Second year of session begins
Senators began the second year of the 84th Legislative Session, Wed., Mar. 1, by addressing routine administrative issues. Members approved resolutions setting deadlines for action on bills, reimbursing interns and law clerks for their expenses, allocating postage to Senators, setting miles traveled by Senators in traveling to and from the Capitol and making committee assignments.
Brief floor session held
Senators gathered for a brief floor session, Thurs., Mar. 2, to process bill introductions and take care of other procedural matters. Members adopted a concurrent resolution allowing for adjournment for more than three days in order to allow members to remain in their districts for precinct caucuses, Tues., Mar. 7. In addition, Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Mpls.) and Sen. Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park) were renamed to the conference committee on H.F. 1915. The bill authorizes an exemption to the hospital moratorium in order for a hospital to be built in Maple Grove.
After the session was adjourned, members took a few moments to acknowledge a visitor in the Senate Gallery. Sen. Sheila Kiscaden (DFL-Rochester) paid tribute to Corporal Chuck Lindberg, the last surviving marine of the group who first raised the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima during World War II. Kiscaden described the hardships U.S. troops endured and the efforts of that small group of marines that raised the flag. Kiscaden also said that a veterans facility in Rochester is being named in honor of Lindberg.
Marijuana bill stumbles
A measure permitting the use of marijuana when recommended by a licensed medical professional failed to gain the support of members of the Judiciary Committee at a hearing, Thurs., Mar. 2. Two motions to advance the bill failed on tie votes.
S.F. 1973, sponsored by Sen. Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins), protects qualifying patients and their primary suppliers from civil and criminal liability for the possession, cultivation or use of marijuana. To qualify, a patient must suffer from a debilitating medical condition. Kelley said the bill does what the state can to protect medical marijuana users. We cannot do anything about federal law, he said, but we can alleviate the state law hurdles preventing patients from following a doctor's advice on using marijuana to alleviate pain or seizures. The bill establishes a reasonable, controlled and orderly way for qualifying patients to obtain marijuana, Kelley said.
Several patients who would likely be eligible under the law discussed the painful symptoms of their diseases and the possibility of relief offered by marijuana. Neil Haugerud, a former sheriff and former state Representative, said medical marijuana users are not a concern for law enforcement. A cancer patient using marijuana recommended by a doctor is no more a threat to public order than a cancer patient taking morphine or opiates by prescription, he said. These are otherwise law abiding citizens struggling to deal with a diagnosis they never sought, Haugerud said.
Sen. Wesley Skoglund (DFL-Mpls.) offered an amendment removing veterinarians from the list of licensed professionals who may recommend marijuana use, clarifying the protection offered to qualified people with whole marijuana plants, making the data practices provisions of the bill consistent with general data practices principles and permitting law enforcement agencies to sell marijuana plants to qualified patients or primary suppliers. Allowing law enforcement to choose to sell confiscated marijuana plants to medical users provides a way for protected purchasers not to have to enter the existing illegal market for the drug, Skoglund said. The amendment was adopted.
I support permitting legitimate medical use of marijuana to alleviate pain and other symptoms, said Sen. Thomas Neuville (R-Northfield), but the distribution process in this bill is not controllable enough. A better system might be to distribute the drug through public health nurses, he said.
An initial motion to re-refer the bill to the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee failed on a tie vote. A motion to re-refer the bill without recommendation also failed on a tie.
Committee members, led by Chair Don Betzold (DFL-Fridley), also considered a measure prohibiting the disruption of funerals by protesters. S.F. 2613, carried by Betzold, makes it a misdemeanor to disrupt a funeral and provides additional civil remedies. The bill defines disruption as including public protesting or picketing on the day of the ceremony within 300 feet of the ceremony locations, the funeral route and the home of the deceased's family.
It is unfortunate that we even need to consider this bill, Betzold said, but hateful protests at funerals have emerged in the military context and could quickly spread to other funerals. This bill does not violate anyone's freedom of speech, but does restrict the physical proximity of demonstrations to funerals, burials and memorial services, he said. Grieving families have enough to deal with without facing screaming protesters attacking the deceased and the community, said James Bono of the Patriot Guard. He urged committee members to expand the protected zone to 1,000 feet and to prohibit the use of megaphones. Protests at funerals will only expand, he said, from fallen service members and civil rights leaders to public safety personnel and first responders.
Teresa Nelson, legal counsel, ACLU of Minnesota, said the bill is well-intentioned but seriously flawed. Protesters could successfully challenge this bill and collect attorney fees, she said. Nelson said cruel speech is protected by both the federal and state constitutions. Legislators should focus on specific conduct or on actual disruptions of services, not a presumed disruption, Nelson said. She said the bill is overly broad and may encompass laborers picketing a building next door to the funeral home. Similarly, she said, because funerals happen daily, the route restriction means that some high-traffic streets used regularly by funerals would be permanently off limits to picketers of any variety.
Members adopted an amendment, offered by Betzold, changing the effective date of the bill from August 1 to the day following final enactment. The measure was advanced to the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee.
The panel also approved three other bills. S.F. 2633, carried by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope), permits litigants to appeal decisions made by Family Court referees in Hennepin County directly to the Court of Appeals. A similar procedure has been approved for Ramsey County. The current procedure in Hennepin County requires a referee's decision to be reviewed by a district judge before being appealed to the Court of Appeals. Judge James Swenson and Michael Dittberner, Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, said the bill is designed to reduce the cost, length and acrimony of family cases. S.F. 1039, authored by Sen. Gary Kubly (DFL-Granite Falls), prohibits tampering with clock-hour meters on farm tractors. Both bills were sent to the full Senate. S.F. 2319, sponsored by Betzold, is the Uniform Securities Act (2002). The bill is designed to coordinate federal and state securities regulation. The measure was advanced to the Commerce Committee.
In other action, committee members heard a report from the legislative auditor on child support enforcement. The report indicated that the child support enforcement system performs well, but needs improvement in county accountability and arrears management policies.
Agriculture, Veterans and Gaming
Vets home review examined
A comprehensive study of the Minnesota's five veterans homes was the main topic at the Wed., Mar. 1, meeting of the Agriculture, Veterans and Gaming Committee. The panel, chaired by Sen. Jim Vickerman (DFL-Tracy), heard from representatives of the consulting firm that prepared the study, Health Dimensions Group, and from the Veterans Homes Board.
The study found that veterans homes employees are deeply committed to the homes' mission and vision and that veterans receive a high quality of care and level of services. According to the study, the Minneapolis Veterans Home has taken significant action to develop and implement quality initiatives since the middle of last year. Staffing levels are, for the most part, within expected levels for nursing facilities, the report indicated.
The consultants preparing the study also made several recommendations, including creating an 18-month turnaround plan for the Minneapolis home, recruiting a top-quality management team for the facility and dividing the home into smaller operating units. Other recommendations were to use external experts to conduct mock surveys of all five facilities, to operate the Veterans Homes Board as a governing board, not an advisory board, to have the Board develop a strategic plan for the Veterans Homes System and to establish and monitor performance indicators for the homes.
No-fault insurance discussed
Minnesota's no-fault auto insurance provided the focal point for a hearing Tues., Feb. 28, of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Commerce and Financial Institutions Committee. The panels, chaired by Sen. Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park) and Rep. Tim Wilkin (R-Eagan), heard from Bob Johnson, Insurance Federation of Minnesota, and Brett Orlander, an attorney representing State Farm Insurance Co., who discussed a new study on no-fault insurance.
The cost of operating a car is significant for consumers statewide, Johnson said. He said the federation is in strong support of changing the system to aid consumers. Sixteen states in this country, in the '70s, adopted no-fault systems. Today, only nine states have no-fault systems. No-fault systems were adopted to ensure speedier payments, to be more equitable and to lower costs, Johnson said. However, he said the insurance industry opposed the switch from a traditional tort system to the no-fault system.
