In January, I began my second term as your state senator and it remains a true privilege to serve the people of southwestern Minnesota. Fast forward six months, and the 2017 legislative session has come to a successful close.
Greater Minnesotans: take note. This legislative session was one of the most productive in our state’s history, bringing with it sound policy measures and a complete state budget that includes the largest tax relief package in nearly two decades, a comprehensive transportation infrastructure investment, over a billion dollars more for education, and many other investments that are good for rural Minnesota.
Simply put, after too many years of inaction, and in the first year of a Republican-led legislature, we got it done.
More importantly, though, is what this budget represents: compromise that Minnesotans should come to expect from their government. Although our budget, which checks in at nearly $46 billion, does not rein in government’s exorbitant spending as much as we had hoped, such is the nature of true compromise at a politically-divided Capitol.
So, what does that mean for you?
We succeeded in demanding changes to the governor’s buffer strip mandate, establishing a grace period and providing local assistance for implementation. We passed a one-year moratorium on MnDOT’s controversial ditch mowing mandate, lending a voice to farmers and landowners who have been adversely affected by the rule. We passed immediate relief and reform for those devastated by premium increases on the individual insurance market. And we repealed the “last in, first out” standard in our schools, instead favoring more local control by school boards and administration.
And, of course, a bipartisan, comprehensive state budget.
After years of increasing taxes, you deserve a break. Our $648 million tax bill is aimed at cutting taxes for students, seniors, families, farmers, and main street businesses.
A tax credit for farmers on new school building bonds – a 40% offset for school building levies – will bring farmers needed relief and make it easier for schools to meet building needs. We also created a beginning farmer tax credit program, equipping more individuals to be successful in their early years in farming.
A permanent increase to local government aid and county program aid – a yearly addition of $15 million and $25.5 million, respectively – along with a county program aid formula change will help ensure communities can continue to offer essential services. A tax credit of up to $500 will make it a bit easier for college graduates paying off student loan debt. Over 350,000 Minnesota seniors will see tax relief through an income tax exemption on Social Security benefits.
The reality is Minnesota must get more competitive with our neighboring states. We are losing families and businesses to our more tax-friendly neighbors to the west; if we are serious about helping our communities thrive, that must change.
That’s why our tax relief package reduces the property tax burden facing main street businesses, eliminating the inflator and exempting up to $100,000 of commercial/industrial market value. We also increased Minnesota’s estate tax exemption to $3 million, bringing it closer to the federal exemption and making Minnesota more competitive with neighboring states.
Part of what makes our communities so appealing is the opportunity for a great education. An additional $1.3 billion in funding, including a 2% increase to the per-pupil general education formula in each of the next two years, will put more money directly in the classroom. Along with increased funding for areas such as special education, career and technical education, school readiness programs, and ag education, all Minnesota students will have the opportunity for an education that prepares them for the jobs of tomorrow.
Recognizing the importance of post-secondary technical education, two-year colleges like Minnesota West Community and Technical College will receive an increase in funding, as well as supplemental funding that will allow them to expand programming or hire additional staff. With a better funded Minnesota State Grant Program, more students will be able to take advantage of more financial aid.
Finally, we passed the first comprehensive transportation investment in years. Over $300 million in new, ongoing road and bridge funding is included, with another $250 million from the bonding bill. In addition, our budget includes increases to county and municipal aid; for example, Nobles County will receive nearly $500,000 in additional funding over the next two years. Altogether, thousands of lane miles and hundreds of bridges across the state will be repaired or replaced under our plan.
The work is not yet done, however, but this is certainly a good place to start. Working together, we can keep our part of the state a great place to live, to work, and to raise a family.
Sen. Bill Weber is in his second term representing Senate District 22, which includes communities in Cottonwood, Jackson, Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Nobles, Pipestone, Redwood, and Rock counties. He serves as chair of the Agriculture, Rural Development, and Housing Policy Committee.