As rural legislators, we recognize the great need for a robust transportation funding package for our communities. Roads and bridges are critical to the success of our economy, and the increasing demand is putting pressure on our aging network. We also know that projects like completing Highway 14 and expansion of Highway 19 will take years to finish – and shouldn’t be done a mile at a time.
It is well reported that Minnesota’s transportation needs have reached a critical point. Paying for the needed investment our transportation network needs will require significant resources. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, our shortfall over the next 20 years will reach nearly $16.3 billion. To succeed as a state, we must find a way to fill this gap in a sustainable and reliable way.
Thankfully, our colleagues in the Senate and the House recognize the great need for this investment. We have all heard from our constituents just how important a transportation bill is to the success of our townships, our towns and cities, our counties, and in every corner of Minnesota.
Unfortunately, that’s where our similarities seem to end. We are willing to look at all options on the table. However, we are unwilling to compromise on a plan for our transportation network that is worse for rural communities. By relying on local tax increases, one-time spending, and borrowing, the Republican plan does not provide the same level of support for those communities—our communities—that need it most.
Because our rural communities don’t have the same tax base as the suburbs and metro, rural Minnesota would get less with local tax increases that the House GOP relies upon. They do not provide any new funding for larger city local roads, and they do not provide enough investment for smaller cities. Without this new funding, our areas will have to rely on local sources of revenue like a wheelage or county sales tax – which would fall far short of what’s needed.
For example, the Republican plan gives minimal funding to small cities, enough to fill a few potholes at best. To raise more revenue, Rice or Waseca County could adopt a sales tax. However, the new revenue raised by the tax base in these counties cannot support the demands of their aging systems. Local sources of revenue are simply not enough to replace a stable statewide funding source.
Instead of providing consistent and dedicated funding for all parts of our state, the House would also rely on a significant amount of bonding. Transportation projects are often 5, 10, and 15-year projects that require long-term, dedicated funding. Planning projects cannot rely on the action of future legislatures. At best, we set a risky precedent of a bonding bill picking winners and losers for specific road projects; at worst, funding dries up for critical work.
In the DFL-led Senate, we have put forth a comprehensive plan that provides stable and dedicated funding for the entire state’s transportation network. This significant new influx of revenue will be spread across all 87 counties and hundreds of our towns and cities, ensuring our communities can get more funding to support local projects on Main Street.
A modest increase in the state’s gas tax can provide stable and significant new revenue for all of Minnesota’s counties, and for those towns and cities that need it most. The gas tax is constitutionally dedicated to paying for roads and bridges, and is the guarantee we need for long-term priorities.
The Senate transportation bill delivers a promise for our state’s transportation network – stable and consistent funding, spread to every community that needs it, with increased investments for rural communities that cannot support new road projects on their own.
Almost two dozen states, many with Republican governors and legislatures, have passed transportation bills through a combination of increasing their gas tax, general fund money, and other means. Let’s pass a responsible transportation bill that provides the stable and consistent funding our communities need.
Teacher shortages in Minnesota have reached critical levels, and there’s no easy fix. The issue is not confined to just one part of the system; unsustainable trends in teacher recruitment, licensure areas, and increased retirements have worked together to create a school environment in which students either do not have the right teachers in the classroom or schools can’t find enough applicants for the positions they need to fill. This happens most frequently in rural communities, and if continued, will badly damage Minnesota’s ability to provide a strong education for students no matter where they live in the state.
80 percent of school administrators statewide have reported that it was either “difficult” or “very difficult” to fill vacant positions for the current school year. Seven percent of educators are teaching outside their licensure area because their districts can’t find enough candidates to fill necessary positions, and another ten percent of Minnesota teachers left the profession in 2012-13. After working with rural school districts and stakeholders, I have put together a bill to address the many challenges faced by our schools as they try to find and keep enough educators in the classroom.
Thankfully, just because it’s not an easy fix doesn’t mean it can’t be a bipartisan bill. The Teacher Shortage Act has already earned strong support from both parties as it passed the Minnesota Senate’s Education Policy Committee this week on a unanimous vote. The House author, Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), and I have had many disagreements about what is best for our kids in the past, but attracting and keeping great teachers is something we can both support. I’m particularly pleased that in this contentious political atmosphere, we have been able to bring Democrats, Republicans, teachers, and administrators to the table to begin working to find the best possible solution for our kids.
The Teacher Shortage Act is comprised of seven separate initiatives designed to reduce the teacher shortage in Minnesota. A statewide teacher job board for teacher candidates will help new educators find open positions and districts, particularly in rural communities where it has been more difficult to
advertise. As they find open positions, grants will be made available to student teachers who are willing to work in shortage areas like math, science, and special education.
