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From prisons to parental leave: the issues likely to get a closer look during the Legislature’s 2016 session

Copyright Minnesota House of Representatives/Photo by Andrew VonBank
All 201 House and Senate seats are on the ballot in November, and every issue will be filtered through that prism.

Each year, there are a few issues everyone knows will get the most attention at the Capitol.

In odd-numbered years, it’s the state’s budget that takes most of lawmakers’ time. In even-numbered years, it’s the massive package of construction projects — better known as the bonding bill — that’s the source of a lot of political handwringing. In 2016, bonding will be at the forefront in St. Paul, along with a few holdover issues legislative leaders left on the table last year, including long-term transportation funding and tax cuts. 

But what about everything else?

There’s a projected $1.2 billion budget surplus waiting for lawmakers when session convenes, and already plenty of advocacy groups are clamoring for a piece of it. What’s more, lawmakers have been in negotiations for months over everything from the state’s persistent racial disparities to compliance with federal driver’s license standards.

For any issue, it won’t be easy to make the cut. Legislators will be up against a tight deadline: They have to complete their work during a short, 11-week session — amid the complications of an election year. All 201 House and Senate seats are on the ballot in November, and every issue will be filtered through that prism. But a survey of more than a dozen longtime Capitol watchers revealed a handful of issues outside of taxes, transportation and bonding that are likely to get a closer look in 2016.

Prison population and sentencing reform

Minnesota’s prison problem snuck up on state officials and legislators alike. A series of tough-on-crime laws enacted over the last decade have swelled the state’s prison population to near capacity. As a result, the Department of Corrections asked for $141 million to add hundreds of new beds to its Rush City facility to accommodate the growth, but DFL Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t include the full request in his bonding proposal. Republican legislators in the House are more inclined to reopen a vacant prison in Appleton, which is owned by a private company. In the long term, some legislators say they need to look at changing prison sentences on low-level drug offenses to keep the state’s facilities from overflowing. Expect all of those options to be on the table this session. 

Broadband

Dayton wants to put $100 million of the state’s budget surplus into increasing broadband access in Minnesota, and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith has been traveling to rural parts of the state to tout the proposal’s potential benefits. They have the backing of House Democrats, and Senate Democrats championed a similar proposal last legislative session. A recent report from the governor’s Broadband Task Force suggests investing even more — $200 million total — in broadband infrastructure next session. But the Republicans who control the House have been more reluctant to dedicate that much money for broadband. Last year, lawmakers were only able to agree on about $10.6 million for broadband access.

Racial disparities

In negotiations this winter over a possible special session, lawmakers deadlocked on how to address Minnesota’s growing racial economic and achievement gaps. The debate will continue into regular session, and there are a lot of different ideas about how to tackle the problem. Dayton wants to fund a new human rights office in St. Cloud; Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, said legislators should put funding into work-force training and programs that help black Minnesotans obtain GEDs; Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, is pushing to increase funding for the Minnesota Family Investment Program, a state welfare-to-work program that has been around for three decades. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are proposing new tax credits for private schools, which they said will help low-income families.

But rising to the top of the list for both parties is the desire to create a state policy guiding the use of police body cameras, which many groups say will add another layer of accountability in police interactions with individuals. Currently, individual police departments across the state create their own policies to guide the use of the cameras, but there are concerns about privacy issues — when and how the videos should be made public. 

Child care

Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt recently announced the formation of the Select Committee on Affordable Child Care, starting up this month and continuing through the session (and probably beyond). The committee will travel across the state to talk to parents and care providers to “facilitate solutions for more affordable child care choices,” according to a release. Republicans are not happy about a recent move from Democrats that would allow child care workers to unionize, sending a letter to Dayton Tuesday that called for him to immediately halt those efforts. Democrats will be pushing the child care issue from a different angle, with Dayton calling to expand the number of Minnesota families eligible for child care tax credits. Minnesota legislators are also considering more proposals that aim to protect children from abuse, including recruitment of more child care workers in rural Minnesota and ensuring every county has 24/7 child protection services. 

Future of the Iron Range

Any day now, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr is expected to drop a decision more than a decade in the making: whether to clear a final environmental review of the PolyMet Mining Corp.’s copper-nickel mining project. His approval would allow the company to apply for a permit to mine. The NorthMet project could be the first-ever sulfide mine in the state — and a huge point of contention between miners on the Iron Range and environmentalists, who are worried the project could damage the state’s pristine lakes. No matter what Landwehr decides, both sides are expecting a flood of legislation in response. The decision will also be tied to a broader point of debate this session: about the future of the Iron Range. More than 2,000 mine workers are out of a job after several facilities closed down. Dayton and legislators are already in negotiations to extend unemployment benefits to workers, but for how long? It’s unclear when some mines will reopen, if ever. Expect a lot of discussion about the long-term outlook and options for the region.

