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Don Davis and Danielle Killey, Forum News Service, Published May 10 2013

Minnesota Legislative Notebook: Senate approves nickel gasoline tax increase

ST. PAUL - Minnesota senators voted Friday to raise the state gasoline tax 5 cents in the next few years.

After the Senate Transportation Committee in recent weeks removed a gas tax increase when Gov. Mark Dayton said he cannot support it, senators voted 34-26 to increase the tax 2.5 cents in each of the next two two-year budget cycles. The amendment came as a surprise, especially to Republicans who are in the Senate minority.

The Senate passed the overall transportation funding bill 35-27 on Friday night.

A House transportation funding bill does not include the gas tax increase. Dayton said he cannot back the hike because it would affect poor Minnesotans more than rich ones.

Republicans voted against the tax. A GOP staffer indicated the tax, which would bring in $1 billion over four years, would cost each family $500 annually.

Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, complained that the tax increase never passed a Senate committee, but suddenly popped in during full Senate debate.

“This is not the way to pass a bill,” she said.

Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said transportation and mass transit need more money after years of neglect.

“If you have a hole in your roof, you figure out a way to take care of it,” Kent said. “You realize that the problem gets more and more expensive if you don’t take care of it.”

The Senate tax bill also would allow each county to levy a $10-per-vehicle tax annually through 2016 and $20 a year after that. Also, a half-percentage Twin Cities sales tax increase is included for transit.

The tax increases were part of an overall

$5.6 billion transportation finance bill. Negotiators are to work out differences in the two bills next week.

Legacy bill

The House approved 70-55 a bill to spend nearly

$540 million in sales tax receipts for outdoors and arts projects.

Debate on the measure, called the legacy bill, included Republican accusations that Democrats told Republicans if they offered amendments to fund projects in their districts, the projects would not only be left off the legacy list but a separate public works projects list as well.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said “the bill goes too far” because bill sponsor Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, did not pay enough attention to committees established to advise lawmakers about spending.

Kahn said her bill divides funding between the Twin Cities and the rest of the state, but Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said much of the money would be headed to Minneapolis, St. Paul and other Twin Cities projects.

Money to fund the projects comes from a sales tax increase voters approved in 2008.

The Senate is expected to take up its legacy bill in the first half of next week.

Senate approves solar

The Minnesota Senate approved a bill 37-26 that its author said will help move Minnesota toward solar power.

Bill sponsor Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said solar energy costs are going down, while other energy production costs are increasing.

Solar power is more expensive now, Marty said, but fossil fuel money goes out of state.

“We ship that money out of the state, never to return ... and replace that with technology, which means jobs for Minnesota businesses and workers,” Marty said.

The bill would require 1 percent of utilities’ power generation to come from solar by 2025.

It also includes incentives for Minnesota-made solar equipment.

“We want to get the solar industry in Minnesota started on the way forward,” Marty said. He said the bill is a stripped-down version of the original, but is a good start.

‘It feels late’

Minnesota’s legislative leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton have been talking budget numbers, but have reached no overall agreement about how to spend and raise $38 billion in the next two years.

“It feels late,” former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe said about the process.

The state constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn May 20.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook; House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis; and Dayton met late Thursday and again Friday morning. But spokesmen said they had not agreed to major spending and tax decisions.

Dayton left at midday Friday for his fishing opener in Park Rapids, and talks were not expected during the weekend. A Bakk spokesman said the senator plans to spend Mother’s Day with his 90-year-old mother.

High noon debate

The Minnesota Senate returns to session at noon Monday to take up a bill to allow same-sex marriages.

If it passes, as expected, Gov. Mark Dayton plans to sign the measure Tuesday, making Minnesota the 12th state to allow gay marriage. It would be the first Midwestern legislature to approve same-sex marriages (the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a gay marriage ban in that state’s law).

Gay marriage supporters continued their push Friday.

“We’re halfway there, but we can’t stop now,” Communications Director Jake Loesch of Minnesotans United wrote to supporters Friday. “Before the Minnesota Senate votes on marriage on Monday, we must do everything we can at the Capitol and throughout the state to encourage our senators to vote ‘yes.’ ”

The Senate debate may be viewed at tinyurl.com/SenateTV.

BPA ban passes

The House passed its final bill banning bisphenol-A from children’s food containers 114-13 on Friday, sending it to the Senate, where it also is expected to pass.

The House and Senate earlier approved versions of the bill, and a conference committee worked out differences. If the Senate passes the revised version, it will head to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk for his signature.

It extends current law that bans toxic BPA from children’s bottles and cups. The new bill prevents infant formula and baby food from being sold in containers that have BPA.

“This is a simple bill to give parents the peace of mind that the food they are feeding their children does not contain BPA,” said Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. “It’s just common sense to protect our children from dangerous chemicals, and I’m pleased the bill received such broad bipartisan support.”

Hospitals to report

A new law requires Minnesota hospitals to develop nurse staffing plans by Jan. 1.

The bill Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law also requires those reports to be published on the Minnesota Hospital Association website for public viewing.

Also, the Health Department will convene a working group to use information from those plans to investigate if there are connections between staffing levels and patient outcomes.

The bill is a watered-down version of a proposal that originally would have required certain staffing levels. Hospitals said that would be too much of a burden, especially for rural hospitals.

More state money

The state brought in about $153 million more than expected in April, Minnesota Management and Budget reported. General fund revenues totaled $1.7 billion for the month.

The state now has $298.3 million more for the year than a February forecast predicted.

The extra funds came from individual and corporate income taxes, while sales tax brought in less than expected.

The office cautioned that swings in the numbers can be caused by one-time changes or other factors and that the data “should be interpreted with great caution.”

Gas payment options

Senators voted 56-3 to prohibit cities from making rules about where customers pay for gasoline.

Sen. James Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, said some cities have required payment outside at the pump.

“It’s up to the operator to make that decision,” Metzen said.

Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said many gas station owners rely on customers coming inside to purchase other items.


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