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Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, sitting in as House speaker, shows something on her cellphone to Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings as the 2013 Legislature neared an end. Forum News Service photo by Don Davis
Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park, sitting in as House speaker, shows something on her cellphone to Rep. Denny McNamara of Hastings as the 2013 Legislature neared an end. Forum News Service photo by Don Davis

South Washington County lawmakers give session mixed grades

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politics Cottage Grove, 55016

Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

Local lawmakers assigned mixed grades to the recently completed legislative session.

Sen. Katie Sieben and Rep. Dan Schoen, Democrats whose party controls the Legislature, gave the budget and other work high marks. They pointed to increased school spending and added funding to support all-day kindergarten statewide as the chief highlight of the session.

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"I think that it was a really historic session in that we made significant investments in education," said Sieben, an assistant Senate majority leader.

"That's got to be the biggest piece" of the Legislature's accomplishment, Schoen said of school funding increases.

Rep. Denny McNamara gave the session poor marks, criticizing $2 billion in tax increases and controversial policies such as day care union authorization.

"Overall, I'd give it a 'D,' for disappointing," said McNamara, R-Hastings. "We could have done better. We should have done better."

In a session that included high-profile, emotional debates over gay marriage, union rights and gun control, lawmakers' main job was to pass a new two-year state budget. The $38 billion budget approved by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton boosts K-12 funding, freezes tuition at state colleges and universities and increases aid to nursing homes.

Local Democrats touted the bump in education funding.

Sieben, of Cottage Grove, said beginning next year school districts will receive state aid to provide all-day kindergarten, so parents won't have to pay extra to enroll children in a full-day class instead of a half-day program. She said that would be a savings of $2,600 a year for a child in District 833, one of the school districts that charges for its full-day program.

"All-day kindergarten is something that I've been pushing for years now," she said.

General per-student state funding will increase 1.5 percent a year, a boost that "schools have been asking for for years," said Schoen, of St. Paul Park.

Tax increases debated

The budget was supported with $2 billion in tax increases, including a new, higher income tax on the state's biggest earners, a cigarette tax increase, a new tax on business wholesale storage and sales tax on online transactions, such as on Amazon purchases.

An earlier proposal to broaden the state sales tax to include consumer transactions such as legal work and haircuts was dropped, "which was good," Sieben said.

The tax bill also boosts funding to cities and counties, which DFLers who supported the tax plan pointed to as one form of property tax relief. Also, lawmakers and Dayton waived sales taxes paid by local governments.

Sieben said cities will no longer have to use local property tax revenue to pay state sales tax on purchases they make.

McNamara said the tax bill is "unfortunate" and it taxes "everyone," not just the highest-earning Minnesotans. He said the increased cigarette tax will hurt state border cities.

"I think the tax bill is going to be devastating," he said. "The border communities are really going to suffer; that means we all suffer."

McNamara said DFLers went too far after they gained control of the Legislature.

"I think the Democrats will suffer from the overreach," he said. "I think there will be changes in 2014 (the election)."

Schoen said Republicans weren't on board from the beginning.

"It doesn't matter what we were going to do, they were going to call it overreach," he said.

Sieben dismissed claims of legislative overreach, calling increased education funding and legislation aimed at job creation "progress."

"On balance, Minnesotans wanted these things and we delivered those results," she said.

PFC study funded

The budget deal includes continued funding for a state biomonitoring project studying PFC exposure in some Cottage Grove and east-metro residents. Sieben pushed for that after Dayton's initial budget proposal did not include further funding. She said it will be important to monitor PFC levels in residents but also for the Minnesota Department of Health to continue monitoring other PFC exposure studies around the country for possible adverse health effects and to track whether the state's recommended health-based values of PFC exposure need to be adjusted.

Sieben and Schoen supported legislation giving day care providers the ability to attempt to unionize. Schoen said the state's largest unions that pushed for the law "did a horrendous job" with messaging during the debate. Some opponents said the bill will force union membership.

"It had nothing to do with mandating unions," Schoen said. "(Day care providers) get to vote."

The day care provider union bill was the Legislature's biggest failure, McNamara said.

"This is the worst legislation that has been passed in the state," he said. "Eighty-nine percent of my constituents said they opposed it."

The state has about 20,000 daycare providers who will be asked if they want to unionize (by mailing). If approval is gained, those providers who receive state assistance must join the union and be expected to pay union dues.

"What are they (the parents) going to get?" asked McNamara. "They get nothing."

RiverTown Multimedia reporter Jane Lightbourn contributed to this story.

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