Legislator's column: Goals were accomplished this sessionLast year, you sent a loud message directed at legislators: The status quo is not an option. DFL majorities were elected to the Senate and the House to work cooperatively with a DFL governor for the first time in a generation.
By: Erik Simonson, For the Budgeteer News
Last year, you sent a loud message directed at legislators: The status quo is not an option. DFL majorities were elected to the Senate and the House to work cooperatively with a DFL governor for the first time in a generation.
You sent us to St. Paul with a clear “to do” list. You wanted a real solution to ongoing structural deficits. You wanted action on property taxes. You wanted to begin to reinvest in education. You wanted a plan to create jobs. And gridlock would be no excuse.
I can report back to you that those goals were accomplished this session.
We crafted a budget that stays true to DFL principles. We honored promises we made by investing in priorities that Minnesotans broadly share and support: education, job creation and middle-class property tax relief. And we will pay for these investments by asking the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans to pay their fair share, closing corporate tax loopholes and reforming our tax system to make it fairer for middle-income Minnesotans.
Our budget erases our $647 million budget deficit, pays back the money we borrowed from our kids’ schools to bridge past deficits and invests new dollars in building a stronger middle class.
We made historic investments in Early Childhood-through-Grade 12 education and froze tuition at our colleges.
We also began the implementation of the Affordable Care Act by creating the Minnesota Insurance Marketplace — an online marketplace where Minnesotans can compare and purchase health insurance coverage — and expanded access to Medicaid for thousands of Minnesotans.
We have invested in programs that are proven job-creators.
Investing in Minnesota’s schools is investing in Minnesota’s future. In creating a world-class education system we will create a world-class economy. To that end, we fully fund all-day, everyday kindergarten and invest $40 million in early learning childhood scholarships — two tools proven to improve test scores, close the achievement gap and prepare students for future academic success. We also increase the basic funding formula for K-12 schools by 3 percent over the biennium — an increase of more than $234 million, or $156 per pupil. The bill also includes a $38.5 million increase in Special Education funding.
We also make investments in higher education. Our Omnibus Higher Education Finance Bill provides a $250 million funding increase for higher education. That money will be used for tuition relief and reducing student debt. As a result, Minnesota will freeze in-state tuition at the University of Minnesota and MnSCU system for the next two years.
The HHS bill protects the most vulnerable Minnesotans, funds cost-preventive mental health initiatives for children and adults, and includes a 5 percent increase for nursing home workers — their first increase in four years. In addition, the bill continues implementation of federal health reform, including a modernizing of Minnesota Care through the Basic Health Plan, a major opportunity to assert more state-based control over federal health care dollars.
We’re providing middle-class Minnesotans with more than $400 million in property tax relief. Nearly 1 million Minnesotans will get direct property tax relief through the Homestead Credit Refund (which replaces the Republican-eliminated Market Value Homestead Credit), retooled the renter’s credit and increased funds to cities and counties.
We produced the most extensive LGA reform in a decade. It will provide a boost in need-based aid to cities and counties after years of cuts to local services such as police and fire. Duluth will receive an additional $1,594,869 under a new formula passed by the legislature.
And we call on all Minnesotans to pay their fair share in taxes. That means asking the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans to pay their fair share. We created a fourth-tier income tax rate of 9.85 percent that will affect the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans individuals (taxable income greater than $250,000 per year for joint filer). This group currently pays a smaller percentage in income taxes than do low-and middle-income earners.
We also eliminate loopholes that allow corporations to shelter profits overseas and eliminate other subsidies that are outdated, ineffective, or that we can no longer afford.
We choose to boost funding for programs that have shown in the past to be effective at creating jobs. This includes $20 million for the Minnesota Investment Fund and $18.5 million for the Job Creation Fund. The Department of Employment and Economic Development will use this money to offer financial incentives to encourage employers to set up shop in Minnesota.
We also dramatically increase funding for the Trade Office, which exists to help Minnesota businesses increase their exports to foreign markets. As a port city, this is important and good news for Duluth. The increased funding will allow the Trade Office to open offices in three additional markets — we have only one now, in China — and to help Minnesota businesses learn how they can start selling to foreign markets.
We also gave employers the largest business tax cut in state history. By reducing the rate that employers pay on their unemployment assessment, employers will save almost $350 million over the next two years. The average employer will save about $150 per employee.
We left some issues on the table. I wish we had taken some action on the issue of synthetic drugs. It is an issue I will raise again in 2014. I was named chairman of a special House subcommittee to study the issue of the growing synthetic drug problem. We’ll be holding hearings this summer.
And I want us to raise the state’s minimum wage. Our minimum wage is $6.15 for large employers and $5.25 for small employers. The federal minimum is $7.25. We’re 45th in the nation in minimum wage. That’s a standing of which we should not be proud.
In summary, the DFL legislature accomplished its promise to Minnesota. We did our work, finished on time, and set Minnesota on a course to further prosperity and security. We are all proud to be Minnesotans and I am honored to work on your behalf at the Capitol.
Erik Simonson (DFL) is the Minnesota state representative for District 7B.