Capitol Letter

January 20, 2011


 

January 20, 2011

Volume XXXVII Issue 1

 

Contents:

Welcome to the 2011 Capitol Letter

Election Law

State Government Finance

Education

Environmental Review

Environment: Sulfide Mining

Immigration

 

Welcome to the 2011 Capitol Letter™


The 2011 session of the Minnesota Legislature began on January 4 with members of the House of Representatives and the Senate taking their oaths of office and starting work on what everyone agrees is going to be a difficult five-month session. The unexpected flip in majority party saw Speaker Rep. Kurt Zellers (R-Maple Grove) taking the oath as the first Republican speaker in four years. There are 36 new members of the House, 33 of them Republicans, giving the majority a 72-62 advantage. In the Senate, Sen. Amy Koch (R-Buffalo) became the first Republican Majority leader since the Legislature recognized party designation. There are 37 Republicans and 30 DFLers in the Senate. Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) was sworn in on January 3 as the first DFL governor in two decades.


The state’s $6.2 billion deficit is going to affect all of the issues that Minnesotans care about. While all sides are talking about negotiating honestly and with civility, the Republicans remain wedded to their “no new taxes” pledge while Gov. Dayton and his DFL allies in the Legislature are promising to put everything on the table, including tax increases for the very wealthy. A cuts-only budget will be extremely painful; even a balanced approach to this deficit will be gut-wrenching.  Everything has already been cut to the bone, including education, health and human services, the judiciary, public safety and transportation. What is left?  As these decisions are made, LWV Minnesota will be an active voice for our positions at the State Capitol.


In addition to fiscal issues, LWV Minnesota will focus on defending Minnesota’s inclusive and effective election laws this session. You will be our allies in our efforts to educate the public about the importance of same-day registration, including vouching, and about the cost, harm and irrelevance of requiring a photo ID from registered voters.
In fact, while our Action Committee members donate many hours advocating for LWVMN positions, they are effective because of you, the LWV Minnesota member.  Legislators pay attention to calls and letters from constituents – these are the people who elect them.  Legislators also read their home town newspapers.  You can have an impact on your legislators with reasoned, polite communication.


The Capitol Letter™ will come out every two weeks during the legislative session and will let you know what is going on at the State Capitol.  It includes links to your legislators.  Action Alerts will go out when more immediate action on a certain issue is needed.  All of this information is posted on the LWV Minnesota website and available through subscribing to the lwvmn-share list.


Our Program for Action as well as copies of testimony and letters that LWV Minnesota has offered this session will be available on the website.  If you or your local LWVMN chapter would like any additional resources, do not hesitate to ask Action Committee members and staff.


--Gwen Myers and Kathy Tomsich, Action Committee Co-Chairs


ELECTION LAW

LWVUS Position: Voting is a fundamental citizen right that must be guaranteed.
LWVMN Position: Support improvements in election laws regulating election procedures, voting and school district elections.

Sherri Knuth, LWV Minnesota Public Policy Coordinator, (651) 224-5445

Voting is a constitutional right. LWV was born over 90 years ago as an outgrowth of the women’s suffrage movement. Every citizen’s right to vote remains important to us.

LWV Minnesota supports modernizing Minnesota’s voter registration system and retaining the same-day voter registration process. We oppose measures that would create unnecessary barriers between a citizen and his or her ballot, barriers such as requiring a registered voter to present a photo ID before receiving a ballot.

A bill has been introduced this session that would require a government-issued photo ID card of registered voters on Election Day. HF89, authored by Rep. Mike Benson (R-Rochester) and 15 other representatives, requires that a registered voter show election judges a government-issued photo identification card. Voters who do not have a driver's license or a state-issued identification card may obtain a free voter identification card. But in order to receive the card, a potential voter would need to show proof that he or she is a registered voter and produce "official documentation" containing current name, current residence and date of birth. It is not clear what that document might be.  

Under HF89, if a voter is unable to provide acceptable photo identification on Election Day, he or she may cast a “provisional ballot.” The ballot will not be counted unless the voter goes to the office of the county auditor or municipal clerk within five business days following the election and shows a photo ID or signs an affidavit.

LWV Minnesota opposes requiring a photo ID of registered voters because such a requirement is costly, harmful and not needed. While HF89 does not have a fiscal note yet, LWV estimates that the cost would be many millions of dollars because a whole new bureaucracy would have to be developed to provide photo ID cards to the thousands of registered voters who need them, and a new bureaucracy would have to be developed to implement the provisional ballot system. With Minnesota facing a $6.2 million deficit, it is irresponsible to spend these dollars on implementing a photo ID requirement which is harmful and unnecessary.

