Ex-lawmaker Otremba dies

Otremba

By Al Edenloff

Mary Ellen Otremba, a popular and soft-spoken state legislator who represented areas of central and west-central Minnesota for 13 years, died Thursday. She was 63.

Otremba, a Democrat, was known for working across party lines for greater Minnesota issues, as evidenced by Republicans praising her service in the hours after her death.

In 2010, Otremba announced that she wouldn’t seek an eighth term. At that time, she issued a statement saying it had been “an incredible privilege” to serve the citizens of District 11B in the Minnesota House.

“There is no greater honor in a democracy than to be selected by one’s fellow citizens to represent them in the halls of government,” Otremba said in her statement. “I will always be grateful for the years I’ve had to serve in our beautiful Capitol, working to enhance the quality of life for all Minnesotans.”

She said her father “brought me to my first precinct caucus. Since that day, I’ve never stopped working to shine a light on the wonderful things than make greater Minnesota’s quality of life so special.”

After Otremba retired, Republican Mary Franson of Alexandria defeated the DFL-endorsed candidate in Otremba’s district, Amy Hunter, in the 2010 election.

“My hearts mourns for Mary Ellen and the family she leaves behind,” Franson said. “Mary Ellen was a dedicated public servant who represented the heart and soul of our community well.”

Another Republican also praised the Democrat.

“Rep. Otremba was widely respected in the Legislature and known for her passion for Todd County residents,” said Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls. “Party politics didn’t play into her thinking; instead, her integrity and strong desire to represent Todd County drove her legislation.”

Otremba was first elected in a November 1997 special election after the death of her husband, Rep. Ken Otremba, two months earlier.

She chaired the House Agriculture, Rural Economies and Veterans Affairs Committee, and was a member of the Ways and Means Committee. She also served on a variety of committees dealing with agriculture, rural development, veterans affairs and health and human services.

She was an assistant House minority leader from 2001 to 2004.

Otremba graduated from Long Prairie High School and attended the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, where she received a degree in home and community service. She later attended St. Cloud State University, receiving a master’s degree in child and family studies. She worked as a nutritionist for the Todd County Department of Public Health from 1984 to 1989, as a teacher in the Freshwater Educational District from 1986 to 1989 and as a teacher at Eagle Valley High School in Clarissa from 1989 to 1997. She also taught family and consumer science at Swanville High School and was a substitute teacher there.

Anti-bullying bill becomes law

Dayton signs

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton put pen on paper 15 hours after final legislative approval of an anti-bullying bill, enacting a new law requiring schools to have bullying prevention policies and providing guidance about how they would be written.

Dayton signed the bill late Wednesday afternoon in front of many legislators and dozens of the bill’s other supporters.

“Nobody in this state or this nation should have to feel bad about who they are,” Dayton said.

The House passed the bill 69-63 early Wednesday, following nearly 12 hours of debate. Senators passed it earlier.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis, said the measure will let school districts write their own anti-bullying policies.

“Frankly, we’d rather that school districts engage their community and create new policy to limit bullying that we know is happening rather than use the state model policy that will be created with the passage of this bill,” Davnie said, adding that the new law “sets a high standard for defining bullying.”

But Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the new law creates a “one-size-fits-all mandate.”

“I trust the schools in our community to address bullying more effectively than politicians and bureaucrats in St. Paul,” Franson said. “Instead of empowering local school districts, this bill infringes on the rights of students, parents and locally elected school boards.”

Dayton to sign bullying bill

By Don Davis

Gov. Mark Dayton this afternoon plans to sign a bill written to prevent school bullying across Minnesota.

Representatives early today approved a bill 69-63 to require school districts to establish rules against bullying, better train staff on the issue and provide guidance about what must be included in local policies.

The bill representatives debated for nearly 12 hours is based on one they passed last year and was rewritten by senators this year. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign it into law this week.

“It provides students, teachers, parents, administrators a strong set of tools to write their own local school anti-bullying policy,” said Rep. Jim Davnie, D-Minneapolis.

If a school district does not write its own bullying policy, the bill requires the state to impose its own policy on the district.

Democrats had little to say about the bill, but Republicans laid out their opposition.

Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, said Democrats pushing the bill were enacting the “big brother” concept featured in the book “1984.”

“If this isn’t a mirror image of ’1984,’ I don’t know what is,” Newberger said. “The only problem is (author) George Orwell is off by 30 years.

“If it has a battery, Democrats want access into your private life,” he said, because the bill would allow schools to monitor electronic messages and take action, even if the activity occurs away from school.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the bill is “fascist” and is “simply another attack on the Bible and on Christians.”

Davnie responded that the bill would help youths deal with “an increasingly diverse society.”

“The bill deals with behavior, not belief,” he added.

Existing state law devotes 37 words to bullying, which supporters of the bill say makes it the country’s weakest anti-bullying law. With so little state law, school districts have a variety of policies that supporters say should be more standardized.

