The Albert Lea Tribune, March 4
Teacher exams key for licensing
Prospective teachers in Minnesota may soon have one less hurdle to jump before becoming licensed.
The Minnesota House Education Policy Committee is considering eliminating the difficult college-level skills test in reading, writing and math. While the test may not be a solid indicator of a prospective teacher's skills, it serves an important purpose and should not be dropped without a comparable replacement licensing requirement.
Everybody wants highly qualified teachers in Minnesota schools, and it's important that these educators are knowledgeable in core skills regardless of what subject they teach. These tests do a good job of weeding out many of those who shouldn't lead a classroom of children; however, there should be a better way to go about allowing only qualified teachers to be licensed.
In the classroom, the most important thing is that a teacher can connect with kids on a psychological level. Under the current system, a prospective teacher who plans to teach 6-year-olds can't be licensed without passing a math test that would leave the vast majority of the general population dumbstruck.
The tests serve an important purpose, but it's OK that the state committee is considering a change. License qualifications should ensure Minnesota fills its classrooms with only well-prepared teachers, but the best answer is probably not a one-size-fits-all test.
Post-Bulletin, March 5
Bonding bill should double-down on Minnesota
Minnesota's $1.23 billion projected budget surplus gives legislators an enviable amount of flexibility this year.
Just a day before the budget forecast for the 2014-15 biennium was released, the House Taxes Committee passed a $500 million package that included middle-income tax relief by conforming state law to recent federal tax changes and the repeal of three business-to-business taxes. Gov. Mark Dayton wants the Legislature to fast-track a tax-cut bill to his desk by March 14, so taxpayers can claim deductions when they file their 2013 income tax returns.
That's not a bad idea, but given that 32 percent of state taxpayers already have filed — and thousands more do so every day — this could get complicated. If any tax changes are retroactive to 2013, we hope there's a way for people to get their extra money without having to file amended returns.
There will be plenty of debate about how much of the surplus should be "given back" to businesses and individuals and how much should be put into the state's reserves. The DFL controls both the House and Senate, but House Speaker Paul Thissen and Sen. Majority Leader Tom Bakk aren't yet in complete accord, with Bakk suggesting the reserves should be replenished while the state is in a position to do so.
They'll find some middle ground, and we're certain that by the time the Legislature adjourns, the state will have a significantly larger emergency fund and Minnesotans will feel a lighter tax burden. That's a win-win that seldom happens.
But figuring out how to share the "extra" money isn't the Legislature's only task right now. With the state's economy heating up, it's time to take aggressive action to keep things moving.
This is a "go big or go home" moment, and we urge our leaders to "go big" with the bonding bill.
Interest rates are still near historic lows. With the state's reserve funds replenished and all debts to the schools paid off, lenders will be eager to send money to Minnesota. The Tax Foundation ranks Minnesota 37th among the states in state debt at $2,421 per capita. By comparison, neighboring states South Dakota rank 14th at $4,321 and Wisconsin 18th at $4,013.
This is an ideal time to borrow money for statewide infrastructure projects and expand on Dayton's $986 million proposal for capital investments.
We should begin with the state's road and transit system. Minnesota has 140,000 miles of roads and 20,000 bridges that are behind in repairs and upgrades. The most recent federal National Bridge Inventory rated 33 Minnesota bridges as "fracture critical and structurally deficient." As gas tax revenues continue to shrink, bonding might be the best way to raise money for these projects.
There also are several regional projects deserving consideration, with the long-overdue expansion of Mayo Civic Center being the top priority. Rochester is requesting $37 million in bonding dollars for the $81 million project.
Dayton's bill earmarks $114 million for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, which ranks the replacement of Plaza Hall and Memorial Hall on the Rochester Community and Technical College campus as No. 11 on its wish list.
Then there are the truly big-picture projects, such as the Rochester-to-Twin Cities high-speed Zip Rail project, which was not included in Dayton's bonding bill. Perhaps it should be.
With the advantage of majorities in both chambers, the Democrats should leverage that clout into a historic bonding bill that will add tens of thousands of construction jobs to the state's economy and cement Dayton's legacy as the governor who finally addressed Minnesota's backlog of overdue infrastructure projects.
Opportunities like this don't come around very often. We can be fiscally responsible with the surplus while doubling-down on Minnesota's future.
Star Tribune, March 5
Increase state minimum wage, but not all at once
Minnesota's unworthy spell of permitting some employers to pay wages lower than the federal minimum appears to be nearing an end. A legislative conference committee took a major step this week toward a higher state minimum wage when Senate conferees said that under the right conditions, they can agree to the House-approved wage floor of $9.50 per hour for large employers.
Getting those conditions right won't be easy, however. That was evident Tuesday evening when talks broke down over whether future minimum wage increases should be tied to inflation and imposed automatically. The House says yes, the Senate no.
The Senate has the better idea. Putting the minimum wage on autopilot may appear to take it out of the hands of neglectful politicians. But that appearance is deceiving. Instead, it injects an argument about whether or not to allow an automatic increase to go forward as an annual fixture in end-of-session deal making. And it increases the chances that employers would be compelled to raise wages at the start of a recession, which would lead to more layoffs than might otherwise occur.
Getting other conditions right is critical to crafting a minimum-wage increase that delivers on its promised gain for low-income workers and the overall economy with minimal disruption for employers and consumers.
We favor a slower phase-in of higher wages than the House bill orders. We'd start the new minimum no higher than $8.50 per hour about a year from enactment and advance it to $9.50 no sooner than Jan. 1, 2017 — not Aug. 1, 2015, as the House bill anticipates.
The reason: Get to $9.50 too quickly, and the new minimum wage's potential benefits will be mitigated by a jarring hit to business balance sheets. A $9.50 minimum is a 31 percent boost from today's federal minimum wage of $7.25. It would be more disruptive to employers that do no interstate commerce and thus are paying the lower state minimums, $6.15 for employers with gross annual sales of $625,000 or more, $5.25 for smaller employers.
Preserving a distinction between large and small employers is important to minimizing the downside of a big boost in the wage floor. Small employers often have little bottom-line flexibility. They're more likely than large ones to respond to a wage floor that rises too quickly by cutting workers' hours, eliminating jobs or canceling plans for more hiring.
Another distinction in current law — a "training wage" for employees under age 20 — should also survive in some form. The training wage in current law, $4.90 per hour, can be paid for the first 90 days in a young employee's tenure; the House bill raises the training wage to $8 by Aug. 1, 2015.
The Minnesota Grocers' Association and its business allies are asking the conference committee to extend that training wage to any employee under age 18. Without it, they say, there will be fewer jobs for high school students bagging groceries and stocking store shelves — jobs that often teach young people the value of work. It's an idea worthy of consideration, especially at the $8 level.
A higher minimum wage has broad backing among Minnesotans, a Feb. 10-12 Star Tribune Minnesota Poll found. But fewer than half of those polled said they think a $9.50 minimum is warranted now. That shows that Minnesotans understand that reaching too far, too fast, has a counterproductive downside. Legislators should be realistic about that risk, and strive to minimize it.