Capitol Update for May 8, 2009

Posted by .

This week’s update from lobbyist John Tuma:

“Everything was running smoothly until 1-1/2 miles south of Spring Valley when suddenly there came a grinding noise, a lurch and a pitch, and over went a refrigerator car which is at the head of this accommodation train.”
– Austin Daily Herald, May 4, 1909

Almost exactly a century ago this week, this story appeared in the Austin Daily Herald describing the train wreck of the Chicago Great Western Railroad just south of Spring Valley, Minnesota.  The Great Western had just opened this route from Osage, Iowa to Rochester, Minnesota.  On their first run north the newly laid rails gave way, causing the cars to careen off the track. 

Fortunately only the conductor suffered slight injuries in this ill-fated first run of the Great Western.  That wasn’t always the case in the railroad era of American transportation history.  During this time, railroad mishaps resulted in over 4,500 deaths annually to railroad workers alone.  Working as a brakeman for the railroad was considered one of the most hazardous jobs, with the life expectancy estimated at seven years on the job.  In 1909 a coalition of employers, labor unions and attorneys came together to petition Minnesota Governor John A. Johnson to create a special nonpartisan commission to thoroughly investigate the creation of the nation’s first worker’s compensation system due in part to the dangers on the railroad industry.

Those that give descriptions of being involved in train wrecks often describe their slow development.  They note there is sufficient time to sense what is happening while a gripping fear builds in the pit of your stomach as you are tossed about without any control of your surroundings; then there is always the sudden stop. 

It’s not surprising that most Capitol observers, like passengers on a train, often describe the inability of legislative leaders to reach a successful end to session as a “train wreck.”  Those of us who are passengers on the legislative ride can feel totally out of control as multiple circumstances are causing the legislative train to careen out-of-control.  Unfortunately, not even the conductor nor the brakemen working on the line feel any more control as circumstances make it near impossible to avoid the wreck.

As of Thursday evening the legislative session seemed to be facing some very challenging issues that are still unresolved and, if not dealt with soon, could lead to a legislative train wreck.  There is still over a $1 billion gap between the Legislature and the Governor on the budget cuts necessary to balance the State’s spreadsheets because of the Governor’s opposition to the DFL tax increases.  It’s unclear whether the Governor would support any increases in “sin tax” for alcohol or cigarettes as he did in 2003.  They have not resolved how to use the approximately $800 million in federal stimulus money.  Further, they have not been able to agree on whether to use possible budget gimmicks to balance the budget such as shifting education payments from one budget year to the next in order to balance the budget.  The degree of these major issues stymies the conference committees in their efforts to resolve their particular smaller piece of the budget because they don’t know how much they have to cut.  If these issues are resolved quickly, the Legislature could still finish the session on time, but at some point you’re too far down the track unable to stop the train before the wreck.

As a result, with just a little over a week remaining in the legislative session, many riding on the 2009 legislative session train are starting to hear grinding noises and are starting to feel that pit of fear in their stomachs that indicates there could soon be a legislative train wreck ahead.  It’s not surprising most feel this way given the multiple train wrecks that have occurred at the end of legislative sessions over the last couple of decades.  Maybe Capitol employees and lobbyists should consider supporting a worker’s compensation insurance law for end of session train wrecks. 

Interestingly, while researching train wrecks in Minnesota there were several stories where railroad workers saved their lives by being able to jump off the train just before a crash.  It’s not much different in the legislative session, when you want your bills to be wrapped up before the negotiations collapse, hoping to avoid the carnage.  It appears that a couple of MEP’s “Protect Minnesota’s Future” initiatives may have been fortunate to get off the train before it crashed.