Johnson said, at the time it was passed, back in 1975, there was a purpose clause in the law that described the Legislature's intent on passing the law. He said it was intended to eliminate law suits on minor accidents, but it never was intended to eliminate law suits on serious accidents. Johnson said, though, that the intention was never met because drivers had to buy medical coverage. The second intention was to require the medical coverage for appropriate medical care, but there are no cost controls on medical costs, Johnson said. The law should be written so medical care is paid at market rates.
Orlander spoke on the costs of litigation, particular smaller cases. One of the big problems for both sides is the costs associated with smaller cases such as having $4,000 in medical expenses, having to have a number of specialists involved and having to pay for expert witnesses and depositions.
One of the other intentions, Johnson said, was that all drivers have insurance. He said the number of uninsured is higher than it was in the earlier years and an issue that is driving that number is the affordability of auto insurance.
He said the industry has been in support of reforming the system. The system is broken and it is failing to meet the intentions listed in the original bill, Johnson said. The net effect of the no-fault systems is to make consumers pay for two systems-no fault and a traditional tort system. In states that have reformed their systems and allowed consumers more choices, rates are coming down, he said.
Dr. David Moen, an emergency physician, said while there are flaws in the system, the revenue stream is vital for emergency services. He said there will be cost shifting if no-fault insurance is repealed.
A representative from the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association, Wil Fluegel, said the current system has served the state well and does not need to be changed. Linda Way, director of emergency services, said repealing the no-fault system would have serious impact on the state's citizens and medical system. Other chiropractic, medical and emergency medical personnel urged members to not engage in a dramatic overhaul of the no-fault system. For instance, Phil Griffin, representing Preferred One, said that no matter what changes are made there will be financial repercussions.
Q Comp implementation discussed
Members of the Education Committee met Thurs., Mar. 2, to hear from several school districts about their experiences trying to implement the new Q Comp program. Under the program, districts adopt both an alternative teacher professional pay system and an educational improvement plan. In exchange, districts have access to additional state funds to implement the professional pay system.
Representatives of the St. Cloud school district and its teachers union said applying for and implementing Q Comp is an administrative hassle, but is worthwhile. Superintendent Bruce Watkins, Assistant Director of Professional Development Shawn Gombos and Mary Broderick, president of the St. Cloud Education Association, said they and other educators in the district are excited and energized about the improvements they are already seeing under the program and the potential for more benefits. Representatives of the Le Center and Annandale school districts, however, said the application and implementation processes are overwhelming for smaller districts and appear to be designed with larger districts in mind. Annandale withdrew from the Q Comp application process in December, while Le Center is still attempting to implement the program.
Department of Education staff discussed the application approval procedure, the criteria used to evaluate district applications and how funds are set aside for districts as they indicate their intention to apply.
Environment and Natural Resources
PFC contamination discussed
The extent and effects of possible contamination of Minnesota waters by perfluorochemicals (PFCs) were the focus of the Mon., Feb. 27, meeting of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
The panel, chaired by Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), reviewed the first phase of an investigation of PFC contamination along the Mississippi River. The investigation was conducted by Fardin Oliaei, a scientist who was employed by the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) until early February. Oliaei said high levels of PFCs are being found in fish in the river near a 3M plant in Cottage Grove. The plant was one of three in the world that manufactured the ScotchGuard line of products, she said, and is presumed to be the source of the contamination. Oliaei discussed the results of the first phase of the investigation and urged the panel to ensure that the investigation continues. She said scientists still do not know enough about the extent of the contamination. Oliaei said the investigation had focused on only a few kinds PFCs but should be expanded to include others. We need an immediate assessment of what effects this level of contamination is having on animals and humans consuming river fish, she said.
Several residents of Oakdale and Lake Elmo outlined their concerns about PFC contamination of the water and food supplies. They said they are concerned about the continued safety of gardening, drinking tap water and generally living in the area. Bonnie Dahlhauser, Oakdale, said her blood was recently tested for PFC exposure. The results indicate PFC levels between 4 and 20 times normal human exposure, she said.
We are currently updating information underlying the health-based values of PFC exposure in the human body, said Helen Goeden, Dept. of Health. This is not a situation where we have perfect information, said Deputy Commissioner Kristen Applegate, PCA. Benchmarks, risks and toxicity information are still developing in this field, she said. The state-including both the PCA and MDH-is trying to be coordinated, responsive and thorough in its approach to this issue, Applegate said. Michael Sandusky said the PCA is working quickly to resolve matters not covered by the Oliaei study. The next phase will likely include soil sampling, he said. Jim Kelly, MDH, said water from hundreds of wells near the 3M facility has been sampled to check for water contamination. We have found contamination at levels above recommended thresholds in a few wells, he said, while many others have shown no contamination at all. The city of Oakdale stopped using one well that was above the threshold, he said, and 3M is working with the city to install a filtration system at another well, which is the city's highest-volume water source. The filtration system will be operational by the end of the year, Kelly said. A coordinated response by state, county and local agencies, as well as 3M, he said, is working to significantly reduce drinking water exposure.
Land exchange bills discussed
The Environment and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Waters met Mon., Feb. 27, to consider several bills dealing with land sales and exchanges. The panel, chaired by Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids), reviewed several bills, but took no formal action.
Members began by reviewing a measure, which has not yet been introduced, that makes additions to Crow Wing State Park, Frontenac State Park, Grand Portage State Park, Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, Split Rock Creek State Park, and William O'Brien State Park. The measure also makes several deletions from Banning State Park, Schoolcraft State Park and William O'Brien State Park. In addition, the measure makes deletions from the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area and the Minnesota Valley State Recreation Area. Land is added to the Rum River State Forest under the measure. The proposal also outlines the public sale of surplus state land bordering public waters, and a land exchanges.
Members also considered a proposal, sponsored by Saxhaug, specifying a land exchange between the Blandin Paper Company and Itasca County.
A final Saxhaug proposal allows the private sale of tax forfeited land in Itasca County. Under the measure, Itasca County must deposit the money received from the sale of tax-forfeited lands within Minnesota Steel Industries permit to mine area near Nashwauk, into a tax-forfeited land replacement trust fund. Further, the principal and interest from the fund may be spent only on the purchase of lands to replace the tax-forfeited lands.
All of the measures were laid over for possible inclusion in an omnibus lands bill to be introduced soon.
Game and fish proposals reviewed
The Environment and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Game and Fish met Tues., Feb. 28, to review the Dept. of Natural Resources' (DNR) proposal for changing laws relating to hunting and fishing. In addition, members reviewed a proposal, authored by Subcommittee Chair Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids), making other changes in wildlife provisions.
The DNR bill expands the types of donations that can be accepted for the critical habitat private sector matching account, defines "deer" as either white tail or mule deer, clarifies the deposit of various receipts into the game and fish fund and eliminates potential diversionary language related to game and fish violations and the expense of keeping prisoners.
The proposed bill also clarifies enforcement officer authority to inspect equipment used to take wild animals in the field, provides additional authority to regulate motorized watercraft and recreational vehicles on lakes designated for wildlife management and specifies a civil penalty for dogs pursuing big game animals. The measure also authorizes youth firearms deer license use in any regular season zone or time period and modifies the all season deer license to allow the "buck" tag to be used for taking deer of either sex under some conditions.
The second measure exempts collector snowmobiles and snowmobiles owned by government entities from state trail sticker requirements, reduces fishing license fees and trapping license fees for residents over the age of 65, allows the use of scopes on muzzleloaders and modifies the restrictions on leaving decoys overnight.
Members took no formal action on either measure and will continue hearing game and fish bills to include in an omnibus proposal later in the session.
Mercury reduction discussed
Members of two committees devoted a joint hearing, Wed., Mar. 1, to consideration of mercury reduction. The panels-the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Jobs, Energy and Community Development Committee, chaired by Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) and Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul)-used the meeting to develop common background information in anticipation of legislation aimed at reducing mercury emissions.
