Veterans, infrastructure also important
by Ryan Howard
Forest Lake Times
The Minnesota Legislature may be in for an interesting year. With voters sending a mixed signal in 2014, Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton was re-elected while the GOP took over the Minnesota House.
Though 2015 is a budgeting year and the first chance the Republican-run House has to take on the controversial MNsure health care exchange, legislators from around the area, all of them Republicans, have a variety of other priorities as well. Chief among them might be education, a topic mentioned by almost all those interviewed.
District 32 Sen. Sean Nienow said that constituents in the area haven’t yet asked him to carry a torch for a particular legislative change, but he noted that he’ll continue to seek input from district residents throughout the session. With a large surplus projected from the previous session’s tax increases, Nienow predicted that the Legislature will be able to take a long look at where to allocate funding, rather than scrabbling for which budget items should receive a small piece of the spending pie.
“The state has the ability to say what makes sense as far as bumping up local government aid or county aid or putting money into economic development,” he said.
Education was also a big priority for Nienow. Like Housley, he mentioned “first in, last out” as a policy he feels needs reform. However, he also wants to change a state school funding formula that he says funds inner city school districts disproportionately.
“We have various ‘categoricals,’ special funding for various needs,” he said, explaining that amount of minority students or population density are examples of the special categories.
Every time more money is added to the state’s school funding formula, he said, some of that money is diverted into the categoricals. Nienow believes that over time, the continued adding to the categoricals results in metropolitan school districts with per-student funding amounts that tower over their less-populated peers.
Nienow also wants to add definition to the state’s graduation standards, making sure that students are proficient in reading, writing and math before they get a diploma.
“A student should demonstrate that they have learned enough to succeed in life in order to graduate.”
In non-education matters, one issue Nienow is tackling regards regulating what is and isn’t accepted use of drone technology. While he believes the ultimate threat of drone use is private users using the technology to harass or violate the privacy of others, he said the first step is to make sure that the government isn’t using the technology to do the same.
District 31B Rep. Bob Barrett and District 32B Rep. Tom Hackbarth expressed interest in being interviewed for this story. Due to unforeseen scheduling issues, The Forest Lake Times was unable to interview them before press time.
One of District 39 Sen. Karin Housley’s primary focuses is reform in education, benefiting schools and students both statewide and locally. Rather than spending more money in an attempt to improve student outcomes or reduce achievement gaps between different student groups, she said, the Legislature should focus on making sure the best teachers stay in schools. She would like to see a change in or elimination of the policy known as “first in, last out” that results in the most recently hired teachers being let go when schools tighten their budgets. Sometimes, she said, those teachers have the most energy and are getting the best results from students while longer-tenured teachers with lower student performances have more job security.
“Sometimes we lose some of the great teachers,” she said.
On the local level, she and District 39A Rep. Bob Dettmer are both working on getting the Forest Lake Area Schools into the Alternative Facilities System, which increases state funding to districts with facilities in need of repair. With a large bond referendum heading to voters soon to improve the schools’ buildings and referendums, Housley said the school district’s inclusion in the program would be a way to provide additional renovation funding from the state without hitting local taxpayers squarely in their wallets.
“It wouldn’t affect the residents of Forest Lake … except their roofs would stop leaking and their track wouldn’t have holes in it,” she said.
Dettmer is also working on a bill that would increase state funding to school districts with high transportation costs. In a district like Forest Lake Area Schools, with lots of rural students, busing can be a significant expense, and Dettmer said there’s interest in large rural districts for additional funding.
In non-education priorities, Dettmer, now chairman of the Veterans Affairs Division of the State Government Finance Committee, reiterated his commitment to focus on making the state more veteran-friendly, particularly as it relates to eliminating a tax on veterans’ government retirement income. He was hopeful for bipartisan cooperation in the division and in the House as a whole this year.
“It looks like we’re getting some good bills … from both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Housley is also focusing on some legislation regarding the “Right to Try” movement that would allow for terminally ill Minnesotans to try experimental drugs that have not yet passed Food and Drug Administration approval to treat their diseases.
Perhaps the biggest news to local residents of District 31B is an attempt by District 31 Sen. Michelle Benson to get $10 million in funding for improvements and changes to the Lake Drive/State Highway 97 bridge and intersection over Interstate Highway 35. With signs of wear and tear on the bridge and businesses nervous about how eventually renovations at the intersection will affect their property, Benson said, it makes sense to act now to allow the bridge to meet traffic and structural demands for the next 30 years and to optimize the intersection flow to benefit local businesses in the city’s freeway district.
“The businesses don’t have to wait to see if they’re going to have an interchange built through a brand new building,” she said.
Locally, Benson also wants to make sure that the Metropolitan Council doesn’t exert too much interest over her communities, particularly when it comes to regulating water and pumping in order to benefit the dwindling White Bear Lake. On a statewide level, she wants to increase MNsure’s functionality by putting the responsibility of private insurance enrollment into the hands of private insurance companies, and she hopes to increase oversight on nonprofit organizations that administer government outreach grants.
“We want to make sure those nonprofits are accomplishing the goals that are set for them,” she said.
She stressed that with a DFL-controlled Senate and a Republican House, bipartisanship is essential – and attainable.
“Republicans and Democrats across the spectrum agree that government needs to run well,” she said. “We can disagree about the size of government, but we can agree that it needs to run well.”