Legislative business continues as the House and Senate remain busy working on issues during these non-session months. For instance, I recently attended a meeting in St. Paul to discuss a rather unsettling report regarding the Met Council’s financial statements.
Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Office of the Legislative Auditor released a report on Met Council finances, showing a $237 million discrepancy between the funding the Met Council reported to the federal government and the funding it reported to the Legislature in seeking state funding.
The Met Council reported to the federal government a $152 million balance in its total operating budget as part of its efforts to gain federal funding for the Southwest Light Rail project. This bottom line seemingly would portray to the folks in Washington, D.C., that the Met Council is on firm financial footing and enhance its request for mass-transit tax dollars.
On the other hand, earlier this year the Met Council reported a $68 million deficit to the Minnesota Legislature. In a subsequent report, the Met Council showed an $85 million deficit. During budget negotiations during the 2017 session, Gov. Mark Dayton insisted that the final Transportation Finance bill include $70 million in one-time taxpayer funding to cover the Met Council deficit. The Legislature ultimately provided the Met Council with that $70 million.
This all begs the question: Which is it? The Met Council’s willingness to produce two separate financial portraits based on what suits their interests at the time is concerning. This is an unelected body providing information which impacts decisions of elected officials not only at the federal and state levels, but also impacts action taken by counties and cities. We all rely on the integrity of financial reports to make informed decisions. That integrity goes out the window if the Met Council is going to use different sets of financial assumptions to suit its agenda.
At the very least, the Met Council should provide footnotes or qualifications regarding variances in budgetary assumptions. In hindsight, if there’s a $152 balance, could the state have done better with the $70 million in taxpayer money it provided the Met Council by instead furthering priorities such as K-12 education or roads and bridges?
The OLA found the Met Council’s practices to be troubling and we will continue to press this issue in search of solutions to bring legitimacy in financial reporting and restore trust that clearly has been burned.
The Legislature will continue learning more as the OLA completes the second and third phases of this audit. It will be particularly interesting to learn of the Met Council’s financial solvency with respect to its 20-year financial projections and its ability to maintain the existing transit system in the Twin Cities metropolitan region. In the meantime, legislators have penned a correspondence to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, urging denial of federal funding under the New Starts program for the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) project.
Pictured with Dr. Benjamin Baechler, I was pleased to receive the William Garner Award Oct. 11 at the Capitol in St. Paul.
Curbing carbon monoxide poisoning on watercraft
I was honored to receive the William Garner Award last week at the State Capitol in St. Paul for my work on legislation aimed at preventing carbon monoxide poisoning upon watercraft with enclosed spaces. Known as “Sophia's Law,” new law I led to enactment came as a result of a tragic carbon monoxide poisoning incident involving 7-year-old Sophia Baechler on Lake Minnetonka in 2015.
The heartbreaking loss served as motivation to prevent future carbon monoxide tragedies. Carbon monoxide is a clear and odorless byproduct of combustion that unknowing individuals are unable to detect. Over the past many decades, the boating industry has evolved to where significant numbers of watercraft have enclosed spaces. In addition, onboard electric generation has also become a source of CO emissions.
Sen. Melisa Franzen joined me as the other chief author of Sophia’s law and we worked across the aisle with the Department of Natural Resources, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the American Boat and Yacht council, medical experts, and advocates for low level carbon monoxide detectors to make Sophia’s Law a reality.
This law has now become an example of model legislation to be used nationwide and is being advocated by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. The law seeks to inform, educate, and warn the boating public while balancing the capabilities of industry to be able to properly respond to the law.
The bill passed as part of the Omnibus Supplemental Budget bill in 2016. Under the law, boats longer than 16 feet with enclosed cabin facilities that include sleeping areas, bathroom, and a galley are now required to have detectors to alert passengers of dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide. The law also encourages boaters to replace outdated carbon monoxide detectors whose sensors will likely not function, as many sensors are a decade or more old and have no “end of life” warning.
I want to thank the Baechler family, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, medical experts, and other stakeholders for their work and advocacy to help pass Sophia’s Law. This measure will no doubt help save lives each year in Minnesota, especially for children and the elderly, who are more at risk of poisoning due to smaller size than others at the same concentration of CO exposure. It's an honor to receive this award, and to have worked with the family and others to help Sophia's legacy live on to prevent future tragedies.
Rep. Jerry Hertaus