Longtime teacher Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said that 93 percent of schools have adopted a six-page state school board association anti-bullying policy.

Republicans said local districts know their needs best and should be given freedom to make their own policies. Opponents also say the bill would create an unfunded mandate.

“Those of you who live in rural Minnesota know that this is one of the most hot-button issues this legislative session,” Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said, because voters are upset that the state is taking over writing policies that local officials should write.

There is not a bullying problem in rural areas, said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Lake Shore.

“This is really a rift between rural and metro,” he said. “We are not hearing it out there.”

Davnie, however, said schools still will administer bullying policies. He said they can deal only with activities related to school.

The Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act is a top priority for Democratic-Farmer-Labor legislators and their supporters.

The bill is tied to a proposal that passed a year ago to legalize gay marriages. The measure, supported by many of the same people who backed the marriage proposal, specifies that students cannot be bullied for their sexual orientation or gender identity and several other reasons.

Opponents argue that gives special protection to certain students, but supporters say specificity is necessary to ensure that all students are protected.

High court care case expands

By Don Davis

A U.S. Supreme Court hearing that could affect a Minnesota law allowing child care workers to join unions took on broader interest during Tuesday’s arguments when it became apparent that justices could make a decision to ban forcing government workers to join unions.

The case from Illinois dealt with whether home medical care workers should join unions. The issue is similar to a Minnesota law, passed by a Democratic-controlled Legislature, that allows home child care workers to join unions. A court case over the Minnesota law is on hold until the U.S. high court rules on the Illinois case.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the case is important to Minnesota child care workers.

“While a ruling on this case is months away, its outcome will carry great significance for the hardworking parents and childcare providers of Minnesota,” said Franson, a former child care provider. “Allowing union bosses to insert themselves into the care of our children violates the sacred trust parents have with their childcare provider.”

Unions say they can help child care workers obtain better state payments and working conditions.

But the spotlight shifted to public unions in general during Tuesday’s hearing in Washington.

Lyle Denniston of the SCOTUSblog, which covers the Supreme Court, said the case appears to have become a test of public worker collective bargaining.

“Aside from what was said explicitly from the bench, the atmospherics of Tuesday’s argument suggested strongly that this case has very large potential,” Denniston wrote.

He said that Justice Antonin Scalia appeared to be the deciding vote on the issue.

Jennifer Parrish of Rochester, one of the child care workers who brought the Minnesota case and has fought unionization for years, was in the courtroom Tuesday.

“It was an incredibly moving experience to be present and hear oral arguments in the Harris case,” she said. “Throughout this eight-year ordeal, I have never lost my faith in our justice system.”

Parrish said that after listening to the justices, “I am confident” they will rule against forcing home care workers to join unions.

Bill mixes paint, bees and farmers … and includes an island, too

Rep. Ben Lien

By Don Davis

Paint will cost more and be recycled. Bees will be protected. Financially troubled farmers will be able to access state aid.

And an island to provide more wildlife habitat could be built in the Mississippi River.

Those are a few of the impacts from a diverse environment, natural resources and agriculture funding bill headed for Gov. Mark Dayton’s expected approval.

The overall bill spends $312 million on programs such as in the Agriculture Department, Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources. Funding for the two years beginning July 1 is $25 million more than in the current budget.

The House voted for the bill 71-60 and the Senate 42-23, sending it to Dayton for his expected signature.

A House-Senate conference committee removed the most controversial aspect of the bill, new fees on people who use large quantities of water, such as farmers who irrigate land.

The House version of the bill tacked on new fees, but the committee accepted the Senate provision that takes money from the state General Fund.

“This bill is a winner for communities in rural Minnesota,” said Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin. “It gives us the tools to address shrinking water supplies without raising water fees, which is a big deal for farmers, ranchers, livestock producers and agri-businesses that depend on reliable supplies of water. This bill recognizes the need to solve that problem before it’s too late.”

Mining fees were rejected that House bill author Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, said were needed “so the mining industry was paying its fair share for some of the costs it is imposing on the state. The Senate declined to increase fees whatsoever.”

One of Wagenius’ concerns this year has been a water shortage in parts of Minnesota, including Worthington, parts of Otter Tail County and White Bear Lake.

The bill gives the DNR more authority and $6.6 million more money to monitor groundwater and surface water to the state can address water shortages.

“It is something hard for me to imagine … where we are having shortages of water,” Wagenius said.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, did not agree with the water monitoring. She said it bothers her to see money spent on water monitoring when the Democratic-written budget does not give enough money to nursing homes.

And, Franson added, “we’ve still got that $300,000 restroom in there.” She referred to a northern Minnesota restroom in an area Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said is miles away from any public restroom.

The bill tacks a 75-cent-a-can fee on paint to establish a program to recycle unused paint.

“We are moving to a system of the person who creates the mess pays for it rather than asking for a subsidy from the neighbor,” Wagenius said.

That fee concerned Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau. He said his constituents could buy paint in North Dakota, which does not charge a recycling fee.

