ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The elected politicians tend to dominate the microphones at the State Capitol, as they debate a bumper crop of controversial measures.
But this week Rep. Anne Lenczewski, who chairs the House Tax Committee, decided to set aside one night to let citizens sound off on the Governor Dayton's budget plan.
Dayton proposes to increase the income tax rate on the wealthiest two percent of Minnesotans. He's also seeking to expand the sales tax to clothing priced at more than $100, as well as to many services currently exempt.
Everyone who showed up -- average voters, lobbyists, police chiefs and mayors -- were asked to adhere to the same ground rules. They had to sum up their thoughts in two minutes, and had to state if they generally favored the plan or opposed it.
Rep. Lenczewski's open mic night Wednesday at the State Office Building turned out to be too successful, in one way. The response to the invitation was huge.
A total of 104 people testified between 7:30 p.m. and midnight, when House rules required the meeting to end. At that point 92 others, who had signed into the list of witnesses, were still waiting to speak.
"It was a great hearing, and I truly apologize to those who waited all night and didn't get a chance to speak Wednesday," Lenczewski said.
Friday afternoon, a time most lawmakers are trying to head home to their districts for the weekend, Lenczewski held a second hearing to give the other 92 a chance to have their say.
Some, unable to attend, submitted written statements. But two dozen people did make it the meeting, and shared their thoughts on the governor's tax plan in two-minute increments.
Those who testified Friday included business owners who argued being taxed on business-to-business transactions would harm their bottom lines.
"The business-to-business services tax, based on our actual profit and loss, would've resulted in a net loss for our company, for each of the last two years I reviewed," Mark Halla, who owns a landscaping company in Chaska, said.
Several company owners also said they organized their businesses as Subchapter S corporations, so they claim business profits as personal income on their tax forms.
So, in that way, any profits exceeding $250,000 would be subject to the higher income tax rate.
"Ladies and gentlemen, $1.4 million in additional business tax plus a 21 percent increase in my personal income tax is more than enough incentive for me to move everything I own out of Minnesota," entrepreneur Quentin Irey told the committee.
On the flip side the committee heard from people who work with special needs populations, including Willie Snyder, a human services worker employed by Ramsey County Human Services.
He pointed out that services to persons with disabilities has suffered many cuts in the past decade, due to lawmakers' efforts to close huge budget deficits.
"In my job I toilet people and clean up after them, as anybody's who's got a heart would do," Snyder said, appearing in a green AFSCME union shirt.
"The clients I work with do not hold the keys to mansions. It is at times my job to teach clients to use the keys to their own bedrooms."
Mark Krey, a paraprofessional who works with special education students in the West St. Paul School District, said he's seen the staff-to-student ratio increase in the past decade as districts made cutbacks.
"So now a child's address determines his or her education," Krey said.
"A child's education should not be based on address."
Special education is a federal mandate but it only partially paid for by the federal government. The balance is made up by local districts, so the quality of services varies from community to community.
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