Rice County

A Transportation Plan for Greater Minnesota

By | Kevin Dahle MN Senate District 20, Le Sueur County, Rice County, Scott County, Transportation | No Comments

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 Shortage Act

By | Education, Kevin Dahle MN Senate District 20, Le Sueur County, Rice County, Scott County | No Comments

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.

“Will Work for Change”

By | Health Care, Le Sueur County, Rice County | No Comments

“Will Work for Change,” emblazoned the yellow tee-shirts of about 25 students from the Social Work program at St. Olaf College, at the Capitol this past Monday. They joined about 700 other undergraduate students from colleges around the state to talk to us about specific legislative policies that truly make a difference in people’s lives. Unfortunately, these occupations don’t offer a great salary, underscoring the passion these young men and women have for a career choice that satisfies them in so many other ways. These students have a clear desire to empower individuals and advocate for their well-being within the communities in which they live. Minnesota would benefit immensely from many more young service-oriented professionals like them. Unfortunately, few follow a professional path in this direction because a common theme spans social work and related career fields: low wages and worker shortages. This was reinforced at recent meetings with nursing home workers at a meeting in Owatonna and a town hall meeting for persons with disabilities in Faribault.  Potential employees take better paying jobs at hospitals and clinics or choose other career options perpetuating the problem.

Providing high quality community services requires not just social workers, but also transit drivers, housekeepers, cooks, crisis managers, medical care providers, not to mention those who help with bathing and dressing. The people who work these jobs are passionate, caring people who love their clients and the sense of purpose it brings them. Unfortunately, they really do work for “change,” averaging just $11.55/hour with many making much less. Too often, low wages lead to higher turnover, which reduces the quality of care. The people who want to do this work are out there, but low pay is a severe barrier to continuing their careers. Too often, they don’t even start because of it.

My soon to be 16-year-old daughter will be looking for a summer job in the next month or so. I suggested she consider one of our local care facilities, hoping she would learn some of the skills that come with a tough job that provides dignity, safety, and hope to our community members. She looked at me quizzically and mumbled something about a job at a cash register with flexible hours. When a retail job can earn just as much or even more, it was difficult for me to make a compelling case for this industry to someone just entering the workforce. Of course, we need retail employees too, but I have concerns about the future of our seniors, people with disabilities, and our community’s most vulnerable. Unless we address the low pay and the current funding model for our counties, nursing homes, and home and community-based services, we will face a crisis within a few short years. Some would argue we have already reached that crisis point.

Listening to social workers, care providers, nurses, administrators, and others share their passion for their rewarding careers reinforces the need that we as a state must do more. The quality of life of our seniors and citizens with disabilities depends on it. There are bills in legislature that offer solutions. They include Medical Assistance reform and another 5% campaign (increasing compensation to care providers). The time is now. I applaud those who really do “work for change.”


Rice County Drug Court

By | Le Sueur County, Rice County | No Comments

This past Thursday I sat in on a weekly convening of the Rice County Drug Court.  The Rice County Drug Court (RCDC) was established in July of 2014 joining several counties that have started drug courts as way to ensure offender accountability, improve efficiencies in processing drug cases, and  reduce overall social and economic costs of illegal drug activity to society. Most importantly, the RCDC hopes to establish and support a pathway to success for each participant.

On this particular afternoon, young men and women each took their turn standing before Judge Thomas Neuville, each sharing the challenges of the past week while the judge asked questions about a job, their treatment program, family matters, or other personal reflections.  Each participant handed over a journal with entries specific to their challenges of staying clean and chemical free.  The judge takes the time to read these journals weekly and provides written notes to the participants with the goal of ensuring compliance and regular feedback about expectations, not only from the judge, but other supporters including the county attorney, the drug court administrator, parole officers, social workers, and chemical and mental health advocates.   Other aspects of the program include required drug treatment, possible electronic monitoring, and random drug testing. Later phases of the program allow successful participants to meet bi-weekly or even monthly as long as the rules of the RCDC are being followed.

Not everyone “graduates” from the drug court.  A successful program can save the state money in the long run.  The courts are less crowded and many young people can avoid lengthy prison terms.  Success relies on positive enforcement strategies. For example, after each participant shares their few minutes with the judge, he announces “how many days” the participant has been chemical free.  This cues everyone in the courtroom to applaud.  Judge Neuville acknowledged the need for a “different set of skills” for this type of courtroom and participant interaction.  But, building these relationships focused on participant reflection helps guide the phases to successful conclusions.  These offenders need the support to stay drug free and on productive and relevant in our communities.  A recent offender who fell out of the program found his way in front of Judge Neuville in the regular court proceeding knowing he would now face a prison sentence.  His first words to the judge were “I’m sorry. He knew he had let the judge down.

I hope we can fund the Drug Court through the judicial budget.  It is an innovative approach in reducing the adverse impact of serious and repeat offenders on the citizens and criminal justice system in Rice and other counties while creating a system that is more effective for participants.  And it seems to be working.

Town Hall Meetings 2015

By | Kevin Dahle MN Senate District 20, Le Sueur County, Rice County, Scott County | No Comments

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.