“I cannot imagine how this is going to be good for our border hardware stores and paint stores,” Fabian said.

However, he added, he was glad that proposal to require carpet recycling was dropped.

Some Republicans complained that the bill adds too much to government.

“What we have here is government run amuck…” Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said. “We are giving them even more unchecked authority in a number of areas.”

The bill also establishes protections for bees that have been dying off.

“We are an agriculture state and agriculture depends on pollinators,” Wagenius said.

The bill includes a provision that would allow Minneapolis authorities to “recreate” an island in the Mississippi River.

Drazkowski asked Wagenius: “Can you tell me where did the island go?”

Wagenius responded: “No.”

Drazkowski guessed that “the river took the island out.”

“We could end up building an island in the stream and having it washed away,” Drazkowski said.

Wagenius said the island is needed to add wildlife habitat.

Among other provisions in the bill financing environment, natural resources and agriculture programs are:

– The Minnesota Agriculture Department will spend $3 million on a farm-to-school program to provide local produce for schools.

– Agriculture business development will get a $10.5 million boost and renewable fuels $2.5 million more.

– Spending $8.7 million for the University of Minnesota to develop its aquatic invasive species research center to fight invasive species such as Asian carp, but fish barriers were not funded because the federal government has not approved them.

– More fuels will be defined as biofuels beyond just ethanol and biodiesel.

– The state will provide guidance to local governments dealing with silica sand mines and production facilities and local silica sand mining moratorium provisions may be expanded for a year.

– Perfluorochemical (PFC) monitoring is funded for the eastern Twin Cities, where 3M waste has been an issue.

– The farmer-lender mediation act that helps farmers in financial trouble was extended through 2016.

Legislative notebook: Care provider union debate sets Senate record

By Don Davis

Minnesota senators set a modern-day record for debating a single bill Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before voting to give childcare providers and personal care attendants the right to unionize.

The bill passed 35-32 a little after 8 a.m. Wednesday, concluding 17 hours of constant debate.

“It just gives this group of workers, that don’t have the right to have a vote, an opportunity to decide if they can form a union and form a bargaining unit so that they can bargain for some of the things that my union card has provided for me,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.

The bill would allow for an election among providers if unions meet certain thresholds of support. If childcare providers and personal care attendants decided to join unions, they could negotiate with the state and would have to pay union dues.

The unions would negotiate state payment levels.

Republicans argued that the providers are private businesses that do not need to be unionized, and should not be unionized.

Four Democratic senators joined Republicans in voting against the bill.

“Union special interests were listened to over moms today,” said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake. “This bill will make childcare more expensive for families and taxpayers.”

Republicans presented dozens of amendments in an attempt to water down the measure.

“Today, the DFL members of the Minnesota Senate gave childcare providers the right to vote for a union,” Alexandria childcare provider Lynn Barten said. “Everyone wins when we come together and work together to improve our lives and profession.”

Childcare provider Marilyn Geller of Bemidji said the vote showed that Democratic senators “acknowledged that we are smart women who deserve the right to vote to join a union.”

“With a union, providers will be able to negotiate with the state for better reimbursement rates, which will keep costs down for providers and parents. It’s simple, providers can’t work for less and parents can’t pay more,” Geller said.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the Democratic-Farmer-Labor argument does not make sense because if unions negotiate a certain state subsidy for childcare workers and personal care attendants, the higher pay is not automatic. The state Legislature still would need to appropriate the money.

The House could debate the union bill Saturday.

‘Ban box’ bill ready

A bill prohibiting employers from asking job applicants about criminal history awaits Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature.

Supporters say the “ban the box” bill gives people second chances.

“As Americans we believe in second chances and we believe that work is redemptive,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said. “This is a victory for Minnesota. This bill makes it possible for thousands of parents who have made a mistake and paid their price to one day get a job, get their children out of foster care, and pull their lives and their families back together.”

Jeff Martin of the Minnesota-Dakota NAACP State Conference said that once the bill is law, employers “will have access to a labor pool that fully represents what is available in Minnesota, rather than a filtered down version.”

Invasive species fight gets money

The University of Minnesota’s Aquatic Invasive Species Center will get $8.7 million to help fight aquatic invasive species.

A law Gov. Mark Dayton has signed appropriates those funds to the center as part of a $38 million overall outdoors spending bill with funds gained from the state lottery.

Also in the bill is $3 million to continue grants for land conservation and $1 million for acquiring land for trails and property adjoining state parks.

No more formaldehyde

A newly signed law bans formaldehyde from children’s products.

Things such as shampoo, lotion and bubble bath now may contain the toxic substance, but they will not be allowed to be on store shelves after Aug. 1, 2015.

Marathon Senate session ends with care provider union OK

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

Minnesota senators took nearly 17 hours to approve a bill allowing childcare providers and personal care attendants to unionize.

The bill passed 35-32 a little after 8 a.m. today after senators debated it continuously since Tuesday afternoon.

