They're Back

BY THE TIME you read this, 201 Minnesota legislators, give or take the occasional jailbird, will be stalking the marbled halls of the Capitol once again. They may be motivated to finish up quickly--even-year meets are supposed to do mostly mop-up work between major sessions--but that likely won't stop them from tinkering with everything from nuclear energy to prison labor, outdoor stadiums, and health care for the poor. After all, this is an election year, and one in which the DFL majority will be fighting for its political life. Here's a quick overview of items on the legislative/campaign agenda.

Crime. Expect another round of who's-tougher-on-migratory-scum posturing; Gov. Arne Carlson kicked it off with a December 28 press conference warning that crime fears are "starting to impact our efforts to grow jobs in Minnesota." To make streets safe for business, Carlson--not usually given to fresh expenditures--proposed $20 million in appropriations for things like street sweeps in high-crime neighborhoods, targeting especially those newcomers who "take advantage of the generosity of this state." In case anyone didn't get the message, Public Safety Commissioner Don Davis told reporters, "This is going to be offensive to some people.... Personally, I don't care. Is this going to be discriminatory action? You betcha. Anybody who's not complying with the law is going to meet with these officers." Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton also blessed the proposal, saying she personally asked the governor for help on crime issues.

Capitol DFLers let just 24 hours, and one news cycle, go by before offering their own anticrime agenda, which differed from Carlson's only in degree. In addition to putting more cops on the streets, they want to wring more money out of prison labor, lease cells from private prisons such as the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, and--kinder-and-gentler, everyone--offer longer school days and all-day kindergarten in poor neighborhoods. Programs to fight family violence and child abuse got a token pat on the head.

Jobs and wages. Advocates of requiring businesses to pay their workers decently in return for public subsidies have come up with a new name for what they're after: "poverty wage," instead of "living wage." Last year, amid much talk of corporate-welfare reform, the Legislature passed a measure under which subsidized companies have to abide by a "publicly negotiated" wage floor. But they failed to mention a dollar figure; this year, some will try to set it at $7.21, which works out to exactly the federal poverty level for a family of four. A "living wage," by most calculations, would have to be closer to $11 an hour.

With the Clinton White House's cautious proposal to raise the federal minimum wage all but DOA in Congress, some Minnesota lawmakers will propose that the state pass its own increase. At least three separate minimum-wage bills are already headed for the legislative hopper; if one passes, it would likely be vetoed by Gov. Arne Carlson, and the two-thirds margin required to override is unlikely. But even if the minimum-wage push fails, it will make nice election fodder for any politicians still interested in talking things like jobs and wages.

Meanwhile Carlson likely will continue promoting the supply-side ap-proach to job growth, pushing for another reduction in commercial and industrial property tax rates as well as further cuts in taxes on manufacturing equipment. Carlson has already made it clear he's not interested in using any of the state's expected $800 million budget surplus to restore cuts in social services made during past budget crunches; nor has he been sympathetic to those who want the money used to soften the impact of federal cutbacks. Among the first victims of those cutbacks, incidentally, are jobs-and-training programs: Minneapolis alone expects to slash more than one third of the 1000 summer youth jobs it provided last year.

Health care. Lawmakers may or may not take up a bill outlawing "drive-through deliveries," health insurers' practice of shunting new mothers out the hospital door after 24 hours. But they're almost certain to fight over whether any more people should be allowed into MinnesotaCare, the subsidized insurance program for the working poor. A business-driven effort to repeal MinnesotaCare is also under way.

Education. Vouchers, vouchers, vouchers: Carlson has let it be known that "educational choice" is his horse to ride for the session. Having trashed Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools' test scores, he supports a pilot project that would give families in those cities, along with Brooklyn Center and a yet-to-be-named rural district, up to $3,000 to send their kids to private schools. (As private tuitions go, that would more than cover annual tuition at most Catholic schools, but come nowhere close to the amount for elite institutions such as Blake and Breck). To sweeten the deal for public schools, the governor proposed letting them keep per-student state aid even for voucher kids; so far, that seems to have done little for opponents, who see any voucher program as a foot in the door for full-fledged privatization. Supporting vouchers are business groups and a blue-ribbon task force on redesigning government; in addition, Carlson last week helped kick off a "grassroots lobby" group headed by a Catholic school principal from Minneapolis. Still, few people expect voucher legislation to pass in 1996; for one thing, election years aren't the best time to antagonize vote-and-contribution-rich teachers' unions.

Legislators will also be watching the state Board of Education's tortuous debate over the best way of saying that even though state law requires metrowide desegregation, no one will be forced to do anything about it. Policy proposals to that effect may come from the ranks of some suburban legislators, who have told the board that even its current notion of asking districts for desegregation plans goes too far.

Environment. Some lawmakers will be busy trying to make sure Minnesota has a little less swampland, and a few more roads and parking lots, by changing the state's "no-net-loss" wetlands law. Most everyone involved agrees that the law could use some smoothing out; its critics, however, are shooting for something more like a wholesale rewrite, including possibly turning implementation over to counties and towns. Watch for the recommendations of a roundtable by governor-appointed "stakeholders" that began meeting two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, NSP has made no secret of its interest in removing some of the hoops it's required to jump through under the 1994 law that allowed it to store nuclear waste outside the Prairie Island plant. One of that law's chief architects, Sen. Steve Novak, has been approaching environmentalists about possible deals for Session '96; the biggest horsetrade would involve a multimillion-dollar buyout by NSP of the Prairie Island Mdewakanton Sioux Community's traditional land. Nothing has materialized, but history suggests much potential for last-minute surprises.

On another front, two of environmentalists' traditional nemeses are at each other's throat for a change. The sparring is over a tax break for Koch Industries to build a power plant using waste heat from its Rosemount facility; NSP says Koch is a competitor and shouldn't get special breaks. Enviros, to the degree they get involved at all, are likely to favor Koch, because the proposal does constitute a form of energy recycling.

Also on the horizon is Round Umpteen of the fight over the University of Minnesota's new steam plant. The U wants to refurbish its coal plant on the Mississippi; critics want legislators to make the school build a natural-gas plant away from the river instead.

Playthings. Expect lawmakers to wax nostalgic about outdoor baseball as they debate proposals to help the Twins out with a new $200-million-or-so stadium; to set new records for gratuitous use of the phrase "world-class" as they discuss plans for a new airport (which, incidentally, Northwest Airlines opposes--and you may remember the last time they let their wishes be known at the Legis-lature); and chortle as Minneapolis lobbyists, having expended much
of their political capital on Target Center, come asking for money to expand the Convention Center. All those things probably stand better chances next year, with the election safely past. CP

You can find information on Minnesota state government on the World Wide Web at http://www.state. You may also check out the E-Democracy Project's home page:

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