Legislature launches into shorter session starting Tuesday

State leaders will address higher education and transportation, funding, among other issues.

Kevin Beckman

In just 11 short weeks, the state Legislature plans to tackle what some experts are calling a lengthy agenda.
Beginning Tuesday, the 2016 legislative session will begin to address a variety of issues, including higher education, statewide racial disparities, bonding, taxes and transportation — all before adjournment on May 23.
“The Legislature is going to do what it has to do,” said Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs political science professor. “Things that will be held will be held. I think it’s going to be bonding, and it’ll be transportation. And I think much else beyond that is going to be pretty limited.”
Higher education
The House and Senate higher education committees will prioritize bonding requests and supplemental budget increases from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and the University this session, said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, chair of the House higher education committee. 
“I know there’ll be some discussion about everything [from] funding athletic programs to research and maybe beyond,” Nornes said.
Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said legislators hope to make investments to lower the cost of higher education, including lowering tuition and student loan costs. 
Thissen said his initiative requiring university bookstores to provide a price-matching policy for textbooks could help lower college price tags.
Racial Disparities
Legislators plan to address racial disparity issues, including the achievement gap some leaders say is growing larger.
“We have to look at making sure that the education opportunities exist for everybody, and they don’t,” Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said at a meeting. “I’ve said that the achievement gap is an issue we love to admire because every year we talk about it and nothing ever changes.” 
Possible remedies to the achievement gap might include investing in jobs in the most heavily impacted neighborhoods and hiring more teachers of color in public schools, Thissen said.
He said students of color are often singled out for disciplinary reasons, and changing procedures in K-12 education could eliminate a possible negative impact. 
“Once you get labeled that way, you get stuck on a different track,” he said. “It’s a self-replicating cycle.” 
Gov. Mark Dayton’s bonding bill is the largest in state history, totaling $1.52 billion  for infrastructure projects statewide.
The governor’s office estimated the bill could create more than 39,000 jobs throughout the state. 
Dayton’s proposal focuses on higher education, including more than $340 million for projects at the University and MnSCU. It fulfilled $153.3 million of the University’s $236.3 million request.
Legislators will revisit last year’s omnibus tax bill after it stalled in conference committee at the end of session due to both criticism of and support for the bill’s proposed $2 billion tax relief.
Jacobs said while he’s skeptical a significant tax cut will pass, he thinks Republicans will push for tax cuts regardless of shrunken budget surplus projections.
“The Democratic Senate and the Governor are not going to want to sign on to tax cuts that lock in deficits in the out years,” Jacobs said. “They feel just as intensely about avoiding deficits in the out years as Republicans feel about getting the tax cuts.”
Minnesota’s transportation system is the fifth-largest in the nation, but half of the state’s roads and more than one-third of state bridges are more than 50 years old and in need of repair. 
The Minnesota Department of Transportation estimated that the state will experience a $16.3 billion funding shortfall needed to pay for transportation fixes over the next 20 years.
“There are two things on which most Minnesotans agree: The first is we need to make a greater investment in improving our roads, bridges, public transit,” Dayton said during the Feb. 25 legislative preview. “The second is nobody wants to pay for it.” 
House Republicans want to take motor vehicle-related tax revenue from the state’s general fund and use a portion of the projected budget surplus to raise an additional $7 billion in the next 10 years.
The Senate DFL, on the other hand, hopes to raise $11 billion for roads, bridges and transit through a gas tax and an increased metro area transit-dedicated sales tax. 
Other issues
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, introduced a bill last week that would make Minnesota compliant with the federal REAL ID law by October. The law sets tougher standards for issuing licenses in response to terrorism-related security concerns.
Minnesota is one of five states and U.S. territories that has not complied with the law or been granted an extension. 
Additionally, the state’s prisons are filled beyond capacity and a recent report by the Sentencing Guidelines Commission recommended loosening some drug crime sentences, among others. A legislative task force has been meeting since last fall to discuss possible solutions.