Republicans in the Minnesota House and Senate released three dozen proposals Thursday that they say will improve the state's business climate, help failing schools and modernize government.
Among them are a gradual end to the business property tax, cuts to the state workforce and conversions of failing public schools to charter schools.
Democrats rejected the proposals as old ideas that have not worked previously. But GOP leaders say their aggressive agenda reflects the kind of change that most Minnesota taxpayers expect for the 2012 legislative session, which begins next week.
Soon after last summer's state government shutdown ended, Republicans took to the road to gather advice on their agenda for the session, which they billed as "Reform 2.0." They hosted meetings throughout the state to hear suggestions from local leaders, businesses owners and educators.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, said he believes the resulting list of proposals is nonpartisan, and should be advanced for the sake of Minnesota taxpayers.
"Minnesotans should know that their government is down here looking at every budget, at every spending item, at every initiative, at every agency, as closely as they look at their home budgets," Zellers said.
With the latest state economic forecast showing a modest budget surplus, Zellers said this year's short, non-budget session is the ideal time to take on reform issues.
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, echoed that point. He said many of the proposals will bring needed changes that can save the state money in future budgets.
"The trajectory that we're on with respect to government spending is absolutely unsustainable," Senjem said. "We cannot move forward in that sort of a mode. We all know that. So what do we do then? We've got to look at what we're doing, how we're doing it, what we don't need to do; and then what we're going to do, how to do that better and more efficiently."
Republicans say job creation is their top priority. Toward that end, they propose several tax changes they say would help private sector companies increase hiring. Among them are a phase out and end to the business property tax, a moratorium on new state regulations for businesses and a review of existing regulations.
GOP leaders also propose changes in education policy. Their plan would allow for the conversion of failing public schools to charter schools and allow the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul to take control of struggling schools in their cities. State Rep. Pat Garofalo, chairman of the House Education Finance Committee, said mayoral control has worked in other large urban school districts.
"Right now, I think on a bipartisan basis we can look at Minneapolis and St. Paul, and it's very difficult for the average citizen to understand who's in charge, who's accountable, what's going on," said Garofalo, R-Farmington. "And obviously the academic results that are taking place are completely unacceptable, especially given the large amount of resources we're putting into it."
Republicans also want to make changes to healthcare by giving the elderly an option to convert life insurance benefits to long-term care.
The party's proposed changes in government operations include a reduction in executive branch departments and managers, further reductions in the overall state workforce and adjusting government salaries to match the private sector.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis said he was disappointed by the GOP plan. He said many of the ideas have been offered before and failed.
"I really think the thing we have to attack this year is the impact of what we're doing in St. Paul on middle class families," Thissen said. "And there's nothing in this reform proposal that will help middle class families, and there are some things that would really hurt them."
Thissen said he was particularly disappointed the Republican plan included property tax relief for businesses but not for homeowners. He said DFL lawmakers will try to restore the homestead tax credit, which was eliminated during last summer's special session.
The GOP list did not include several proposed constitutional amendments that are expected to receive serious consideration during the session.
Legislators have introduced more than a dozen constitutional amendment bills, including one that would make it harder to raise taxes. Another would allow voters to decide via a constitutional amendment whether to require Minnesotans to show photo identification to vote.