The 89th Minnesota legislative session recently wrapped up on May 23, and Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, described the session as mixed – with some good things that came out of it and one major disappointment too.
Miller, first elected in 2010, said the last few minutes of the session were chaotic.
A bonding bill, which the senator called “fantastic,” was approved by both parties, but never got a chance to be voted.
“I’ve seen some selfish acts during my time in the Senate,” Miller said, “but none as selfish as what I saw during the last moments of the 2016 legislative session.”
Miller said legislators put together an $800 million bonding bill for road and bridge projects in counties, cities and townships across the state, and it included $150 million for water and sewer projects around Minnesota too.
Locally, it included full funding for the Lanesboro dam project as well as full funding for the Winona State University Education Village project.
“This was a great bonding bill that had broad bipartisan support,” Miller said, “with an agreement between Republicans and Democrats on this final package.
“At the very last moment, a group of metro area Democrats proposed an amendment in the Senate that would have increased property taxes to fund light rail in the metro area.
“As a result of that amendment, which all the Democrats in the Senate supported,” he said, “the clock struck midnight, and the Legislature ran out of time and couldn’t pass the bill.”
The Senate has two options when bills come out of the House of Representatives. If the House has passed a bill, as it did with the bonding bill, the legislation comes to the Senate, where if it’s passed as presented, it goes straight to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk for him to sign or veto.
If the Senate introduces an amendment, and it passes the Senate, the bill has to go back to the House for its approval before it goes to the governor’s desk.
“In this case, the House passed the bonding bill with bipartisan support, and Senate Democrats added a light rail amendment,” Miller noted. “Then, there wasn’t enough time to send the bill back to the House for them to re-vote on it with the new amendment in it. By them adding the amendment, it essentially derailed the bill.”
Miller said he’s still upset by these actions and said he doesn’t know what the intention was. He said the Democrats knew there wasn’t enough time for the bill to go back to the House, before the midnight deadline. There was a lot of confusion on the Senate floor prior to midnight.
He said there’s no question that Minnesota needs a good bonding bill in place.
“A bonding bill is supposed to be for infrastructure and asset preservation,” Miller said.
“Later that night, the senator that proposed the amendment (District 46 Democrat Ron Latz) sent out a Tweet that said, ‘No light rail funding, no bonding bill. When will the House figure this out?’ I think that might say what his intentions were,” added Miller.
There are two options left for the bonding bill: Do nothing and there’s no bonding bill with money for infrastructure projects, or the governor could call a special session of the Legislature so it could pass a bonding bill.
Session not all bad news
It’s not all gloom and doom according to Miller. He said the Legislature did pass a bipartisan tax relief bill and a supplemental budget.
The tax-relief package included things such as a student-loan tax credit, an expansion of the child-care tax credit, a tax credit for those who contribute to college savings plans, as well as significant property-tax relief for farmers and small businesses.
The package also included an income-tax exemption on military pensions for veterans. He said that’s huge as Minnesota is one of a handful of states that doesn’t exempt military pensions for veterans, and he said Minnesota is consistently ranked as one of the five worst states for veterans to retire in. Miller said a lot of that has to do with pensions.
“The tax package also included increases to local government aid and county program aid,” Miller pointed out.
Wisconsin reciprocity returns
“The tax package included a new refundable tax credit for Minnesota-Wisconsin income tax credit reciprocity,” he said.
“This is something that Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston) and I have been working on for several years.
“In 2009, the agreement between Minnesota and Wisconsin was terminated because Wisconsin was late on making its payments to Minnesota. We’ve been trying to get a new agreement for six years, but there hasn’t been a lot of cooperation from Wisconsin.
“For those folks who live in Minnesota, but work in Wisconsin, we came up with a refundable tax credit to try and help them out.
“This is especially huge for our area, especially for Houston County,” he added. Houston County is the number one county affected by income-tax reciprocity since its largest regional center is La Crosse, Wis.
School loan program changed
The other big thing that Miller and Davids were able to get included were provisions for Caledonia Public School.
Back in the early 2000s, the district built a new school facility through the Maximum Effort Loan (MEL) program, which helped smaller school districts get loans for new buildings.
“Since then, interest rates have come down, and it would be beneficial for Caledonia School to repay that loan and go out on the market for a better interest rate,” Miller explained.
“This affects Caledonia, but also any school district in the state, which got a Maximum Effort Loan, can pay those loans back and go out on the market for a better interest rate,” he said. “That’ll be big savings on property taxes for those in the Caledonia area.”