Minnesota Chamber will keep tabs on jobs, workforce in 2013

MARSHALL – The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has outlined its legislative agenda for 2013 and says it is looking forward to working with the Legislature on a number of different fronts, including creating more private-sector jobs in Minnesota – a top priority of a number of legislators, regardless of party affiliation.

The Minnesota Chamber says changing demographics and globalization require forward-looking policies from the Legislature. Part of the solution to creating jobs in the state, the Chamber said, is to address the achievement gap in schools. Another is addressing work-readiness among prospective employees.

“We have a shortage of workers, we know that,” said Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cal Brink. “One of the concerns is, does Minnesota have a workforce that’s prepared and ready to go to work?”

The Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce is part of the Minnesota Chamber Federation and is, in general, on board with what the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is pursuing during the 2013 session. Being a member also means the Marshall Chamber has the opportunity to give its input on what it would like to see pushed at the Legislature.

“We’ve made the decision as a Chamber board to support these priorities,” Brink said. “That doesn’t mean that we agree with 100 percent of every single piece of it, but we think the things they’re trying to get accomplished in the session and what we’re pushing hard to get done line up with what the majority of our members want.”

Brink said the regional workforce assessment series that took place in Marshall and around the state last summer shone a perplexing light on some of the issues facing today’s employers when it comes to finding the right workers.

“Part of it was about the people who come in to interview not being prepared to work,” he said. “They’ve gone to college and everything, but according to the people leading these sessions, they just don’t get it. I found that really hard to believe, but it does tell us that we have to find some way locally to be able to bridge that gap.”

“Finding skilled labor is a challenge,” said Alan Poff, senior director of government and community affairs at The Schwan Food Co. and a member of the Minnesota Chamber Board. “But I don’t think it’s just regionally or in Minnesota, I think it’s across the country. The good thing is we continue to work with SMSU and the regional tech colleges to try to improve on these things.”

Brink said having local high school students take college courses at Southwest Minnesota State University is a big piece of the jobs puzzle.

“I think we have the ability with MinnWest being here to expand on that piece, too, and really start to try to get some of those types of courses that are geared toward our industry around here,” said Brink. “We’ve got some opportunities with two-year colleges to really prepare people for the kind of workforce that we’re talking about.”

“In our different priorities, some of the things we see ourselves aligning close with the governor, some might be more of a challenge, but with the education workforce, we do see a lot of synergy there,” said Jim Pumarlo, director of communications with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

In terms of unemployment, the region’s low jobless numbers, while a good sign for the local economy, at times plays against what Marshall is trying to do. Brink cited the city’s recent bid for a call center that was looking to relocate. The city of Marshall, with an unemployment rate of 3.8 percent, tossed its hat into the ring to lure the business here, but was immediately taken off the list.

“I’m a little bit careful now when I start bragging about our unemployment rate,” Brink said. “The first thing on their list was, they wouldn’t look anywhere that has less than 8 percent unemployment. It’s getting desperately close to too low. It’s weird to put it that way.”

Minnesota’s unemployment rate stands at 5.5 as of December, well below the national rate of 7.8 percent.

The Minnesota Chamber is also targeting the implementation of a Minnesota-made health care insurance exchange. Pumarlo said businesses large and small are not enthralled with the federal health care plan, known as “Obamacare.” He said the Minnesota Chamber is looking at the health exchange bill very closely as Minnesota works to avoid a “one-size” fits all health plan offered by the Obama administration.

“Our whole goal is to develop a health insurance exchange that provides quality care at a good value and to preserve the private marketplace – have the government facilitate it, not regulate it,” said Pumarlo. “If the exchange works right it’s supposed to give small employers and individuals kind of a ‘Travelocity’ of health care and look at providers. The governor’s pushed it hard. Minnesota’s been pretty innovative in health care and feel we would rather have a Minnesota plan than a one-size-fits-all plan.”

Minnesota Management and Budget announced Thursday that the state has received a $39 million federal grant to continue development of a state health exchange. Minnesota submitted the most recent grant application to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in November. Funds from the grant will be used for IT licenses and maintenance costs, call center operation, consumer outreach, consumer testing and other administrative functions.

MMB said the exchange would empower more than 1 million Minnesota residents to choose the health insurance they need at an affordable price and would facilitate enrollment in public health insurance and private insurance products.

“We think that we can develop a model for understanding that it’s good to serve our needs,” Pumarlo said. “We want to do something to serve Minnesota, rather than having the feds say, ‘You will do it this way.’ Minnesota probably has different dynamics than a Nevada or a California.”

Pumarlo noted that all states have to pass their own health exchange laws by March 31. Open enrollment to establish an exchange begins in October, and the law would be implemented in 2014.

As far as tax reform, the Minnesota Chamber is looking for ways to keep Minnesota competitive. It says the focus on tax reform should be on improving the tax system to keep and grow jobs in a global economy and wants to develop a new tax structure from a revenue-neutral perspective.

“I think it’s fair to say the budget tax reform will probably be our most contentious issue, one of our biggest challenges with the governor,” Pumarlo said. “We think we should first look at spending reforms.”

Minnesota has the third highest corporate tax rate (9.8 percent) in the U.S, according to the MCC. Minnesota’s business property taxes represent 13 percent of the total market value in the state and businesses pay 31 percent of all property taxes, as well as a statewide property tax. Minnesota’s sales tax rate of 6.875 percent ranks seventh highest among U.S. states. Also, Minnesota top income tax rate of 7.85 percent is eighth highest in the U.S.