- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 20

A wasteful Minnesota tax break on military pensions

As frustrated seekers of state tax relief know only too well, a bill that would have provided tax savings for several categories of deserving Minnesotans was found to contain a drafting error and felled by Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto earlier this month. It sits in limbo as legislative leaders discuss a possible special session; those talks are set to continue Tuesday.

But one group of persistent pleaders for special tax treatment is already sitting pretty. An exemption from state income taxation for all military pension income - regardless of a tax filer’s age or other income - made it into law in the omnibus spending bill Dayton signed June 1. Some 18,000 Minnesota recipients of military retirement pay, some with total incomes well into six figures, will receive a tax break estimated to average $2,500 per filer a year. The exemption will deprive state coffers of $23 million in fiscal 2017 and increasing amounts in subsequent years.

One can appreciate the sacrifices and service of military veterans and still question the advisability of this tax break - and one would be in good company. The bipartisan conference committee that assembled the vetoed tax bill opted not to include it in that carefully crafted measure. The committee, which included the Legislature’s most knowledgeable stewards of state tax policy, designed a bill that provided targeted tax relief for Minnesotans carrying disproportionate financial burdens - student loan debtors, small-business property owners, low-income working families, low- and middle-income families coping with high child care costs. Military retirees, many of them still in their prime earning years, did not make the conference committee’s cut. (Regrettably, neither did disabled or low-income veterans, though a bill to increase a tax credit available to that larger cohort of veterans was also in the legislative hopper.)

But a procedurally irregular back door opened during the frenetic final days of the 2016 regular session, and advocates for military pensioners rushed through it. A “sweetener” was sought to attract the votes of spending-averse House Republicans for the year’s omnibus budget bill, priced at $187 million in fiscal 2017. In negotiations out of the public’s eye, the military pension exemption was chosen to play that role.

It evidently served that purpose well; the House vote on the 599-page spending bill was 95-39. Then again, some House members might not have known it was there. Tax measures usually don’t appear in spending bills, for good reasons that include the state Constitution’s requirement that laws “embrace only one subject.” Further, this massive bill did not arrive on the House floor until 7:30 p.m. on the session’s final day for enacting bills.

This tax break’s ability to serve its stated public-policy purpose is more questionable. One of the bill’s legislative champions, House veterans affairs chair Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, contends that by joining 16 other states that fully spare military pension income from state income taxation, Minnesota will persuade more veterans to make their post-military homes in this state.

That theory has been only weakly borne out by an experiment of sorts in Minnesota and Wisconsin in the past 15 years, as described to legislators in a May 4 memo by the nonpartisan House Research staff. Wisconsin exempted military pension income from its state income tax in 2001, when military retirees made up 0.28 percent of the population in both states. By 2014, military retirees were up to 0.34 percent of the population in Wisconsin - and 0.32 percent in Minnesota. That’s a difference of only about 1,000 tax filers after 15 years of quite disparate tax policies.

Is that small difference - which cannot be attributed with certainty to state tax policy alone - worth the loss of $23 million a year from the state general fund, which pays for so many of the building blocks of state prosperity? The tax conference committee didn’t think so. We don’t either - and we wish legislators would not break with customary lawmaking procedures in order to bestow tax favors.


The Free Press of Mankato, June 19

Improve, toughen background checks

Once again we hear painful news that the perpetrator in another mass shooting was on the radar of the FBI and other authorities, but due to oversight issues, or worse, standard procedure, he was allowed to buy an AR-15-style assault rifle.

Omar Mateen was put on the U.S. watch list when he was investigated by the FBI. After an investigation, he was cleared and taken off the list.

At one point he would not have been able to board a U.S. airplane, but he was able to presumably walk down the street to his neighborhood gun store and easily buy a weapon to inflict mass murder and the killing of 49 people.

Defenders of America’s current gun laws will argue being a suspect of a crime or being watched shouldn’t disqualify one from buying a gun and exercising their Second Amendment right. But common sense should tell us otherwise. At the very minimum, those who have for some reason fallen under the scrutiny of the FBI should be sent through a more thorough check.

Other countries do this all the time. In Israel, people are questioned about who they are visiting, what places they plan to go and what business they are in before they can board a plane or in some cases go into a nightclub.

Turns out Mateen was canvassing Disneyworld in Orlando. He was dangerous and we had a hunch he might be. Why not ask a few more questions before we sell him a gun?

