Days now drift nonstop into nights of formal meetings and complex bills with long-term implications are moving from committee to committee. As the volume and pace of legislation considered each week increases, I’ll continue to highlight issues that I’ve been working on and topics that area residents have shown a lot of interest in. I appreciate your feedback, ideas and concerns. It’s one of the most engaged and active communities in the state and we should be proud of that.
Increased help for workers and their families
This week in Tax Committee, I presented a bill to increase the Minnesota Working Family Tax Credit. It complements the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. To be eligible, people must work for a paycheck. The bill would increase the credit in response to increasing costs of living mixed with minimal wage growth for low income workers in the past few years. Young workers ages 20-25 would be eligible if they are not claimed as a dependent.
This benefit averages $746 but varies greatly based on income and family size. Statewide, 12 percent of households get this. However, most benefit for only a few years as their incomes rise. It helps get many families off to a manageable start.
This is a major financial help to workers and their families who work for a paycheck but earn low to moderate wages. The lowest benefit is for minimum wage level workers without kids at home and the program most benefits those with children who are eligible at higher but still modest wages.
Research has consistently shown that it helps lift these households out of poverty, stabilizes their finances and helps launch them into stronger and more rewarding lives. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, every dollar counts and a car repair, medical emergency, cutback in hours or other change can quickly snowball into high debt, being unable to get to work, or being unable to pay rent.
Supporting the proposal was Nan Madden of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (and an area resident), the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, the Minnesota Council on Latinos, and Prepare and Prosper, which helps low income people prepare their taxes, repair credit, and start saving. A recipient and her 3 year old son were the stars of the show; she described how the larger refund it provided helped her weather unexpected financial challenges.
After weeks of hearing bills about the concerns of wealthy people and tax proposals that benefit small groups of them, it was good to get the committee discussing a tax proposal that would benefit a large share of the working population.
A trio of Energy Bills that could weaken our commitment to renewable energy & a consumer voice
The House passed three energy bills Thursday. Together, they weaken the role of the Public Utilities Commission, which oversees energy monopolies to assure the consumer that rates are fair and the plans for new investments shown to be needed and cost-effective. They also weaken our commitment to solar and other renewable energies. I voted “no” on each.
The first, HF 113, exempts a proposed natural gas plant in Becker, MN from the Certificate of Need and other permitting requirements of the Public Utility Commission. This will provide electricity for all of us who have Xcel service and its costs will impact our rates. It won’t begin construction until 2023 or later so there’s plenty of time for thoughtful review of its size and how it would fit into the plans for greater use of renewable energy. Opponents fear it will be “super-sized” and result in unneeded capacity and expense that will result in higher rates. A serious analysis would better determine the actual needs and the most cost effective alternatives. An amendment would require Xcel to provide more information and give the PUC six months to react.
The second, HF 235, ends the Renewable Development Fund and the Made in Minnesota Solar Program. The RDF was created decades ago and is funded by payments from Xcel for storing nuclear waste in casks at Prairie Island. It currently receives $27 million a year and has funded many investments in renewable energy. A broad-based board directs the use of the funds.
The Made in Minnesota Solar program had more demand than it could meet. Solar has helped generate 2400 jobs, helped spur 1100 solar installations and represents $1 billion in economic activity.
The original bill dissolved the RDF fund and replaced it with an “Energy Fund” whose use was unspecified but will be decided by the Legislature. An amendment specified five energy-related uses but also phases out the payments. I voted “no” as we need to make ongoing investments in reducing our energy use and converting to renewable sources with minimized environmental impacts.
The last bill, HF 234, would remove the ability of electric cooperative members to have the Public Utility Commission review the fees and rates of the co-ops. The main area of disagreement is over net metering where a customer installs a solar or wind system and then can sell back excess energy. Some co-ops have created large fees that take away the economic value of the renewable investment. They want to “mediate” those disputes on their own without Public Utility Commission oversight.
I’m proud that Minnesota has made so much progress on increasing energy from renewables. I’m glad I worked hard to pass the Renewable Energy Standard about 10 years ago, which has engaged our utilities in converting to lower environmental impact approaches. When dealing with monopolies in electricity and gas, it’s proven beneficial to have the public’s interest seriously considered via the Public Utilities Commission process. These bills step back from that vision and I’m glad I voted “no.” Some could be improved greatly with more guidance and clearer language. It’s my hope they will evolve as the Senate and the Governor weigh in.
Enjoy the spring-like weather. I hope to see many Southeast area residents at the 1 p.m. meeting at Van Cleve Park on Saturday. May all take time Tuesday to thank those who make our lives better and our hearts happy (it’s Valentine’s Day on the 14th).