Legislative notebook: House OKs tougher synthetic drugs penalties

Minnesota representatives heard about problems from Duluth to Moorhead before overwhelmingly voting to crack down on synthetic drugs.

On a 120-11 Wednesday vote, the House decided to make 250 more chemicals illegal, slap more severe penalties on those who sell the drugs and make it possible for the state Pharmacy Board to quickly act to add new drugs to the illegal list.

“While they may seem something like marijuana, they are nothing like marijuana,” Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Shafer, said substances often known as synthetic marijuana.

Lawmakers passed a bill a year ago to limit synthetic drugs, but some business owners would rather pay a fine than stop selling the profitable substances, Barrett said.

“They feel that paying a small fine is a good business decision,” Barrett said, talking about a Duluth store. “We want to change this concept from a business decision to whether they want to spend five years in prison.”

From the other side of the state, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said his area has seen an influx of North Dakotans, whose state already outlaws synthetic drugs.

One of the problems with previous laws is that drug makers change formulas enough so the new chemical is legal.

“Every time you turn around, someone comes up with a new concoction,” Lanning said.

Businesses are “making huge profits at the expense of those people using these drugs,” Lanning said.

An advantage to passing the bill is that it would aid law enforcement officers in charging those under the influence of synthetic drugs while driving, Rep. Kerry Gauthier, DFL-Duluth, said.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, worried that so many people would be imprisoned under the proposal that it would cause the state “a huge fiscal impact.”

A similar bill awaits Senate action.

Health plan OK’d

The Senate approved a Republican proposal that would create a health insurance purchasing plan 37-27 Wednesday.

The proposal would allow those without insurance to set up trust accounts managed by administrators to purchase health insurance. A number of different sources could contribute to the account, from employers to family members.

The plan is in reaction to part of a new federal health-care law.

It would create a mainly online exchange for people and small businesses to compare and purchase insurance.

“We need to find a way to make insurance work for us,” bill author Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said “This is a step in the direction of empowering the marketplace and making it possible for more people to participate in that marketplace.”

Democrat Gov. Mark Dayton has said he opposes the approach taken by Republicans to address the health insurance changes.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said the proposal did not go through the Health and Human Services Committee.

“The denial of the voices of so many people across this state to come and speak to the health effects of this bill and effects on consumers is just wrong,” Lourey said. “Had we brought this bill through the proper committees we might actually have learned a little something and been able to work together.”

He also said the proposal would provide no support or protection for consumers.

An amendment approved on the floor eliminated the creation of a task force meant to evaluate existing health insurance purchasing tools and develop recommendations for improving them.

Belly up to bar

University of Minnesota football fans could buy alcoholic beverages at home games under a provision senators approved Wednesday.

“I think it is a very good compromise,” Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said of the plan to allow liquor sales during the first half of games at TCF Bank Stadium.

Sales could be in a beer garden.

The plan was approved on a voice vote as an amendment to a larger liquor-related bill that easily passed.

The university would need to work out alcohol sales details.

A bill awaiting a House vote has a similar provision.

School speech limited

House Republicans won a battle 73-60 Wednesday to stop school workers’ use of publically funded equipment to advocate political views while on school time.

Democrats blasted the bill by Rep. Kurt Bills, R-Rosemount, as violating the constitutional freedom of speech right.

Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, said teachers are supposed to encourage students to express themselves, but the Bills bill says that doesn’t apply to teachers. He called it “very damaging to the profession and very damaging to the democracy.”

Bills and other Republicans said teachers and other school employees should not be allowed to advocate about elections and candidates or solicit political funds on school time.

A similar bill awaits Senate action.

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