“Republicans stalled all night, but I’m happy the Senate ultimately granted me the same rights enjoyed by other workers to simply choose whether or not we want to join together in a union,” Rosemount home care worker Darleen Henry said.

Republicans had dozens of amendments ready to debate. Supporters of the bill said those members were trying to stall and block a vote.

The bill would allow for an election among providers if unions meet certain thresholds of support. If childcare providers and personal care attendants decided to form a union, they could negotiate with the state and would have to pay union dues.

Republicans argued that these providers are private businesses that do not need to be unionized.

Four Democratic senators voted against the bill, including Sen. Greg Clausen of Apple Valley.

Debate pushed back discussion on other bills on the Senate’s agenda, which members plan to take up this evening.

“Today, the DFL members of the Minnesota Senate gave childcare providers the right to vote for a union,” Alexandria child care provider Lynn Barten said this morning. “Everyone wins when we come together and work together to improve our lives and profession.”

Childcare provider Marilyn Geller of Bemidji said this morning’s vote showed Democratic senators “acknowledged that we are smart women who deserve the right to vote to join a union.”

“With a union, providers will be able to negotiate with the state for better reimbursement rates, which will keep costs down for providers and parents. It’s simple, providers can’t work for less and parents can’t pay more,” Geller said.

Republicans offered dozens of amendments, most of which failed, to weaken the provisions. They repeatedly argued that childcare workers and personal care attendants, who aid the elderly and disabled, deserve higher state payments, are independent business operators and as such cannot be part of a union.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said the Democratic-Farmer-Laborite argument does not make sense because if unions negotiate a certain state subsidy for childcare workers and PCAs, the higher pay is not automatic. The state Legislature still would need to appropriate the money.

Associations already represent the two groups of care providers, but unions have worked for years to represent them.

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton issued an executive order allowing union votes, but the courts ruled he did not have that authority.

Unions are prime Democratic Party supporters.

After passing the unionization bill, senators moved on to other bills before leaving for a break. They return at 5 p.m. to consider more bills, including spending sales tax funds on outdoor and arts programs.

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, worried aloud that Republicans could filibuster and delay progress on spending bills that make up a $38 billion, two-year budget.

“It is possible they could talk things to death and run out the session,” Bakk said.

The state Constitution requires lawmakers adjourn for the year Monday. While the House and Senate have passed their initial budget bills, negotiators are working out differences between the two chambers and considering Dayton’s budget plans. However, none of the negotiated bills have come back for final votes.


Legislative notebook: Senate debates childcare, PCA unions

Franson

By Don Davis

The Minnesota Senate Tuesday night was en route to approving legislation allowing child care workers and personal care attendants to join unions.

Supporters say such action would allow them to negotiate better payments from the state.

The House already passed its version of the bill and Gov. Mark Dayton supports it.

“We want to prepare children so they are successful in life,” Benton County child care provider Karla Scapanski said. “Collective bargaining is a partnership for that success.”

But opponents, mostly Republicans, say personal care attendants and child care providers are private businesses and should not be part of unions.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said unions that support the bills “are hiding behind children” in an effort to make money.

Franson said state subsidies that are supposed to help poor families afford child care would be diverted to required payments to unions.

If the bill becomes law, it likely will be challenged in court.

The bill would affect 11,000 child care workers who provide care in their own homes. It also would affect personal care attendants who provide care for the elderly and disabled, sometimes their own families.

“Providers want a union because they have seen the benefits unions have given providers in other states,” St. Paul child care provider Lisa Thompson said.

Supporters say they would be able to negotiate more money with union representation than they receive from the state now.

Debate continued late Tuesday.

Sex offender change

A federal judge says Minnesota must change how it deals with sex offenders who have completed their sentences, so the Senate Tuesday voted 44-21 to tweak the process.

Under the bill by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, sex offenders would have a better chance of being released from a state treatment program. Just one man has graduated from the program.

A federal judge says the state cannot hold sex offenders indefinitely. If they are committed after finishing their prison sentences, the judge said, they must have a chance to be released from the prison-like treatment center.

The Sheran bill would establish a process where, like now, a judge would be able to commit a sex offender to the treatment program. But the offender would receive two hearings a year to see if he should remain in treatment.

“Once a person has completed their time for crime, they have the right to move forward,” Sheran said.

But Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, a former sheriff, said the public is concerned that sex offenders could be let loose.

“We must move very cautiously here,” the Alexandria Republican said.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, said he might support keeping sex offenders in prison longer. A prison costs about $100 a day per prisoner, while treatment costs more than $300 a day.

If the state does not change its ways, the federal judge can order changes that state officials say may be far more expensive or result in releasing more sex offenders.

No pay say

Legislators would give up decisions about how much they get paid under a proposed constitutional amendment by Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia.

His bill received a committee approval and heads to the House Rules Committee.

A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, awaits Senate committee action.

The plan would establish a 16-member commission appointed by the governor and Supreme Court chief justice to set legislators’ salaries.

