NEW ULM - Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Nelson Township) and Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) shared information on the Republicans' three-pronged "Reform 2.0" plan for the 2012 legislative session that starts today.
The three areas Republicans will emphasize are restoring the private sector economy, reducing the size and cost of government and continuing reforms to education and health care, according to Torkelson.
With the private sector focus, Torkelson said their drive will be to make businesses confident enough to hire new employees. He said the Republican-controlled Legislature hopes to foster this by reducing regulations on businesses. One example he gave was working with Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to build a better relationship between it and the businesses it regulates. He pointed to OSHA's practice of visiting sites without the intention of issuing fines, but to give suggestions on how to improve compliance with regulations. He said this would help while reducing the cost of fines to businesses.
With the reductions to the size of government, Torkelson said they will be focusing on restructuring state agencies for efficiency and evening out staff ratios. He said they have heard complaints about an excessive number of supervisors compared to regular employees in state agencies. He said they will be looking into the complaints. He also said they will seek to eliminate state mandates for local governments so that cities can find their own ways to promote efficiency.
Dahms said the Legislature will look into making exporting goods easier and reforming agricultural licenses and certificates.
Finally, with the reforms to education and health care, Torkelson said the Republican lawmakers are considering a bill that allow elderly Minnesotans to convert life insurance benefits into long-term care benefits. He also said they would look into measures to make teacher pay based on student performance. Additionally, he said they would look into allowing schools to cut the least competent staff members during cuts, as opposed to only the most recently hired staff members.
The biggest and known pieces of legislation that will be considered will be the state bonding bill and a possible Viking's stadium.
Dahms and Torkelson said the Republican bonding bill will be much smaller than Gov. Mark Dayton's $775 million proposal. However, he said it shouldn't be too controversial because the majority of the bonding was accomplished during last year's special session. The New Ulm area has no major projects petitioning for the bonding bill.
The possibility of a Vikings stadium bill is much more up in the air about whether it will be dealt with this year.
Torkelson said the Legislature wasn't heavily focused on the stadium and he has doubts it will be completed this year.
"[The stadium] is not my first priority. But, it's the priority of some of my constituents, so it won't go away. Some discussion will have to be had on it," said Torkelson.
Sen. Mike Parry, during his stop in New Ulm for his campaign for Minnesota's 1st District, said he was hearing the most support he has ever seen for racinos, specifically to fund a new stadium. Torkelson said he supports racinos as a non-tax-raising way to fund the stadium. He said the changes in leadership, particularly in the Senate, will make racinos discussed more.
Dahms said he is fundamentally opposed to expanding gambling, and by extension, racinos. He also said he opposes racinos because of the hundreds of jobs it would suck away from rural casinos in the region. He also departed from Torkelson because he believed the Legislature was ready to go with a vote on a stadium. He said the only thing missing was a comprehensive proposal from Vikings on which site to build. A starting point is needed to progress on the issue.
Besides the major bills, Dahms and Torkelson said there is a strong possibility that a bill will be introduced to provide property tax relief for commercial properties. Torkelson said he didn't think last year's switch to Homestead Market Value Exclusion would be directly dealt with, but he expects business property taxes to be targeted. An example he gave as a possibility was exempting the first $100,000 a business makes from taxation.
"I'd like to see [business property tax] eliminated all together. But, that's too expensive right now," said Torkelson, "Instead, they'll be a push for some relief."
The two legislators said they expect the 2012 session to be more productive because of the absence of any significantly controversial legislation.
Starting today, members of the Legislature will begin presenting bills. Legislative committees will begin meeting Thursday. Torkelson, the vice-chair of the Environmental, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, will face a controversial topic right off the bat with his committee - a possible license that allows the hunting and trapping of wolves.
(Josh Moniz can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)