Legislative progress as end of session nears

Rep. Randy Jessup and Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt share updates on the legislative session

The end of the 2017 session is on the horizon. Rep. Randy Jessup (R-Shoreview) and Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt updated the Sun Focus about the progress made in the State Legislature and what still lies ahead for Minnesota lawmakers.

Middle class tax relief

Going into another year of record budget surplus, an aspect that has been important to Republican lawmakers this session is relieving some of the taxes on middle class families. The House recently passed a tax relief proposal bill.

“The surplus that we have at the state level is thankfully to the prosperity of Minnesotans,” Daudt said. “We feel that the best thing to do is invest back into Minnesota families.”

Rep. Randy Jessup
Rep. Randy Jessup

Daudt said the biggest piece of this bill is the Social Security relief for seniors. Minnesota is one of seven states that taxes Social Security income. The proposed bill would raise the exemption level at which social security income is taxable, providing $269 million in relief. Currently, seniors who make more than $32,000 as a married couple or $25,000 for an individual pay taxes. Under the new proposal, the threshold would increase to $61,000 for a married couple and $46,500 for an individual for the 2018 tax year. In 2019, that threshold would increase to $72,000 for a married couple and $56,000 for a single filer.

The bill will also contribute to savings for middle class families who want to send their children to college. A provision that Jessup was able to amend in the tax relief proposal was a tax incentive for parents that are saving for post-secondary education or college. One of his goals was to encourage more families to participate in the Minnesota 529 College Savings Plan, where earnings can accumulate interest free.

“We’ve offered a bill that would give incentives for families to use the 529 plan,” Jessup said. This opportunity would be beneficial to families that make a lower than average income. Lower income families would determine how much in tax they owe the state, then would be able to take up to a $500 credit.
Even average or slightly above average income families would be benefited, he said.

“If you’re a family that has a bit higher income, then you would determine the amount of income you made for the year, and you would get a deduction,” Jessup said.

The bill also includes tax relief in property taxes for farmers and hometown businesses.

Education

The House recently passed the Education Finance Omnibus Bill, a bill that would increase funding for students and schools by $1.1 billion.

Highlights include investing in early learning programs, academic achievement programs and efforts to address teacher shortages.

Reducing student loan debt and offering college-ready opportunities is essential for the success of Minnesota students, the legislators said. Both Irondale and Mounds View High Schools are on the forefront of this initiative by providing concurrent enrollment opportunities through Anoka-Ramsey Community College, which allows high school students to earn college credits.

“There are a lot of high school students interested in this and it certainly seems to be successful,” Jessup said. “If a student does it right, they can come out with two years of an associate’s degree by the time they get their high school degree.”

Jessup also pointed out that families can save thousands on tuition costs from earning these credits early.

“This is a really good opportunity for students and families to get a leg up without having to go into as much debt,” he said.

Jessup said there would be funding to expand the concurrent enrollment program to more schools. The funding would go toward high school teachers to further their education to a master’s level, qualifying them to teach college-level courses.

“We should absolutely invest in teachers because it’s going to help the teachers and it’s going to help with student debt,” Jessup said. “It may also help students in terms of giving them extra guidance of which direction they want to go in the future, as they are thinking about the end of high school. It’s very much a win-win.”

Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt
Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt

Minnesota is facing a growing teacher shortage, and an aspect that is contributing to the problem is the difficult process that perspective teachers must go through to earn a license in the state, the legislators said.

The Department of Education and the Board of Teaching are responsible for issuing teacher licenses. The House recently passed a bill to transfer licensing powers away from these entities and create a new Professional Educator Licensing Board, which would become responsible for issuing teaching licensure.

The bill also introduces four tiers for teachers, based on credentials, experience and ability to teach in a specific field. These tiers were designed to offer opportunities to potential teachers who may not necessarily have taught before, but excel in a certain subject, such as woodshop or marketing.

Daudt said the goal is to recognize real world experience that can be brought into the classroom.

The legislation also lays out clear paths for those interested in becoming teachers, such as a teacher’s aid or caregiver.

“The goal is to make it more simple and clear for anyone that is interested in becoming a teacher, to actually have the opportunity to become a teacher,” Jessup said.

Investing in early learners is also a priority, although, according to Daudt, Gov. Mark Dayton and Republicans are still determining the most effective way to use this funding.

Dayton wants to invest in a universal pre-kindergarten program for all public schools in Minnesota, while Republicans want to put the money toward a targeted scholarship program.

Daudt said the scholarship program would essentially allow parents to have more flexibility when choosing to send their child to a pre-kindergarten program. He said the governor’s plan would give blocks of funds to elementary schools, some of which may have both poor and wealthy students.

“Our plan targets by need. The funds would go to kids that need it the most based on income,” Daudt said. “The goal is also to close the achievement gap. Targeting low-income or minority students is shown to close the achievement gap in a much better way than a more broad and universal approach.”

Daudt added that although there is an argument about where the funds would go, he believes that children would benefit from either outcome.

“It’s really great that we both want to put money into pre-k and early learners, and we’re just arguing about what’s the best and most effective way to use those dollars, I think its a good argument,” Daudt said.

With the end of the session approaching, both Jessup and Daudt are encouraged by the quick pace this session. Jessup said lawmakers have worked diligently to work ahead of schedule and are about three or four weeks ahead of the typical process.

“So overall, whether someone’s a Democrat or a Republican, at the end of the day, we all want to see things get done and I think what they have laid out in terms of strategy has really come to fruition, and we’re seeing it now,” he said.

Contact Sarah Burghardt at [email protected]