by ZACH KAYSER
With one day of the special legislative session under their belt, Rep. Gene Pelowski (DFL-Winona) and Sen. Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) had good feelings about several provisions in pending budget bills that would directly impact Winona should they become law.
Lawmakers in St. Paul must come to an agreement on a two-year budget plan by July 1 if the state is to avoid a government shutdown.
Chief among the highlights pertinent to Winona is the tantalizing possibility of the long-envisioned second Amtrak train. The idea has been chugging along for years without major action, but the rail initiative recently picked up steam. Pelowski said the legislature is on the verge of approving the $10 million necessary to secure federal funding for a second Amtrak train through the Midwest, which would pass through Winona.
As of Monday, Pelowski was informed the second train money was still in the potential budget deal. “This would make rail, once again, an important artery for Winona,” he said.
Miller said the second train initiative would improve freight rail in addition to passenger trains, and — crucially for Winona drivers — reduce wait times at rail crossings. However, Miller demurred Tuesday when asked to state the likelihood of the second train passing through the legislature. “As of this moment right now, I don’t know what more to say other than they’re in play, but I’m advocating very, very strongly for them, and we’re making good progress,” he said.
By “them,” Miller was referring to both the second train initiative and a proposed $400,000 pilot program for technical educators at Winona State University.
Pelowski was also excited about the drive to create a distinct licensure track for those hoping to become high school industrial tech teachers. It was the culmination of a four-year effort to get the program signed into law, he said. Schools like WSU would help assist a statewide effort to give young people the means to have a marketable trade or technical skill without going to a four-year college, he said.
“That was common 30 years ago,” Pelowski said. “We need to go back to that.”
Most of any additional education dollars would go to per-pupil school funding for pre-K through 12th grade, Pelowski said. The funding increase was partially the idea of Republicans in control of the Senate, as a bargaining incentive to get House DFLers to drop policy initiatives, Pelowski said. Earlier this month the Senate GOP announced a proposed three-percent increase in the funding formula, which vastly outpaced its position in May of no increase at all. “I think it was to shut down some of the policy stuff the House was pushing,” Pelowski said.
Miller said his fellow Senate Republicans simply cared deeply about education funding, which is why they proposed a higher amount of spending than either the DFL Governor or the DFL-controlled House of Representatives. “Maybe to some it [seems odd], but I think it just goes to prove that E-12 doesn’t have to be a partisan issue,” Miller said.