Tax relief for farmers and older Minnesotans, bonding money for local infrastructure projects, and more funding for natural resources all were hammered out this year at the state Capitol in St. Paul.
Members of the Brainerd lakes area legislative delegation gave their take on how the recently completed 2017 session of the Minnesota Legislature played out for respective districts, listing the things they were proud of, and a few things they regretted. Each legislator's responses reflected the specific area of issues they focus on when they're in St. Paul.
Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, talked about how seniors benefitted. Freshman legislator Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, brought up the benefits to area farmers. Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, talked about the environment and the Legacy Amendment. Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, talked about local infrastructure projects and also some outdoors issues.
The delegation is entirely made up of Republicans, so it wasn't surprising tax cuts figured prominently in their responses when asked for the highlights of the session. Several mentioned a new provision in the tax law that would increase the threshold at which federal Social Security income is taxed, meaning lower-income seniors get a break on their state taxes.
Lueck said the increased threshold wasn't as high as he and others wanted, but it was still a good starting point.
"I've been working on that personally ever since I got to the Legislature, along with a lot of other people," he said.
Poston said the change had tangible impacts on lower-income older Minnesotans.
"Retired people that are counting on Social Security, most of them are probably not going to be paying state taxes on Social Security now because of that limit lift," he said.
Ruud pointed out the measure would particularly benefit Aitkin County, as it had the highest median age in the state.
Lueck highlighted the tax bill also boosted a program aimed at helping out rural counties in which large expenses of publicly owned land exist. The fact they can't collect property taxes on swaths of land means their budgets take a hit, but payment in lieu of taxes, or PILT, subsidizes them with state dollars intended to smooth over the gap. Lueck was the chief author of the House version of the measure. Despite a lack of tax base, rural counties with high volumes of public land still had to fund sheriff's departments to patrol it and highway workers to plow the snow from it, Lueck said. The increase bumps the subsidy to $2 an acre, so in Aitkin County with roughly a million acres of public land, the PILT subsidy will now be $1 million, Lueck said.
"It's about time we got a little help there," he said.
Both Lueck and Poston pointed out a provision newly inserted into law where the state covers a portion of farmer's tax bills when their school district approves a referendum. Since their local tax bill is calculated based on how much land they own, farmers are disproportionately hit by referendums.
"It kind of cuts about 40 percent of what they paid in the past," Poston said. "It's kind of a step towards getting farmers on a more even playing field with people who live in town, so to speak."
He added the eventual goal was to have farmers taxed only for their home and 1 acre as opposed to all of their farmland. A poor farm economy with anemic commodity prices made it tough enough for farmers without taxes on top of it, he said.
Poston also mentioned direct financial aid the legislature gave to Wadena County, a county within Poston's district characterized by low population as well as older and low income residents. While counties in Minnesota each get county program aid, this special provision gives Wadena County funding on top of their CPA funding, Poston said. The new budget item gives the county government $600,000 a year for the next biennium, totalling $1.2 million, he said.
"It's financially been pretty tough for the county," Poston said. "So we just gave them a little aid to prop them up, to get them through the (next) couple years."
The legislature also approved a bill providing $3.6 million in bond financing for the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, noted for its mountain bike trails.
"That's going to allow us to expand that state rec area to really bring it to probably one of the most advanced mountain bike areas in the country, if not the world," Lueck said.
Also included in the bonding bill was $1.6 million for a trail from Camp Ripley, Ruud said. The funding is intended as development and planning money to get the project up and running.
Still another local project that got some love from the state bonding bill was the Cypress Drive road reconstruction in Baxter. Ruud said she fought very hard for it to be included.
"When we talk about transportation dollars and traffic flow in our area, that piece is really important," she said.
Heintzeman also said it would help alleviate traffic in the area.
Language easing the path to get a teaching license would help the teacher shortage that particularly affects greater Minnesota, Ruud said.
In the realm of environmental protection, Ruud was proud of her efforts to get the bill on the Legacy Amendment grants to conform to the advisory Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council's recommendations. Ruud, who chairs the Senate's Legacy committee, said she fought hard to separate "unnecessary policy language" from the grant bill.
"I'm a little biased, but I think it was the best Legacy bill ever to come forward," she said.
Ruud also was satisfied that a number of outdoor license fee increases were passed into law. The funding boost would help the financial solvency of the Department of Natural Resources divisions that foster outdoor activities like hunting and fishing in the state, she said. She pointed out the increases were modest-only a couple of dollars in the price to buy a permit or license for things like fishing and visiting parks.
"The sportsmen came to us and said they were for them," she said.
A particular niche of Minnesotans also had their liberty expanded in the 2017 session: those who have, up until this point, not been allowed to wear blaze pink clothing instead of the mandated blaze orange while hunting. The provision had been a topic of debate in prior sessions, only to be shot down, but in the 2017 session it finally blazed through.
There's a practical benefit to wearing the different colored apparel, Ruud said: it increases the hunter's chances of being seen by other hunters, but decreases their chances of being spotted by deer.
Heintzeman said his own daughters were excited to get some blaze pink gear for themselves.
He also pointed out new money going toward DNR conservation positions, and funding to combat aquatic invasive species. The session also resulted in scopes being allowed on muzzle-loaded firearms for hunting, he said.
He had opposed the DNR-proposed license fee increases, but he added getting it in the bill was part of compromise.
Heintzeman's "Macy's Law," intended to stiffen penalties for drivers who operate without a license, did not make it into law, although it passed in the House. Heintzeman said the busy schedule toward the end of the session crowded out the bill's chances for a Senate hearing, but it was only a matter of time before the bill is eventually approved. He may look at modifying some of the proposal's language in conjunction with the Senate.
"This driver diversion program will probably be something that we continue to try to direct (offenders) towards, rather than maybe an immediate gross misdemeanor on a third offense," he said.
All in all, the legislators seemed generally satisfied with how the session played out.
"In all my years, I think this is one of the best budgets I have ever seen come through," Ruud said.