Legislative notebook

Lawmakers began grinding through Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed state budget the morning after its release on Tuesday (Jan. 22).

William Mitchell College of Law Dean Eric Janus testified to a House committee this week on sex offenders and how best policy makers could address the issue of sexual violence. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
William Mitchell College of Law Dean Eric Janus testified to a House committee this week on sex offenders and how best policy makers could address the issue of sexual violence. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

In a joint House/Senate hearing on Wednesday, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Minnesota Department of Education Director of School Finance Tom Melcher paged through the governor’s proposed education budget for a roomful of legislators.

Rep. Joe McDonald, R-Delano, expressed regret that perceived disparities in the school funding formula between big city and Greater Minnesota school districts were not addressed in the governor’s budget.

He styled the issue “kind of the white elephant in the room.”

It’s imperative, McDonald argued.

“And yet it’s ignored — really disappointing,” McDonald said.

Cassellius argued the whole question came down to available revenue.

Greater Minnesota lawmakers have long charged the difference in per pupil funding between big cities, like Minneapolis and St. Paul, and rural school districts ridiculously favors the big cites.

Public safety

The House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee heard testimony on Wednesday (Jan. 23) from the Dean of William Mitchell College of Law sharply questioning the state’s treatment of sex offenders.

Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, (left) and Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, joke on the the House floor shortly after Davids ripped Atkins' insurance exchange legislation. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, (left) and Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, joke on the the House floor shortly after Davids ripped Atkins’ insurance exchange legislation. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Eric Janus, who wrote on book on sex offenders and the criminal justice system, argued that lawmakers and the public in general focus on the wrong things in terms of preventing sexual violence.

“When you’re talking about sexual violence, you’re really talking about an iceberg,” Janus said.

Ninety-five percent of it goes unseen, he said.

Recent studies of sex offender recidivism rates, Janus explained, dispute the common notion that sex offenders in general present the greatest risks in terms of repeating their criminal behavior.

Instead, Janus compared the recidivism rates to other forms of criminal behavior — burglary, for instance.

While not minimizing recidivism, it was a “small part” of the overall problem of sexual violence, Janus argued.

He questioned the wisdom of spending increasingly large amounts of money on programs like the Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program, which currently houses some 670 sex offenders.

A lawsuit exists in federal court concerning the program, Janus said.

Only two people have been provisionally discharged from the sex offender program since the early 1990s.

Society needs a variety of interventions to deal with sexual violence, Janus argued.

Former committee chairman Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, a law enforcement officer, agreed additional forms of intervention are needed.

But when he has spoken to fellow lawmakers about half-way houses and sex offenders, the votes to change things weren’t there, he said.

Additionally, a hyper-focus by the media on sex offenders makes it a difficult problem to deal with, Cornish argued.

In a discussion of child sexual abuse, Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, elaborated on comments of one sexual violence prevention expert that child sexual abuse is still a subject treated with silence.

Simon said “layers and layers of shame and embarrassment” felt by child sexual abuse victims often keeps them silent for years, decades.

“It’s not repressed memory,” Simon said.

If anything good came out of the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal, it illustrates how child sexual abuse can be covered up by people in power, he explained.

Sexual violence prevention experts stressed the need for data-driven policy in dealing with sexual violence.

About 61,000 Minnesotans every year become victims of sexual violence, it’s estimated.

The Minnesota Department of Health placed the economic impact of sexual violence on the state at $8 billion.

Health care

Skirmishing broke out in the House on Thursday (Jan. 24) over the House health care insurance exchange bill.

It was colorful political theater.

Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, listens to testimony from Dayton education officials. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, listens to testimony from Dayton education officials. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, predictied on the House floor “unlimited corruption” should a board-style governance model be included in the insurance exchange bill.

“Mark my words,” said Davids, warning of “slush funds” and out-of-control pay and other perceived pitfalls emanating from the board.

“Wow,” intoned Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, taking the floor after Davids.

The only way to repair a bill such as Davids’ depicted, Atkins joked, was to throw it out.

House Republicans applauded.

As often seen on the House floor, and in committee, after a heated denunciation, the lawmaker doing the lambasting will visit with the colleague whose legislation  he slammed to make sure that there are no hard feelings.

Davids and Atkins could be seen laughing and smiling together shortly after the floor debate.

The Democratic House voted to keep the insurance exchange bill moving through committee.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, noted that every House Republican voted against the measure — even Davids and Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, coauthors of the bill.

This is not a good example of starting off in a bipartisan manner, Daudt said on Friday (Jan. 25).

Sales tax
Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to expand the state sales tax to include services and goods had Democrats praising the governor’s budget proposals for boldness but in general speaking cautiously.

Here are some examples supplied by the administration of items the sales tax expansion would include:

Personal Care: shampoo, soap, makeup, vitamins, nail polish, over-the-counter drugs.

