Democrats tout fruits of session

Article by: Dan Linehand, Mankato Free Press

MANKATO — House Democrats touted their minimum wage increase, tax relief and surplus-spending bill during a stop Tuesday at Verizon Wireless Center but said their biggest piece of legislation this session is not finished.

House Speaker Paul Thissen left the promotion of local construction projects to DFL Reps. Kathy Brynaert and Clark Johnson. Johnson praised the $7.5 million renovation of South Central College, which includes new heating and cooling systems as well as the renovation of agricultural engineering and manufacturing labs.

Minnesota State University also is seeking state help to build a $25.8 million clinical sciences building.

As for the Mankato civic center’s $14.5 million expansion request, Brynaert said the “challenge is to keep it front and center” as the bonding bill takes shape. “Every person here knows the importance of that project.”

Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges seemed optimistic that “after seven years at the altar” the civic center would get its expansion.

“We believe if it gets to the governor’s desk, we won’t be vetoed again,” he said, smiling.

The civic center was in the House and governor’s version of the bonding bill, and the next challenge for supporters is that it be included in the Senate version. There will be pressure to remove projects from the House version of the bill, especially given that the Senate is expected to spend more on Capitol restoration. The House bill, which has been introduced but not passed, included only a placeholder of $15 million for the Capitol. The governor proposed to bond for $111 million worth of Capitol work.

Thissen said he didn’t know much about how the Senate bonding bill is shaping up, except to say it is likely to be unveiled next week and be heavy on transportation projects.

Though legislative leaders had a handshake deal before the session to borrow no more than $850 million, Thissen said he’s seen some willingness by Republicans to go higher. Thissen said he’s willing to stick to the original deal, but if Republicans are willing to borrow more, so is he.

The region’s largest bonding request is $56 million to renovate the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson will talk about the project during a visit there Wednesday.

DFlers also singled out a few of their smaller spending items, paid for by the state’s $1.2 billion surplus. Jonathan Zierdt, president and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth, praised the “new employee training partnership,” which allows businesses to get a tax rebate of up to $3,000 per employee ($4,000 for veterans, people with disabilities and the long-term unemployed).

Zierdt said the hiring incentive makes sense, though he spoke briefly with Thissen about ways he’d like to see it improved, such as spending more money on it and reducing limitations on its use. It’s now targeted at counties with unemployment rates at 1.5 percent above the state average, which would exclude Blue Earth and Nicollet counties but include most of the surrounding counties.

One piece of tax relief would benefit farmers, who have been hit by rising property values and changes to the tax code that have shifted more tax burden away from houses. The credit would spend $18 million to give more than 90,000 farms an additional $260 a year in property tax relief, the Associated Press has reported.

When asked about her biggest disappointment of the session, Brynaert said it’s the lack of reform to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. The Senate passed the first steps to change that program about a year ago, but the House, facing more imminent elections, has not.

“It’s politics,” she said. “It’s heavy duty. Rationality kind of walks out the door.”

Still, she believes the House has accomplished more than it usually has in the second, and usually quieter, year of the biennium.

Minority report

The tour group didn’t include any Republicans, who have at times vociferously criticized these DFL priorities.

“I would call it a conservative’s nightmare,” said Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center.

One thing he won’t accuse the DFL of is laziness.

“This was supposed to be the unsession but after this is all done people won’t believe the number of bills that create regulations and boards and studies,” Cornish said. “It’s absurd to call it an unsession, in my opinion.”

As far as a larger bonding bill, Cornish said it’s possible.

“We’ve set limits before and gone over them,” he said.

And when asked if a lack of reform to the sex offender program is a disappointment, he said “absolutely not.”

To illustrate his point, he cited news reports describing the killing of at least four women by two California parolees wearing GPS bracelets.

“I sent that out … and said this is exactly the reason that you have to be very careful on your vote on what less-restrictive means,” he said. In other words, if the government wants to put sex offenders in less-restrictive settings, it ought to be very careful and specific about what those settings are like.

View the original article at Mankato Free Press.