Legislative notebook: Senators OK bill to repay schools

Minnesota senators Monday joined representatives in voting to take money from state budget reserves to catch up on back pay owed school districts.

In a bill they passed 35-29, senators also opted to reduce most state programs’ funding 1 percent to help pay schools.

The state owes schools more than $2 billion after lawmakers and governors the past few years decided to slow payments to school districts as a way to help the state’s budget situation.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is not likely to sign the bill, which is slightly different than one the House passed earlier this month.

Debate divided along party lines, with Republicans supporting it. Democrats agreed with Commissioner Jim Schowalter of Minnesota Management and Budget that taking money from reserves is a bad move.

Finance Chairwoman Claire Robling, R-Jordan, said that nearly $600 million would remain in the budget reserve and cash-flow account, which she said is plenty.

“Do we want our money in the state treasury or do we want our money in schools across Minnesota so they can educate kids?” asked Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, called the move irresponsible because finance companies will think “we are going back on our word” to refill the reserves once deficit problems eased.

Added Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm: “I have been told running up my credit card to its maximum is not a good idea.”

Belts saved lives

One of the most hotly debated legislative decisions in recent years was whether to require enforcement of a seat belt law.

The state Public Safety Department on Monday reported that law saved 68 lives and 320 severe injuries from 2009 to 2011.

The study conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Excellence in Rural Safety also found $45 million savings by reducing deaths and injuries.

“The primary seat belt law has advanced traffic safety in Minnesota by saving lives and preventing serious injuries,” Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman said. “The findings of this study remind us again how vital it is for Minnesotans to buckle up: every seat, every ride.”

Before the primary seat belt law passed, officers could not stop vehicles for seat belt infractions. Now, they can make the stop even if no other laws are broken.

Enact exchange or else

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton says if the Republican-controlled Legislature does not enact health-care exchanges, he will take action on his own.

A health care exchange basically is a marketplace where Minnesotans would be able to purchase insurance coverage. It is required by a new federal health-care law.

Republican lawmakers generally do not like the idea, but supporters say the state needs to act or the federal government will set up the exchanges.

“If the Legislature passes on enacting such legislation, which must be bi-partisan, non-ideological and constructive, we will have to utilize the legal executive actions necessary to satisfy the federal law, as has already been done in other states,” Dayton said in a letter sent to legislative leaders.

No ethics meeting

The future of a Senate ethics inquiry into Sen. Geoff Michel’s actions after he discovered a sex scandal remains in limbo.

A Friday hearing was suspended for the full Senate to meet on unrelated business, but Chairwoman Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, never reconvened the meeting as she said would happen. She was excused from the Senate on Monday and not available for comment.

“On advice of counsel we were asked to suspend the proceeding that evening and the leadership did have a meeting with Senate counsel this morning,” Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, said. “We will see where this goes going forward.”

Lawyers were concerned about testimony during the hearing hurting Senate defense of a lawsuit former Senate employee Michael Brodkorb is expected to file.

Michel, R-Edina, found out in September that Brodkorb and then-Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, were having an affair. Nearly three months later, Michel and other senators confronted Koch, and she resigned as leader.

The Senate fired Brodkorb, and now he is preparing a lawsuit claiming that female Senate employees have kept their jobs after affairs with male senators.

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