Tuition breaks, loan forgiveness, nursing home help deemed priorities at Minnesota Legislature



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ST. PAUL, Minnesota — Minnesota lawmakers dangled the possibility of free vocational college tuition, student-loan forgiveness in certain career fields and tax breaks for the agriculture, mining and timber industries as potential uses for a $1 billion projected surplus.

Those bills and others were trotted out Thursday as priority proposals of Democrats, who run the Senate, and Republicans running the House.

There is some bipartisan overlap when it comes to encouraging people to pursue degrees in areas with high workforce demand, such as targeted student-debt forgiveness programs for medical professionals. The House plan eases debt for those who work in nursing homes or disability care facilities, while a Senate bill would absorb loans for doctors, dentists and others who commit to rural clinics for at least four years.

Another education-related bill from the Senate DFL would provide tuition-free classes at two-year colleges as a way to make technical education more attractive. The House GOP, meanwhile, would offer income tax credits for recent graduates in science, technology, engineering, math or long-term care fields.

"I see some areas where we will probably work well together," said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.

But there is plenty of divergence in the opening bids for this session, in which lawmakers will craft a new state budget and pass policies over the next five months.

Tax breaks for businesses gets top billing in the House, with the hope they'll get employers to expand payrolls or entice companies to relocate to the state.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said his caucus favors creating or strengthening programs with a more concrete payoff.

"I just do not believe that you can drive economic development by reducing a business' taxes," Bakk said. "Because one you have no assurance it's going to get passed on to build the business or you have no assurance it's not just going to go to the bottom line, dividends or other things."

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, will propose a two-year budget on Jan. 27 that will be the starting point for deliberations.

Other elements of the first Senate bills are:

—Fast-tracking a $12.25 million relief proposal to help local governments pay off bills from severe summer flooding.

—Creating new scholarships to pay for voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for four-year-olds as a way to better prepare them kindergarten and beyond.

—Revising child-protection laws to give county social service workers more information when screening child maltreatment allegations and add more oversight.

Other highlights of the House bills:

—Toughening teacher licensing standards and rewriting tenure laws that make it harder to get rid of weak teachers.

—Setting up long-term savings plan to encourage people to set aside money for nursing home or elder-care costs.

—Increasing legislative oversight of MNSure, the state health insurance market, and requiring state officials to seek possible waivers from the federal Affordable Care Act. Their plan would also clampdown on performance bonuses to MNsure executives.

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