Dr. Christine Ziebold, a pediatrician, said mercury is comparable to lead in its toxic effects. We lack the testing and treatment capability for mercury that we have for lead, she said. Ziebold said upstream measures, such as stronger emissions standards, are the most preventive route to ensuring a minimal level of exposure of pregnant women and children. Dave Johnson said the Minnesota Public Health Association strongly supports reducing mercury emissions. Ten percent of women have unsafe mercury exposure, he said, or about 400,000 babies every year. People today are very environmentally conscious and they are turned off from fishing by reading about pollution warnings, said Vern Wagner, conservation director of the Minnesota Bass Federation. As we pollute the environment, he said, we lose our attachment to outdoor sports. Wagner also noted the significance of sport fishing in the state economy.
A lot of cultures are very dependent on fish as a part of their diet, said Rev. Mark Peters. Peters, executive director of the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota, said many people living subsistence existences also rely on fish they catch themselves for food. Reducing the level of mercury in our waters and in our fish population is crucial for our health, he said. Boise Jones, Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota (EJAM), said the disparity in who has resources has meant that a majority of most minority groups lives near contaminated sites. EJAM has posted signs in many languages at popular fishing sites to warn people of the dangers posed by potentially contaminated fish.
Lee Eberley, Xcel Energy, described an emission control project that is being conducted in Colorado. A lot of research is being conducted by Xcel, he said, and by others in the energy industry. We are always being approached with new technologies to control and reduce emissions, he said. Eberley said what the utility is learning in Colorado will have significant benefits for its Minnesota operations. Dennis Niemi, Minnesota Power, outlined efforts to significantly reduce emissions from two facilities in Northeastern Minnesota. Mike Durham, Institute of Clean Air Companies, explained how various technologies work to capture mercury particles. Technology in this area is rapidly growing, Durham said, and commercial technology is already available to help reduce mercury emissions.
David Thornton, assistant commissioner for air policy at the Pollution Control Agency, reviewed the history of mercury emissions and regulation in Minnesota and across the country. He also described the actions of several nearby states to control mercury emissions. Minnesota has been a leader in reducing emissions, Thornton said, but we need to take the next step. He outlined a proposal put forward by the governor to reduce mercury emissions. Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Mpls.) also summarized his proposal to reduce emissions. Anderson said Senators will use later hearings to consider the measures and other related legislation.
Lands and forestry bills gain
The Environment and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Waters met Thurs., Mar. 2, to complete work on the land sales and exchange bill and on the forestry and minerals bill.
S.F. 2637, authored by Subcommittee Chair Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids), contains provisions authorizing additions and deletions from various state parks, provides for public and private sales and exchanges of state lands, modifies the apportionment of proceeds from the sale of tax-forfeited land and authorizes parcel replacement in the sustainable forest incentive program.
The second bill, also authored by Saxhaug, provides for land donor appraisal reimbursement, provides for acquisition of land for specific facilities, modifies definitions, modifies forest services provided to private owners, permits a fee for harvesting specialty forest products, modifies the State Timber Act and eliminates a duplicative requirement for comprehensive forest resource management plan.
Members amended the forestry bill onto the lands bill, S.F. 2637. In addition, members added an amendment relating to lands in St. Louis County.
The panel also heard the findings and recommendations from the Sustainable Forest Incentive Act (SFIA) Working Group. The SFIA Working Group found that substantive program changes are necessary in order for the program to accomplish the public policy objectives of preventing conversion of forestland to development, promoting sustainable forest management practices on private forestland and promoting public access to private forestland. The group also found that the current payment formula doesn't provide a large enough payment to attract a substantial number of family forest landowners and that the program costs exceed program benefits for most family forest owners.
The group recommended that the Dept. of Natural Resources be the lead agency for administering the SFIA program and that information to prospective enrollees be developed and marketed and that an educational and promotional program be developed, but not launched until the program's incentive payment structure has been modified.
Budget forecast discussed
Members of the Finance Committee met Thurs., Mar. 2, to review the budget forecast with Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison, State Economist Tom Stinson, Assistant Finance Commissioner James Schowalter and Paul Anton, a member of the state's Council of Economic Advisors.
The forecast indicates an $88 million general fund balance at the end of FY 2007. The projected surplus is $181 million, but $93 million must be used, under current law, to reverse accounting shifts in state aid to schools. Revenue from the individual income tax, sales tax and motor vehicle sales tax was $151 million below the previous forecast, while revenue from corporate taxes, other taxes and non-tax sources increased a total of $271 million. The indicators used to predict economic conditions for the rest of this biennium and for the FY 08-09 budget period were mostly unchanged.
Committee Chair Richard Cohen (DFL-St. Paul) sponsored a proposal, S.F. 2722, reforming the budget process. The bill adjusts the budget reserve target from $653 million to an amount equal to five percent of forecast net general fund revenue for the biennium. It also provides for continuing appropriations at previous levels if no budget is enacted by the first day of a new biennium. The proposal requires the budget forecast to include a listing of all laws requiring the budget to be reported in a way that conflicts with generally accepted governmental accounting principles. The measure also requires the forecast to include inflation-adjusted expenditures and requires the governor's budget proposal to include a plan to bring the budget in line with generally accepted governmental accounting principles. The bills reflecting the governor's budget proposal must be submitted within two weeks of the submission of the outlines of the proposal, under the measure. The measure was laid on the table.
The committee also considered two other bills. S.F. 2466, sponsored by Sen. Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon), modifies appropriations relating to road improvements in Ramsey and Anoka Counties made in last year's bonding bill. Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont) carried S.F. 2653, which appropriates $570,000 to cover the costs of implementing an executive order issued by the governor to ease the transition process into the new Medicare Part D drug benefit for dual eligible persons. Both bills were sent to the full Senate.
Health and Family Security
Affordable health care discussed
The Health and Family Security Committee devoted the Thurs., Mar. 2, hearing to several bills relating to health care. The panel, chaired by Sen. Becky Lourey (DFL-Kerrick), approved all the measures heard.
The committee began by considering a bill, S.F. 2725, making changes to MinnesotaCare. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Mpls.), creates a prescription drug discount program, expands the benefit set for single adults and increases the eligibility income limit for single adults. The measure also increases the cap for inpatient hospitalization benefits for adults, establishes a small employer buy-in option and modifies the definition of income for self-employed farmers. Berglin also offered an amendment, which was adopted, that restores some of the cuts to MinnesotaCare.
A number of individuals spoke in support of the bill. Dan Haugen, program director, Neighborhood Involvement Program, said the bill will help small employers provide health care to employees. A representative from the Minnesota Hospital Association, Margaret Perryman, said raising the caps essentially restored the caps to previous levels. Christeen Stone, AARP volunteer, said the drug discount program would be beneficial for consumers across the state. Jim Meffert-Nelson, Minnesota Optometric Association, said the reductions made in the last year have been damaging to the health of people with chronic conditions. Marcia Avner, Minnesota Council of Non-Profits, said many non-profit organizations have difficulty providing health care to their employees and the small employer buy-in option would allow more organizations to obtain coverage.
The bill was approved and re-referred to the Finance Committee.
Berglin also sponsored a bill providing for a constitutional amendment for a right to affordable health care. The proposed amendment, which would go before the voters in November, affirms that every resident of Minnesota has the right to affordable health care. Berglin said the measure does not spell out a funding mechanism, but provides a basic right.
Mary Jo George, president, Minnesotans for Affordable Health Care, said the state constitution provides a right to education and a similar right to health care should be provided by the constitution. She said that if people were able to get preventive and earlier primary care, costs would ultimately be reduced.
Perryman said the Hospital Association supports the idea, but is concerned that the measure would place extreme pressure on the health care access fund. Mark McAfee, AFSCME Council 5, indicated the union's support of the bill, while Jerry Fallows, a steelworker from Eveleth told members of the experiences of him and his coworkers after losing health care when they were laid off.
John Schwartz, health systems analyst, said that life is dependent on medical care and government must guarantee access to medical care.