Parental leave

Dayton and Democrats united Tuesday behind an effort to provide six weeks of paid parental leave to all state workers. The proposal would cost around $6 million per year and affect about 35,000 employees. That’s just a first step, they say, in a broader effort to provide parental leave and sick time to other workers across the state, though the details of that proposal are not fine-tuned yet. It’s a top priority for Democrats in control of the Senate, so expect it to be part of negotiations. In the House, Republican Rep. Sarah Anderson, who chairs the House Government Finance Committee, said Dayton’s proposal only widens “the gap between public and private sector employees.” Anderson said she’s working on her own bill to provide parental leave to families working in the private sector. 

Clean water

Dayton hasn’t been shy about his intentions. Since last session, he’s signaled clean water as one of his top priorities in his last three years as governor, and he’s using the 2016 bonding bill as ground zero for the next phase of his efforts. He’s proposing more than $167 million in bonding dollars to tackle sewer and clean water infrastructure projects across the state, many in far-flung, rural communities with aging water treatment systems.

But bonding isn’t the only part of the equation. Dayton is also continuing a push for protection between the state’s waterways and farmland, which produces agricultural runoff. Last year, he passed a requirement for natural buffers between farmland and waterways. But he’s already tussled with Republicans over his administration’s intentions to map private ditches when the law is in full effect. Dayton retreated on that plan for now but said he plans to reopen the debate in the 2016 session. He’s teeing up the debate with a two-day clean water summit in late February.

Gun control

It’s always a big deal when the Minnesota Legislature takes up gun bills. It hits on tensions between metro area legislators, where gun violence is a daily problem, and lawmakers from rural areas, where guns are passed down from generation to generation and used for hunting and recreation. But in her final term in the House, Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, is taking on the issue, pushing a gun control package that would require universal background checks to purchase a firearm.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Mike martin on 02/10/2016 - 08:14 pm.

    Its copper-nickel mining

    Briana

    You need to get your facts straight its copper-nickel mining. Only biased environmentalists call it sulfide mining not responsible reporters

    Should we call them bird-killer wind turbine or instead dairy farmers should it be manure farmers??

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 02/11/2016 - 12:32 pm.

      Speaking of straight facts

      Hate to keep asking this question (broken record, etc.) but would you please name two or three copper-nickel mines in the world that have been open for five years that are being operated, or have been operated (if they’re now closed), in a safe, “environmentally friendly” way.

      And seeing as how Polymet itself has said (in their EIS) that the waste water from its operation would need to be treated for a minimum of 500 years to keep it from polluting the area around the mine and plant, the St. Louis River, Lake Superior, etc., please list the names of all copper-nickel mining companies that have been in business 500 years or more.

      If that turns out not to be possible, what it is that makes you think Polymet will be in business and fulfilling its obligation to treat that water that long, and who would need to do that, how much it might cost, and who would pay for it, should Polymet go out of business before the year 2516 (or so)?

      And while you’re at it, and to continue to help Briana with her continuing education, please add any copper-nickel mining operation that has not or does not generate sulfide and release it into the water system around its operation (wetlands, streams, rivers, lakes, aquifers, etc.)

      Thanks

  2. Submitted by Mike martin on 02/10/2016 - 08:18 pm.

    State wide broadband Why piece meal??

    Why doesn’t MN get smart like Ohio and bid out a contract for provide wireless high speed internet to the entire state???

  3. Submitted by John Appelen on 02/10/2016 - 11:17 pm.

    Excellent Wording

    “plenty of advocacy groups are clamoring for a piece of it”

    The Democrats raise taxes excessively and collect $1.2 BILLION too much from us citizens during these “good times”. And the “advocacy groups” and their politicians want to create new programs and services that will need to paid for during good times and bad into the future. At the same time Dayton wants permission to borrow $1.4 BILLION that we will need to payback…

    Here is a creative idea… Skip the bonding this year and just pay for the projects with the extra cash that is on hand.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 02/11/2016 - 11:05 am.

      Not a bad idea

      Aside from any true “emergency budget correction needs,” it probably wouldn’t kill anyone to just take a break for a year. The 2017 “budget year” will be here soon enough.

      But, as sensible an idea as it may be, I’m pretty sure it would be just as hard to convince the “other side” as it would the “other side,” what with it being an election year and all.

      (And in nearly immediate contraction to what I just said — excuse me, but come to think of it — something really out to be done in the broadband expansion area — the situation really isn’t all that hot out here in the sticks, and, believe it or not, the private sector is not exactly moving at lightning speed to make things better — not enough “return on investment” compared to the megaplexes of the world and all that. But that minor $20 to $100 million hickup aside . . .)

