Capitol Notebook: Health Bill Fantasy Or Not Ready?

Union rally

The House bill funding health programs either is a fantasy or not quite ready, depending on who speaks.

Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton said on Tuesday that it is “fantasy island” for Republicans who wrote the bill to think that the federal government will approve a change to save the state $300 million. Obama administration officials have indicated they will not do that, the governor said.

The bill, written by Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, would increase state spending on health-care and welfare programs for the poor, disabled and elderly, but not as much as had been predicted.

Abeler admitted on Tuesday that his bill “is not ready to become law,” an unusual comment from a committee chairman.

In his House Health and Human Services Finance Committee discussion about the bill, he urged colleagues to “find me a better way.” Abeler said there are lots of decisions yet to be made and he is looking toward the constitutional adjournment date of May 23 instead of Republicans’ self-imposed Friday deadline to complete budget bills.

Democrats have complained that Republicans in control of the Legislature are rushing through finance issues just to meet the deadline. Committee chairmen, however, say they are scheduling hours of meetings to hear from the public.

“This is a big week at the Legislature,” said Deputy Senate Majority Leader Geoff Michel, R-Edina. “We’re not going to rush because it’s important to get things right.”

A Republican spokesman could not immediately say if Michel meant that committees could ignore Friday’s deadline.

Dayton said that he thinks the GOP is rushing too much on budget bills, and told legislative leaders that over Tuesday morning breakfast.

There are too many disagreements, even about facts, he said.

The two sides need a “mutually agreed-on reality,” Dayton said. “They make up their assumptions where there is no basis in reality.”

Still, Dayton said, he is not worried about a budget getting finished on time.

Some parts of the budget are bound to undergo significant cuts, while bills such as Abeler shepherds increase spending.

The GOP wants to spend $34 billion in the next two years, compared $37 billion in Dayton’s plan. The current budget is expected to spend $30 billion.

Unions rally again

More than 1,000 union members crammed into the Capitol rotunda Tuesday for the second time this year.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5, the state’s largest public worker union, made up the bulk of those in the Capitol.

“There is a budget fix,” AFSCME Executive Director Eliot Seide shouted. “Tax the rich.”

The crowd joined in on the “tax the rich chant” in support of Dayton’s proposal to increase taxes on the richest 5 percent of Minnesotans.

Duluth public utility worker David Leonzal complained that Republicans want to trim aid the state pays to cities like where he works.

Dayton’s plan would bring Duluth $6 million more than what the GOP proposes, he said.

“Duluth has lost millions of dollars in Local Government Aid,” he said to people packing the Capitol’s first floor and two floors of balconies overlooking the rotunda.

A similar number of union workers filled the Capitol last month in a rally supporting Wisconsin unions.

 Education funding debated

House Republicans propose increasing public school funding $31 per pupil next year and $55 the following year, but would slash the state Education Department budget.

Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton and his education commissioner were not happy.

The bill cuts integration aid, designed to help minorities, and other funding that mostly go to Minneapolis and St. Paul. The GOP also trims special education spending, Dayton complained.

His education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, said that the measure is “unfairly targeting inner city schools.”

The state Education Department would face a 34 percent cut, which the commissioner said would “decimate our agency.”

Republicans said that classroom funding will be changed, but not cut like it could have been with a $5 billion state budget deficit.

Overall, the bill by Education Finance Chairman Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, would spend $14.2 billion in the next two years, $1.5 billion less than in the two years ending June 30.

 More reports sought

Dayton and legislative Democrats want quicker reporting of campaign finance donations.

Now, Dayton said, there is a 13-month delay in the report of some contributions. He called for reports every three months, and he said he will begin to issue this quarterly reports next month even though the law does not require him to.

“I am prepared to lead by example,” he said.

Dayton and the Democrats said the lag in reports mean Minnesotans do not know who is influencing lawmakers during the legislative session.

“It’s time to bring some more sunshine into the state Capitol,” Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, said on a cloudy Tuesday.

Dayton said he would be reluctant to sign any election- or campaign-finance-related bill without the provision.

K-9 penalty up

People who hurt or kill Minnesota police dogs soon will receive stiffer legal penalties after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a new law Tuesday.

“I am grateful for the service that police officers and their canine partners provide to Minnesota citizens, risking their lives to keep us safe,” Dayton said.

Attending the bill signing was K-9 Major, a Roseville police dog injured on duty in November.

Dayton, injured police dog