Beth Hartwig, Minnesota Business Partnership, said health care costs continue to be of concern to employers. "We believe heath care solutions can be a marketplace based patient centered system," she said. She said the partnership is concerned about the proposed amendment because the measure details no method of implementation or funding. The partnership does support a proposal that provides health care for those most in need, Hartwig said. Twila Brase, Citizens' Council on Health Care, said, "I don't believe a constitutional amendment is a way to address health care." She said her organization does not believe government should be so involved in health care.
Berglin said, "This amendment does not designate any particular system. The amendment is simply a way of guaranteeing a vital right." She said the amendment, if passed, would require the Legislature to develop a solution.
Sen. Brian LeClair (R-Woodbury) offered an amendment to define what role the Judicial Branch may assume if the Legislature fails to development a universal affordable health care program. The measure specifies that the Judicial Branch may not get involved. Berglin opposed the amendment. She said she believes the amendment takes away rights Minnesotans already have.
Sen. Steve Kelley (DFL-Hopkins) said several states have been sued on the grounds their education funding is unconstitutional, and asked if the state would be in the same situation other states are in with regard to education. Berglin said there have already been instances in Minnesota where law suits about health care have been filed. Kelley said the constitution doesn't provide a right to education, but requires the state to provide a uniform system of education. He said the courts would be involved in determining what is affordable. Kelley said, "I agree that every Minnesotan should have affordable health care, but I think we have an obligation to think of the consequences of making it a part of the constitution." He said the Legislature should continue working for affordable health care for all. The amendment failed on a 4-6 roll call vote.
Sen. Leo Foley (DFL-Coon Rapids) said the phrase "every resident" might be unconstitutional. Berglin said the court cases striking down residency requirements involving national programs such as Medicaid. She said MinnesotaCare has a residency requirement that has never been challenged.
The measure was approved and re-referred to the Rules and Administration Committee.
Members also heard S.F. 2468, authored by Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville). The bill requires an constitutional amendment also. In addition, the bill provides for a universal health care system that provides affordable access to high quality medical care, provides for a focus on preventive care and early intervention and directs the commissioner of health to prepare a plan to be implemented by 2010. He said the bill sets forth a process for arriving at a plan for universal, affordable health care. The best way to bring health care costs down is to focus on prevention and early intervention, he said.
Marlene Hart urged support for the bill because it is sets a process in motion that will result in a universal health care program for all Minnesotans. Recent estimates indicate that if nothing is done, health care will consume 20 percent of the gross national product, she said. Bob Salisbury, speaking for the Greater Minnesota Health Care Coalition, said it is becoming impossible for small businesses to provide health care coverage. "It seems that the new world order supposes that no one has health care coverage and I don't believe it," Salisbury said.
Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) offered an amendment to delete a section outlining legislative findings. The amendment was adopted. The bill was approved and referred to the Rules and Administration Committee.
Higher Education Budget Division
The Higher Education Budget Division, chaired by Sen. Sandra Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), met for the first time this session Thurs., Mar. 2. The panel traveled to the U of M's St. Paul Campus to discuss the development of Minnesota's higher education accountability system.
Jobs, Energy and Community Development
Workforce and immigration issues discussed
The Jobs, Energy and Community Development Committee met Mon., Feb. 27, to hear a variety of speakers present information about employment, workforce and immigration issues in Minnesota.
Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul), chair of the committee, said the hearing was to get a broad understanding of the issues that might come before the panel during the session.
Tom Gillespy, state demographer, led off the testimony by reviewing the demographic changes in Minnesota's workforce. He said labor force projections depend on migration and retirement decisions. He said migration will become the largest source of new workers in Minnesota. Foreign born workers account for 6 percent of the workforce and 5 percent, or about $5 billion, of Minnesota earnings, Gillespy said.
Steve Hine, research director, Dept. of Employment and Economic Development, said hard data on the measurement of immigration is hard to come by. He said educational achievement among foreign born individuals is bimodal in that there are a disproportionate number of individuals that do not have high school diplomas and a disproportionate number of individuals with advanced degrees.
Other speakers outlined the economic impact of undocumented workers. Jim Kielkopf, economist, said he has done several studies on the impact of undocumented workers and that the total value of undocumented workers is about $3.8 billion or 2 percent of the state economy. He said there are approximately 48,000 undocumented workers in the state and if they were not present an additional 50,000 workers would lose their jobs. He said that, generally, one low wage job adds at least one other job to the economy. There will always be a demand for low wage jobs in an economy, Kielkopf said. He said somewhere between $250 million and $350 million in tax revenue is generated because of the undocumented workers. However, there are increased costs in education for immigrants, he said.
Steve Hunter, secretary-treasurer, Minnesota AFL-CIO, said, "We believe there is dignity in all work and dignity for all workers." He said immigrant families make great contributions to the community and that there should be reforms granting permanent status to undocumented workers. "We do not support guest worker programs because of the possibility of further exploiting immigrant workers," Hunter said.
Javier Morillo-Alicea, SEIU Local 26, said many of the workers he represents are immigrants. "We are deeply dedicated to immigration reform," Morillo-Alicea said.
Alberto Monserrate, Latino Communications Network, said many Latinos feel that Minnesota has gone from being immigrant friendly to being completely unfriendly to immigrants. Most of our employees are permanent residents working on their citizenship, but we may have to outsource some of our functions because of the difficulty in hiring Spanish speaking employees, he said.
Public Safety Budget Division
Bonding proposals reviewed
Members of the Public Safety Budget Division met Mon., Feb. 27, to consider proposals for specific bonding projects and the governor's bonding proposals for the Dept. of Corrections.
The division, chaired by Sen. Jane Ranum (DFL-Mpls.), began by hearing three bills detailing individual projects. S.F. 2390, authored by Sen. Tom Saxhaug (DFL-Grand Rapids), requests $1.111 million for a grant to the city of Grand Rapids to predesign, design, construct, furnish and equip a new fire station facility in Grand Rapids. Saxhaug said the facility is needed because of the large area that firefighters must cover in the Grand Rapids area. S.F. 2303, sponsored by Sen. Rod Skoe (DFL-Clearbrook), authorizes funding to design, construct, furnish and equip a regional emergency training administration center in Gonvick. S.F. 2313, authored by Sen. Sheila Kiscaden (DFL-Rochester), requests $850,000 for Phase I of the Rochester Regional Public Safety Training Center to develop a live burn training simulator adjacent to the existing National Guard facility in Rochester. Kiscaden said the project has been approved before by the Senate, but has never been enacted into law.
Tim Leslie, assistant deputy commissioner, Dept. of Public Safety, said that although the projects had merit, none of them are on the governor's list of bonding recommendations.
The panel also heard from Wilson Bradshaw, president, Metropolitan State University, and Al Johnson, associate vice chancellor of facilities for the MNSCU system. Both Bradshaw and Johnson explained the bonding requests for law enforcement centers in Alexandria and the Metro Area. Ranum said the law enforcement centers were under the jurisdiction of another budget division and that she had invited Bradshaw and Johnson to the hearing in order to make other division members aware of the activities in law enforcement education.
Dennis Benson, deputy commissioner, Dept. of Corrections, outlined the needs of the state's correctional facilities. He said the department's capital project objectives were to maximize efficiencies to lower costs, ensure the safety of staff and offenders and to prevent the escape of dangerous offenders. Warden Connie Roehrich, Faribault Correctional Facility, said the department's top priority is the phase II expansion of the Faribault facility. She said the department is requesting $28 million to construct a 416 bed living unit, demolish one living unit, remodel existing living units into program space and remodel the long-term care unit. She said the expansion will add 181 beds to the facility, address officer safety and security issues and meet the need for a long-term care unit.
Warden Lynn Dingle, Stillwater Correctional Facility, said the top priority for Stillwater is completion of a new 150-bed segregation unit. The governor is requesting $19.6 million in bond proceeds for the project, Dingle said. The completion of the project will increase the population by 150 beds, but will minimize staff additions because of technology and efficient design, Dingle said. Dingle added that the project will reduce facility per diem by $5.