      You know as well as I that as sure as Democrats are going to want to invest at least some of that surplus (and Tom Bakk and Rod Skoe are going to be strong on putting some away for the rainy days that are sure to come and are here already for thousands in Bakk’s backyard) Kurt D. and friends (like Senor Drazkowski and G. Davids) are going to want to revisit last year’s main mantras:

      – Permanent property tax exemption for all MN businesses ($800 million less revenue per year forever)

      – Tax relief for the 600 to 800 families/heirs of Minnesota’s wealthiest folks (another $350 million or so in perpetual revenue loss)

      – No income tax on Social Security for those that have to pay them (anyone on SS with an income of more than somewhere around $25,000 for singles, about $40,000 for couples, I believe — no one under those amounts pays income tax now). Kurt has already said that will be a top House priority this year (right around $250 million per year rev loss for the state on that one)

      (And speaking of how Democrats always want to spend money on things that need to be paid for in perpetuity, it’s kind of interesting how those permanent cuts add up to the equivalent of the anticipation of a $1.3 or $1.4 billion surplus in perpetuity, innit?)

      – And, of course, there was Greg David’s “Don’t Stop Believin” (I think it was) $75 per year per person tax cut for two years. (Can’t remember the price tag, but I think it was somewhere in the $400 to $500 million range, but that would only be for two years, so that’s not so bad; and we could all sure use that extra $7.00 to $9.00 a month)

      So yes indeed . . . On the face of it, I’d vote for your idea, with the exception of some healthy statewide broadband expansion (regardless of how that’s achieved). The gov’s said he’d like to see $100 million. P Garofalo (in charge of it in the House) originally wanted to dedicate $2 million last year, but C. Knoblach made him up that to 10 — which was 10 less than the previous biennium — because he knew it was a political hot potato loser). But, if we just went ahead and made $100 million in grants available for the best available high speed access, “border to border,” we could maybe provide $100 million in tax cuts (for whomever) and spend the remaining billion on bonding bill projects instead of borrowing.

      If you think you could agree with something along those lines just have your people call my people and we’ll see about moving forward.

  4. Submitted by Bill Willy on 02/11/2016 - 12:31 pm.

    One of the worst ideas

    “Republican legislators in the House are more inclined to reopen a vacant prison in Appleton, which is owned by a private company.”

    Besides adding to many people’s near-certainty that Repubicans would privatize Motherhood if they could just figure out how to slide it by the public, that “inclination” is hard to fathom, given that Republicans so often say they stand for reducing government spending, sound ethics and being accountable.

    Sometimes I wonder if they ever do any (easy) research before saying things like that. If they had, even the most conservative among them (especially the most truly conservative) would have realized within five or 10 minutes that private prisons are one of the worst ideas anyone’s come up with since the middle ages when it comes to the purpose, objective and all-around cost of incarceration.

    A quick search on phrases like “the problem with private prisons” generates reams of reasons not to go down that road. Here are just two examples for anyone interested:

    For-Profit Prisons: Eight Statistics That Show the Problems
    http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/20880-for-profit-prisons-eight-statistics-that-show-the-problems#14552107228911&action=collapse_widget&id=0&data=

    4 Disturbing Reasons the Private Prison Industry Is So Powerful
    http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/4-disturbing-reasons-private-prison-industry-so-powerful

    “In the long term, some legislators say they need to look at changing prison sentences on low-level drug offenses to keep the state’s facilities from overflowing.”

    For anyone interested in information that combines the issues of private prisons and the potential wisdom involved in what those “some legislators” want to look at, this Daily Beast article does a nice job:

    For-Profit Prisons Are Bad, But the Drug War Is the Problem
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/09/for-profit-prisons-are-bad-but-the-drug-war-is-the-problem.html

    Regarding the “accountability” part of the equation mentioned above, legislators ought to own up to the fact that they are the ones who wrote and passed the laws that have led to the Department of Corrections request for the funding required do the job those laws have made necessary. From what I know of the MN Dept of Corrections they do a pretty good job (lots of performance reviews available online) and when it comes to the (bad) idea of privatizing prisons, legislators who are “more inclined” to do that are saying they think it would be better to give taxpayer money to private, for-profit companies, than the non-profit (much more transparent and accountable) state organization that is responsible for carrying out the directives those legislators have given them.

    And when it comes to the “core government functions” I thought everyone agreed the government is “constitutionally obligated” to carry out, the “correctional facilities” component of Public Safety is definitely on the list. So it’s hard to understand any (“constitutionally solid”) legislator’s rationale for turning that core function over to private for-profit industry.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 02/11/2016 - 04:23 pm.

      The Rationale?

      Good grief, that’s an easy question. Privately-run prisons are golden opportunities for making money and feeding from the public trough. Private “correctional” companies are big spenders and big lobbyists–the Corrections Corporation of America is a big player in ALEC.

      Besides, private sector = good, remember? No, don’t ask anything beyond that. It’s the PRIVATE sector, therefore it is good.

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