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Capitol Spotlight: State and local leaders weigh in on 2020 Legislative Session

By Michael Stoll, Tyler Jensen and Sarah Stultz

During the 2020 Legislative Session, now underway in St. Paul, legislators will be working to pass a capital investment bill (bonding bill). State and local leaders weighed in on which issues they hope will be addressed and funded.

The City of Austin

As in previous years, the City of Austin is joining with other cities of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) in their appeal to the Legislature, with a heavy focus on infrastructure.

“We’re hoping for a meat and potatoes session,” said City Administrator Craig Clark. “We’ve got some fundamental infrastructure things, both in Austin and across the state. It appears that’s what the legislature seems focused on. The governor said he’s looking for $2 billion; we’re hoping it will be at least in that $1.5 billion range. With the amount of projects out there, we really need those totals to be high.”

The biggest infrastructure issue facing Austin is the need to update the city’s wastewater treatment plant to meet phosphorus output regulations imposed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The estimated cost to upgrade the facility is $78 million.

City Administrator Craig Clark

“Our wastewater project is really critical, both for the environment and economic development,” Clark said. “Austin is the number one phosphorous contributor in the state. We’re looking at an 80 percent reduction and eliminating 73,000 pounds of phosphorous annually. We’ve made the case for the State’s bang-for-their-buck of wastewater dollars, that this will go a long way in helping lessen the environmental concern. We’re hoping that case resonates with legislators and the governor.”

Clark said Austin is one of 300 cities in Minnesota with infrastructure projects that need funding. The CGMC is hoping to secure $200 million from the State to help fund the projects; the city is hoping to secure $19 million, via bills introduced by Rep. Jeanne Poppe and Sen. Dan Sparks, to help offset part of the $78 million cost of the wastewater treatment plant.

“The twist in our case to the Legislature is that the funding programs are two-fold,” Clark said. “One is based on median household income and the other is on the Point Source Implementation Grant side, which is environmental. We don’t necessarily qualify for those very well given their structure. There is a big disconnect between being the largest phosphorus contributor, but for whatever reason, the Cedar River doesn’t demonstrate the impairments they would expect, so they base the environmental part on the impact of the flow into the receiving body of water. That doesn’t produce negative implications, or at least as much as they think, given the phosphorus load, but that’s what the formula is based on.”

Clark added that the city is hoping to make the case that it makes sense to commit funds to help reduce phosphorus output from the State’s top phosphorous producer.

“The State is putting significant resources into this and should have the common sense to say that, with limited resources, we should target that high contribution of phosphorous to the overall state waters,” he said.

Also included in Austin’s infrastructure concerns are roads.

“Local roads are certainly an issue; to stay current with the rising costs of our road projects, (the CGMC is) asking for $50 million towards local roads, split $25 million to larger communities and $25 million towards communities under 5,000,” Clark said.

Clarks also cited the childcare shortage as an issue, saying the CGMC is requesting $20 million in bonding funds for childcare centers and is looking for the continued funding of the DEED childcare program. He also cited the current housing shortage, though said nothing has been specifically asked for on a legislative basis.

“There should be bipartisan support on these infrastructure projects,” Clark said. “I’m optimistic that that’s where they seemed to be focused and that is where our need is. They’ve got the capacity and they’ve got a strong bond rating and low interest rates; this is the time to get things done. We understand there are political implications for the size of the bonding bill, but if those legislators step back and look at the broader horizon of needs out there and that these are focused on basic infrastructure, they could really capitalize on that.”

Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL-27)

Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL-27) said that one of his top priorities for the 2020 Legislative Session is to secure funding for Austin’s wastewater treatment plant upgrades.

“We are looking to get funding in this year’s bonding bill, which invests in public works projects around the state,” he said. “The plant is a crucial piece of infrastructure for Austin, and the updates are badly needed. Securing state funding would not only help the project move forward, but it would also ensure that local taxpayers don’t have to carry the entire burden themselves.”

