(St. Paul, MN) Last week’s action on the House floor was marked by a series of marathon sessions dealing with setting the state’s upcoming two-year budget. Usual start time was 10 o’clock in the morning, with last action several nights coming around midnight. All the major spending bills, including the tax bill, were debated and passed off the floor, with one exception. That being the Health and Human Services bill, which was slated for action on Monday of this week.
In floor votes taken on the various measures, most were divided along party lines. Even the agriculture bill, usually one of the most non-partisan, was split with no Republicans voting in favor. The reason was that, although the spending portion of the bill was OK, the policy provisions were worrisome. Things like a total revamping of the Board of Animal Health and how the state’s veterinarian is selected were not popular with some. The board has done outstanding work in the past, especially in regard to their handling of the highly pathogenic bird flu several years ago, and there is reluctance to adding certain members to the board and removing the Senate’s ability to confirm appointments.
There were also issues with the state getting into requiring additional labeling requirements for seed treated with insecticides that no other state requires. In addition, changes stretching out the timeline in the Farmer Lender mediation process were approved. In the past, when modifications to this program were proposed, a working group was convened to study the issues before changes were made.
The tax bill passed in the House contains conformity in regard to PPP loans, but only up to $350,000. It also contains several tax increases, including a new fifth tier income bracket, which would give our state the second highest income tax rate in the nation.
A change in the funding of Soil and Water Conservation Districts came forward in the environment bill. In the past, a major funding source for SWCDs has been the Clean Water Fund, one of the accounts funded by the three-eighths of 1 percent sales tax we all pay. In the second year of the biennium, this new funding source relies on a surcharge on all deed transfers in each county, with that revenue going directly to the local SWCD where the fee was collected.
There was much opposition to this plan, but it was passed in the House anyway. Things such as what is the connection between real estate transfers and SWCDs, and the disparity of funding that will probably arise from such a system. For example, there are many more transfers in metro counties than in Greater Minnesota, and some counties may choose not to collect this new fee at all. My hope is the plan will be discarded in conference committee and we’ll revert back to Clean Water funding for our SWCDs, which do an outstanding job of getting conservation work done on the local level.
The most contentious discussion came during debate on the public safety bill. With the backdrop of the metro area on high alert, there were provisions in this bill calling for additional regulations on our law enforcement. Another removes expired license tabs from the list of primary violations that allow police to stop a vehicle. One obvious question raised was how many more residents won’t bother to renew their tabs in a timely fashion if they can’t be stopped for not having them current.
Republicans tried to amend provisions onto legislation that would have stopped our state’s move to California car standards, but they were not allowed. We also tried to add language that would allow for mail-in application for conceal-and-carry permits because of the backlog in some counties resulting in long wait-times, but that, too, was not allowed.
These bills will all come back for final passage when conference committees have worked out the differences between the House and Senate versions.