Currently, a committee recommends legislators’ and other state officials’ salaries, but the full Legislature makes the decision. Under the constitutional amendment proposal, the committee would continue to recommend other salaries, but the new commission would deal only with lawmakers’ pay.

Legislative pay of $31,140 a year has not been raised in 14 years.

“In order to attract the kind of people from the private sector or even the public sector we have to have some expectation that at some point they can be compensated,” Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, said.

If the proposal passes legislative committees this year or next year, it would appear on the November 2014 ballot.

April to be for state budget

By Don Davis and Danielle Killey

The Minnesota Legislature is famous for deciding major issues near the end of each year’s session.

Expect 2013 to be no different.

So far, Gov. Mark Dayton has signed just one major bill into law, and eight others, out of 3,172 that the 201 lawmakers have introduced. That means there will be a lot of public and private debate by the Legislature’s constitutionally mandated May 20 adjournment date.

“The budget will be the big push,” said Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

The budget, in fact, is the Legislature’s major job in odd-numbered years.

For nearly two dozen years, governors and legislators of different parties were forced to compromise as they worked on two-year budgets. This year, however, Democrats control the House and Senate, joining their fellow party member Dayton.

Those Democrats generally agree on a budget of about $38 billion for the two years beginning July 1, and their overall spending outlines look similar. Legislative committees that begin meeting when they return from an Easter-Passover break today will delve into tax and spend specifics.

“It actually will progress more smoothly,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said of budget work that in the past decade led to a couple of state government shutdowns. “Our focus in April is getting the budget out.”

The budget will be front and center while committees form it and the full House and Senate debate it. Legislative leaders say that in late April or early May, when House and Senate budget bills head to reconciliation in conference committee, contentious gun regulation and gay marriage bills may join other nonspending bills for full debate.

Many do not expect Democrats to show serious budget differences.

“Obviously, they have come to consensus among themselves,” said Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne.

Once a tax-and-spend deal is reached among the House, Senate and governor, a budget bill will return for final passage before lawmakers go home May 20 or sooner. Legislative leaders promise they will not need a special session to finish work.

Republicans, while they have little say in what passes this year, will talk a lot about DFL plans to boost taxes.

“I worry about the message we send,” Weber said about the plan to raise income taxes on individuals with at least $150,000 in taxable income and couples earning $250,000 or more.

He said a Minnesota company moving to lower-tax South Dakota is an example of what could happen.

While few bills have become law, the legislative pace thus far has been hectic, said Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley.

Like many lawmakers, he said that when he sees full budget plans, he will look for “creating jobs and economic vitality.”

Adding $700 million to schools in the next two years, as legislative Democrats suggest, is one of the best economic development projects the state can offer, Thissen said.

From what Faust has seen so far, “areas like mine will be big winners,” he said about proposed budgets.

For instance, his district has only about 50 people who would be taxed at the higher rate, he said, so that plan would have less impact than in other areas.

Reinstating some version of the homestead property tax credit, as Democrats expect, should help his homeowners’ property tax bills drop, Faust added.

For many, a public works bill funded by the state selling bonds is considered a job producer. Dayton plans to ask for $750 million in bonding, including a large chunk of the $200 million-plus needed to renovate the state Capitol building. Many legislative Democrats are shooting for an $800 bonding bill.

Republican Sen. Dave Thompson of Lakeville said he does not support a sizeable bonding bill this year.

“I personally think we can wait,” he said. “We’ve gotten in a bad habit of doing it every year.”

Typically, lawmakers set the state budget and craft a public works borrowing bill in opposite years of a two-year session.

Thompson said he is open to funding Capitol renovation.

“I’m not focused on a bonding bill right now,” said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. “I’m focused on making sure job providers have the tools necessary to succeed.”

Franson said she is concerned about a potential increase in the state’s minimum wage. Most provisions making their way through the Legislature suggest raising the current state minimum wage of $6.15 an hour to more than $9.

“That will hurt greater Minnesota,” she said. “It will be a major problem for the hospitality industry, bars, restaurants.”

Dayton, on the other hand, regularly says that a family deserves to earn enough to remain above the poverty line.

There are differences among Democrats.

House DFLers, for instance, want to put an income tax surcharge on the richest of the rich to be able to quickly repay schools the money the state borrowed from them in recent years. Dayton and Senate Democrats are content to let existing plans go ahead and repay the money over a few more years.

Thissen promised that the surcharge would last no more than two years.

—-

Here is where some issues stand as the Minnesota Legislature enters its home-stretch before a May 20 or earlier adjournment:

Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton plans to announce his proposal for public works projects soon. He says he will suggest bonding for $750 million, including some for state Capitol renovation.

Border cities: At a recent town hall meeting in Moorhead, the governor said more help is needed to combat lower North Dakota taxes, but he has proposed little change from current local government aids to a few cities near the border.

Budget: the governor, House and Senate Democrats suggest spending about $38 billion in the next two years. The three plans are similar, but House and Senate committees still must produce details.

