A final to-do list for the Legislature

/ 14 April 2012 / jennifer

Star Tribune Editorial, April 14, 2012 –

With a willingness to compromise, it can be done in two weeks.

QUITTING TIME
If legislators meet their goal of adjournment by May 1, they will be ahead of most recent even-year session-end dates:
2010 May 17*
2008 May 18
2006 May 21
2004 May 16
2002 May 20
2000 May 17
1998 April 9
*That was the day of a one-day special session. The regular session ran out of constitutionally permitted time at midnight May 16.
Source: Legislative Reference Library.

The Legislature’s minority DFLers have already tipped their campaign-theme hands to the Republicans who control both legislative chambers for the first time in four decades. They’re already calling this year a “do-nothing session” and are questioning GOP capacity for sufficient compromise to govern.

We consider that indictment premature — and we hope GOP legislators regard it as a spur to action. As legislators end their spring recess and return to the Capitol on Monday for the final weeks of this biennium’s lawmaking cycle, they ought to settle in for serious lawmaking.

Five weeks remain in the constitutionally allotted time for this year’s session; two weeks are left in the schedule promulgated in January by House Speaker Kurt Zellers. In a year with no budget deficit to erase and no crisis to ease, meeting Zellers’ April 30 adjournment target seems doable and desirable.

But the absence of a crisis can also deter action when action requires bipartisan compromise, as it does this year on any topic of importance. As Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk noted recently, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton is not on the ballot this year. In a political sense, he does not truly “need” anything.

To Dayton’s credit, that’s not the message he sent GOP leaders last week. In a conciliatory letter, Dayton made clear that he wants enactment of a number of major bills remaining on legislative dockets, He indicated willingness to compromise — within certain limits, such as no raids on reserve funds. Dayton’s wish list includes several items we’d like to see:

• A bonding bill is an even-year session’s bread and butter. It’s also a bill that requires a three-fifths super-majority to pass. That means DFLers should be at the table to help design this year’s model. The fact that they have not been is one of the reasons that the House bonding bill stalled before recess.

A reset is in order. Former DFL capital investment chair Rep. Alice Hausman last week proposed one: “pre-conferee” the bill with a joint House-Senate, bipartisan panel, then bring the finished product to both floors. That was the process used during the run-up to last July’s special session, and it produced an admirable result, Hausman says.

A bonding bill of $500 million to $600 million would serve Minnesota well. It ought to include support for regional convention centers in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud. Each is an economy-stimulating regional asset. Another must: funding for the Southwest Corridor light-rail project, which risks losing its place in line for 50 percent federal funding if the state does not act this year.

• Funding to restore the Capitol should proceed hand in hand with a bonding bill. State debt guidelines say that Minnesota can afford both this year. What it cannot afford is to allow its 107-year-old treasure to deteriorate any longer.

• A new Minnesota Vikings stadium ought to be authorized this year. No good public purpose is served by delay — and any political gain from delay that legislators think they see is a mirage. Inaction this year would leave both friends and foes of state stadium financing unsatisfied.

The financing options outlined in the bills currently before legislative committees are less than optimal. But after a decade of examining stadium proposals, legislators know this issue well, and know what’s needed to put a firmer financial foundation under this project.

• A modest dose of business tax relief is affordable this year, and Dayton proposed a way to finance it: Partially close the loophole that allows businesses with foreign operations to dodge state taxes, and require online-only retailers with affiliates in Minnesota (Amazon is one) to collect sales taxes at the time of purchase.

Both of those are fairness measures. They should be used to eliminate annoying features in the state’s business tax code — for example, the requirement that manufacturers apply for a sales tax refund for capital equipment purchases, rather than simply being exempted from the tax at the time of purchase.

• Our wish list includes one item Dayton did not mention. We renew our plea for him to sign a bill that would allow school districts to consider teacher performance as well as seniority when staffing levels are reduced.

“Last in, first out” (LIFO) seniority rules too often take top young teachers out of the classroom and out of the profession. State law should give school administrators more opportunity to preserve teaching quality while downsizing.

Dayton still has time to ask for improvements to that bill to satisfy his concerns. He should do so, and should be met with cooperation if he does. The LIFO bill belongs on this cycle’s list of accomplishments.

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