The harm comes in several forms. Many elderly, disabled, low-income, minority and young voters do not have a valid government-issued driver’s license or identification card and would not be able to vote unless they obtained a voter identification card. A number of these voters would face logistical barriers getting to a place that issues IDs. HF89 requires only one location in each county, burdening rural voters. Others would not have “official documentation” to obtain a voter ID card, such as a birth certificate to demonstrate they are a citizen or a marriage license showing their current name. Copies are available, but they are not free. In some states where photo ID laws have been enacted, election judges have had to turn away voters whom they knew personally because they have not had the required ID.

In addition to the expense, the voter identification proposal is unnecessary because Minnesota has never had a case of voter impersonation, the only type of fraud that a photo ID would prevent. Our election system withstood detailed examination during the 2008 and 2010 recounts, earning the respect of attorneys for winners and losers alike. In addition, a survey of county attorneys after the 2008 election demonstrated that the only convictions for voter fraud concerned felons voting. See Facts About Ineligible Voting and Voter Fraud in Minnesota, by Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, Nov. 2010. Twenty-six voters out of almost three million were been convicted of voter fraud; that’s nine ten-thousandths of one percent.


HF89 has been referred to the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, chaired by Rep. Joyce Peppin (R-Rogers). Sen. Ray Vandeveer (R-Forest Lake) chairs the Senate Local Government and Elections Committee, which awaits a Senate companion bill, yet to be introduced.

Stay tuned for what will surely be a lively session for election law. 

 

STATE GOVERNMENT FINANCE

 LWVMN Position:  Support of a balanced and diversified revenue system that is equitable, progressive, and reliable.  Support of long-term financial management projections and a budget reserve. (1995)

LWVMN Position on Government Spending: LWVMN believes that the highest priority areas for state spending are the following: (1) K-12 (regular) education; (2) Health Care;: (3) Environmental protection....
Criteria for Limiting Spending… (1) State subsidies for sports teams, convention centers and similar projects should be among the first items to be curtailed….

Debby McNeil, lobbyist, 952-925-9095

The major task facing lawmakers is passing a balanced general fund budget for the 2012-13 biennium, beginning July 1, 2011. 

Based on Minnesota Management and Budget’s November forecast, the General Fund numbers for fiscal years 2012-13 are:
Revenue:  $32.4 billion
Spending:   38.6 billion
Deficit:        ($6.2 billion) 16% of General Fund

We see that the forecast predicts a structural deficit, meaning that the state’s spending ($38.6 billion) will exceed its revenue ($32.4 billion).  Minnesota has effectively run a structural deficit since at least 2002, although one-time solutions and shifting payment obligations have made the budgets technically “balance.” Our current budget for FY2010-11 is balanced primarily because (1) the state received $2.3 billion in one-time federal stimulus money, and (2) $1.4 billion owed to school districts this year has been “shifted” to the next biennium, that is FY2012-13. Together these stopgap measures temporarily covered a multi-billion dollar structural deficit. 

Now legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) must balance the next biennial budget while facing a $6.2 billion deficit, and this figure does not take inflation into account.  This time around the federal stimulus money has been spent, other one-time fixes are exhausted, and the state has used up its budget reserve.
 
So watch for a budget solution that does not repay school districts the $1.4 billion they are owed.  This is one way to quickly reduce the deficit from $6.2 to $4.8 billion. The K-12 schools repayment may be shifted even further into the future, and the schools may never get their money as long as the state’s spending exceeds its revenues.

But even with a “smaller” $4.8 billion gap, both program cuts and progressive tax increases will be needed to bring the budget into lasting balance. Republicans may not want to take responsibility for raising taxes, and Democrats may not favor cutting programs. But these politically unpopular steps will give us a sound budget solution that eliminates Minnesota’s structural deficit and improves the state’s financial picture.

Normally, a new governor starts the whole budget process by sending his proposed budget to the legislature by Feb. 15. Then lawmakers hold hearings on his proposals and draft budget bills of their own. But this year things may be different.  Last week, House Majority Leader Rep. Matt Dean (R-Dellwood) suggested that Republicans may start presenting their budget bills soon, possibly before the governor’s proposal.

