available to us to upgrade our election and voter data security through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The Legislature needs to authorize this funding to let the Secretary of State’s office make these upgrades.

While the House voted in a bipartisan manner to authorize the use of these funds, I’m disappointed that the Senate majority chose to only allow a small fraction – $1.5 million of the total $6.6 million – to be passed. These funds are urgently needed to prevent interference or potential hacking of voter data, and I hope my colleagues in the Senate will recognize the need to pass the full funding necessary to make these upgrades in time for the 2020 election.