With passing a capital investment bill being the main focus of this year, Sparks said infrastructure would be a major focus for the Legislature.

Sen. Dan Sparks (DFL-27)

“There are many needs across the state relating to roads and bridges, clean water infrastructure, and public facilities that need to be addressed,” he said. “Serving on the Senate Capital Investment Committee, it is my hope that we can work together in a productive and bipartisan manner to pass a bill that addresses these needs.

“Aside from seeking funding for the Austin wastewater treatment plant, I am carrying several bills requesting bonding funds for local infrastructure needs. One of these needs is funds for flood mitigation efforts in both Austin and Albert Lea, as flooding has been an ongoing problem for both communities.”

In a nod to veterans, Sparks said he also plans to introduce a bill that would provide fee exemptions for Purple Heart medal recipients who opt for special veterans license plates.

“This is legislation that came from a constituent who is a Purple Heart veteran, and other states have passed similar legislation into law,” he said. “In Minnesota, this fee exemption is something that we already do for Medal of Honor recipients and ex-POWs. In my view, this is the least we can do for individuals who have made a lifelong sacrifice for our country.”

While bonding is the main focus, Sparks said there will also be important conversations about the affordability and accessibility of health care and prescription drugs and ensuring voter privacy and data security in Minnesota’s presidential primary.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B)

The legislative session may have only begun Tuesday, Feb. 11, but there is already pressure to keep things moving, said Rep. Jeanne Poppe.

“We right away are having bills heard in committees,” she said. “We are just moving forward knowing we have a limited number of days to get bills through the process.”

Poppe noted that with some bills needing to go through multiple committees, legislators are working to make the process run smoothly.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe (DFL-27B)

One of the top priorities this year is to finish the insulin bill from last year, which would have provided relief for people struggling to pay for the drug. After working groups continued on the issue in the off-season, the House and Senate now have to each come up with their own bills and come to a compromise version. On the House side, a bill has already been through a couple of committees and will probably get through the rest of those that are needed next week, Poppe said.

“That’s probably the most urgent, the one that people are watching,” she said.

As to whether a bill will pass, she said there have already been a number of agreements reached between Republicans and the DFL on the issue, but how much insulin manufacturers pay and how the program would be accessed remain sticking points.

Poppe said another priority this year will be to get a bonding bill passed. The question on the bill will be how big it will be. She said she would like one as large as it can be to fit as many projects as possible in, but she expects there may be problems getting it to be more than $2 billion.

“The larger the bill, the more opportunities there are to have projects around the state included,” she said.

While legislators always say they want to get a bonding bill done early, it usually comes down to the end, when the final negotiations can happen. Policy bills are more likely to happen first, according to Poppe.

In addition to the bonding bill, the Legislature could look at a supplemental budget using one-time dollars once it finds out what the budget forecast looks like sometime this month.

One of the committees Poppe serves on is the Housing Finance and Policy Division. In addition to setting policy on issues like tenant and landlord rights and safety regulations, the committee is working on developing workforce housing throughout the state, from metropolitan areas to rural cities like Austin.

“If you’re going to have access to good employment, you have to have places for people to live and that’s true in rural areas as well as in metropolitan areas,” Poppe said.

One challenge facing rural places like Austin is that there are fewer builders willing to come in and build large developments because they don’t know they can make money on the project. While Austin has seen some growth in housing, it is not enough, especially as much of the city’s housing stock is older buildings.

“We don’t have as many new homes built every year as we need to in order to stay fresh and current on what our needs are,” Poppe said, noting that in some areas, houses needed to be torn down and there is not enough replacement happening.

The housing issue also affects taxes, County Administrator Trish Harren said during the annual Truth in Taxation hearing, Dec. 4.

“When you have large areas like that where values are going down, it also creates a tax shift,” she said. “We really have a need for new housing in Austin to take pressure off of the market.”