The Shakopee Women's Correctional Facility needs two major projects said Warden Rick Hillengass. He said the governor is recommending $5.4 million to be used to add 92 beds to the facility and $4.9 million for a perimeter fence and enhanced surveillance system. Hillengass said the perimeter fence is needed because of the growing offender population, inmate profile and the state's commitment to public safety. He said there are ongoing meetings with community leaders in order to develop a design that will be aesthetically acceptable to the community. Hillengass said the construction of a perimeter fence will reduce the risk of escapes, reduce the risk of intrusion and the introduction of contraband and increase the efficiency of staff deployment.
The Lino Lakes Correction Facility warden, David Crist, said the facility is requesting, and the governor is recommending, $2.5 million to renovate a portion of an existing building to include newly consolidated health care service functions, improve operational efficiency and replace substandard mechanical systems.
Benson said the governor is also recommending $10 million for asset preservation projects throughout the correctional system.
Division members discussed prioritizing the items presented to the division and forwarding a recommendation to the Capital Investment Committee. Members decided to list the Faribault phase II expansion project as their number one priority at the amount recommended by the governor. The other projects were listed in descending order as the Stillwater Segregation Unit, the Shakopee expansion, the Shakopee perimeter fence and the Lino Lakes medical building renovation. Members also recommended that asset preservation be the sixth priority with funding of $9 million and that a training facility be listed as the seventh priority with funding of $1 million.
Rules and Administration
Opening resolutions approved
The Rules and Administration Committee met Wed., Mar. 1, in order to take care of a number of routine housekeeping tasks necessary to begin every Legislative Session. The panel, chaired by Majority Leader Dean E. Johnson (DFL-Willmar), adopted opening day resolutions relating to mileage, postage, committee assignments and interns.
The committee also adopted a resolution setting the deadlines for committee activity this year. Under the resolution, the first deadline is Tues., Mar. 28, the second deadline is Tues., Apr. 4, and the final deadline is Tues., Apr. 11. The first deadline is the time by which bills originating in the Senate must be heard by Senate committees. The second deadline is for bills originating in the other body to be heard by Senate committees. The third deadline refers to the time by which omnibus bills must be heard in Senate committees. Under the Senate Rules, the Finance Committee, the Tax Committee and the Rules and Administration Committee are exempt from the deadlines.
Members also adopted the changes made to the Senate permanent and temporary staff rosters and endorsed technical changes to the Legislative Coordinating Commission's Legislative Plan for Employee Benefits and Policies.
State and Local Government Operations
Pension bill gains
The State and Local Government Operations Committee met Wed., Mar. 1, to consider the confirmation of Gopal Khanna as state chief information officer. The panel, chaired by Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-Mpls.), also considered a large bill containing the recommendations of the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement.
Members approved the appointment of Khanna has the state's chief information officer. The position is a newly created cabinet level position designed to more strategically employ technology across all state government.
The bill, authored by Sen. Lawrence Pogemiller (DFL-Mpls.), contains all or part of several bills heard by the commission. S.F. 2239 phases in member and employer contribution rate increases in installments for the various larger retirement plans administered by the Minnesota State Retirement System (MSRS), Pogemiller said. The measure also expands the active membership of the Correctional Employees Retirement Plan of MSRS by adding 12 positions in the Dept. of Human Services, adding 10 positions in the Dept. of Corrections, he said. Pogemiller said the plan makes a number of changes in the various retirement plans' administrative provisions.
Included in the bill is a provision for survivor benefits for the spouse of a St. Louis Park police officer. The officer was married for less than a year and was killed in Iraq, Pogemiller said. He said that previously the survivor benefit provision was turned down by the commission, but last year the provision was approved in another bill. Pogemiller said the current bill specifies that the state appropriate the benefit and that St. Louis Park pay what the state does not. Pogemiller said the provision sets a precedent wherein the definition of "death in the line of duty" in the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) is changed. He said the amount, about $346,000, is not inconsiderable for a pension fund and that the state or the city should pay, but not the pension fund.
Other sections relate to privatization retirement coverage changes, social security coverage changes, supplemental retirement plan coverage changes and retirement fund investment authority changes, Pogemiller said. One of the sections gives the Minneapolis Employees Retirement Fund (MERF) the authority to invest with the State Board of Investment, he said. Pogemiller said there are also changes to the Minneapolis Police Relief Association, a clarification and recodification of statewide specialty retirement plans and recodification and changes in the Judges Retirement Plan. Finally, he said, the bill makes changes in provisions relating to the Volunteer Firefighter Relief Association and authorizes various individuals or small groups of public employees to purchase prior service credit, transfer retirement coverage to correct earlier errors or to gain an earlier payment of a divided pension benefit in a previous marriage dissolution.
Pogemiller said the last section also corrected an error made by former Senator Randy Kelly when he became mayor of St. Paul.
Sen. Debbie Johnson (R- Ham Lake) moved to delete the provision dealing with the death benefit for the spouse of the St. Louis Park police officer. Pogemiller opposed the motion and said the situation needs to resolved in an equitable manner. He said the benefit has already been paid; it is simply a matter of who pays. The motion to delete the provision failed on a voice vote. Members then adopted an amendment making a direct appropriation from the general fund for the benefit.
The bill was approved and re-referred to the Finance Committee.
Transit presentation heard
The Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), met Mar. 2, to hear a report on the $300 million shortfall for the Metro District.
Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau introduced staff members to update the members on challenges associated with the shortfall. She said the federal government transportation bill is not delivering the funds expected. In addition, she said there has been an unprecedented increase in construction materials. Molnau said MnDOT is working to keep projects on budget and on schedule. In the coming years, from 2006 to 2010, MnDOT is planning on $3.2 billion in investments in transportation with 45 percent designated for the Metro Area and 55 percent designated for Greater Minnesota.
Tim Henkel, MnDOT, spoke on the reason for the $300 million need in the Metro Area to complete the statewide transportation plan and how the department is addressing the need. He said a volatile programming and revenue forecasting environment requires significant flexibility. MnDOT is in the business of delivering projects that are safe, sound and reliable, Henkel said. He said project development takes many years to evolve from concept to construction and that short and long-term spending plans are based on uncertain state and federal revenue projections. He said planning begins with a 20-year plan to prepare for long-term needs. The next step is developing a 10-year work plan and the final step is a 4-year state transportation improvement plan. He said the project cost estimate environment is extremely volatile.
He said there were higher than anticipated Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) earmarks. SAFETEA-LU earmark projects resulting in smaller growth in federal formula funds and that some of the earmarks require state matching funds. Thus, he said, in the Metro District, MnDOT has delayed or deferred projects to manage the program. In addition, costs have skyrocketed in recent years. He said the $150 million of additional funding need is associated with the I35W/Crosstown, I494, TH212 and the I694/I35E unweave projects. In addition, $60 million is needed for projects associated with the Wakota Bridge design fix, as a match for SAFETEA-LU earmarks, the TH100 interim project, the TH65/TH242 project, and TH36/McKnight project. Finally, Henkel said $90 million will be needed in 2009 - 2010 because of changing revenue projections.
Henkel said the department's solution to the shortfall is to use $100 million of the SAFETEA-LU federal formula funding increases, using $50 million from a Metro Council - Transportation Advisory Board loan of SAFETEA-LU federal formula funding increases, using $60 to $80 million of statewide corridor fund and make additional adjustments to the Metro District program. He said the potential net transfer from Greater Minnesota could be as much as $40 million over 2006-2008. In addition, MnDOT's cost management/cost estimating initiative is intended to improve cost estimates and reduce scope changes, particularly on large-scale urban projects. The department is also implementing financial strategies to manage program funding needs, Henkel said. According to Henkel, no projects in Greater Minnesota are deferred or delayed under the department's strategy to manage the program.
