Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Every session of the Minnesota Legislature has outcomes, says Sen. Kent Eken, that fall among “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
“This year, the good far outweighs the rest,” he told community leaders last week. “And it was especially good for our area.”
Eken joined Reps. Ben Lien of Moorhead and Paul Marquart of Dilworth, along with Gov. Tim Walz, under the banner of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce for a session summing up results of the 2019 Minnesota Legislature. A full house heard the four, along with revenue commissioner Cynthia Bauerly, applaud income tax cuts, permanent funding for border city equalization measures, and other pluses.
The biggest achievement, though, was one even more welcome in the current fractured political climate: Civility and compromise in the only state legislative body in the nation with houses split between Democrats and Republicans.
“Differences on policies are one thing, of course. But the way they went about it reflects how we do things in Minnesota,” Walz observed. “Our legislators are role models for the nation in how to make things happen that put our state’s people first.
“This legislature could have melted down into partisan bickering – black hats and white hats,” the DFL governor continued. “But in the end, it didn’t degenerate. Eight years ago, we had a shutdown. This year, just think – a Democratic governor signed a bill that cut taxes for most everyone in Minnesota.” He added, “This was the first session in 41 years without a veto.”
The three DFL legislators from District 4 lauded some achievements and compromises hammered out by the deeply divided Senate and House. Marquart, who represents Dilworth and the eastern part of the district, chaired the House Tax Committee. Charged with “harmonizing” Minnesota tax law with the federal Tax Cuts Act of 2017, the changes worked out by legislators increased potential state revenue by $1.2 billion. After a hard-fought partisan battle on what to do with the money, he and Senate Tax Committee chairman Roger Chamberlain worked out a compromise with the governor at 1 a.m. on the last night of the session. “You have to compromise sometimes,” Marquart said, “and give up some of your base’s strong positions.” In the end, though, he said, the outcome was positive: “We managed to pass only the second tax bill in the past five years, and we cut taxes. Every penny that tax conformity brought us was put back into tax cuts.”
The legislators and governor stressed business-friendly achievements for the chamber of commerce crowd. Included was one dear to the heart of Moorhead and Dilworth leaders – making funding for the Border Cities Enterprise Zone a permanent part of the annual budget. Though the program dates back to 1983, its allocation was debated in each session. The amount was set at the 2002 level, the high point of the program, or $750,000, with the lion’s share of $525,000 used locally and the balance divided between Dilworth, East Grand Forks, Breckenridge and Ortonville. The funds are used to even out disparities in business regulations between Minnesota and North Dakota, including rebates on workers compensation and other tax and regulatory differences.
State aid for out-state cities and counties, which has languished for years, was increased $30 million over the next two years. That brings Local Government Aid (LGA) to about $565 million and County Program Aid (CPA) to about $260 million. Both are critical to the budgets of many smaller municipalities.
The legislators cited measures to offer “stability and predictability” to Minnesota-based businesses and encourage continued growth and investment. Marquart pointed to $20 million appropriated for the Angel Tax Credit, providing a 25% credit to investors making equity investments in startup companies focused on high technology, new proprietary technology, or a new proprietary product, process or service in specified fields.
Lien highlighted programs intended to ease the worker shortage, including $97 million to help new people enter the workforce and $5 million to assist developers in building affordable workforce housing. The funds will be used to leverage private sector investment. He also stressed the value of the $40 million appropriation to support development of broadband in Greater Minnesota. “It’s an equity issue,” he said. “Without solid broadband, it’s only going to get harder and harder to do business or finish your education outside the metro areas.”
The Moorhead representative noted, too, an increase in the Ag2School tax credit. It offsets increased property taxes on farmers’ land, intended to assist rural communities in gaining support for school bond issues. The tax credit was boosted from 40% to 70% during the session.
Amidst all the rosy news, the District 4 delegation acknowledged some major disappointments – among them, failure to pass the Emergency Insulin Act. Another big “miss” was inability to reach an agreement on funding infrastructure. “We’re falling way behind on our roads and bridges to the tune of $600,000 a year. That’s just to take care of what we have,” Eken observed. “We have only three options,” he said. “Property taxes will have to go up as our infrastructure declines without state aid to maintain it. We can cut services to children and others to squeeze it from the general fund. Or we can raise the gas tax.” The third option, of course, failed to win support this year.
Finally, members of the audience asked Walz about the outlook for the Fargo Diversion Project. After working out a compromise with Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources, the flood mitigation project is once again back in court challenging a permit denial by the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District.
“The judicial branch will address the disputed pieces of the puzzle,” he said. “Meanwhile, the channels of communication are working as they should while the contested issues are in the hands of the court.” He pointed to weekly consultations between his office and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who in fact was arriving to meet with Walz as the chamber of commerce gathering ended.
Walz emphasized, “Floods are only going to get worse. These big rain events and floods are increasing. They’re not 500-year flood events anymore … they’re every five years. Any time we can mitigate the devastation, we save money in the end. If we don’t do something, one thing is for sure: We’ll be sandbagging again.
“We will move this project forward.”
‘Mostly Good’ Local legislators see pluses in 2019
Nancy Edmonds Hanson