House near the end
By Don Davis
Minnesota state Sen. Kent Eken fought for years to increase pay for those who care for the elderly and disabled, but as state legislators wound down their 2014 session, he made it personal.
“I had a brother who was intellectually disabled,” Eken said about Kyle, who was two years older than the Twin Valley Democratic senator.
Eken told fellow senators about the young brothers making hay forts in a barn on the family farm. “We talk a lot about numbers; I think sometimes it is important that we put faces with those numbers.”
No special education services were available in Eken’s northwestern Minnesota area, he said, so his parents helped launch one. There, Kyle was happy and made progress, the senator said, thanks to people helping others like his brother with special needs.
“We are not a state that leaves anyone behind,” said Eken, whose brother died in a drowning accident at age 12.
Eken was a leader in increasing funding 5 percent for people who serve the disabled and elderly. The effort, part of a bill that passed moments before the Legislature adjourned for the year, is especially important in his area, Eken said, because nearby North Dakota pays its workers at least $2.50 an hour more.
“We have an industry that really is on the verge of collapse,” Eken said, and the 5 percent increase will help keep it alive.
Eken’s plea was personal and emotional during a legislative session that brought out many such testimonials. The most visible came in discussions about whether marijuana extracts should be allowed as treatment for a variety of severe medical conditions, including children’s seizures.
While an estimated 5,000 Minnesotans could benefit from a medical marijuana bill that is about to become law, supporters say, some claim the bill passed leaves behind another 30,000 who also could benefit.
“Gov. (Mark) Dayton called the process that produced this bill ‘citizen government at its best,’ but it is actually politics at its worst,” Brainerd mother Shelly Olander said. “Instead of listening to parents and patients about what bill would work for our families, the governor gave law enforcement the power to decide how this medical program should operate and who should have access to it.”
Her son, 6-year-old Lincoln, has undergone 20 surgeries and she said police were not consulted, and should not have been, for those medical procedures. The boy will not be able to use marijuana extracts that she said could help his condition.
“Why should their approval be necessary if doctors think medical marijuana will help my son?” Olander asked about police. “We will keep fighting until Lincoln and the thousands of other seriously ill patients who have been left behind by this law are able to access the medicine they need.”
On the other hand, parents of children who suffer seizures, including during testimony in front of legislative committees, mixed broad smiles with tears of joy in recent days as it became apparent their children next year will have access to chemicals from the marijuana plant that they hope will ease the seizures.
“This is going to help thousands of Minnesotans …” Angie Weaver of Hibbing said after a final medical marijuana compromise was announced. “My daughter is going to be able to stay in Minnesota and grow up with her cousins.”
Personal stories were accompanied by tears when many bills were discussed this year.
For instance, victims of domestic abuse cried when telling why they felt abusers’ guns should be taken away. Lawmakers agreed and approved a bill to do that.
On the other hand, tear-filled testimony did not persuade House members to reform payday lending laws. A bill never got a House vote. Supporters of stricter regulations testified that the bill was needed because many payday lenders turn poor people into victims who are forced to take out loans every couple of weeks just to pay off earlier loans.
Overall, Democrats who control the House, Senate and governor’s office said that Minnesotans, especially in the middle class, will feel their actions this year.
“Two years ago, when I was asked what Minnesotans could expect from a DFL governor and a DFL Legislature, I said: progress,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “That is exactly what we delivered again this session.”
Dayton and other Democratic leaders point to issues they passed that affect Minnesotans personally, such as lowering taxes $550 million this year (after boosting them more than $2 billion last year), increasing the minimum wage, improving working conditions for women and protecting children from bullying.
“We did all of this to improve the lives of Minnesotans, and to build a better Minnesota,” Dayton said. “We have more work ahead to finish restoring our state to greatness; but we have made important progress.”
Republicans differ and say Minnesotans will be affected personally by Democratic economic decisions.
While saying the Legislature worked together well this year, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, complained about Democrats’ spending tendencies.
“Spending money isn’t always evidence that we have accomplished anything,” he said moments before the 2014 session ended.
Republicans like Hann said three straight months of smaller-than-expected state revenues prove that the Minnesota economy has not improved enough and Minnesotans will feel it in their wallets. Next year, Hann said, lawmakers need to do “a better job of prioritizing things that are important. … Spending money and having good intentions are not good enough.”
Democrats were not buying the GOP arguments.
“It was the most productive legislative biennium in my time here,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said seconds before he moved to adjourn the annual session at 10:13 p.m. Friday.