Capitol renovation: More than $200 million is needed to renovate the state Capitol building. The governor is expected to recommend at least $100 million of that to be in this year’s bonding bill.

Care attendants: In a bill that would allow child care workers to join unions is a lesser-known provision that also would allow those who care for the sick and disabled, including family members, to unionize.

Day care: Bills are moving through House and Senate committees to allow Minnesotans who care for children in their homes to join unions.

Education: Most attention to public schools this year has been to increase funding for the youngest students. Included in the initiatives are plans to fund all-day kindergarten; the governor’s budget plan would not fund every school district, but some legislative proposals would.

Gay marriage: Minnesota voters last November decided not to enshrine a same-sex marriage ban in the state Constitution and in about a month the full House and Senate are expected to vote on a proposal to remove an existing gay-marriage ban from state law.

Gun control: School and other shootings fanned a demand for gun control, but from early this legislative session it was apparent that banning so-called assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazine would go nowhere. The debate now is whether to expand background checks for gun buyers. There is widespread agreement that some measures are needed to keep guns away from people who should not have them.

Health care: Minnesota will be among a handful of states that operate a mostly Web-based marketplace where its residents can compare and buy health insurance policies. That is the only major law the governor has signed this year. In their budget plans, House and Senate Democrats call for cutting $150 million from health programs that serve the poor, elderly and disabled.

Higher education: The governor, House and Senate all want to raise spending for state-run colleges and universities, as well as a state student grant program, after years of financial struggles. The University of Minnesota hopes to receive enough funding to freeze tuitions.

Local aid: It always has been the suburbs vs. big cities and rural areas in local aid debates, but this year cities of all sizes and locations have come together on a new formula that would make state aid more predictable and, supporters say, more fair. Some suburbs that now get no state payments would get aid under the plan. Also, there seems to be an agreement among the governor and legislative leaders to increase money available to cities.

Lockouts: Bills are making progress to require companies that have locked out workers in labor disputes, such as one at American Crystal Sugar, to pay unemployment benefits for the duration of the lockout.

Mayo Clinic: The Rochester-based Mayo Clinic, with facilities across much of Minnesota, wants the state to borrow more than $500 million to help its home community improve infrastructure as the health organization undergoes a $3.5 billion expansion. The plan has faced strong bipartisan opposition, but remains alive in committees.

Methadone clinics: Hopes by some to increase regulation on clinics that prescribe the powerful painkiller methadone were dashed when no bills to do that passed by a March committee deadline. However, there still is a chance that a methadone provision could be inserted into a health and human services budget bill.

Minimum wage: Bills are progressing to raise the state’s $6.15 an hour minimum wage large employers must pay to more than $9 an hour. The proposal has the governor’s backing. Many Minnesota employers are governed by the federal $7.25 minimum wage.

Partisanship: Republicans admit they have little say in what happens since Democrats control the governor’s office and both legislative chambers for the first time in more than two decades. Democrats only need GOP votes if they are to pass a public works bill because selling bonds needs a super majority.

Rural Minnesota: House Republicans started the session upset that the speaker and majority leader are from Minneapolis and St. Paul and the person heading the committee dealing with agriculture spending is a strong environmentalist. Rural Democrats, meanwhile, could decide whether issues unpopular in their parts of the state, such as gun control and gay marriage, have a chance of passing.

Sand mining: Bills remain alive to study silica sand mining in southern Minnesota as well as placing a year-long moratorium on the controversial mining and processing plants.

Sex offenders: Measures are being considered to respond to a federal judge who has given Minnesota notice that it must change how it deals with serious sex offenders who have completed their prison terms. Now, many sex offenders are committed to a sex offender center that looks a lot like a prison, but bills offer ways for the offenders to be released to community facilities around the state.

Stadium funding: In a session when major stadium funding was not expected to be an issue, some legislators are not happy that electronic pull tab revenues so far have fallen short of promised made last year when they were picked as a funding source for a new Vikings stadium. But, so far at least, there has been no serious move to change the funding source.

Standard of care: Nurses came into the session hoping for a bill establishing a quota for how many nurses would be on duty at hospitals. After strong hospital opposition, bills dealing with the subject now center on studies of how many nurses are needed.

Sunday booze: Bills to allow Sunday sale of alcohol have gone nowhere, but supporters say a chance remains to insert a provision into other bills.

Taxes: Democrats want to raise more than $2 billion in new taxes in the next two years. It appears they have broad agreement among themselves to raise taxes on the top 2 percent of earners, but the governor’s plan to expand the sales tax to include most services hit a brick wall. House and Senate committees have yet to decide how they would raise taxes.

Wolf hunting: A five-year moratorium on wolf hunting remains in consideration.

Proposed $150 million health cuts surprise, anger lawmakers

Huntley

By Danielle Killey and Don Davis

Elderly and disabled Minnesotans likely would be most hurt by proposed cuts to the state’s health and human services budget that caught many lawmakers by surprise, some advocates say.

Budget outlines House and Senate Democratic leaders released this week propose cutting about $150 million from the human services budget.