Abbie McKenzie, director of the MnDOT Office of Investment Management, presented information on target formula evaluation. The target formula is used to distribute federal funds, she said. McKenzie said the target formula needs to be refined to better reflect statewide transportation policies and goals. The 1996 formula is not linked to system performance, she said. The refined target formula is needed to address mega projects, McKenzie said. She said the refined target formula will be effective for FY 2009. The new formula aligns with priorities and distributes funding based on priority performance needs, especially bridge and pavement preservation, McKenzie said. She added that the formula will not meet all needs and that to meet all performance needs over the next 20 years would require an additional $1 billion per year.
Members also said farewell to Nacho Diaz, a long-time director of transportation services for the Metropolitan Council. Diaz, who has served as the chief transportation planner of the Met Council for the last two decades, is retiring this month.
Bonding projects reviewed
The Capital Investment Committee, chaired by Sen. Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon), visited sites throughout the state during the course of the interim. In early September, members visited projects in Glencoe, Granite Falls, Marshall, Pipestone, Luverne, Windom, New Ulm, Mankato, St. Peter, Jordan, Fort Snelling and Shakopee. Later in the month, the panel visited projects in Brooklyn Center, Dayton, St. Michael, St. Cloud, Little Falls, Alexandria, Morris, Appleton, Willmar, New London, Spicer, Grass Lake, Richmond and Medina.
Later in the autumn, the committee visited sites in Northern and Northwestern Minnesota. Late in October, the group traveled to Southeastern Minnesota and in January the committee spent several days touring project sites in the Metro Area.
The committee will receive recommendations from all the Senate budget divisions on the projects meriting funding this year before assembling and omnibus capital investment bill.
Crime Prevention and Public Safety
Substance abuse report received
A report by the legislative auditor on the state's substance abuse treatment programs was the sole focus of a Wed., Feb. 22, joint meeting of the Crime Prevention and Public Safety Committee and the Public Safety Budget Division. The panels are chaired by Sen. Leo Foley (DFL-Coon Rapids) and Sen. Jane Ranum (DFL-Mpls.).
Project Manager Joel Alter said research on the effectiveness of substance abuse treatment has yielded mixed results. Thus, broad claims about effectiveness are misleading, he said, but evidence does indicate that people who complete their treatment programs fare better. For example, inmates who complete treatment programs have lower post-release arrest and conviction rates than other inmates, Alter said. He said the state's prisons lack sufficient space to serve all inmates needing treatment.
Alter said the auditor's study indicated the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) has not provided enough oversight of local practices to ensure that people are placed in appropriate treatment. More treatment options need to be developed, he said, to meet the diverse needs across the state. Treatment tends to vary based on where clients live, Alter said. He said many inmates who are identified as chemically dependent do not enroll in post-release treatment programs.
In light of the findings, the Office of the Legislative Auditor made several recommendations. The office recommended DHS develop strategies to increase the availability of effective treatment options and that the department enhance information provided to counties on treatment programs' outcomes and quality. The report also recommended the Dept. of Corrections work with the Legislature to improve the availability of treatment programs in prison and work internally and with local officials to improve the post-release inmate substance abuse treatment usage rate.
Representatives of both agencies briefly discussed their responses to the report. Both departments agree with the key recommendations, according to agency staff, and are already working to implement many of the suggestions.
Early Childhood Policy and Budget Division
Early childhood programs discussed
Review of a report commissioned by a group of the state's business leaders was the focus of a joint meeting of the Senate Early Childhood Policy and Budget Division and the House Jobs and Economic Opportunity Policy and Finance Committee, Thurs., Feb. 2. The panels are chaired by Sen. John Hottinger (DFL-St. Peter) and Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont).
Al Stroucken, president and CEO of the H.B. Fuller Company and a member of the Itasca Project, told the panels that business leaders have both conceptual and pragmatic concerns about the state's future workforce. We need workers who can continue learning well into their lives, he said. Stroucken said the drive to learn is highest in the first five years of life, before traditional education starts. Minnesota is at a critical juncture in preparing itself for the future, he said, and must recognize the importance of beginning a strong education in the early years of life.
Kenneth Saldanha and Deniz Cultu, both of McKinsey and Co., reviewed the study. The study found $1.5 billion is spent annually on early childhood development programs, of which about $337 million is government spending, with spending split in half between the federal government and state and local governments. Government spending, according to the report, is directed at two separate focuses: early education and child care. The study examined each of the public programs in these focuses and analyzed their participation rates and average spending. About 12 to 21 percent of eligible families participate in the state's two child care programs, while participation rates in the early education programs range from 30 to 50 percent. Saldanha and Cultu said the report identified a lack of objective measures for program effectiveness and the need to provide blended offerings or more closely aligning the goals for child care and early education programs.
Child care is central to the needs of working parents, said Helen Blank of the National Women's Law Center. It makes a difference in the parents' ability to work knowing that their children are in safe hands, she said. Blank said it is equally important that children enter school ready to succeed. For years, Minnesota was a leader in child care and early education, but recent trends have moved the state backward, she said. Blank said providers cannot afford to keep going without inflation adjustments in their compensated rates. She urged legislators to expand eligibility for public programs and raise reimbursement rates. Child care and early education are a good investment in the state's economic future, she said.
Rep. Fran Bradley (R-Rochester) said the speakers had over-emphasized the government role in providing child care and early education. The corporate world has a responsibility to meet these needs, he said, if it expects to keep current workers and have a well-trained workforce in the future. Bradley noted that many companies are already providing on-site child care. Some families will need government support, he said, but the solution cannot come entirely from government. Sen. Linda Scheid (DFL-Brooklyn Park) said Minnesota's taxpayers are beyond generous, but spending on early childhood programs are the best uses of public money available. Spending now saves money down the road and offers an excellent return on our investment, she said.
Child care assistance reviewed
The Early Childhood Policy and Budget Division met Thurs., Feb. 16, to hear an overview of the child care assistance program. The panel, chaired by Sen. John Hottinger (DFL-St. Peter), also reviewed 2004 statewide household child care survey.
Members began with a review of child care assistance programs presented by Cherie Kotilinek, manager, Dept. of Human Services Childcare Assistance. Kotilinek said the focus of the program is to make childcare affordable for families, to ensure children are well cared for and ready to learn and to enable parents to work or attend school. She said there are income eligibility guidelines for family participation. The program specifies that families with incomes at or under 175 percent of the federal poverty guideline are eligible to enter the program, Kotilinek said. She said families are required to pay a co-payment, which increases as their incomes increase. Other eligibility criteria require that parents use a legal provider, cooperate with child support enforcement and be in an authorized activity, such as work, job search, education or social service activities identified in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP).
Kotilinek said the rates of all licensed providers are surveyed at least once every two years based on age of child, provider type, county and provider's method of charging. The program specifies that child care payments may not exceed the maximum rate specified by statute. Most maximum rates are currently set at the lesser of the 75th percentile of 2005 rates or the previous rate increased by 1.75 percent, she said. If the provider charges more than the program maximum, the parent must pay the difference, Kotilinek said.
She said the program consists of three subprograms: MFIP child care for families who receive assistance from MFIP or a diversionary work program (DWP), transition year child care (TY), which is available to eligible families after their MFIP or DWP case closes, and basic sliding fee (BSF) child care for other income eligible families. She said the subprograms are funded two ways. The appropriations for MFIP and TY are forecast to meet demand and are fully funded at that level, but the BSF appropriation is not forecast and is capped.
The Legislature made three changes last year, she said. The changes specify that child care providers may not be reimbursed for more than 25 absent days per child or for more than 10 consecutive days, unless the child has a documented medical condition. In addition, co-payment fees were reduced as a percent of income and maximum rates were increased in most cases. Kotilinek also reviewed expenditure and caseloads for all three subprograms.
Deb Swenson-Klatt, manager, DHS Child Development Services, and Richard Chase, senior research scientist, Wilder Research, reviewed the 2004 statewide household child care survey.
