ST. PAUL - Minnesota legislators opened their 2014 session today battling the polar vortex.
Less than an hour after the session started at noon, the House voted 133-0 to provide a $20 million boost to Minnesotans struggling to pay heating costs this winter. Rural lawmakers stood one after another saying their constituents are hurting as temperatures have remained bitterly cold for most of the year.
The bill written by Rep. Joe Radinovich, D-Crosby, adds funds to an existing state-federal program that gives low-income people help paying for heat.
“Without this legislation, this critical program will run out of funding in early March,” Radinovich said. “As another round of extreme cold hits the state, we need to make sure that every Minnesotan can heat their home and can get assistance if they need it."
After the initial House propane vote and a few routine actions, the Taxes Committee began considering a long list of bills, mostly designed to overturn some taxes the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Mark Dayton approved last year.
In an unusual move, the House planned to suspend its rules so the heating aid could be approved on the first day.
"Minnesotans have been put in a difficult position because of the spike in propane prices," Radinovich said.
The fuel price that last fall was $1.60 a gallon spiked at $6.67, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said. Prices now are about $3.89.
“The supply issue has eased and stabilized,” he said, even with higher-than-normal prices.
The propane crisis, as state officials call it, comes because extra propane was needed to dry wet crops last fall, followed by bitterly cold weather caused by a polar vortex weather pattern. Also, a pipeline bringing propane to the state was down for a time.
Today's action would do nothing to keep prices down next year, Rothman said in response to a question by Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls. However, there is talk about lawmakers finding ways to encourage more propane storage in Minnesota.
Agreement was unanimous on the emergency funding (Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, was absent), and many agreed that the real issue will be making sure the same propane crisis does not happen again.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said his concern is that during the legislative session will warm up and legislators will forget the long-term impact.
A House energy committee will look into further actions next week, centering on ways to get more propane storage in Minnesota instead of the need to transport the fuel from places such as Kansas and Texas during cold months.
A pipeline that has supplied 40 percent of Minnesota's propane will stop transporting the fuel in April, which Rothman said will force more transportation by railroads and highways.
“Propane suppliers in rural northern Minnesota are literally going 24-7 to provide their customer with enough ... to last a week when it is 25 below zero,” Rep. Tom Anzelc, D-Balsam Township, said.
The Senate could take action on Radinovich’s bill later this week or early next week.
The House Taxes Committee was to take up two-dozen bills, mostly dealing with eliminating some taxes placed on businesses last year.
Also on the first day of session, the House and Senate named negotiators to hash out details of a proposed increase in the state minimum wage.
The session lasts through May 19.