When the 2016 session came to an end last spring, much of what residents hoped would be accomplished was left undone.
Emphases on transportation, bonding allocations and taxes all came up short, as bills pushed through at the last minute were not approved and a minor issue led to a veto.
The 2017 session officially opens Jan. 3, and the November election led to leadership changes in the Senate, as the Republicans won the majority of the open seats, and with a majority also in the House of Representatives many are anticipating a paradigm shift in the approach to the session.
However, bipartisan attitudes will still be needed, as the governor, who is a Democrat, will be involved in the session and its outcomes.
Representatives from this area are aware of what lies ahead for them as the session begins, and, according to District 16 Senator Gary Dahms and District 16B Representative Paul Torkelson, the priorities will be in addressing the health care issues many Minnesotans are facing, as well as finding a funding solution for transportation long-term.
“The health care issue is a complicated one,” said Dahms, adding the days leading up to the session were going to be busy, as legislative leaders looked to find a solution to high premiums. “There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that need to fit together. We need to find a way to get more insurance companies involved to offer more options for people to choose a plan that works for them.”
Torkelson said there was a lot of talk about holding a special session at the end of 2016 to address health care concerns, but as that did not happen it will have to be a priority when the session begins.
“We need premium relief and health care reform,” said Torkelson, adding one of the ideas that he believes will be discussed is a decision to just move to the federal program. “We are still having trouble getting people enrolled. The program is not functioning effectively. We should be beyond that.”
Torkelson, who had served as chair of the capital investment committee in the House of Representatives, has taken on a new role as the chair of the transportation committee. Torkelson said he asked to lead that committee, as he thinks it is critical to establish a transportation funding base that addresses needs into the future.
“To have a successful transportation bill we will need bipartisan support,” said Torkelson, adding state legislators must figure out a way forward to get this bill signed.
Dahms said to successfully meet transportation needs in the state will require $600 million in additional money per year.
“We need to come up with good ideas and get (transportation) done,” said Dahms.
The 2017 session is the first of a two-year biennium, said Dahms, adding that means the focus will be on balancing a budget.
As the budget exists now the budget is looking at a 7 percent increase, said Dahms, adding automatic required additions, which he called tails, will increase the budget by $3.2 billion.
“The spending is out of whack,” said Dahms.
Yes, the budget forecast from November does look positive, said Dahms, but he cautioned the national economy is slowing down and that is being reflected in the lack of growth in individual income and, therefore, the long-term forecast for individual income taxes.
The actual budget set during the 2017 session begins July 1, 2017 and continues through June 30, 2019, and Dahms said it is the prerogative of the legislature to keep the big picture in mind when it comes to future spending.
How the budget finally is approached will be based on the next budget forecast, which is scheduled to come out in February.
The intent of the 2016 session was to adopt what is known as the bonding bill which allocated borrowed funding to pay for capital projects, and even though 2017 is not a bonding year both Dahms and Torkelson think bonding will be at least discussed.
Torkelson said he believes the bonding will not be a top priority, adding when the required work is accomplished and if there is time left to do other things the bonding bill will be on the agenda.
“I don’t think there will be a large bonding bill,” said Torkelson, adding he thinks very specific needs may be funded in a smaller bill.
Dahms added he thinks those priority needs could be addressed in a bonding bill, but he also thinks the bill will not be very big.
Dahms is going to serve as chair of the commerce committee, which is a committee he has been involved with in the Senate for a number of years. That committee, said Dahms, is involved in banking, insurance and securities. Dahms, who has also been involved with the agriculture committee, agreed to serve as chair of the commerce committee, because he felt confident in the chair of the ag committee – Bill Weber of Luverne, who represents a small portion of southwest Redwood County.
Torkelson said he still plans to be involved in water issues, adding he sees more discussion being held regarding the buffer law.
Dahms said he plans to be involved in education issues, and he believes there is a need for attention to be focused on teacher shortages, licensing and the need to ensure any funding given to the education budget is placed on the base formula. That, he said, creates equal distribution of that funding for schools in metro and rural areas.
Dahms said he still believes decisions impacting local governments should be made locally, adding that is where the most effective and efficient results are accomplished and where dollars are most wisely spent,
Both Dahms and Torkelson look forward to the chance they have to serve the area during the 2017 session and encourage the public to communicate with their legislators about the issues that are important to them.