“That’s a very ugly scenario,” Senate Health and Human Services Committee Chairman Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said. “I was very let down.”

Sen. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said that while the budget is large, at $11.4 billion and second only to education funding, $150 million is enough to fund many needed programs.

“Ninety percent of my budget is seniors getting long-term care and people with disabilities,” said Huntley, the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee chairman. “That’s where most of the money goes.”

Lourey and Huntley, who will work to craft health budget plans, were not happy with the cuts.

“We have a very bad target we got from leadership,” Huntley said.

“It’s about $300 million less than the governor’s (plan),” he added. “That’s going to be very difficult to do.”

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget proposes a more than $150 million increase in human services spending.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she has confidence in Huntley’s committee’s ability to find efficiencies and ways to trim the budget.

“We need to look at the changing landscape,” Murphy said, which includes expected more federal aid for various health care programs.

Reforming health care programs should save more money, she added, but the state may need to “strategically cut” to reach the $150 million target.

Huntley said one approach could be to create or increase health care-related fees or cut some hospital funding.

“But all that’s going to do is increase health care costs when we should be working to decrease costs,” he said.

Rep. Jim Abeler of Anoka, who chaired the House Health and Human Services Committee when Republicans were in charge the last two years, said that the only pot of money he sees for health funding would be to put a surcharge on Medical Assistance, the Minnesota version of Medicaid.

“There are only some fees they can raise,” he said.

The human services budget is quickly rising due to soaring health care costs and has been a prime target in the past decade as state leaders looked for places to cut.

The Democrats’ proposed cuts surprised Abeler.

“I spent the day with my jaw on the floor,” he said. “I couldn’t have predicted this.”

When Republicans were in control, groups that depend on state health funding expected cuts.

“They are not prepared for it at all,” Abeler said of these cuts, adding Democrats made it clear they would raise taxes to support increased spending in the state budget.

Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said she does not have a problem with cuts, but this area actually needs increased funding.

Franson said, especially in greater Minnesota, hospitals and nursing homes are having trouble keeping good employees because of the pay and some people are not getting the care they need.

“They are really struggling,” she said.

Murphy said she expects Republicans to join Democrats in making the changes.

“If they are not willing to make cuts and they are not willing to raise taxes, I don’t know why they are here,” she said.

Health care advocates are pushing leadership to reconsider the cuts, and Lourey said he does not see the numbers as final.

“The targets are just that, targets,” he said. “I’m going to keep working on it.”

All funding committees, including those dealing with health spending, face an April 19 deadline to finish budgets.

 

 

Senate OKs insurance marketplace

By Danielle Killey

Minnesota is a step away from the biggest health insurance reform in recent history.

Senators today approved 39-28 a final compromise plan from earlier House- and Senate-passed proposals to run a health insurance marketplace required under the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.

Representatives approved the bill 72-61 early Friday. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to sign the measure, giving Minnesotans a mainly online system to compare and buy health insurance.

But backers are not celebrating just yet.

“Until I see the governor’s pen flying across the page, I’m not done,” said Senate author Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

The bill would establish a marketplace, also known as an exchange, that would provide a mostly Web-based place where Minnesotans could compare and buy health insurance policies. For people uncomfortable doing that via computer, help would be available via telephone or in person.

“This is the most significant, positive health care reform in Minnesota in the last 50 years,” said bill author Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights. “This is a clear compromise between the House and Senate positions on the exchange.”

Lawmakers have a March 22 deadline to pass a bill so the marketplace can start operating in October as required. The federal government will set up an exchange if the state does not.

“We’ve got a lot of unique tools in Minnesota, and a federal one-size-fits-all exchange would not be able to leverage all of those assets we’ve worked so hard collectively to build together,” Lourey said of the push to set up a state exchange.

The state bill would create a mostly online marketplace where Minnesotans could compare and buy health insurance. It would establish a seven-member board to manage the program, which some Republicans have said is an issue.

The board can establish criteria insurance companies have to meet to be included in the marketplace after 2014. Those that are federally qualified automatically will be included in the first year.

“While it will take a year to implement, the state will eventually be able to negotiate with insurers for the best plans, those that are higher quality and more affordable,” said Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.

Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, said insurance carriers need a more predictable system.

“They don’t have $5 million to take a shot in the dark and not get picked,” he said.

Abeler, the only Republican on the joint panel that hashed out the final bill, said he had been willing to support some form of a health insurance marketplace but was not satisfied with this final result.

The state will fund the program, expected to cost roughly $60 million per year, by withholding 1.5 percent of insurance premiums in the first two years and 3.5 percent after that.

The exchange also can take a loan from state funds if it needs more cash.

The Senate’s original proposal would have funded the marketplace with money from the tobacco tax in Minnesota.

Financing was a major piece of discussion, Lourey said, but in the end he said he believes the system is fair.

“I think we have a bill that can work for industry and for people,” Lourey said.

