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What The Parties' First Bills Tell Us About 2015 Legislative Session

There is some common ground between House and Senate leaders on rural Minnesota, but sharp differences on taxes and education

What The Parties' First Bills Tell Us About 2015 Legislative Session
Minnesotans should get ready to hear a lot about tax increases for roads, tax cuts for businesses and a revamp of the state-run health insurance exchange.
 
On Thursday, the Democrats in control of the Senate and the Republicans now in charge of the House each introduced their first bills of 2015 (five for the Republicans; six for Democrats), signaling their priorities for the legislative session. And though a $1 billion budget surplus and a few points of agreement (including efforts to improve job training and economic development in Greater Minnesota) will make things a little easier for lawmakers — the agendas outlined on Thursday also revealed major fault lines between the two parties.
 
Here, a look at what the bills introduced on Thursday tell us about what’s likely to happen during the next five months at the Capitol:
 
Common ground on Greater Minnesota
Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Senate DFL Majority Leader Tom Bakk have some things in common. They both hail from greater Minnesota (Daudt is from Crown, Bakk from Cook) and they both think populations in the far-flung regions of the state need a little extra attention. That will likely be their main unifying legislative goal throughout the session. “I see some areas where we will probably work well together,” said Daudt. A bill from House Republicans targets care for Greater Minnesota’s growing elderly population by offering student-loan forgiveness for people working in nursing homes and providing scholarships for recent grads who go into nursing. A Senate bill would pay off loans for doctors, dentists and other healthcare professionals who choose to set up shop in rural Minnesota or other underserved communities. Both Senate Democrats and House Republicans also introduced a disaster relief bill to address flooding in dozens of rural Minnesota counties last summer. 
 
Major differences on business tax cuts
House Republicans touted the symbolically significant House File One, a tax credit for companies working in industries like mining, technology, timber and agriculture. Its significance may end up only being symbolic, though, as the Senate has signaled it has no interest in passing tax cuts for businesses. "I just do not believe that you can drive economic development by reducing a business' taxes," Bakk said, criticizing former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s program to give tax breaks to companies that expanded in greater Minnesota. “You have no assurance it’s going to get passed on to build the business or you have no assurance it's not just going to go to the bottom line, dividends or other things.”
 
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Education, education, education
The 2015 session is already shaping up to be an education year — if the two parties can bridge major differences in how they think Minnesota should improve its schools. House Republicans’ second bill was all about education policy, including provisions that would alter teacher retention policies to focus on merit instead of seniority, and new licensure standards that could open the door to out-of-state teachers. A major point of contention with the state’s teachers union, Education Minnesota, will be a proposal to allow the state’s new teacher evaluation system, launched last fall, to be used as a criteria when cutting back on staff. In the Senate, DFL senators want to fund voluntary pre-kindergarten programs for all four-year-olds in the state to better prepare children for the classroom.
 
For Democrats, it’s all about job skills
Several of the Senate’s first bills address looming realities in Minnesota: The labor market is tightening and the state’s workforce is getting older. To deal with that, two of the Senate Democrats’ first six major bills tackle issues of job training opportunities for students. DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff, who represents parts of Minnetonka and Plymouth, has introduced a bill that funnels state grant money to companies that offer apprenticeships to students. Another proposal, offered by DFL Sen. LeRoy Stumpf would offer graduating high school seniors free tuition at community and technical colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) system if they meet certain requirements. Not only is the proposal aimed at cutting back on ballooning college debt in the state, it puts an emphasis on vocational training at technical colleges. Bakk in particular highlighted the proposal, so expect it to be a significant priority for Senate Democrats as session moves forward. “If [Minnesota business] are going to continue to grow and be successful, especially in this tightening labor market, we are going to have to do more to improve the skill set of some of our unemployed Minnesotans,” Bakk said.
 
To tax — or not — for roads and bridges
The Senate didn’t include a bill to fund transportation projects it its first bills Thursday (that will happen early next week), but House Republicans rolled out a proposal that adds $750 million in roads and bridge spending over the next four years but doesn’t increase revenue. They would pay for the measure by taking $200 million out of the budget surplus and requiring the Minnesota Department of Transportation to empty most of the Trunk Highway Fund unreserved balance. The bill also calls for the department to find $65 million in budget savings to put back into transportation. That’s a far cry from the $6 billion Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking for transportation improvements over the next 10 years. House Democrats are already criticizing Republicans for finding a “Band-Aid” for transportation in the state. Expect that theme to continue as the two parties hash out a solution this session. 
 
Fixing, not nixing, MNsure
Republicans certainly haven’t been secretive about their dislike of the Affordable Care Act and the state-run health insurance exchange, MNsure. A major question coming into the 2015 session with a new House Republican majority was not if they’d take on the controversial program, but how much they would try to change. On Thursday, however, they proposed a slew of small changes to the program that includes eliminating a performance-based bonus program for MNsure executives. The bill also requires the state Department of Commerce to seek federal waivers to allow all residents to access tax credits made possible by the ACA, even if they don’t purchase health insurance through the exchange. GOP Rep. Tara Mack, chair of the Health and Human Services Reform Committee, said this won’t be the only MNsure-related bill introduced this session, but it is tamer than previous calls from Republican lawmakers to seek a waiver from the ACA all together. “We all have various ideas at how we want to get at this, we are starting at this point because we have the responsibility to lead and we recognize the political realities,” Mack said. “To my understanding, the governor and my colleagues in the Senate don’t necessarily have interest in blowing up MNsure.”
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