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Our view: Legislative losers, winners emerge

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opinion Duluth, 55802
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

The 2014 legislative session is in the books. And without a special session, to boot, making Minnesota taxpayers — those of us who foot the bill for lawmakers’ too-frequent inability to get their work done on time — among the first winners of this year’s lawmaking. There are plenty of other winners, too — and losers, of course — in the wake of adjournment and in the midst of legislators’ annual credit-taking press-conference tours around the state.

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What follows is a rundown of some. Who’d we miss? Drop a letter to the editor to letters@duluthnews.com to be part of the post-session analysis and conversation.

Winner: Fiscal responsibility. Presented with a practically unprecedented $1.2 billion budget surplus, Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature resisted what had to be an overwhelming temptation to spend it all or to give it all back to voters, er, taxpayers. Instead, about half went to tax relief, including income-tax relief and property-tax relief that’ll be felt by most of us. The relief also included the repeal of business-to-business taxes that never should have been passed in the first place. In addition, $150 million of the surplus went into the state’s reserve fund. The $626 million reserve hadn’t been increased since 2001, despite a 2008 study that recommends a reserve of about $2 billion. With a ways to go, lawmakers also put on the books a mechanism to automatically add to the reserve during times of prosperity.

Winner: Duluth Mayor Don Ness. He hitched his tourism-focused rebirth of western Duluth’s riverfront neighborhoods to the renewal of a half-percent sales tax on food, beverage and lodging. Lawmakers came through.

Winner: Western Duluth’s riverfront neighborhoods. The area, including Spirit Mountain and the Lake Superior Zoo, stands to receive $18 million of improvements as a result of the renewed half-and-half tax.

Winner: NorShor Theatre. The historic downtown theater received the full $6.95 million city leaders sought in the state’s bonding bill for a renovation expected to cost about $24 million.

Winners: Lake Superior College and Spirit Mountain. They also received their full bonding-bill requests. That’s $5.27 million to renovate the college’s health facility, including the physical-therapy and dental-hygiene programs, and $3.4 million for the ski hill to contribute to a $6.2 million project to draw water for snowmaking from the St. Louis River rather than from city water supplies.

Loser: Wade Stadium. It could have been worse. The governor’s and Senate’s

bonding-bill proposals inexplicably included no money to fix up the World War II-era brickyard baseball stadium. But the final bonding bill included just $2.3 million of the $5.7 million needed from the state to jumpstart long-overdue improvements.

Winner: College students. State money for higher education allowed the state’s public colleges and universities to freeze tuition for at least one more year.

Winner: Women. Because minimum-wage workers disproportionately are female they’ll be helped most by a minimum-wage increase to $8.50 an hour in August and to $9.50 an hour by 2016. Also, women will benefit from pay-equity initiatives and workplace protections in the Women’s Economic Security Act.

Loser: Consumers. An increasing minimum wage almost certainly will mean an increase in prices at fast-food restaurants and elsewhere, and it could lead to fewer jobs as employers look for ways to offset the additional wages they’ll need to pay out. Also, because the minimum wage is now to be linked to inflation, the likelihood of increased layoffs at the outsets of recessions looms. To avoid that the executive branch is permitted under a new Minnesota law to freeze the minimum wage, but, as critics are quick to point out, that’s an untested approach rife with potential unintended consequences.

Loser: The state’s highways and bridges — and our cars. The session failed to produce a long-term transportation plan for repairing and maintaining the state’s paved driving surfaces.

Loser: Bullies. The Legislature strengthened the state’s anti-bullying law.

Winner: Minnesotans negatively affected by synthetic drugs. Legislators also strengthened laws to deal with this scourge.

Winner: Minnesotans who are suffering and who genuinely could find relief from medical marijuana. A compromise bill to legalize cannabis for medical use satisfied many of the fears and concerns of law enforcement officials and others while assuring that the beneficial components in marijuana can be made available to those who need it in pill, liquid or oil form. Credit Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing and other lawmakers for not giving up in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition.

Winner: Businesses in need of a permit from the state to operate. The Legislature passed a law requiring decisions on permit applications within 150 days and sometimes within 90 days.

Again, that’s just a partial list. But aren’t we glad the session is over? Actually, we may want to check that enthusiasm. The final gavel in St. Paul not only marked the end of the session; it announced the start of the election season.

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