Dayton puts rush on health rebate, construction plans

Gov. Mark Dayton sits in the Governors Residence study during an interview on the Legislature's upcoming session. Brian Bakst | MPR Photo

If Gov. Mark Dayton has his way, the opening days of the 2017 legislative session will be more about action and less about the usual ceremony and orientation, particularly when it comes to health care and construction borrowing proposals.

In a pre-session interview with MPR News, Dayton challenged lawmakers to pass a health insurance premium rebate bill in the first week and a bonding bill in the first month. He also said time-sensitive features of last year's unsuccessful tax bill should be acted on quickly to make sure certain deductions are available to income tax filers.

Dayton's insurance rebate plan would provide 25 percent monthly cost breaks to people coping with massive price spikes in plans they purchase on the individual market, which has suffered since the onset of the Affordable Care Act. The plan would apply to individual market subscribers who don't qualify for federal subsidies.

"I'd like to see them pass a premium health relief bill because the people who are making decisions about what level of coverage they can afford need to know that before the enrollment period ends at the end of January," Dayton said. "That's urgent."

Republicans, who will control the House and Senate when the session starts on Tuesday, have said any relief plan should also address access to clinics and medical specialists that has tightened in recent years. They add that changes to the insurance system, and the MNsure marketplace, will be a leading priority for them and among the first batch of bills that are introduced.

"Minnesotans elected Republican majorities in the House and Senate because they wanted us to fix the health care mess that Democrats created with MNsure and Obamacare," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman. "Our top priority for the first two weeks of session will be a relief and reform bill that helps out Minnesotans who are hurting from skyrocketing Obamacare premiums, and includes important first steps to help stabilize the individual market."

Dayton's push for swift action also includes passage of a hefty public works finance package. That way, he said, projects deep into planning could begin in the spring and summer, including upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities and repairs to buildings on college campuses.

"Not to take advantage of low interest rates and the need to make those investments in capital improvements for plants and facilities around the state is really very short-sighted and very destructive to Minnesota's well-being," Dayton said.

Dayton vetoed a tax-cut bill lawmakers passed at the end of their 2016 session, citing a potentially costly wording error. Efforts to revive it through a special session failed, but Dayton said certain aspects should be put on a fast track. They are new deductions offered in the federal tax code that Minnesota planned to adopt for state tax purposes.

There is some time pressure there, too.

Tax filing season opens on Jan. 23, which is the first day people can file their returns electronically. But tax software programmers, accountants and others need clarity on what deductions will be provided before then.

Dayton said larger tax breaks might have to wait until after a new economic forecast is released in late February so he and lawmakers know how much money is available for the upcoming two-year budget.

Meanwhile, Dayton isn't abandoning a gas tax increase as a key feature of his transportation finance proposal.

Dayton said that he's standing by his call for a higher gas tax to pay for road and bridge projects. That will be a hard sell with a Republican-dominated Legislature that has resisted any increase to the tax, even though Dayton contends it's a reasonable way to fund infrastructure improvements.

"A 10-cent increase in the gas tax in Minnesota would cost the average Minnesota driver 75 dollars a year," Dayton said. "I mean they portray this as some kind of Independence Day alien spaceship that is going to obliterate sunlight in the state. It's just not going to have that kind of effect. If we don't revenue through the gas tax, the additional revenue in part, where is it going to come from?"

Republicans have recommended using existing revenue from auto parts sales and ramping up new highway fund borrowing to pay for billions in new road construction.

Transportation is likely to be a top issue in the session that will extend into May.

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