 Actually, two bills about the budget process have already been introduced in the House. They are HF2 and HF76, both authored by Rep. King Banaian (R-St. Cloud).  These bills require a “priority based” or “zero-based” budget process. Generally speaking, this means that every government agency and office would have to justify its existence, its funding, and its work as a core state function. Neither bill has a Senate companion, and both were referred to the House Government Operations and Elections Committee.

The FY2012-13 budget will be a long and time-consuming process. We do not expect it to be resolved until the legislature’s scheduled adjournment on May 23, and there is already speculation about a Special Session to solve our fiscal problems.  

 

EDUCATION

LWVMN Position:  All Minnesota children should have equal access to a good public education.  State funding for education should be at a level that makes programs of comparable substance and quality available to all.  A student’s access to a good education should not depend on the wealth of his or her school district.

Lonni Skrentner, lobbyist,  952-994-7804

Shari Dion, intern lobbyist,  651-494-2835


New Everything!
In the House, the Education Policy Committee has been renamed the Education Reform Committee, chaired by Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton); the Education Finance Committee is now chaired by Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington).  The Early Education committee has disappeared.  In the Senate, the one Education Committee is chaired by Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista).  Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) has appointed Dr. Brenda Casselius as education commissioner.  She is the previous superintendent of the East Metro Integration District and also served in the Minneapolis Public Schools.  Within Gov. Dayton’s policy circle, Hue Nguyen will be the Education contact.  (651-201-3426 or hue.nguyen@state.mn.us)


Major Thoughts
At the first Education Finance Committee meeting, Rep. Garofalo said that all business would follow the motto of, “Kids first. No excuses. No exceptions.”  He wants to prioritize correcting the Achievement Gap because it is “crucial to the future of job creation.”  Rep. Mindy Greiling (D-Roseville) noted that the $6.2 billion deficit (which does not count inflation) is 16% of the general fund budget.  She also reminded the committee that with the shift of funds last session and the borrowing from school districts’ reserves, the state owes school districts more money now than at any point in history. School districts are being forced to borrow money, and pay interest charges, to maintain programs.


On Jan 11, Karen Balmer, executive director of the Board of Teaching, pointed out that in Minnesota 99.74% of the teachers are in compliance with licensing requirements, and 96.71% are fully certified.  However, she still sees a need for licensing flexibility especially in areas of shortage: math, some sciences, bilingual elementary education, world languages, dance, theater, and several special education categories. Committee Chair Rep. Erickson and committee members have said that improving teacher effectiveness is a priority this session.


Tim Strom, an analyst with the nonpartisan House Research Department, showed that one can legitimately argue that school funding has tripled since 1984, or that it’s remained flat. Depending on whether one looks at the numbers alone, or the numbers adjusted for inflation, the outcome is different. Different methods to calculate inflation can also produce different results.  Who said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics”?


The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce reported to the House Education Reform and the Senate Education Committees, focusing on the Chamber’s agenda. It includes alternative licensure pathways; a renewed focus on reading (everyone reading at grade level by third grade) and graduation rates; and a standardized teacher evaluation system, which counts student achievement as 50% of the appraisal.  It appears that Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka) may sponsor legislation with Sen. Olson that would create a third “dueling” piece of alternative licensure legislation.


Education Minnesota, the teacher’s union, sought a seat at the table by issuing a press release calling for enhanced parent and community involvement; delivery of medical services within schools (community school concept being pioneered in Brooklyn Center); enhanced early childhood education; and “responsible efforts”  to create alternative licensure pathways.


Major Actions

The House Education Reform Committee picked up the conversation about alternative routes to teacher licensure where lawmakers left off last year.


Rep. Carlos Mariani (DFL-St. Paul) sponsored HF3, which would establish such an alternative by allowing qualified candidates in programs approved by the Board of Teaching a two-year provisional license as a path to acquiring a standard teaching license. These candidates would include Teach for America members. Currently about 90 Teach for America members work in Minnesota schools under a renewable one-year licensure waiver. HF 63, sponsored by Rep Garofalo, would allow eligible individuals to acquire a two-year limited-term teaching license and to prepare for acquiring a standard Minnesota teaching license.


Finally, here is some information from Parents United newsletter:4 On January 10 Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan) introduced a House resolution (HR2) to freeze funding: “Be it further resolved that the following general fund net expenditure limits for fiscal years 2012 and 2013 are set for the major finance bills: (1) $11,438,157,000 for an education finance bill.” If accepted, this resolution means schools will not be paid back the dollars shifted from schools last year to balance the state budget.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW 

LWVUS Position: Natural resources should be managed as interrelated parts of life-supporting ecosystems. Resources should be conserved and protected to assure their future availability.  Pollution of these resources should be controlled in order to preserve the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the ecosystem and to protect public health.


