It’s crunchtime for the Legislature. With this year’s regular lawmaking season due to expire at 12 a.m. Tuesday, an intense weekend is in store for Gov. Mark Dayton and legislators.
All Minnesotans have a stake in the decisions yet to be made. It goes far beyond the tax burdens that will be set. What legislators decide before they head home will affect the availability and quality of education, long-term care, public safety, infrastructure, roads, transit and much more upon which the state’s future depends.
Like most Minnesotans, we have spring chores and celebrations on the weekend calendar. But we’ll also be rooting for these outcomes at the Capitol:
• A tax bill that avoids socking Minnesota with the highest marginal income tax rate in the country. In a welcome development Thursday evening leaders dropped plans for a high-rate surcharge for the state’s top 1 percent of tax filers that had been part of a legislative-executive branch deal announced last Sunday. But unfortunately negotiators also nixed an alcohol tax increase that might have been the key to keeping the income tax rate paid by the state’s top filers lower than the 9.85 percent rate they chose.
The case for an alcohol tax increase mirrors that for higher cigarette taxes. Alcohol abuse inflicts a heavy burden on state health care, public safety and correctional resources. Raising its price has been proven to deter use by underage drinkers, which in turn helps avert lifelong addiction. Yet while the Legislature has shown great willingness to raise tobacco taxes, the Senate in particular resisted higher taxes on beer, wine and spirits. We wish the question had been decided on the basis of sound policy, not the popularity of these products.
• A bonding bill. House DFL leaders — and this newspaper — have pushed for a hefty $800 million bonding bill this year to take advantage of low interest rates that won’t last forever. But votes for a big bill have been hard to come by, given the need for 10 Republican votes — eight in the H.ouse, two in the Senate — to authorize a state bond sale.
This is a case where half a loaf, or a third, or even a quarter, is much better than none. The year’s must-do project is continuation of a multiyear renovation of the Capitol that began in 2012. The next funding installment, $109 million, is due this year. Failure to provide it would add considerably to the project’s total cost. The building will continue to deteriorate as construction costs rise. Procurement and design work done in the past year would need to be set aside and eventually recreated, adding to costs.
• Transit funding. We’re looking for at least $37 million to keep the Southwest light-rail line in the federal funding queue — and preferably more. Funds for the Southwest Corridor could be provided in a bonding bill. But Dayton’s proposal for a half-cent dedicated sales tax in the seven-county metro would do more to keep Minnesotans moving without today’s heavy dependence on gas-burning personal vehicles. Increasing the state’s highway-dedicated gas tax at the same time, which benefits Greater Minnesota as well as the metro area, may be a political necessity. Given the condition of the state’s roads, it’s also a good idea.
• A stadium financing supplement. Now that the new Vikings stadium has become the linchpin for a major Minneapolis redevelopment project, more certainty is needed that the project is on solid financial footing. To date, e-pulltabs, the source tapped in 2012, has not been sufficient.
Tax conferees made progress in that direction Thursday. They approved in concept the use of two sources of revenue, a one-time gain associated with applying any new cigarette tax to existing inventories, and the ongoing proceeds derived from closing a corporate tax loophole that allows businesses to assign some Minnesota-based sales to other states. Both of those moves divert funds that otherwise would go to the state’s general fund. That’s regrettable. But it’s not a reason to put the Vikings project at risk.
• A minimum-wage increase. An all-DFL Legislature has had surprising difficulty reaching an accord on raising one of the lowest state minimum wages in the country for the first time since 2005. It would be a shame if Minnesota’s lowest-paid workers are stuck for another year at a measly $5.25 an hour, the state’s minimum for employers too small to qualify for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Lifting the wage floor for those small employers to at least the current federal level, and for larger ones $1 more, should be an easy choice. Going much higher in this year of still-fragile economic recovery doesn’t seem prudent, nor does adding an automatic inflation factor to the minimum wage. But legislators shouldn’t wait eight more years for the next adjustment.