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Gov., legislators share goal to get Minnesotans back to work

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Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton proposes new tax credits for businesses that hire the unemployed, veterans or recent graduates. The centerpiece of his jobs plan is a $775 million bonding bill.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican legislative leaders agree that job creation will be their shared priority for the 2012 session, which gets underway Tuesday.

But they disagree over the best approach to create jobs, a difference of opinion that could affect how much promise the session holds for putting unemployed Minnesotans back to work.

Last year, Dayton and Republican legislative leaders shut down state government before they finally agreed to a plan to erase a $4 billion deficit.

That's unlikely to happen again this year in part because lawmakers are returning to St. Paul under some of the best economic conditions that they've seen in several years. The latest economic forecast showed a modest state budget surplus of $876 million, and Minnesota's unemployment rate is now down to 5.7 percent.

Despite the state's improving financial health, all of the pre-session talk at the State Capitol has been about boosting the economy and crafting policies that help spur employment. Dayton has announced a jobs agenda for the session.

"Despite our economic progress in the last few months, there are still 175,000 Minnesotans who are unemployed today," he said. "We have returning Iraq and Afghan war veterans who can't find jobs, and we have thousands of young people graduating from our colleges and universities who are also looking for work."

Dayton proposes new tax credits for businesses that hire the unemployed, veterans or recent graduates. But the centerpiece of his jobs plan is a $775 million bonding bill. Dayton argues that his list of public works projects would result in 21,700 jobs, mostly in the state's slumping construction sector.

Lawmakers traditionally take up bonding bills in even-year sessions. But they also passed a bonding bill last summer as part of the deal that ended the state government shutdown. Republicans remain cool toward another large bonding bill. House Speaker Kurt Zellers said he would rather see the creation of longer-term jobs, which be believes will come through improvements in the state's business climate.

"There's no question that having Minnesota workers off the bench, back on the job, is a great idea. I absolutely support that," said Zellers, R-Maple Grove. "We believe though that you've got to make sure that you have the private sector growing jobs, expanding here in Minnesota, so that the temporary projects that come in a bonding year are just that, a temporary project to fill in for that next big expansion."

Dave Senjem, Kurt Zellers
Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem and House Speaker Kurt Zellers of the Minnesota legislature. House Republicans are pushing an agenda that would cut taxes and regulations on businesses.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

House Republicans are pushing an agenda that would cut taxes and regulations on businesses. Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem said his caucus also is weighing cuts in business taxes.

"Generally speaking, statewide business property taxes, our goal eventually over time is to eliminate them," said Senjem, R-Rochester. "We understand that going to have to be a progressive sort of thing. But nevertheless, that's our goal."

The strong commitment the two Republican leaders show job creation is noticeably absent when the subject turns to a Vikings stadium. Neither Zellers nor Senjem is so far willing to promise the vote that Dayton has called for this session.

Zellers points out that he still hasn't seen a stadium bill to respond to. Senjem said the stadium is important, but not the most important issue of the session.

Senate Minority leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he thinks the Vikings have good reason to be frustrated with state lawmakers. Bakk said the team has done everything they've been asked to do, and they deserve a vote.

"There is a site. There is a local partner. The budget has been resolved," Bakk said. "But still we can't seem to advance the ball. I mean, if we just can't get it done, let's just say it."

No one yet says that a stadium deal can't be reached. But the short session likely will make it difficult for legislators to accomplish much.

Contributing to the uncertainly surrounding the session is a decision on new political districts, expected in February from a special court panel.

The once-every-10-year process of redistricting puts every seat in the legislature on the ballot this year. Once lawmakers get a look at the new districts they will have to run in, they may not want to prolong the session.