Gwen Myers, Lobbyist, 952-545-8696


Minnesota’s preeminent law protecting our natural resources, the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, is under attack, the target of an untruthful blame game, according to a flier from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA).1 As if to prove their point, SF1 and HF1 both take aim at our environmental review laws. The description of SF1, sponsored by Sen. Geoff Michel (R-Edina), is: “Job creation; business tax reductions; department of natural resources (DNR) permitting efficiency; environmental review requirements modifications.” (Emphasis added.) The description of HF1, sponsored by Rep. Dan Fabian (R-Roseau), is: “[P]roviding for permitting efficiency, modifying environmental review requirements.” (Emphasis added.) In both houses, legislators have introduced a number of other bills which are variations on this theme, at least one allowing automatic approval if the permitting process does not meet a specified deadline (HF20, authored by Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City)).

It appears that legislative leadership believes the reason our economy is struggling is because of our permitting laws and our environmental protection requirements. This is certainly not true.

The permitting process and environmental review are designed to protect our shared resources. Since weakening environmental review is a goal of legislative leadership, it is worthwhile considering exactly what is under discussion.

Environmental review is required before a government agency approves a major project if the potential environmental impact is significant. The process identifies ways to reduce the damage and examines possible alternatives. Many projects do not require environmental review – only about 120 environmental assessment worksheets (EAW) and ten environmental impact statements (EIS) are completed each year.

The EAW and EIS are two levels of environmental review in Minnesota. An EAW is a comparatively brief document that sets out the facts of the proposal to determine whether a more in-depth study is needed. It allows for citizen comment during a 30-day period following notice that the EAW is complete. Public comments are to address the accuracy and completeness of the EAW, including potential impacts that may warrant an EIS. The median time for the DNR and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to complete an EAW is six months.

An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is a detailed analytical study that evaluates significant pollution and habitat destruction expected of a specific project and considers alternatives and mitigations. For very large projects with major pollution potential and involving both state and federal regulations, such as a new mining project, an EIS will first appear as a Draft EIS. It will allow a period for public comment and may require major new analyses before a Final EIS is issued.

While occasionally cumbersome and time-consuming, environmental review is a foundation for citizen input into government decisions. Whether it is a sulfide mine threatening our lakes and forests, a hog feedlot with accompanying manure lagoon just down the road, or a wind farm across the valley, citizens directly affected by projects can learn the facts, can petition for an EAW if none is planned, and can comment on the proposal. Citizen voices must be heard and considered by the government decision-makers.

For the purposes of allowing citizens to participate in government decisions and protecting our ecosystem, LWV Minnesota will oppose weakening Minnesota’s environmental review standards.

1Much of this information is from MCEA’s “Environmental Review Basics,” http://www.mncenter.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=QGYUUpYuDg4%3d&tabid=276


ENVIRONMENT: SULFIDE MINING

LWVUS Position: Natural resources should be managed as interrelated parts of life-supporting ecosystems. Resources should be conserved and protected to assure their future availability.  Pollution of these resources should be controlled in order to preserve the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the ecosystem and to protect public health.

Gwen Myers, lobbyist, 952-545-8696

Minnesotans value clean water; our sky-blue lakes, rivers and streams are part of our identity. We continue to be concerned that plans for sulfide mining in Minnesota’s Arrowhead, in the Lake Superior and BWCAW watersheds, pose a major threat to these waters and to the hunting and fishing, hiking, birding and canoeing economies that depend on these pristine waters.

This issue was covered extensively in Capitol Letter essays last session; see especially the Feb. 19 and Mar. 4 and 31, 2010 issues. A major focus last year was passing a financial assurance bill requiring money up front to guarantee that, if a mining company goes broke when the ore is exhausted, the taxpayers are not left to pay millions to clean up the environment. A second focus was the failing grade the federal EPA gave to the Minnesota DNR’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), a grade our experts applauded.

Given the new leadership in the Legislature, we have little hope for a financial assurance bill, though it will be introduced at some point. The DNR and the EPA, we understand, have been working on a new DEIS. The new statement is not expected until summer 2011, after which there will be a public comment period. Eventually, if the DNR and the MPCA are convinced that sulfide mining will not produce an environmental disaster in our Arrowhead region, the DNR will issue a permit.