Those who would defend his right to buy a gun because the government only asked questions and had no proof of imminent danger, might turn that reasoning around and ask why should any law enforcement officer suspect anyone of anything. And we don’t follow that policy elsewhere. If law enforcement sees a suspicious person, they have a right to question them and stop them in petty theft cases. Why don’t we apply this standard to someone who might commit mass murder?

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., brought attention to the issue with a 15-hour filibuster on the Senate floor that ended Thursday morning. He said he has secured an agreement for two votes on the Senate floor to toughen gun laws.

One would close background check loopholes for gun show sales, but the other would allow the FBI to have more discretion in cases where there is a terror suspect from allowing a person to buy a gun. They could delay the gun sale on suspects.

These are modest and reasonable proposals that polls show nearly 90 percent of Americans agree with. These proposals in no way impinge the rights of honest American citizens buying guns. We hope Congress has the courage to approve these proposals.

Murphy pointed out we did nothing with toughening gun laws after the massacre of children at Sandy Hook in his home state. Now, we have the largest mass murder in the United States.

If we can’t toughen gun background check laws now, when will we?


St. Cloud Times, June 18

President is gone, SCSU challenges remain

St. Cloud State’s Acting President Ashish Vaidya faces big challenges - just like every university president in the country.

Vaidya has been thrust into the leadership role at St. Cloud State University with the unexpected death of President Earl H. Potter III.

The campus and St. Cloud community would do well to follow the words of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Chancellor Steven Rosenstone.

“I ask the university and the larger St. Cloud community to lend its support to Ashish and lend its support to the university’s leadership team as they work through this difficult time,” Rosenstone said.

We couldn’t agree more. This is a time of grieving. It must be a time of respect and compassion.

But the work of a major university can’t stand still even during a time of great sorrow. We are confident that Vaidya is already at work to keep the university on a course that former Coast Guard Captain Earl Potter would describe as “steady as she goes.”

This is the time for all segments of the university community to lower their voices and come together to help find solutions to the university’s problems.

Those challenges include:

- Budget pressures: The university had to reduce expenses by $7.5 million. Under Potter’s direction, the budget pressure has been reduced. But financial strain never eases for state universities that battle state funding cuts, enrollment declines and rising costs. One of the latest budget chapters was eliminating six varsity sports. The impact on the athletic department will be felt in the coming school year.

- Enrollment: St. Cloud State has battled declining enrollment in recent years. Latest figures show enrollment was steadied and a 1.5 percent increase is projected for the fall semester. But with an improving economy, rising tuition and changing demographics, enrollment will have to be watched closely. St. Cloud State has to compete with so many choices for high school seniors. The university has to keep enhancing the value of attending St. Cloud State. It also must work on innovative ways to market the university to a digital-focused generation.

- State funding: The Legislature continues to send mixed signals on funding the MnSCU schools. Lawmakers didn’t pass a bonding bill that included money for remodeling Eastman Hall. It is hard to plan when college funding is another political football in St. Paul.

- Physical plant: The university is examining its buildings and entire physical footprint to become more efficient. That effort is to be applauded. The latest example was the demolition under way Friday of Holes Hall, a multi-story dormitory that has outlived its usefulness.

- Fund-raising: President Potter was on his way to a meeting with the SCSU Foundation chair and others to discuss fundraising strategy Monday when he died in a traffic accident in Brooklyn Center. The acting president will have to take up the fundraising effort because, with less federal and state money and rising operating costs, the leadership team has to try to boost donations and endowments from the private sector. Potter spent nine years establishing contacts and building relationships and trust with donors and potential donors. The new leader has to get up to speed.

- Community connecting: Vaidya must try to fill the void left by Potter in linking the community to the campus. Potter’s involvement was genuine, sustained and expansive. That is a huge legacy to emulate. But Vaidya has a willing partner in St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and other community leaders. Potter established great working relationships with groups galore. For the sake of the university and community, it has to continue.

- Morale: President Potter had vocal and passionate critics on campus and in the community. Some of the opposition was due to his personal style. Some came from the difficult and unpopular decisions he had to make. This is a time for a fresh start. This is a time for faculty, staff and students at the university to work together. All stakeholders must focus their intelligence, energy and innovation to find solutions that will benefit many, not a few.

So what can the community do?

If members of the university leadership team ask for help, we must do all we can to assist. Reach out to the leaders to see what they need and how we can help.

Take time to allow them to grieve and cope.

Then join them in getting back to allowing the university to move ahead.

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