Coon Rapids Mayor-Elect Jerry Koch, center, explains to Gov. Mark Dayton, left, the train problems in his city. Fire Chief John Piper is on the right. Tim Pugmire/ MPR News

Gov. Mark Dayton said a big investment is needed to upgrade some railway crossings throughout the state, a cost the railroads should share.

“Unfortunately, given the nature of the physical improvements, it’s going to take some time and some serious money to make these improvements at grade crossings,” Dayton said.  “To change those at $15 million to $30 million a piece, that’s very expensive.”

The DFL governor held a roundtable discussion Monday in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Coon Rapids, where concern is growing over train slowdowns that frequently block key intersections along Highway 10. Officials from nearby cities made similar complaints.

Coon Rapids Mayor-Elect Jerry Koch said emergency vehicles often get blocked by slow-moving trains.

“We just really need to figure out a way to quit parking the trains in town here,” Koch added.

Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper said he recently met with BNSF Railway officials to discuss the issue, but the problem seems to be getting worse.

“It’s having a dramatic effect on our public safety response times,” Piper said.

After the meeting, Dayton said the there’s been a lack of responsiveness from the railroads to the problem.

The governor plans to unveil a transportation proposal during the 2015 Legislative session that will include rail projects. He said legislation requiring railroads to share the cost may be needed if they don’t come forward voluntarily. The session begins January 6.

Brian Sweeney, a lobbyist with BNSF who also attended the meeting in Coon Rapids, said his railroad has a major capital investment underway to improve the flow of train traffic.

“Ultimately, the problem is going to be solved by building more capacity,” Sweeney said.

Good morning!

In Minnesota

Gov. Mark Dayton intends to ask Minnesota legislators to quickly approve a relief package related to last summer’s severe flooding because an existing disaster-aid account ran dry this week. (AP via Star Tribune)

A coalition of utilities and clean energy advocates say they want to give electricity customers more options for power sources while keeping energy reliable and affordable. (MPR News)

State House Republicans have yanked Rep. Jean Wagenius, a Minneapolis DFLer and longtime ally of environmentalists, from her longstanding spot as lead House Democrat on the committee that oversees state spending on environment and natural resources. (Star Tribune)

The state’s jobless rate is now 3.7 percent, the lowest since 2001. (MPR News)

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce will push for a rollback of automatic inflationary increases in the state’s minimum wage. (MPR News)

A look at four of the most interesting new laws that will take effect in Minnesota on January 1st. (MPR News)

Why are some of Minnesota’s elected leaders so fascinated with a 30 year old legislative session? (MinnPost)

National Politics

An independent panel recommended sweeping changes at the Secret Service, saying the elite protective agency is “starved for leadership” and calling for a new director, hundreds of new agents and officers and a higher fence around the White House. (Washington Post)

Congressional Republicans plan to fight President Obama’s thaw in relations with Cuba by denying Obama funds to reopen an embassy in Havana, stall the nomination of a potential ambassador, vote down a bill to open up travel more widely and ignore requests from the White House to lift a decades-old embargo. (Politico)

Cubans in Minnesota welcomed the diplomatic moves. (MPR News)

Hillary Clinton is studying the mistakes of her 2008 presidential campaign closely as she starts to organize a potential 2016 bid. (New York Times)

While many DFL members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation may have already endorsed Clinton’s bid, Minneapolis Congressman Keith Ellison says he’d welcome Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s entry into the race. (MSNBC)

Was 2014 the year Congress hit rock bottom? (Politico)

Goodbye, Stephen Colbert…(Comedy Central)

 

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce will push for a rollback of automatic inflationary increases in the state’s minimum wage.

Also among the statewide group’s top priorities in the 2015 legislative session, are transportation, tax cuts and health care.

“We see a real problem with setting things on auto pilot,” said Ben Gerber, who manages labor policy for the Chamber. “We elect legislators and hold elections to put people in office to make these tough decisions. And we think that, especially on an issue like the minimum wages, legislators should be making that decision.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law that increased the $6.15 minimum wage to $8.00 this year, $9.00 in 2015 and $9.50 by 2016. Starting in 2018, the minimum wage will increase automatically based on inflation, unless a future administration determines it would damage the economy to allow the increase.

Gerber said chamber members in rural communities have been particularly concerned with the wage changes. They say it will be a bigger financial burden for them than for businesses in the Twin Cities, Gerber said.

The inflation trigger was a sticking point between House and Senate DFLers as they hashed out their minimum wage bill earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the Chamber will also push for tax cuts, including a trim to the individual income tax, which the group argues hurts small businesses that pay taxes through individual income taxes.

The group agrees that transportation projects need new funding, too.

But where they diverge from Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL lawmakers in the Senate is on how they find the money. Dayton has proposed a wholesale gasoline tax increase, which some argue would offer a more stable funding source than regular appropriations.

But the Chamber says that approach isn’t among its priorities. Instead, it would like to see funding come from savings at the state’s Department of Transportation, general fund money and new user fees that would effectively require the people and businesses that benefit the most from road and transit projects to pay for them.

Some of these funding mechanisms may be a hard sell to DFL lawmakers in the Minnesota Senate. Already, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook says he doesn’t see much room in the state’s general fund surplus to pay for new transportation projects.