Legislative Update – April 20, 2013

I hope everyone is alright after another heavy snow storm in our area. I’m certainly ready for spring, and I imagine most of you are as well.

The pace at the legislature continues to pick up as we have started passing major budget bills off the House floor.

Omnibus Jobs, Commerce, and Housing Bill

On Monday, the House passed HF 729, the Omnibus Jobs, Commerce, and Housing Finance Bill on a 75-57 vote. The bill contains a $1.5 million increase for the Minnesota Trade Office. I chief authored this provision as my first bill early in the session and fought for its inclusion in the final omnibus bill. The Trade Office works to help Minnesota businesses navigate foreign markets and trade regulations so they can increase their exports and put more Minnesotans to work.

With this additional funding, the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) will open three more trade offices in other parts of the world, provide grants to businesses interested in exporting their products to foreign markets, and develop marketing materials aimed at out-of-state businesses and designed to emphasize the benefits of doing business in Minnesota and with Minnesota companies.

The bill also includes a substantial tax cut for Minnesota employers through a reduction in the rate that employers pay on unemployment insurance. This will save businesses $350 million over the next two years.

In addition to increased funding the for trade offices, the bill contains $20 million for the Minnesota Investment Fund (MIF), $18 million for a job creation fund, $5 million for a FastTRAC program that works to provide local employers with the skilled workers they need to grow, and $2 million in onetime funding for the Minnesota Film and TV Board.

Growing jobs and strengthening our economy is one of our top priorities and this budget bill reflects that. While our economy is improving, too many Minnesotans are struggling to find jobs and make ends meet. This plan can help us close the job skills gap, expand our markets, and attract new businesses to Minnesota.

Omnibus State Government and Veterans Affairs Bill

Today, the House passed the State Government Finance and Veterans Affairs Omnibus Bill, which increases funding for veterans programs and services.

I voted in favor of the legislation and authored an amendment saying that General Fund money appropriated to the Arts Board for the Grants Program in the bill may only be spent on projects located in Minnesota. Grant money cannot be used to travel outside Minnesota unless the cost of travel is less than 5% of the total grant. And none of the funds may be used for travel outside of the United States.

In March, KSTP TV reported that grants from the Arts Board were being spent on artists taking trips to tropical locations. Records show the Minnesota Arts Board gave out 114 grants to artists who traveled to 40 countries. The program spent $5.6 million from 2009-2013 with 15 percent of the trips being overseas.

Those trips were clearly not a responsible use of taxpayer dollars. We have an obligation to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used wisely and responsibly. My amendment was common-sense and I’m pleased it was adopted with strong bipartisan support.

For veterans, the bill increases funding for the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs programs and services by 18 percent. The bill modifies Minnesota’s GI Bill education program by expanding eligibility to all veterans. The legislation also would provide the educational benefit to the spouse or child of soldiers killed in the line of duty. Under this reform, eligibility would be based on the federal program requirements.

The bill creates a grant program to provide assistance to Minnesota veterans who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. This includes help with utilities, employment, and legal issues. The bill authorizes towns and cities to give contract preferences to veteran-own small businesses.

Finally, the bill provides funding for a permanent honor guard for veterans’ funerals. Our veterans have given us so much and they deserve our steadfast support. This bill does great things to help our vets and their families.

Feel free to contact me with any questions, comments, or concerns on any legislative issue. Please contact my office at 651-296-6206 or email me at rep.mary.sawatzky@house.mn. Thank you for the honor of serving you in the Minnesota House of Representatives.