Cohen and Hausman to head key state spending committees
By Anne Holzman
With the Democratic Farmer-Labor party back in power in both houses of the Minnesota Legislature as well as the governor’s office, lawmakers from Park Bugle communities will hold some key finance positions as the Legislature convenes in January.
As of early December, Sen. Dick Cohen and Rep. Alice Hausman were already working with the governor’s office and receiving requests from the University of Minnesota, municipalities interested in transit projects and other entities throughout the state eager to claim a piece of the state’s bonding and budget bills this term.
Cohen, whose District 64 crept north to take in part of St. Anthony Park after redistricting last session, will resume chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, which he chaired before the 2010 election gave two years of leadership to the Republican Party. The Finance Committee’s job is to propose how the state will spend whatever revenue it collects over the next two years.
Hausman (House District 66A, which extends north of Como Avenue through Falcon Heights and parts of Roseville), resumes her chairmanship of the House Capital Investments Committee, also having ceded the post to Republicans in 2010. Her committee’s job is to propose a bonding bill that will approve using state credit to fund construction and other physical needs.
Rep. Erin Murphy (House District 64A) was selected as House majority leader, the second in command in that chamber. She, too, will figure prominently in money matters, on the revenue side as well as on spending. She will be a key player in negotiating within and between houses and with Gov. Mark Dayton’s staff.
Sen. John Marty, whose district now takes in much of St. Anthony Park, will chair the Senate Environment Committee.
District 66B Rep. John Lesch, who serves the Como Park area, will chair the House Civil Law Committee.
Cohen noted that in the Senate, many Democrats taking formerly Republican seats are freshmen, an unusual situation for his party. “We have a pretty junior caucus in the Senate for the first time in decades,” Cohen said.
Both Cohen and Hausman said the DFL sweep at the Capitol gives them hope that conflict will be minimized and processes can be streamlined this year.
Hausman sees this as an opportunity to launch a new model for state government. Minnesotans have been asking for years why budget fights always seem to come down to the last day of the session or even require extra days, she said.
In her capacity as Capital Investments chair, she has a plan to move things along.
“The way I’m going to test whether we are a different body this year,” she said, “is to suggest we pass the bonding bill earlier.
“The budget will be a huge challenge this year,” Hausman said, because there’s talk about major structural shifts involving tax proposals to respond to ongoing deficits. “But what I would like to argue is, ‘Don’t hold everything as hostage to that.’ ”
Both Hausman and Cohen expressed hope that the conference process toward the end of each major bill will be smoother with all-DFL leadership.
“I’m hoping this year we’ll have very simple conference committees and they won’t be protracted,” Cohen said.
Hausman said she would spend December drafting a bill as a starting point for her committee. She is expecting to see new support for transit in 2013 from businesses around the state. “For a long time, this was an uphill battle, to build public mass transit,” she said. “Suddenly the business community has discovered this in a major way.” Business leaders have been traveling to other cities the size of the Twin Cities metro area and getting ideas, Hausmann said.
She’s looking to the various chambers of commerce to help lead the charge. “They are ready, as never before, to help with more robust transit in the bonding bill,” she said.
Hausman had hoped to see bonding requests from the University of Minnesota for a new Bell Museum and an American Indian Resource Center at the Duluth Campus.
The U has, in past years, repeatedly requested bond money to build a new home for the Bell Museum at the southwest corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland avenues, but did not put the museum or the Duluth resource center in its request this year.
“Their reason given was that they had advanced these several times and were not successful,” Hausman said. “I pointed out that it was due to a Republican governor who vetoed it or a Republican chair who did not include it [in the bonding bill]. We now have other people in place. I was very clear that I was not pleased and certainly have not given up on either. I strongly believe both projects are the right thing to do for this state.”
Hausman met with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) staff in late November to receive their requests. “The major portion of the bonding bill is always higher education,” Hausman said. Another major area for bonding funds, she said, is environmental infrastructure, including parks and trails.
“The big issue for me is wetland restoration,” she said. “As we deal with flooding, the old way to do it was flood mitigation, dikes and so on. Over time, that doesn’t work.” She’ll try to pump more money this year into Reinvest in Minnesota, an ongoing fund that draws a federal match and can be used for wetlands restoration.
“One of the years I was writing the bill, we captured more money for restoring wetlands than any other state,” she said.
When the Legislature convenes on Jan. 8, Hausman’s committee will start on the House bonding bill, while Cohen’s Senate committee will dig right into the budget. Cohen’s not inclined to wait for the February quarterly state finance forecast, he said. He was rolling up his sleeves as the November numbers came in.
“I’ll be very surprised if there’s a big difference” in the February forecast, Cohen said. Budget requests this year will likely include “a major workforce development effort” from MNSCU, Cohen said. He also expects to take a close look at local government aid (LGA), a tool to balance the means and resources of municipalities around the state, which has been cut dramatically in recent years. While his committee does not directly deal with taxes, it may look for ways to affect the balance of revenue, he said.
“Property taxes have increased a substantial amount, and folks in our area have borne the brunt of that.” He expects significant changes in the Minnesota budget to come out of the 2013 session.
“The governor’s made it clear: we’re done borrowing money,” Cohen said, noting the late school payments and other mechanisms used to balance the budget in previous sessions. “We’re going to try to put together a structurally balanced budget.”