Voting equipment problems discussed
Problems facing four Metro Area counties in implementing a requirement to have assistive voting machines in every polling place were the main focus of the Tues., Jan. 24, meeting of the Elections Committee.
Kevin Corbid, elections director for Washington County, outlined the current state of affairs in the assistive voting market. The four counties that have chosen to continue using optical scan machines manufactured by Diebold-Anoka, Dakota, Ramsey and Washington-have learned that Diebold's assistive voting system will not be ready for this fall's elections. Using the only available and certified assistive voting technology poses compatibility problems, Corbid said. Solutions will take time, money and perhaps a change in state elections law, he said. Fridley City Clerk Deb Skogen discussed the increased costs of maintaining and transporting two types of machines.
Sen. John Hottinger (DFL-St. Peter) said national news items have suggested that Diebold machines may be easily hacked into, rendering their results suspect. Corbid said the main problem in machine integrity is access; Minnesota counties closely restrict the access to machines, data and software, so hacking is not a significant concern now, he said.
Alberto Quintela, Office of the Secretary of State (OSS), said the office and the counties have been in discussions to seek solutions to the problems identified. The four counties are going through growing pains, he said. There are smart minds that could reduce the time and costs involved in making these machines work together, Quintela said, and we just need an opportunity for that work to happen.
The panel, chaired by Sen. Charles "Chuck" Wiger (DFL-North St. Paul), also briefly considered the results of a survey of OSS elections publications conducted by the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action. Beth Fraser, public policy director, noted that the survey found errors relating to the use of tribal identification cards, the procedure to challenge a voter's eligibility and to the vouching procedure used by residential facility employees.
Judicial elections considered
Possible changes in the way Minnesota selects its judges were the focus of a joint hearing of the Elections and Judiciary Committees. The panels met Wed., Feb. 8, to hear from former judges, representatives of bar associations and others on the wide variety of options Minnesota has, if legislators choose to seek new ways to staff the state bench. The committees, chaired by Sen. Charles "Chuck" Wiger (DFL-North St. Paul) and Sen. Don Betzold (DFL-Fridley), did not have any specific legislation in front of them.
Assistant Attorney General Tom Vasaly began the meeting by reviewing the U.S. Supreme Court and Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in a case challenging campaign activities regulations in the code of judicial conduct. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down as a violation of free speech rights a provision of the code prohibiting candidates for judicial office from announcing their views on disputed legal issues, Vasaly said. The Eighth Circuit, applying the Supreme Court's decision, also invalidated portions of the code prohibiting candidates from identifying themselves with political parties and from personally soliciting campaign funds.
There are five basic judicial selection models, said Senate Counsel Kathleen Pontius. Some states use a lifetime appointment system, occasionally with a mandatory retirement age, she said. Others use a model relying on legislative confirmation or required selection from candidates recommended by a merit-examination commission to constrain the governor's choice of judges, Pontius said. She said three models use a form of election to select judges: candidates run in either partisan elections or nonpartisan elections or incumbent judges are subjected to retention elections. Some states mix models, she said, by using one method to name appellate judges and another for trial-court judges. Minnesota is classified as a nonpartisan election state, she said, though common practice has been for judges to retire early, thereby allowing the governor to appoint a replacement who later runs for reelection. The state has a merit selection commission, Pontius said, but its choices are not always binding on the governor.
Senate Counsel Peter Wattson provided the panels with a history of changes to the process proposed as legislation since 1989. He said most of the proposals have focused on eliminating judicial elections and replacing them with a gubernatorial appointment and Senate confirmation process. Terms for judges under the appointment-and-confirmation proposals have ranged from three to ten years, he said. In recent years, bills have tended to provide for appointment by the governor with no confirmation, but again with a fixed term, Wattson said. Other bills, he said, have proposed eliminating the incumbency designation on the ballot.
Judicial independence is important to our legal system, said George Soule, former chair of the judicial selection commission. Judicial independence means that judges make decisions free from outside pressures, strictly according to the law and without fear of reprisal, he said. Soule reviewed the recent history of partisan elections in other states. These states are not known for their outstanding judiciaries, he said. Instead, they have a reputation of expensive, contested elections for the bench, he said. Campaigns based on political issues are deceptive to voters, Soule said, because hot-button cases rarely come before the courts. Our courts are busy with important, but low-profile, cases, such as criminal matters, divorces and child protection proceedings, he said. Soule added that too much discussion of a particular case or particular issue would also require candidates-cum-judges to recuse themselves from hearing a case. Political and partisan elections are likely to create or reinforce a perception among citizens that moneyed special interests have bought justice, he said. Qualified candidates will avoid seeking judgeships, Soule said, because they have no background of political involvement and no desire to become active in a bruising electoral battle.
Susan Holden, president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Will Fluegel, president of the Minnesota Trial Lawyers Association, and Greg Bulinski, president of the Minnesota Defense Lawyers Association, said their groups and others are studying possible courses of action. Concerns about possible drastic changes in Minnesota's culture of qualified judges rendering their decisions without regard to the personal preferences but in accord with the law are not limited to a specific segment of the legal community, Bulinski said. We are all proud of the present state of our judiciary, Fluegel said.
Former District Judge John Stanoch said Minnesota's judiciary is nationally recognized for its quality. Our judges move cases through the system quickly and have been innovative to create new solutions to existing societal problems, he said. Stanoch highlighted the establishment of drug courts, the use of restorative justice and former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz's focus on the child protection system. He said there is no apparent move by anyone on any side of the legal community-the plaintiffs' bar, the defense bar, labor, business-to dramatically change our culture. Legislators should not worry too much, he said, about this year's judicial elections, but should be commended for starting to think about the best long-term option.
Sen. John Hottinger (DFL-St. Peter) said lawmakers should consider modifying the state's campaign finance rules, such as by imposing contribution limits, to cover judicial races. Hottinger and Sen. Julianne Ortman (R-Chanhassen) also probed the possibility of limiting independent expenditures and special interest influence.
Environment, Agriculture and Economic Development Budget Division
Bonding proposals reviewed
Members of a joint House Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee and the Senate Environment, Agriculture and Economic Development Budget Division devoted an entire day, Thurs., Feb. 2, to hearing bonding proposals from the Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) and those contained in a variety of bills relating to trails and other natural resource bonding proposals.
The joint panel, chaired by Sen. Dallas Sams (DFL-Staples) and Rep. Dennis Ozment (R-Rosemount), spent the morning portion of the hearing on the governor's recommendations, presented by representatives of the DNR. The afternoon portion was given over to discussion of a number of bills containing bonding appropriations for a number of projects.
One of the major initiatives, a bill co-sponsored by Sams and Ozment, is a state trail initiative. The measure, which has yet to be introduced, includes provisions relating to the Gitchi Gami Trail, the Cuyuna Trail, the Munger Trail, the Paul Bunyon Trail, the Glacial Lakes Trail, the Gateway Trail, the Minnesota River Trail, the Shooting Star Trail and several others.
In addition, members considered proposals for the Wild Rice Watershed District flood hazard mitigation project, Wright County Regional Park, the Big Bog Recreation Area, the Prairie Wetlands Environmental Learning Center and for the rehabilitation of state parks and camper cabins.
Finally, the panel reviewed the governor's bonding recommendations for the Minnesota Zoological Board, the Dept. of Agriculture, the Pollution Control Agency and the Water and Soil Resources Board.
Review of bonding proposals continued
Members of the Senate Environment, Agriculture and Economic Development Budget Division met jointly with members of the House Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, Fri., Feb. 3, to continue their examination of projects seeking state bond sale proceeds. The panel, chaired by Sen. Dallas Sams (DFL-Staples) and Rep. Dennis Ozment (R-Rosemount), began by considering the governor's recommendations for metropolitan parks.