A legislative tradition continued after the House adjourned for the year Friday night: speeches from lawmakers who are retiring.
This year, it was only representatives because senators have two years remaining on their four-year terms.
“Minnesota is losing so many great people from both parties tonight! ” Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, tweeted. “Many can’t believe we have different opinions but are friends.”
Those delivering retirement speeches were Reps. David FitzSimmons, R-Albertville; Kathy Brynaert, D-Mankato; Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine; Pam Myhra, R-Burnsville; Ernie Leidiger, R-Mayer; Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury; John Benson, D-Minnetonka; Mike Benson, R-Rochester; Mike Beard, R-Shakopee; Rep. Mary Liz Holberg, R-Lakeville; Michael Paymar, D-St. Paul; Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove; and Tom Huntley, D-Duluth.
Some are leaving the Legislature because they are running for other offices, others because political problems would make it difficult to run again, and many are just plain retiring.
The 2014 Minnesota Legislature ended late Friday with a long list of actions.
Bonding: Lawmakers approved more than $1 billion for public works projects on the last day of the session, some funded by bonding and some by a state budget surplus. The biggest single project is $126 million for state Capitol building renovation. State colleges would get $242 million for campuses around Minnesota.
Broadband: High-speed Internet expansion efforts, mostly in rural areas, will get a $20 million boost.
Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. Legislators added more than $260 million this year.
Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed in April to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.
Constitutional amendments: No new constitutional amendment proposals were approved, but one planned for a public vote in 2016 was altered. That proposal would establish a commission to decide lawmakers’ pay, taking it out of legislative control.
Education: Public education will receive $54 million more, including funds to increase early-childhood learning for more than 1,000 youths.
Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators and a judge said he did not have that authority. Lawmakers passed a bill to make online registration legal.
Electronic cigarettes: Provisions to limit the sale of e-cigarettes to youths passed, along with prohibitions from smoking them in government buildings, hospitals and elsewhere. However, attempts to treat them like tobacco cigarettes, which are banned in all public places, failed.
Gender equality: The Women’s Economic Security Act passed, with several provisions meant to help women get better pay and to be treated fairly in the workplace. One part of the act requires many state contractors to give equal pay to women who do the same jobs as men. It also doubles unpaid parental leave time to 12 weeks and requires more workplace accommodations for pregnant women and new parents.
Guns: Guns may be taken away from domestic abusers and some suspects after court approval.
Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.
Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction can begin this summer.
Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesotans to use marijuana to relieve extreme seizures and other medical problems was passed on the Legislature’s final day. It will allow eight locations to distribute marijuana extracts, but no plant marijuana can be used and it cannot be smoked. A doctor must approve the marijuana use for a specific list of medical problems. Distribution begins July 1, 2015.
Minimum wage: Legislators approved raising the minimum wage in phases to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically to stay abreast with inflation. The first step of the higher wage begins in August.
Oil: A study was approved to see how North Dakota’s oil boom affects Minnesota.
Payday loans: Religious and other groups wanted to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. Senators passed it, but the House did not take a vote.
Propane: Soon after arriving in St. Paul, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage prompted high prices. Also, a new law is designed to prevent propane price gouging and to maintain its availability to Minnesotans.
Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators did little about the situation, although a public works project they approved will improve Minnesota Sex Offender Treatment Program facilities.
Smartphones: Beginning next year, smartphones will be required to have “kill switches,” software or hardware that allows the owner to disable the phones if they are lost or stolen.
Sunday sales: Efforts to allow Sunday liquor sales made little progress.
Synthetic drugs: Synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts and products sold under names like K2, will be more difficult or impossible to buy at retail stores under a new law.
Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, totaling $550 million. They cut income taxes and property taxes as well as overturning some sales taxes enacted a year ago.
Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work.
Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted spending more than $11 million to improve response to railroad and pipeline crude oil incidents. First responders will get funds for more training and equipment, and the number of state railroad inspectors will grow from one to four or five. Some crossings along oil train routes will be improved. An existing assessment on railroads will be increased, and a new assessment on pipelines will help pay for the safety projects.
Unsession: Gov. Mark Dayton wanted this year to be the “unsession,” meaning that obsolete laws and rules would be repealed. Lawmakers obliged by sending him more than 1,000 provisions to overturn or simplify.
Water: Lawmakers approved spending nearly $70 million to bring water from South Dakota into southwestern Minnesota. While the project received widespread support, many in the Legislature warned that other water-related issues, including shortages in parts of the state, will need to be addressed soon.