More than a million Minnesotans are expected to buy health insurance through the marketplace, including thousands who are uninsured. People who do not have Internet access could call or visit in-person sites to purchase health insurance.

Republican representatives said if some provisions in the original bill had remained in the final version, including banning funding for abortions in the marketplace plans, the bill might have garnered more support,

Republicans also raised privacy concerns about the data provided to the marketplace.

“It increases the size, the scope and the power of government,” said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. “This is going to decimate the health care that we know and love in this great state.”

“The Democrats’ insurance exchange was bad last week and it’s worse today,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. Daudt said the exchange will cost Minnesotans more, harm small businesses and middle-class Minnesotans and limit choices in health insurance coverage. “It’s the wrong move at the wrong time.”

The bill started with more bipartisan support but now mainly is backed by Democrats.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, called the exchange “extreme.”

“It’s not going to get any support outside the DFL caucus,” he said.

Lourey said he understands why Republicans might not want to back the bill.

“At the end of the day it’s pretty hard (for them) to embrace the cornerstone of the Affordable Care Act,” he said.

Lourey said he thinks there is room for bipartisan work as health care reforms continue.

The House Public Information Office contributed to this story.

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The health care market place bill is at http://tinyurl.com/mnhealthexchange

Legislative notebook: Witnesses say wage hike would help economy

Garofalo

By Don Davis

Minnesota minimum wages would rise from $6.15 to as much as $10.55 an hour under bills lawmakers are examining this week.

The proposal’s first committee votes could come this week.

Two wage experts told a House committee Monday that, despite what opponents say, raising the minimum wage would help the state economy.

“We’ve seen a continuing pulling apart” between the rich and poor, Douglas Hall of the Economic Analysis and Research Network told House members.

Hall said that studies show that higher wages help the economy and they do not hinder employers’ hiring. He predicted that 4,820 jobs would be created if the wage were raised to $10.10.

Raising the Minnesota minimum wage to $10.10 would affect 600,000 workers, he said, nearly a quarter of the state workforce.

“It’s very much a women’s issue,” he added, saying 57 percent of those affected would be women.

Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, used Moorhead as an example about why the minimum wage increase would hurt. He said Moorhead cannot attract an Applebee’s restaurant because North Dakota next door has a lower minimum wage.

Hall said a study of several Upper Midwest states shows Minnesota businesses pay much better wages than others, in part because of the high concentration of union representation.

Clergy back Dayton

A group of clergy members said Monday they support Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget because it would help Minnesota’s needy residents.

They also urged lawmakers and Dayton to close what they call “loopholes” in state tax law that allow corporations to escape paying $1.9 billion in taxes.

The clergy, members of the Twin Cities-concentrated Isaiah organization, said they will spend 40 days at the Capitol asking that families be considered during the budget debate.

“These families do not have hordes of high-powered lobbyists to lobby for them,” the Rev. Steven Cook of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud said.

The clergy refused to discuss budget details, but the Rev. Paul Slack of Minneapolis’ New Creation Church said of the Dayton budget plan: “As a whole, we believe it is a good recipe.”

Ed groups join

Education groups that are not always on the same page came together Monday to support funding all-day kindergarten, more per-pupil money and teacher development and evaluation support.

Leaders from Education Minnesota, the Minnesota School Boards Association and the Minnesota Association of School Administrators said such moves would help reverse years of budget woes.

“Our class sizes are now so large, we’re putting our future workforce at a disadvantage,” said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota teachers’ union, said research has shown that offering all-day kindergarten is an effective tool for closing achievement gaps and improving graduation rates.

“You can’t build anything without a strong foundation, especially a child’s education,” Dooher said.

Kirk Schneidawind, deputy executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said the system of professional development and evaluation for teachers mandated by the Legislature in 2011 would lead to improvement, but it would be expensive.

“The 2011 Legislature created this mandate, but it’s up to the 2013 Legislature to pay for it,” he said.

No-unionization bill

While a movement grows to allow home day care workers and personal care attendants to join unions, Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, introduced the Family Freedom Act to prohibit the move.

“Families who are running businesses out of their homes or people who have hired personal care attendants should not have to worry about the additional cost that unionization imposes on their business or cost of care,” Franson said. “This legislation ensures that those who are hired as independent contractors do not have split loyalties between the families they work for and the union bosses who want more money from hard-working people.”

Union leaders Monday said they are backing a bill to allow 9,000 child care providers who receive state subsidies to join unions. They say a union could help the providers deal with inspectors, regulators and politicians and it could help them have an impact on writing state rules.

Exchange heads to votes

The Senate rules committee voted along party lines Monday to move a bill establishing a new way to buy health insurance to the full Senate.

The so-called health care exchange legislation would give Minnesotans a mostly online way to buy insurance. If the state does not have this in place soon, the federal government will establish an exchange as part of new federal health care laws.

The Senate panel’s vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed, marked the ninth committee that passed the bill by Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.

The House’s version of the bill is expected to be debated by the full House on Monday, with the Senate taking it up a few days later.