In the days leading up to the Legislature’s annual Spring Break (April 7-16), several high-profile bills have either received approval and await Gov. Dayton’s action or are making the final turns in the legislative process before moving forward for the Governor’s approval.
Health Insurance Reform
Although Congress was unable to pass a health insurance reform package in March, the Minnesota Legislature did. Both the Senate and House passed the reinsurance plan that we have discussed in recent weeks, appropriating more than $540 million to help cover high-cost patients that have driven some insurance providers out of the state’s individual marketplace and premiums dramatically higher among those providers that have remained. In so doing, legislative Republicans turned down the Governor’s plan to use the MinnesotaCare program, normally open to low-income residents, for anyone who purchases insurance through the individual marketplace and the MnSURE exchange.
Gov. Dayton said he would consider the Republican bill but only under specific conditions, including getting a guarantee from insurance providers that they would come back to the individual insurance market and promise rate relief. The Minnesota Council of Health Plans supported the bill. On April 3, the Governor decided to allow the bill to become law without his signature, expressing concern about using money from the MinnesotaCare program and the state’s general fund to implement the reinsurance plan rather than taxing insurance plans to pay for it.
The Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) has been active in informing policymakers of the need to stabilize the individual health insurance market because it is where most farmers have to go to purchase health insurance for their families.
For the first time since 2013, the Legislature is on the cusp of passing a comprehensive tax bill and much of the bill emphasizes tax relief. The House last week passed its version of tax relief, which includes a 50 percent tax credit on farm property taxes levied for school district bonding projects. The Senate bill calls for a 40 percent credit. In total, the House bill would legislate $1.35 billion in tax relief whereas the Senate’s bill contains $900 million in reductions. Governor Dayton’s budget bill made room for $280 million in tax relief. The differences between the Legislature and Governor over the size of tax relief will be one of the major end-of-session issues to resolve.
Late last week, the House also passed its omnibus transportation package, which calls for an additional $2 billion in spending on the state’s roads and bridges over the next two years. The House’s proposal is part of a $6 billion package to be implemented over the next ten years. It would be funded by borrowing $1.2 billion, moving $450 million in existing taxes and fees to roads and bridges, and enacting a $75 annual fee on electric vehicles. The Senate Transportation plans calls for $3.6 billion in new transportation spending over the next ten years, funded by $750 million in one-time federal dollars and debt, and by moving $570 million in existing revenues to pay for transportation needs. Neither the House nor the Senate transportation budget plan calls for an increase in the gas tax for construction projects.
In addition to tax reform, the House approved the Omnibus Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Bill which would modify the duties of the Environmental Quality Board, enable project proposers to develop their own draft environmental impact statements (EIS) and prohibit regulators from enforcing unadopted rules. Regarding water buffers, the bill delays implementation of the law until 2018, which Gov. Dayton has said he opposes. Language in the bill also modifies definitions of public waters and alters the required width of buffers accordingly. It also forbids enforcement of the law unless federal or state assistance is available to the landowner for 100 percent of the cost to establish the buffers.
The House last week passed a bill to prohibit the Department of Transportation from requiring permits to mow or hay in state road rights-of-way. Those who support the bill say that farmers have been cutting hay in rights-of-way for years without any interference by MnDOT and have provided a beneficial maintenance service in the process. Gov. Dayton has not taken a position on a specific bill but said that ditch mowing is an issue that has come up often during his 40 years of public service and he hopes something could be worked out.
Legislative Spring Break
Although many farmers are moving into field work, we would encourage everyone to take a little bit of time next week to communicate with elected officials while they are visiting their home districts during the upcoming Legislative Spring Break.
Beginning on April 7, policy makers will return to their home districts to meet with constituents and recharge before the final weeks of the 2017 session. The time away from the Capitol will be very valuable for legislators because they’re able to spend more time in their districts, listening to the opinions of constituents. MCGA encourages all its members to speak with policy makers about issues important to farmers and Greater Minnesota, either through an email, phone call or a simple sit-down over a cup of coffee. The voices of farmers and rural interests do matter!