Hot-button Issues Surface

Abortion. Transportation. Exploding trains and pipelines. Thursday brought a potpourri of hot-button issues to Minnesota legislative debate.

Lawmakers often avoided dry money talk in spending hours debating tweaks to the current two-year, $42 billion budget. Instead, they fell back on tried and true controversies and attention-grabbing issues as they prepare for the final three weeks of the 2016 legislative session.

Budget bills the House and Senate debated Thursday will make their way into end-of-sessions negotiations.

Senators passed their budget-changing bill, that affects most areas of the budget, 39-24 while representatives continued debating a budget bill dealing with health, human services and public safety spending into the night.

Abortion politics, involving relatively little money, garnered the spotlight at the same time in House and Senate debate. The Republican-controlled House supported abortion regulations while the Democrat-run Senate backed abortion freedoms, although votes were not strictly partisan.

“This really is political interference,” Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, said about a failed amendment by Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, to limit state funding on abortions.

Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud, said taxpayer-funded abortions have risen over the years, now amounting to 38 percent of all abortions.

The House supported the limiting state funding 76-53, while senators voted it down 35-30.

Representatives also backed, on a 76-52 vote, an amendment offered by Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, to require inspections of abortion clinics. Senators rejected a similar provision 35-30.

Clinics where abortions are performed should be “clean, sterile, appropriate and safe,” Kiel said.

“We are very emotional when we are pregnant…” Kiel said. “We need to make sure women can seek safe care.”

Her comments about being emotional drew criticism from other women lawmakers.

“Women know what they are doing when they access medical care,” Rep. Laurie Halverson, D-Eagan, said.

While not as emotional about abortion, senators took lots of time discussing transportation funding.

Sen. Scott Newman of Hutchinson and other Republicans were unsuccessful in efforts to remove $463 million from a variety of programs funded in the Senate’s lone budget-change bill, using it instead on road and bridge needs.

“Last year, we fully funded all the various agencies and requests…” Newman said. “All we are dealing with this year is the money that is left over from last year in the form of a ($900 million) budget surplus.”

He said that Minnesotans’ No. 1 legislative priority is improving transportation funding.

“There isn’t a penny in this bill that is spent on roads,” Newman added.

While Sen. Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, complained that the Newman plan did not provide on-going funding, Republicans said it would be a one-time spending boost, and a complete transportation plan still would be needed to conduct billions of dollars’ worth of work most experts say is needed on state roads and bridges.

Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said that House and Senate negotiations will gather Friday to discuss the issue, with more meetings expected next week.

Republicans generally prefer to move money from existing programs to transportation programs, while Democrats support adding a new gasoline tax to inject money into road and bridge needs.

One transportation issue received overwhelming Senate approval: oil moved by railroads and pipelines and the possibility the oil would explode.

Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, easily won his effort to spend $35,000 to study how to better train public safety workers to deal with oil train and pipeline safety issues.

The study would analyze proposed and existing training centers — including those at Camp Ripley, Duluth and Minneapolis — to decide where oil transportation safety training could be held.

While the funding is miniscule compared to the $42 billion state budget, Reinert’s idea is for next year’s Legislature to establish and fund training centers.

“I just feel strongly that we at the state level have a responsibility to get those people the skills they need,” the senator said.

The Legislature must adjourn by May 23.

With passage of all the state budget bills, negotiators could begin next week to merge very different House, Senate and governor proposals. At the same time, talks also are needed to figure out the transportation funding plan as well as how much public works money to appropriate, and where to spend it.

Here are some highlights of Democratic senators’ proposed budget changes for the next year:

— $91 million to ease financial disparities faced by minority Minnesotans

— $3 million that last year was given to the bird flu fight, but not spent, would be transferred into the state General Fund, but more than $600,000 remains for bird flu

— $1 million to start a tractor rollover protection program

— $500,000 to start an industrial hemp growing pilot program

— $85 million to expand broadband high-speed Internet in rural areas

— $102 million more for early childhood through high school programs, with much of it going to a voluntary pre-kindergarten program

— $5.5 million more for the Minnesota Film and TV Board to attract movie and television shows

— $10 million to what has been known as the Minnesota Minerals 21st Century Fund, with a change to allow the money to be spent on a wider variety of programs than in the past

— $3.4 million for the University of Minnesota to study new mining technologies

— $300,000 to promote the Mille Lacs Lake area in light of a shortage of walleye fish that has affected businesses

— $950,000 to attract major events to the state

— $2.5 million added to energy and environment programs

— $5.4 million to deal with expected legal costs related to proposed copper-nickel mining

— $5.5 million to encourage more math, science and special education teachers

— $5 million for the Good Food Access Program that would support new and enhanced grocery stores and other food sellers

— $129.4 million more for health and human services programs, including funds for home care workers and limiting how much the state may collect from estates of people who had received state-funded health care

— $19.8 million to increase staffing at state facilities that have dealt with patient violence in recent years

— $3.4 million to reform the state sex offender treatment program

— $1.7 million more for the State Grant Program that provides aid to college students

— $18.1 million to the University of Minnesota

— $12 million to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system

— $45 million to judiciary and public safety programs

— $17.7 million to natural resources, economic development and agriculture programs

— $5 million to improve state technology security

— $15 million for Mighty Ducks program to renovate ice arenas