With the 2017 legislative session kicking off this week in St. Paul, Winona-area legislators are getting their priorities in order and have returned with several carryover goals from 2016.
While the last session failed to yield significant results in taxes, transportation and bonding, many hope to get closer this year. Still, questions remain about a Legislature divided: DFL Gov. Mark Dayton will finish out his last term, while the Senate came under Republican control to match the existing Republican control of the House.
Here’s a look at some of the top issues local legislators plan to focus on:
With skyrocketing costs for health insurance coming to the forefront this year, legislators and the governor have started off 2017 concentrating on reducing costs.
Dayton introduced proposals this week to provide as much as a 25 percent reduction in health insurance premiums through rebates for the more than 125,000 Minnesotans facing significant increases in the individual market.
The issue is also on the table in the House and Senate.
Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, said the first legislation introduced in the Senate after they convened Tuesday was to address healthcare relief and reform.
Miller said southeast Minnesota is seeing some of the highest premium increases in the state, and while lawmakers are looking at providing millions of dollars to alleviate the burden, reforms are needed to prevent healthcare costs from continuing to rise.
“We cannot afford to be in the same position next year,” Miller said.
He noted — as Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, did regarding discussions on healthcare in the House — that many of the reforms will still have to come at the federal level.
Partially a carryover from the previous session, legislators will make a second attempt at a tax reform bill.
Davids, the House Tax Committee chair, said he saw a lot of support for the bill the first time around, so he expected it to be similar this year.
“You’ll see many elements of the very popular 2016 tax bill,” Davids said.
In addition to property tax breaks for small businesses, the bill included reform that would have let farmers off the hook from disproportionally being taxed in school district referendums as well as relief for student debt.
A bonding bill was also in the works last session, but didn’t make it past the Senate following the last-minute inclusion of funding for high-speed rail.
The governor has already introduced his bonding and spending proposals, totaling around $1.5 billion, and the House and Senate will be working on their own proposals.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said they have similar goals as last year and will hopefully be able to implement them.
The governor’s proposal included funding for WSU’s Education Village. Other area projects in the proposal are the Lanesboro Dam and funding for improvements to Winona’s port.
Pelowski said the state needs to move forward with the projects, in part because there is a backlog of projects and investment across the state at the moment.
“We need to clear the deck,” Pelowski said. “We have other projects that need to move up.”
So far the goals of the Legislature and governor align well with what greater Minnesota cities are saying they’d like to see in 2017.
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities has said that increasing local government aid funding, funding road and infrastructure improvements, and a bonding bill will be their lobbying priorities.
Bradley Peterson, senior lobbyist for the CGMC, said Thursday that legislators saw a pushback in the 2016 election that indicated rural and smaller municipalities didn’t feel they were being heard.
Peterson noted that the tax bill, transportation funding and bonding bill that failed to materialize last year would have all had significant positive impacts for the greater Minnesota.
“If these things are addressed it will go a long way toward addressing the feeling in greater Minnesota of being left out, and left behind,” Peterson said.
Specifically, Peterson said that the coalition would like to see local government aid increased by $45.5 million dollars — back to 2002 levels — to address the fact that it has been stagnant while costs have continued to rise.
They are also seeking $369 million for infrastructure improvements to reduce bottlenecks and barriers to freight on the highways, $50 million in funding to help cities repair their crumbling streets.