Athletics: treadmills, yoga mat, weights, bicycle, skis.

Publications: newspapers, magazines, commercial printing, advertising materials.

Business services: telephone answering services, collection agencies, telemarketing services on contract, secretarial and court reporting services, document preparation services, private mail centers, collection agencies, credit bureaus, repossession services.

Computer services: custom computer programming, computer systems design services, computer facilities management services, data processing, hosting and related services.

Outdoor: hockey sticks, baseball bat, soccer balls, hockey, fishing poles, canoe, kayak, boats, ATVs, snowmobiles, sunblock, hunting gear, car parts, tents, camping gear.

Recreation: Books, CDs, candy bars, DVDs, musical instruments.

Electronics: television, cameras, DVD players, iPod, computers, cell phone, camcorder, video games, and computer software.

Services: lodging, dry cleaning, car wash, cleaning services, security services, pet grooming, lawn care, tree trimming, taxicabs, massage, parking, barber shops, beauty salons, tattoo and body piercing, nail salons, veterinary services, interior decorating, industrial design services, graphic design services, personal instructions — golf, dance, tennis, other.

Household: dish soap, paper products, cleaning supplies, trash bags, laundry soap, vacuum cleaners, broom or mops, dishes, silverware, crock pot, pots and pans, bowls, Tupperware, coffee pots, bed sheets, towels, furniture, curtains, appliances, lawn mowers, shovels, snow blowers, rake, lamps, rugs, artwork, water heaters, furnaces, AC, washers and dryers, tools, paint, lumber, tile.

Finance and legal: brokerage and investment counseling and advice, bank charges and safe deposit box rental, legal services purchased by consumers, accounting services purchased by consumers.

Miscellaneous: school supplies, notebook, paper, pens and pencils, crayons, glue, tape, greeting cards, pet food, phone bill, cable bill, electricity bill, water, toys, jewelry and watches.

Here are examples of services the proposed sales tax expansion would not include:

Food, clothing items and apparel less than $100, medical services — prescription eyeglasses, prescription drugs, hospitals and outpatient surgical centers, chair lifts, ramps, and elevators in homesteads, parts and accessories to make motor vehicles handicapped accessible.

Nonprofit organizations: Fund raising sales.

Public safety items, including: firefighters personal protective equipment, public safety radio systems, ambulances leased to private ambulance services.

Other exempt items or services: textbooks and personal computers required for school use, residential heating fuels and water services.

Excluded agricultural items: farm machinery and repair and replacement parts, farm conservation programs, agricultural processing facility, renewable energy systems, wind energy conservation systems, solar energy systems, and biosolids processing equipment.

Veteran’s organizations: building materials for residences of disabled veterans.

Other exempt items: construction materials for low-income housing, mining production materials, capital equipment.

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce President David Olson in a newsletter expressed a general disapproval of Dayton’s budget proposal.

“The Legislature convened on a common theme of helping Minnesota companies remain competitive in this fragile economy; his proposed budget threatens to send jobs out of the state,” Olson said.

Democratic legislative leaders on Friday (Jan. 25) indicated that Democratic lawmakers this weekend will be talking to voters and trying to get a better sense of what the public feels about the governor’s budget proposal.

“It’s a little abstract right now,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.

But a voter warned her by email, Murphy said, not to succumb to pressures of high-paid lobbyists protecting special interests.

House Democrats may not be willing to wait to repay the school funding shift until next biennium as the governor is proposing, Murphy explained.

“I think we want to be a little more aggressive on that,” she said.

Deputy Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said the governor’s proposed $1.4 billion in property tax relief — Dayton is proposing $500 property tax rebate for homesteaders — has Senate Democrats talking about means testing or otherwise more narrowly targeting the property tax relief.

Republicans leaders gave Dayton’s budget proposal a failing grade.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, argued Dayton failed to achieve the kind of “balanced” budget Democrats are fond of taking about.

The $3.5 billion tax increase contained in the budget proposal dwarfs the budget cuts, he argued.

“Somebody help me figure that out,” said Hann of the administrations’s insistence the average Minnesotan will pay no more under an expanded sales tax than the current one.

Dayton has spoken of a “wash.”

But if that’s the case, where does the $2 billion in additional sales tax revenue come from, Hann questioned.

Hann slammed the governor’s property tax proposal, saying it’s wrong to present it as a tax cut as local property tax rates aren’t decreased at all by it.

“It’s not a tax cut,” Hann said.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said everyone expected the governor to increase taxes.

But Dayton increased them on everybody, he argued.

For instance, business will make good the additional sale tax they would need to pay by pushing the additional costs onto consumers, Daudt said.

Under the governor’s proposed sales tax expansion, the state sales tax rate would be dropped to 5.5 percent.

The current state general sales and use tax rate is 6.875 percent.
Tim Budig is at [email protected]