State Senate DFL, House GOP show contrasting priorities
By Don Davis / Forum Capitol Reporter
By dON dAVIS
One theme prevails in lists of priorities released Thursday by Democrats who control the Minnesota Senate and Republicans who run the House: greater Minnesota.
The two sides differ on how to help those outside the Twin Cities, but most of their priorities are about rural areas and regional centers.
There was one other common theme: a lack of specifics about their proposals, which range from free technical education to business tax breaks, especially how they would be funded.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, senators laid out their top six priorities, topped by a bill to fund local costs of fighting last year’s flood and severe weather. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, introduced five priorities, with the No. 1 issue to create better-paying jobs by taking actions such as cutting some business taxes and funding a housing program.
Democrats’ plans generally were bigger than what Republicans proposed.
For instance, Sen. Greg Clausen, D-Apple Valley, authored a bill to forgive student loans for health-care professionals, such as doctors and dentists, who practice in rural and other underserved areas.
Bakk said that before the holidays, when he went to his doctor in Ely to renew his blood pressure prescription, he found out his doctor was 65 and another was 70. Both are at or past retirement age.
His dentist told him that more dentists are needed because if he retires, the nearest one would be 50 miles away.
“Current participants report that the loan forgiveness program (that is less extensive than the one he proposes) has a major affect on their choice of practice location, and studies show that the vast majority of health-care professionals remain in the same or similar locations where they start their careers,” Clausen said.
Clausen’s bill is the No. 3 Senate priority.
On the House side, Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, authored a loan forgiveness provision in the House’s third-top priority, but it is limited to forgiving loans of some nursing home workers. However, Schomacker said that he thinks his plan and the Clausen proposal eventually could merge.
“We want to make sure people have the best care,” Schomacker said, and making it easier to retain nurses goes a long way toward that.
Schomacker said that his bill also would allow long-term care savings plans and allow Minnesotans to withdraw money without penalty for long-term care from individual retirement accounts.
The Senate’s second priority came from Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, who wants the state to pay education costs of Minnesotans who graduate from a Minnesota high school and attend a two-year vocational or community college. Stumpf and Bakk said there are job openings around the state, especially in rural areas, because would-be workers are not properly trained.
Those who graduate from two-year programs “can make a very, very good living,” Stumpf said.
Education also was the No. 2 House GOP priority, but it is an entirely different concept.
Republicans would require decisions about teacher layoffs to be weighted by how a teacher did on state-required evaluation. The bill also would make it easier for teachers from other states and experts without teaching degrees to teach in Minnesota.
Also in education, better preschool access was on the Senate Democratic priority list.
Sen. Katie Sieben, D-Cottage Grove, said easier access would allow parents who now cannot afford preschool send children. That would save them child-care costs and at the same time, parents can work to earn more money.
Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, is co-author of a bill to protect children after a northwestern Minnesota abuse incident resulted in a child’s death.
He said that the bill would remove roadblocks to investigating abuse reports.
Daudt said bills introduced Thursday are early versions and could dramatically change as they go through committees.
Bakk and Daudt could not offer cost estimates for their priority lists, or where they could find the money. However, Bakk said he thought that Senate proposals would come in less than the expected $1 billion state budget surplus.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that he and his staff looked at the Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor proposals and estimate that each the Stumpf and preschool proposals would cost $400 million a year each, costing far more than the $1 billion surplus expected over two years.
Senate Democrats’ priorities
1) Funds local costs not paid by federal government to recover from 2014 floods
2) Pay first two years of education at state technical or community college
3) Forgive student loans for health-care professionals who work in rural and other underserved areas
4) Reduce roadblocks to investigating child abuse reports
5) Improve training of students to match what businesses need
6) Provide voluntary free preschool education for any student
House Republican priorities
1) Cut some business taxes and fund housing grants in an effort to produce jobs
2) Require that any teacher lay-off decision be made with consideration of teacher evaluations
3) Forgive student loans and offer scholarships for nursing home workers, allow long-term care savings accounts
4) Spend more than $750 million from existing state funds over four years on roads and bridges
5) Increase state oversight of MNsure state health insurance sales program