First bills illustrate political divide in St. Paul

The DFL-controlled  Minnesota Senate and the Republican-controlled House have announced some of their top priorities for the 2015 session, and the first batch of bills underscores the stark political divide between chambers.

In the House, the first bills introduced include a transportation package that doesn't include tax increases and changes to the state's implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, the Senate announced six bills, including legislation that covers tuition for students going to the state's community or technical colleges and more money for early childhood education. None of the measures have a price tag attached yet.

"We believe strongly that citizens should define the scope of our work here in the Legislature," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown. "The five pieces of legislation we are introducing today reflect issues that matter most to Minnesotans. This is a starting point intended to focus our statewide discussion."

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One area of overlap between the chambers is workforce development.

Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL- Plummer, said his legislation that would pay for high school graduates to attend community and technical college would help fill a worker skills gap.

At 3.7 percent, Minnesota’s unemployment rate is low compared to the rest of the country, but Stumpf said Minnesota companies are nevertheless having a hard time filling positions.

“Employers were asking for skilled employees. It didn't matter if we were in southwest Minnesota or the Metropolitan area, employers wanted more skilled employees that they could hire," he said.

similar program in Tennessee experienced high demand after launching earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, has a bill that would allow companies to tap state grant money to provide on-the-job training for college students. In return, those students would get college credit.

Two other Senate bills focus on education as well, including one that would expand funding for early childhood education programs and another that would forgive loans for medical professionals agreeing to practice in rural and underserved areas.

A House bill would create similar incentives for professionals working in nursing homes, as well as ease taxes on early withdrawals from retirement accounts for long-term care costs.

Other Senate bills include one dealing with protection for abused children and a $6.8 million disaster funding bill for communities hit by flooding last summer.

The Senate plans to introduce a transportation funding bill next week which will almost certainly include new taxes to pay for roads and bridges.

But the House got an early start on the issue, with House transportation committee chair Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, announcing a bill that would put an additional $750 million over four years into roadways without a tax increase.

The House bill estimates that $65 million could come from requiring the Department of Transportation to be more efficient in how it spends money. Another $200 million would come from the $1 billion budget surplus.

The rest comes from cash already sitting in the state's Highway Trunk Fund, which is the main source of cash for the state's roads and bridges.

Kelly's bill is far short of the $6.5 billion the state transportation department says it needs over the next 10 years to repair and maintain the state's infrastructure.

Other House legislation includes changes to the state's teacher licensing program so that out-of-state licenses are recognized, new tax credits and cuts for businesses, and a request for federal waivers to allow all Minnesotans access to tax credits whether they buy health care insurance on or off the state's health insurance exchange.

Aside from the disaster bill, the Senate DFL isn't saying how much their legislation will cost. Minnesota Management and Budget will come out with cost estimates in the coming weeks.

Despite his support for the six Senate bills bills, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook was quick to temper expectations about money even though the state has a $1 billion surplus.

“Let me remind everybody, there is not a lot of money,” Bakk said.

“We will scale [these bills] into a budget that doesn’t include general fund tax increases,” Bakk said. “Some interest groups are going to be disappointed that their priorities didn't get addressed to the extent that they wanted.”