On local issues, one thing Poppe is working on is getting state funding for the wastewater treatment plant project in Austin so it can meet Minnesota Pollution Control Agency rules.

“It is a super costly thing to do,” Poppe said. “We’re seeking some help from the state in being a partner in our job of cleaning it up.”

During the legislative off-season, it was learned that due to improper payments made by the Department of Human Services, counties were on the hook for millions for federal dollars that needed to be refunded. This included $77,945.03 for Mower County due to issues with chemical dependency treatment funds.

After the information was revealed, there was pressure for the state, not the counties, to pay back the federal government.

So far, Poppe has not heard anything about a bill to address the issue and she is not on a health and human services committee. The Health and Human Services Department is a huge part of the state’s budget and is also a very complicated system, she said.

The new commissioner, Jodi Harpstead, has been working to shore up the system and ensure when problems arise there are methods for them to be reported quickly.

By the end of the session, Poppe said she expects a bonding bill to be passed and a new tax bill is likely.

For those watching the session, Poppe said by Easter, April 12, the Legislature should have an idea of what bills are going to make it to final consideration by the end of the session.

Other issues affecting the local area would be changes to tax law to provide a new depreciation schedule for farmers and businesses.

Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-27A)

Rep. Peggy Bennett, said she thinks one of the largest issues of the session will be passing a bonding bill.

A member of the House Capital Investment Committee, Bennett was part of the group that toured the state to learn about bonding requests from various entities.

“We do have a lot of substantial needs,” Bennett said.

Rep. Peggy Bennett (R-27A)

Though Gov. Tim Walz’s bonding proposal was $2 billion and she has heard others talk of having a bonding bill as high as $3 billion, she thinks the bill should be closer to $1.5 billion and focus on “meat and potato” items, including requests for flood mitigation, water infrastructure, roads and bridges and repairs to buildings with state colleges.

“I just want us to be careful,” she said. “It is putting things on a credit card, so to speak, and we have to be wise as a state.”

She said she will advocate for local projects, including $7.5 million for additional dredging funds for Fountain Lake, $1.75 million in  funding for the completion of the Blazing Star Trail and $3.5 million for flood mitigation for East Main Street.

She noted the committee chairwoman, District 3B Rep. Mary Murphy, would like to have the House bonding proposal out by spring break. Bennett estimated there were about $4 billion in total requests.

In addition to the bonding bill, Bennett said there will likely be a supplemental budget bill that comes up to deal with the $1.3 billion projected surplus for the state.

She said her philosophy about what to do with the money will look at making sure the state’s current obligations are being met, such as special education and nursing homes, before new long-term projects are funded.

Having a surplus for several years can also be an indication that the state is taxing too much, and she would support considering some strategic tax cuts, such as getting rid of the tax on Social Security income. Tax conformity also needs to be put in place to conform with federal tax code.

“I think it’s very important to get that done, and some other tax relief to give people a break,” she said.

Another big issue is insulin prices, which she has seen differing views on how to handle.

She said since the discussion first came up, there have been a lot of changes with drug companies, and there are some ways now for people to get insulin at free or reduced rates. Part of the job of the Legislature will be to educate about these different opportunities and see if the market fixes itself.

Bennett said she plans to introduce legislation on omnibus bill reform, as often times controversial issues get thrown into large omnibus bills that force legislators to vote for things they wouldn’t normally vote for as they weigh the good and the bad.

“That’s very non-transparent for the public,” she said. “Voters don’t know where their representatives stand.”

Under her proposal, which she’s describing as “The People’s Bill,” controversial issues would be forced to go to the House floor on their own as single bills.

“It’s like a drug habit,” she said. “We have to cut it off at its feet and say we’re not going to do this anymore.”

Bennett said she wouldn’t be surprised to see new policies brought forward about background checks for guns and comprehensive sex education.

“I’m looking forward to jumping back in again,” she said. “It’s going to be a whirlwind like it always is.”