Mixed Legislative Results: Losers Complain

Perhaps library lobbyist Elaine Keefe put it best: “The 2016 legislative session has ended with very mixed results.”

After every Minnesota legislative session, there are winners and losers. But in the session that ended with the final bill passing just before midnight Sunday, there appears to be a bigger split than usual. And many an organization reported some items on its wish list passed and others failed.

“It was messy and chaotic and House and Senate leaders are blaming each other for the failure of the bonding bill to make it across the finish line,” Keefe wrote to her librarian clients, telling them that some library funding passed but some failed.

With public works bonding and transportation funding legislation missing the deadline, it is no surprise that groups focusing on those issues are not happy.

Some of the strongest words came from a coalition of more than 140 organizations involved in giving care to the elderly and disabled, and did not seek money in construction-oriented legislation that makes up most of the bonding and transportation packages. Instead, Best Life Alliance supporters are unhappy with an omission from a budget bill many politicians are praising.

The alliance sought a 5 percent rate increase, much like nursing homes received a year ago. It was not in the budget bill. The group complains that caregivers are paid $11.97 an hour, which factors into more than 8,700 jobs going unfilled in the state.

“We aren’t providing people with disabilities and older adults the quality care they need because we’re short on staff,” alliance co-chairman Steve Larson said. “We are constantly in training and hiring mode. The problem is this: State reimbursement rates have not kept up with rising costs over the past 10 years.”

Caregivers who did not get the money include those who care for patients at home and in small community-based settings.

“If we don’t keep a stable foundation of skilled staff, the system for people with disabilities and older adults will crumble,” CEO Bruce Nelson of the Association of Residential Resources in Minnesota said.

Advocates for the state’s homeless also are not happy. The last-minute public works bill, to be financed by the state selling bonds, included $45 million for housing, half what Gov. Mark Dayton wanted.

“We were shocked,” said Dana Hiltunen, a spokesperson for Homes for All. “The effect would be devastating, especially in greater Minnesota where housing is precious. We hope elected officials know what’s at stake for local communities. Minnesotans are counting on a bonding bill with basic necessities.”

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has said several times since the session ended that Dayton should not seek to increase the agreed-to spending in the bill, which eventually failed to pass. Trying to add spending in a special legislative session, as Hiltunen wants, could unravel a fragile deal, the speaker said.

While the housing group saw little to praise, Education Minnesota ruled the session a mixed bag.

“Educators appreciate how the Legislature came together around some important education priorities,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “Unfortunately, the final product was jammed together without public input, and it shows. This bill needs to be fixed.”

The bill she referenced tweaks the existing $42 billion, two-year budget.

The teachers’ union, Specht said, appreciates $25 million for early childhood education. However, she added, the bill allows unlicensed teachers to run pre-kindergarten classrooms.

“No mother would agree there should be a higher licensure standard for the barber who cuts her 4-year-old’s hair than for the teacher who develops her brain,” Specht said.

She also complained that lawmakers failed to retain provisions in House and Senate bills to regulate how education technology companies can use student data. Without the provisions, she warned, students who use an education application or a school computer could be giving personal information to a private company.

The governor and others, including Minnesotans for a Smoke-Free Generation, complained that the much-praised tax bill cuts tobacco taxes more than $30 million. They see that as a setback to anti-smoking efforts.

However, Daudt said, the change mostly eliminates an automatic annual tax increase. He said that instead of being automatic, lawmakers should approve any tax increase.

Despite all the complaints from interest groups, Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said they did good work.

“I think we had an awfully good session,” Bakk proclaimed minutes after the chaos subsided on the final night. “We will all move on from this, but much good work was done this session.”