Our most successful collaborative agenda policy initiative this session has been Building Sensible Communities.  We have been able to tuck away several of the provisions within multiple bills.  One of the main pieces of this legislation was designing a framework to help metro communities during their planning to actually reduce vehicle miles traveled and thereby reducing global warming pollution.  We wanted language requiring the Metropolitan Council to give money directly to the Center for Transportation Studies (CTS) at the University of Minnesota to build this framework, but the Metropolitan Council objected.  Therefore, it looked like we might not be able to get this provision adopted into law this year.  Fortunately, as a result of the hard work from Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) and Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis), the provision was added to the Omnibus Transportation Finance Bill after some compromise.  The bill requires the Metropolitan Council to build this framework and it “may” work with CTS in its development.  Now we have to shift our efforts to making sure the Metropolitan Council takes this effort seriously.

The good news is the conference committee developing this bill finished their work early.  In addition to our Building Sensible Communities provision, the transportation conference committee used some creative financing to cover shortfalls in transit funding.  The bill accelerates the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax (MVST) in such a way that it covers a shortfall in transit funding.  This allows for maintenance of the present level of transit service without a need for a fare increase.  The vote on final passage of the conference committee report was solid in both bodies.  It passed the Senate 63-4 and the House 103-30. The Governor has promised to sign the bill.  This means transit is off the legislative train before it leaves the tracks.

Another important piece of legislation that almost made it off the train safely is the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget bill (HF2123).  Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul) and Rep. Jean Wagenius (DFL – Minneapolis) put together a rather respectable bill given the budget constraints.  All the agencies in their jurisdiction essentially had to take cuts, but they were nowhere near as deep as those experienced in the 2003 budget crisis.  This was due in part to the constitutional amendment which limited supplanting in the areas covered under the amendment.  It is also due in great part to the hard work of Anderson and Wagenius with legislative leadership. 

Their most creative work was with the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) budget. Unfortunately, when their bill was jumping out of the train for safety, it landed on a line item veto.  The PCA received about an 8.9% cut in its general fund, but when you include all other available funds they did receive a 6.4% increase in their base budget.  Despite this increase, under their proposal the PCA would still experience a loss of funding because of the one-time money they received last biennium to implement the Clean Water Legacy activities.  This one-time money is not recognized in their base budget, but it is still real money no longer available to the agency to fund critical programs.

Unfortunately, the Governor exercised his line item veto to essentially wipe out their most creative work.  The House-Senate proposal was to use $15 million from the environmental fund for water assessment and monitoring.  This is the full amount needed to keep Minnesota on a 10-year cycle for testing all of our state’s lakes, rivers and streams.  Paying for the assessments out of the environmental fund would have freed up more money in the constitutional amendment bill for other cleanup and restoration activities.  Now this $15 million from the environmental fund and how it interacts with the amendment money will be mixed up in the end of session negotiations.  Let’s hope we can get safely off the train before any train wrecks.

Some of the other provisions were good and some bad in the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget bill.  They included:

– $8.3 million in permit fee increases in the PCA
– DNR mining permit fee increases over $2.4 million
– 1.3% overall cut in the DNR budget
– 10.8% general fund cut from the Board of Water and Soil Resources
– $2.7 million reduction in parks and trails
– Adoption of the greenhouse gas reporting system
– Prohibition on the sale of recreational land
– Prohibition on the transfer of the Environmental Quality Board to the PCA

There is one last important Great Outdoors item on the legislative train as it picks up speed down the track towards the constitutional deadline on Monday, May 18, and a possible train wreck.  The plan for spending money from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment is just now moving to the front of the train.  On Tuesday, the House Cultural and Outdoor Resources Finance Division finally put together their set of recommendations.  The Senate has already put their provisions together, but has delayed the final adoption until the Governor signs the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Budget bill. 

There will be a flurry of activity in the last week of session around resolving differences between the Senate and House proposals for Legacy funding.  Things are now more complicated with the additional $15 million of environmental funds in play.  There will definitely be plenty to report on with regard to the Legacy constitutional amendment next week and we will fill in the details in the next report.  Stay tuned for a busy week as we see if that grinding noise we are feeling is forewarning of a legislative train wreck or just a bump on the track. 

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)