To review the cause of our concern, foreign-owned mines seek to extract minute quantities of copper and nickel from millions of tons of sulfide ore that is now buried. When exposed to air and water, this sulfide ore produces sulfuric acid and heavy metal mine drainage, contaminating everything from fish to wild rice to drinking water. This threatens the sport fishing and wild rice industries while posing a serious threat to public health.

Since the primary concerns about this type of mining involve the environment, the mining company champions are trying to change our environmental protections. The PolyMet sulfide mining proposal will result in the largest wetland destruction in state history if it is approved as proposed. Late last session the mining industry, anxious to reduce their wetland replacement obligations, had an amendment containing a special exemption for mining companies attached to a major bill authored by Rep. Kent Eken (DFL-Twin Valley). This did not succeed, but we expect to see this legislation again this session.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, representing mining interests, has filed suit against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency over how much sulfate mining companies can discharge into Minnesota’s wild rice water. High concentrations of sulfates are toxic to wild rice, and some of the best wild rice areas are downstream from the proposed mining sites.

This is a complex issue, but according to Betsy Daub of Friends of the BWCA, “Dealing with sulfate is going to be a huge hurdle that will be impossible for PolyMet without making significant alterations in their project. What do they do? They try to weaken our laws.”1
We expect to see further efforts to promote development at the expense of the environment. HF1/SF1 noted in the Environmental Review article (above), are part of this larger picture. “DNR permitting efficiency” and “environmental review requirement modification” are part of a drama taking place in the legislature, the agencies and the courts.


1Josephine Marcotty, “Mining interests sue over water rule,” Star Tribune, Dec. 18, 2010


IMMIGRATION

LWVMN Position:  Support incorporating immigrants into our communities by providing access to education, by endorsing the development of secure identification documents, and by respecting the right of law enforcement personnel to perform their duties without the burden of interpreting federal immigration policies.  Oppose residents with legal immigrant status running for local office.

Kathy Tomsich, lobbyist, 651-490-1809

As you may know, the positions supported by LWV Minnesota lost some friends during the last election, and this was especially true for immigration.  We will no longer be able to rely on friendly committee chairs who determine if and when a bill is considered, nor will we be able to count on sufficient numbers of friendly legislators to defeat bills or amendments that appear on the floor and are negative to immigrants. 

This session we expected to see the usual anti-immigrant bills introduced, so we were not surprised when Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa) introduced HF64 in the second week of the session. This bill would designate English as the official language of Minnesota. It was referred to the Transportation Policy and Finance Committee, the first of several stops, since it affects all official documents and transactions. It has no companion in the Senate and no hearings have been scheduled. 

The proposed legislation would require all “official actions” of the state be made in English, a provision that would extend to any documents or publications related to state laws or programs. Rep. Drazkowski believes his bill will save money but has not provided any estimate of the amount of cost savings. His fiscal argument appears weak, considering that there are numerous exceptions in this bill that allow the use of other languages and interpreters in medical and judicial situations. More troubling is a provision that calls for all drivers’ license examinations to be in English and be completed without the aid of an interpreter. This provision ignores the fact that it is not necessary to be fluent in English in order to be a safe driver. We have universal traffic signs that communicate via graphics and symbols. This bill will discourage newcomers from taking the drivers’ license exam, thus posing a safety issue, and restrict their ability to gain employment and become integrated in our society. LWV Minnesota opposes this bill.

In December we were disappointed when the lame duck session of Congress came within inches of passing the DREAM Act, which would have given a path to citizenship for undocumented students who complete two years of college or military service.  This defeat seemed to signal the demise of comprehensive immigration reform in the near future.

With comprehensive immigration stalled at the federal level, states are seeking answers to immigration issues within their borders.  Several states have already introduced their version of the controversial Arizona immigration enforcement law requiring local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law, SB1070 .  Legislators in other states are considering bills that would force the Supreme Court to revisit the 14th Amendment, which states that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”  These lawmakers are considering a move to create two kinds of birth certificates in their states, one for the children of citizens and another for the children of illegal immigrants, which appears clearly unconstitutional. 

In Minnesota we expect to see similar bills targeted at the undocumented. With the changed political balance in our state legislature, it is imperative that we inform and educate the new members of the legislature regarding the humanitarian, legal and fiscal consequences of these bills.  Our ultimate goal is to encourage legislation that welcomes newcomers to our state.

 

 

 

Copyright 2013 League of Women Voters Minnesota (LWV Minnesota)