Health funding legislation that caused some of the most controversy in recent months ended up passing relatively easily.
House and Senate members late Sunday and early Monday passed a $12 billion measure funding health programs. It retained the existing MNsure health insurance exchange structure, which both parties wanted to change. It also maintained the MinnesotaCare state-subsidized insurance program for the poor, which Republicans wanted to eliminate.
It passed the Senate 49-16 and the House 99-31.
Sen. Tony Lourey, D-Kerrick, said the bill increases support and resources for health care providers, strengthens the state’s mental health system, increases access to health care for persons with disabilities and seniors, ensures safe and stable housing and provides support for caregivers of the vulnerable.
“This is a good bill, but like any budget year we wish we could have done more, like increase the cash grant for low-income families with children,” said Lourey, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division. “The fact that the House Republicans demanded an increase in premiums and cost-shifting for low-income families continues to be a huge disappointment. But the bill has a large number of significant investments in our elderly and disabled, and children in need of protection.”
Republicans also were happy with the bill, despite the fact that it does not eliminate MinnesotaCare, an action the GOP said would save $1 billion.
“Legislative leaders have crafted a health care reform bill that prioritizes care for Minnesota’s most vulnerable citizens,” said Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, Lourey’s House counterpart. “Our omnibus bill seeks to reconnect all Minnesotans with world-leading health care by cutting through red tape, skyrocketing costs and layers of redundant, harmful bureaucracy that government has imposed.”
Increasing state payments to greater Minnesota nursing homes payments to the level paid in the Twin Cities was hailed as a major win by rural lawmakers. It will result in higher nursing home wages.
“This legislation provides a major investment in nursing homes, establishes a sustainable reimbursement system and encourages our workforce to consider a career in long-term care,” said Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, chairman of the Minnesota House Aging and Long Term Care Policy Committee. “There’s no doubt these changes will help improve the quality of care our seniors deserve.”
Minnesota landowners would need to plant vegetation buffers around water under a bill lawmakers were working to pass Monday night.
The House passed the bill 83-50 late Monday afternoon, sending it to the Senate for consideration.
The buffer requirement, an issue Gov. Mark Dayton began promoting earlier this year, would be an average 50-foot buffer around public waters. Public drainage systems would need a 16.5-foot buffer.
The issue has become hotly debated, with Dayton demanding action to prevent agricultural and other pollutants from reaching the state’s water.
It was not clear if Dayton could accept the new buffer strip language.
The Nature Conservancy praised the buffer deal.
“It will considerably reduce the amount of nutrients and sediment that enter Minnesota’s waters from agricultural runoff,” conservancy Director Rich Biske said. “As such, it is one of the single biggest actions that can be taken to improve habitat for fish and other aquatic life and to avoid the increased cost of water treatment in both metro and rural areas.”
Executive Director Steve Morse of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership said the overall bill would make a modest improvement in water, but “it will not return the rivers, lakes and streams in Minnesota farm country to being swimmable and fishable.”
Morse also criticized the bill’s provision to eliminate the Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens’ Board, giving most of its duties to PCA officials.
The measure exempts sewage plants near the Red River from some treatment rules until 2025 unless North Dakota increases its water pollution protections.
Sulfide mining waste would be exempt from solid waste rules, apparently helping proposed northeastern Minnesota nickel and copper mines.
When discussing the overall ag-environment bill, representatives engaged in a long debate about whether undocumented immigrants should receive driver’s licenses. The bill’s House and Senate negotiators voted during the weekend to not include the provision.
The driver’s license issue has been discussed the entire legislative session, and in recent days efforts centered on getting it in the agriculture bill because many undocumented immigrants work in ag-related jobs.
The governor is being asked to sign a transportation funding bill a tiny fraction of the size that nearly all legislators and he wanted.
“The transportation plan we have agreed upon is the status quo,” House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said.
The bill would spend $5.5 billion in the next two years, which is little different than current spending. Much of that money comes from sources other than state tax collections.
No deal could be reached on competing Democratic and Republican plans that would have added billions of dollars to transportation projects over the next decade. However, Republicans would not accept Democratic wishes to add a new gasoline tax and Democrats rejected the GOP plan to take money from other state programs.
The bigger transportation bill can be considered when legislators return to St. Paul on March 8.
The bill includes $3 million to improve railroad crossings and $900,000 to establish emergency response units in Duluth and St. Cloud to respond to railroad emergencies.
Rep. Paul Marquart, D-Dilworth, and others complained that there is too little rail safety money in light of the number of oil trains going through the state.
“Why in the world would we not want to do everything possible to make our communities as safe as they can be?” Marquart asked.
Sen. Roger Reinert, D-Duluth, said he and others are disappointed the bigger transportation bill was not possible, but he would support the measure.
“I do look forward to an ongoing conversation that will happen this interim,” Reinert said.
Lawmakers approved a measure to update election laws, including giving Minnesota National Guard members and other voters living overseas special voting procedures.
The overseas provision is meant to solve a perpetual problem of getting votes into Minnesota elections officials on time.
The bill also overturns a law that requires county attorneys to proceed with prosecutions of alleged voter fraud even before they investigate.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto waged a Twitter battle against legislation that would allow private auditors to look over local government financials.
Otto sent more than three dozen tweets in the hours leading up Senate vote on the measure, which went against her 44-21. The House was expected to debate the bill late Monday.
One tweet said that legislative “leadership made a deal with the devil and Minnesotans love on this one.”
Otto responded to senators as they spoke for or against the bill.
Sen. Tom Saxhaug, D-Grand Rapids, said private auditors must treat data the same as the state auditor. But Sen. Sandra Pappas, D-St. Paul, said that if local governments are allowed to hire private auditors, it would be like “the fox guarding the chicken coop.”
The bill allows local governments to decide whether to use the elected state auditor or a private one.
The auditor provision was part of a bill financing a variety of state and veterans’ programs spending $973 million that includes a 1.8 percent pay raise for many executive branch workers.
Appropriations include $14.98 million for the Senate, which is moving into a new building late this year or early next. The House receives $2.77 million in the bill.
The bill kills the state political contribution fund for two years. That includes a $50 refund Minnesotans can receive for some political contributions.
Judges and their staffs would receive a 4 percent pay raise under a bill the House and Senate easily passed.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Lori Gildea has said that workers’ wages in her branch of government were frozen for years and raises are needed to be competitive.
The measure also increases public defender spending to add 36 lawyers.
The overall bill spends $2.1 billion.
It includes $11.4 million to replace outdated Bureau of Criminal Apprehension equipment.
The bill allows gun silencers, also known as suppressors, to be used. Gov. Mark Dayton says he does not like the provision, but has not said he will veto the bill over it.
A proposal to allow some North Dakota gun permit holders to carry in the state without a Minnesota license was not included.
Also not in the measure is a much-discussed provision that would have restored voting rights to felons who had served their time in prison.