To attract students to the profession in the first place, an expansion of the existing Teacher Shortage Loan Forgiveness program for teachers in shortage areas or communities in need will make financing a teacher education more possible. Once they are in a teaching position, bringing Teacher Evaluation and Development funding statewide to provide rural teachers with better training, support, and development so they are more likely to stay in the classroom long term.
The Teacher Shortage Act also broadens the scope of Minnesota’s science licensure, in order to make licenses better reflect both need and usage in our classrooms, and creates a “Grow Your Own” pathway to licensure for local paraprofessionals who want to become licensed teachers in the districts they already teach. We have also requested a Special Education Educator Programs Report, in which MnSCU will supply a report on special education teacher programs and graduation statistics to help assess shortages in that field.
This is a landmark, bipartisan piece of legislation for our schools and our kids. It still has far to go before it lands on the Governor’s desk for a signature, but we have taken the first steps in the process of attracting the best teacher candidates and keeping them in Minnesota classrooms where they belong.
This past Saturday, I concluded two weekends of town meetings across Senate District 20. Both Representative Bob Vogel (20A) and Representative David Bly (20B) accompanied me in their respective town meetings in libraries and restaurants in the eight communities we visited. We enjoyed hearing from constituents as they provided input on the policy and budget issues we are discussing here at the midpoint of the 2015 legislative session.
Good dialogue on wide ranging topics were held. Folks shared their thoughts on the budget surplus, health care, education, property taxes, and buffer zones on agricultural land. We talked about pensions, climate change, renewable energy standards, and the scope of government. A young teacher from New Prague passionately expressed his opposition to the “last in first out” legislation which he viewed as another attack on his profession. Nursing home workers from LeSueur implored the legislature to fix the nursing home funding inequities that exist in our state. Others argued for the need for a reasonable funding solution to fixing our roads and bridges and the state’s long term transportation needs.
I always enjoy face to face meetings. In nearly every instance, pointed questions moved easily to productive dialogue and a better understanding of shared concerns. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents left the meeting with handshakes and thank yous, with better insight on our positions and thoughts on the issues of the day or how the legislative process works.
I thank those community members who took the time to stop by to share their thoughts and concerns. I look forward to our next meeting.
Welcome back. For several years I wrote about my experiences at the state Capitol on my website, “Mr. Dahle Goes to St. Paul.” I am planning to crank it up again as we start the 89th session of the Minnesota legislature. Look to this site to hear what is going on at the State Capitol and my thoughts and analysis of the session, the legislative process, and my daily experiences as a State Senator.
The Senate gavel came dropped at noon on Tuesday, January 6. Newly elected Lt. Governor Tina Smith opened the session. It will be an interesting two years as we pass the next biennial budget. While Governor Dayton remains in the Governor’s office, we will be working with a newly elected Republican House. I am hopeful we can pass a progressive budget with good policy for Minnesotans across the state.
Education is always an important focus of my agenda. One of the larger slices of the state budget, there are several initiatives for education in the upcoming session. Yesterday, we heard from over 30 stakeholders in the Education committee that I serve on. They presented their legislative agendas and “wish lists” and priorities for the upcoming session. In addition, the Senate rolled out its first 6 bills of the session. Three of the six were education related. One bill would expand free Pre-K education for all pre-schoolers enrolled in our public schools. This builds on the full funding of all day every day kindergarten we passed in the last session, emphasizing the importance of investing in our children early to ensure success later. In addition, another bill introduced yesterday would offer tuition free 2 Year College through our MNSCU system. This is a product of our discussions over the past few years to concentrate on work force development to help the business community’s need for skilled workers. Another bill would help students “earn while they learn” which would provide academic credit for high schoolers who partner with local employers for vocational training.
I introduced legislation that will extend the Alternative facilities program to all school districts, which will establish a new long-term facilities maintenance revenue program to replace the current alternative facilities, deferred maintenance and health and safety revenue programs to provide adequate, equitable, and sustainable long-term maintenance funding for all school district statewide. This recommendation was a result of a School facilities financing working group which concluded it’s work this past fall. This will especially help rural districts in low property wealth districts like Northfield, New Prague, Belle Plaine, and Tri-City United (Montgomery, Lonsdale, LeCenter) schools.
I am excited to get to work for my constituents in Senate District 20 and for all Minnesotans. Education is just one of our priorities this session. I will be sharing my thoughts on other initiatives in the days and weeks ahead.