The 2005-06 biennial Legislative session started yesterday, although legislators have been chatting up their constituents for at least the last few weeks.
Legislators have several key issues to solve, including balancing a budget despite a $700 million deficit. Woodbury's three legislators, Reps. Karen Klinzing (56B) and Mike Charron (56A) and Sen. Brian LeClair (56), have been already working at the Capitol preparing bills and hearing public concerns.
What follows are some of the top priorities of the each legislator for the 2005 session:
Charron said the difficult thing about the budget is that it's a problem year after year. "Our revenue is actually going up, but the automatic increases are going up faster than our revenue is," he added. "So we have to get a hold of that so it doesn't continue to be problem each year."
Those automatic increases include spending in education and health care. Charron said the state's health care costs have risen 27 percent.
"Just staying on auto pilot means that things are going up so much faster," he added. "Of the $700 million, just over $200 million is built-in increases for higher education. That's not we're deciding to that... it's already decided."
As that "auto-pilot" spending continues to be "out-of-control," Charron said the question is how the Legislature gets a handle on it?
Charron said the best approach is to stop making short-term fixes as has been done in the past, and devise a long-term solution. "We can do all the short-term things in the world, but the problem is just staying on auto pilot, these things are just going and going."
In the last session, Charron said there were some long-term fixes implemented to lessen the state's $4.5 billion deficit, but the state needs to do more.
"I'm interested in the long-range fixes," he said. "Not the ones that solve the problem for just this biennium, but those that solve the problem for years to come."
Another top concern for Charron is transportation, and he said improving Minnesota Highway 5 through Lake Elmo, and Minnesota Highway 36 in Oak Park Heights. Charron said he has already met with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on the new bridge into Wisconsin.
As for Highway 5, Charron said either the roadway should be expanded, or traffic signals, along with turn lanes, need to be installed outside of downtown Lake Elmo. "I want to improve the safety of Highway 5," he added.
Another transportation issue is the Fourth Leg project in Woodbury. The Fourth Leg is a frontage road and exit ramp onto Interstate 94 at the Radio Drive Interchange, which is being built in connection with the Woodbury Lakes development.
Balancing the budget remains the primary issue this session, Klinzing said. She used the line from Gov. Pawlenty saying the $700 million deficit is more of a foothill than the mountain of $4.5 billion. Klinzing added the deficit was expected, based on the last budget approval.
"A $700 million deficit sounds big in this whole scheme of things, but when you look at a $30 billion budget, it's a small amount of money we can really address quickly."
Klinzing said the Legislature has projected an 8 percent increase in revenues, which is a "great raise" for the state. Such a projection indicates that the state's finances are in good order, and that deficit is the result of promising more than the Legislature could afford.
Funding education remains Klinzing's top priority. However, she criticizes those who say the state alone should fund education and not force the cities and school districts to raise taxes in order to finance things.
Klinzing said it doesn't matter whether the state or the city increases taxes, taxes are still being raised and the money will come out of the taxpayers' pocket.
"To say that it shouldn't be levied by the city and it should be levied by the state, I think is trying to pull the wool over people's eyes in some ways," she said. "We're deciding whether that money will be used you and your family or by the state. And the more we raise taxes, the less money there is at home to spend."
Klinzing disputes those who say a state levy increase will not hit residents as hard as a city levy increase. "It's baloney," she said. "We're going to get hit hard regardless of where the tax levy is raised. The question is whether we want both to raise, one to raise, or none to raise?
"Either way, the constituents I represent will be paying more," Klinzing added. "The only way they won't be paying more is to keep cities, school districts, and the state from increasing taxes."
LeClair, who said he is excited to go back to the Capitol, expects the session's main issue will be the budget. He said the $700 million deficit is smaller than what the Legislature previously dealt with.
"We're making some progress on getting our books in order, but there's still a little more work to go," he said. "We will solve the budget without raising taxes, and there's an effort to find more money for K-12 education."
LeClair said Minnesota is ranked in the low 20s for education funding, but ranks in the top three for spending on health and human services. "I'm not comfortable being that low on the K-12 education side and being that high on the human service safety net side," he added.
He said he supports taking some of that health and human services funding and giving it to education, in order to be more evenly ranked.
One of LeClair's pet projects, one that Pawlenty has said he would support, is to conform the state's income tax laws to mirror the federal government's health savings accounts. The account, which is tax-free, can be used by individuals for their own health-care needs.
LeClair said the state doesn't automatically conform to federal law, and in this case, a person who puts money aside into such an account would still pay state income tax on it.
"This will help lessen the cost of our hyperinflationary health care problems," he said. "I think that giving consumers the opportunity to save and spend their own money as they see fit on health care is going to get them more involved in shopping around for better care. If people have their own skin in the game, they will become smarter shoppers and they will put some downward pressure on health care costs."
To follow the session, go to the Legislature's Web site, www.leg.state.mn.us.