The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 10, 2014

Spear column: From Taxes to DWI, Capitol pace quickens

Majority leader plows through Senate building dust-up, public perception


The Mankato Free Press

---- — Minnesota House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, describes the 2014 session so far as “super productive” given all that has been accomplished even before the Easter break.

In an interview with The Free Press Thursday just before the session started, she also didn’t shy away from the controversies like the Senate office building hubbub and the dustup over the so called “DWI immunity” for legislators.

The House has moved quickly on a number of issues, but the route to efficiency has been made easier by a budget surplus and the fact that one party controls both houses and the governor’s mansion.

We suspect Minnesota taxpayers would be surprised if things weren’t moving quickly.

The House has so far approved plans for a $443 million tax break bill, and a “Tax Bill 2” that includes about a 5 percent increase in funding for home health care and community based workers, $45 million in additional property tax relief, a $25 million broadband incentive fund and $10 million aimed at Greater Minnesota Economic development.

That’s not a bad showing. The Senate appears to be moving just as briskly and it seems clear the session will end on time if not before the required adjournment of May 19.

Murphy touted the accomplishments and but explained controversies with a kind of resignation that goes with talking to reporters about things that seem to have been blown out of the proportion.

The Free Press editorial page had questioned the need for such lavish trappings that were coming with the $90 million Senate office building at a time many are still recovering from the recession. We also suggested the way it was approved fell short of Minnesota’s tradition of openness.

The House Rules Committee, for which the majority leader is chair, approved — after numerous public hearings — a scaled-down $70 million version sans extra parking ramp, sans reflecting pool and fitness center and sans big glass wall.

The project came about in connection to the State Capitol renovation that will eliminate Senate offices.

The committee-approved project now also will house all 67 senators, instead of the original 43 offices. Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, had put the project in last year’s tax bill instead of the bonding bill, where it would seem to be more in line with tradition.

Questions have been raised about it being a pork project slipped into a tax bill in the dark of the night. Murphy said she couldn’t speak for Bakk but notes there were public hearings on the tax bill and at the Legislature there are “many, many ways to get to the end goal.”

Including a building in a tax bill is allowed by the rules and not that unusual, she said.

In the end, the House committee saw the project as equal in cost or less than renting space or putting senators in various buildings. And that wouldn’t be very taxpayer friendly. Citizens shouldn’t have to go on a “scavenger hunt” to find their senators, Murphy said.

The House seems to have acted reasonably on this even if it looks like they’re cleaning up the Senate’s mess.

DWI "immunity"

Changes to the law that some believed gave legislators immunity from being arrested for DWI kept legislators up late Wednesday night. The House changed the law in an attempt to clarify that legislators can be arrested during the session if they are caught driving drunk.

The language in the Minnesota Constitution says legislators have immunity from arrest while they are in session except for certain specified crimes including “breach of the peace.” The proposed change would define “breach of the peace” as a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony.

Sounds like we’ve got it covered.

Said Murphy: “It’s been cast as a DWI immunity. The story got a little ahead of the Legislature and who we are.” The change was needed to make clear there are no gray areas when it comes to a legislator driving drunk during the session.

The whole skewing of the issue has been “irritating for some of our members,” Murphy said. “We’re not above the law.”

It’s surprising that more legislators didn’t hear the narrative playing out a lot sooner. It’s tough to defend the law that left a lot to the imagination and seemed to have loopholes big enough for a 747.

“The public can easily find their way to think less of the institution then they should,” she said.

Unfortunately, that’s a reality legislators have to assume comes with the territory.

 

Other issues

Other tidbits from the interview:

On the bonding bill that includes Mankato projects like the civic center, college buildings and St. Peter regional treatment center: “I think there’s bipartisan support for a strong bonding bill.” Murphy says she has talked with Republican members of the House who are “very keen” on a strong bonding bill.

 

On changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program: Because the federal courts have decided to further evaluate the program, any changes to the laws are on hold. She says any changes will only go forward if there is bipartisan support. “We all have to stand together.”

On proposal for a $25 million broadband grant program to expand broadband in Greater Minnesota: “We’re going to fight hard for that.”

On the recently passed Women’s Economic Security Act: It’s “super cool” and will make some changes to enforcing equal pay laws and offer more flexibility for nursing mothers in the workplace as well as require state contractors, like state government, to follow equal pay laws. Businesses are wary of some of the changes, but Murphy says “Businesses share the goal,” of supporting women in the workplace, so details can be worked out.

Other issues

Other tidbits from Free Press Editor Joe Spear's interview with Minnesota House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.

On the bonding bill that includes Mankato projects like the civic center, college buildings and St. Peter regional treatment center: “I think there’s bipartisan support for a strong bonding bill.” Murphy says she has talked with Republican members of the House who are “very keen” on a strong bonding bill.

On changes to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program: Because the federal courts have decided to further evaluate the program, any changes to the laws are on hold. She says any changes will only go forward if there is bipartisan support. “We all have to stand together.”

On proposal for a $25 million broadband grant program to expand broadband in Greater Minnesota: “We’re going to fight hard for that.”

On the recently passed Women’s Economic Security Act: It’s “super cool” and will make some changes to enforcing equal pay laws and offer more flexibility for nursing mothers in the workplace as well as require state contractors, like state government, to follow equal pay laws.

Businesses are wary of some of the changes, but Murphy says “Businesses share the goal,” of supporting women in the workplace, so details can be worked out.

 

Joe Spear is editor of The Free Press. Contact him at 344-6382 or jspear@mankatofreepress.com. For extended interview see this column at www.mankatofreepress.com/editorials