Members also considered a series of other projects and proposals, including the Springbrook Nature Center, Mississippi West Regional Park, Como Zoo, Luce Line Trail, Soo Line Trail Recreational Bridge, Lake Redwood Reservoir, Dakota County Empire Wetlands Wildlife Area and Rapidan Dam.
Funding for state park land acquisition, diseased shade tree removal and replacement, regional parks in Greater Minnesota, parks and trails in Central Minnesota, flood hazard mitigation in the Wild Rice Watershed District, corridor improvements along the Red Lake River, restoration of Grass Lake, flood mitigation in Lebanon Hills Regional Park, safety improvements for the Byllesby Dam, landfill reclamation and parkland conversion in South St. Paul and flood mitigation near Lake of the Isles.
Bonding requests heard
Members of two Legislative panels continued their joint review of requests for bond sale proceeds, Tues., Feb. 21. The Senate Environment, Agriculture and Economic Development Budget Division and the House Economic Development Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Dallas Sams (DFL-Staples) and Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmont), heard the governor's recommendations for the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, the Dept. of Employment and Economic Development and the Minnesota Historical Society.
The panels also heard requests for a Bird Island sewer separation project, a swimming pool in Dawson, Lake Township wastewater infrastructure improvements, the Winnebago Museum, Farm America, renovation of the John Rose Minnesota Oval skating rink, East Bethel water treatment facilities and affordable housing in Dakota County. Other requests heard included assisted living facilities in Dakota County, a water reclamation project in Faribault, a storm sewer project in Blooming Prairie, Ellendale sanitary sewer and water infrastructure investments, Watkins sewer infrastructure improvements and transitional housing. Nancy Larson, League of Minnesota Cities, discussed wastewater projects across the state. Members also heard presentations from Terry Kuhlman of the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority and Michael Dahl of the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless.
Bonding hearings continue
Members of the Senate Environment, Agriculture and Economic Development Budget Division and the House Economic Development Finance Committee continued hearing bonding requests at a meeting Wed., Feb. 22. The joint panels, chaired by Sen. Dallas Sams (DFL-Staples) and Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmount), heard a number of requests dealing with water and sewer projects.
On the agenda were proposals for a Burnsville water treatment project, a Lewis and Clark rural water system, a Windom economic development wastewater extension, an Albert Lea sewer upgrade, McGregor wastewater infrastructure, a Mille Lacs wastewater treatment project, a Royalton wastewater treatment project, a Richmond sewer project and a Minnesota steel industries water and sewer infrastructure project.
The panels also considered several additional economic development projects, including a proposal for Albert Lea's Katherine Island improvement, proposals for Richfield athletic field replacement and arterial street construction, proposals for an Itasca County steel mill and power plant, a proposals for a Grand Rapids fire hall and research facility, a proposal for the Great River Shakespeare Center, a proposal for a Minneapolis East Phillips neighborhood cultural center, a proposal for Maple Bruentrup Farm restoration and a proposal for a Bemidji regional events center.
Economic development proposals heard
The week's joint meetings of the Senate Environment, Agriculture and Economic Development Budget Division and the House Economic Development Finance Committee concluded Thurs., Feb. 23, with a series of economic development bonding proposals. The two panels, chaired by Sen. Dallas Sams (DFL-Staples) and Rep. Bob Gunther (R-Fairmount), took no formal action on the proposals.
Members heard bonding proposals for financing the Shubert Theatre, the Lowrey Ave. Corridor development, Heritage Park development, Cloquet business park site improvements, Thomson light industrial park funding, a Mountain Iron renewable energy industrial park development, Pierce Butler corridor development, Great River Park development, Union Depot renovation, a Polk County ethanol plant access road construction, Workforce Centers land and building development, University Research Park funding and for St. Paul Asian Community Center construction.
A number of sewer and water proposals were also heard, including proposals for Carlton water storage tower construction, Wrenshall water storage, an Askov wastewater treatment facility, a Midway Township-St. Louis County Sanitary Sewer District, for East Range Joint Powers wastewater collection, the Eveleth water treatment facility renovation, and the Central Iron Range Sanitary Sewer District.
Health and Family Security
Use of information technology discussed
A series of joint meetings focused on improving health care delivery and outcomes in Minnesota began, Tues., Jan. 17, with a review of the current and projected future uses of technology in health fields. Members of the Senate Health and Family Security Committee, chaired by Sen. Becky Lourey (DFL-Kerrick), and of the House Health Care Cost Containment Division, chaired by Rep. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), will be meeting during the weeks leading up to the resumption of the legislative session to hear a variety of information.
Dr. Donald Connelly, director of the Health Informatics Division of the University of Minnesota Medical School, provided an overview of what health information technology (HIT) includes, what systems are currently available in the state and what barriers the industry faces in expanding the use of HIT in Minnesota. HIT can be used to facilitate work flow, communicate orders regarding patient care, and provide easy access to patient data for any medical professional who needs it, he said. However, Connelly noted, the health care arena has not historically been friendly to new computer technology. HIT adoption is not a panacea, he said, but it does offer tremendous improvements in dealing with medical errors, patient safety and quality of care. Connelly outlined the major barriers to increased HIT adoption, including its significant up-front cost, the major cultural shift required and the variety of systems that are being used by providers across the state and nation. Dr. Gary Ofterdahl, medical director of Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement, also discussed the ability of HIT to significantly improve the quality of patient care and to provide the best treatment choices for individual patients.
Health care can be greatly improved by encouraging public reporting of health care quality measures, said Jim Chase, executive director of Minnesota Community Measurement. Reporting offers both recognition for providers performing well and motivation for sub-par providers, he said. Chase said reporting will lead to fewer death, strokes, heart attacks and complications as the public, community leaders and health plans track reported data. Tami Lichtenberg, program manager for the Rural Health Resource Center in Duluth, discussed the challenges facing Greater Minnesota health care providers in adopting HIT and public reporting. She noted that smaller communities and smaller medical offices lack significant technological expertise and support, impeding their ability to participate. The joint panel also heard about the Dept. of Health's e-Health Initiative, which is a public-private collaboration dedicated to accelerating the use of HIT in all areas of the state.
Disease management, alternative care considered
Review of background topics in health care continued Tues., Jan. 31, as members of the Senate Health and Family Security Committee met jointly with members of the House Health Care Cost Containment Division. The panels, chaired by Sen. Becky Lourey (DFL-Kerrick) and Rep. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), heard from providers regarding chronic disease management and alternative care strategies.
Dr. Charlie Fazio, chief medical officer of Medica, said disease management provides patient-centered education and support and focuses on preventing complications. Disease management targets individuals with specific diseases, but seeks to maintain a high quality of life and low overall health care costs by identifying care gaps early, he said. Fazio used diabetes as an example disease to illustrate how disease management works for the patient and for the health care system. Dr. Anne Kelly discussed the disease management techniques used by U Special Kids, which focuses on adolescents. Helen Healy of the Minnesota Association of Naturopathic Physicians reviewed the alternative and complementary strategies used in the holistic philosophy of naturopathy.
Panel members heard about the use of alternative care techniques, including homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture. Dr. Jacob Mirman, Minnesota Homeopathic Association, reviewed the techniques used in homeopathy, including the principle that "like treats like." He said homeopathy should be included in the state's planning for epidemics, such as avian flu. Gert Bronfort, a professor at Northwestern Health Sciences University, and Jennifer Blair, a licensed acupuncturist, discussed the effectiveness of chiropractic care and acupuncture and offered evidence supporting increased use of both techniques.
Commissioner Cal Ludeman and Health Policy Specialist David Haugen, both of the Dept. of Employee Relations, also briefly reviewed a report on the concept of a health care purchasing authority. The study committee preparing the report included representatives of the Departments of Health, Human Services, Administration and other agencies. The report recommends going beyond seeking volume discounts and aiming at buying smarter while sending reinforcing messages to the health care market. The report lays out a variety of options for structuring a health care purchasing authority, ranging from a new cabinet-level agency to a higher level of interaction among the government agencies involved in purchasing health care.
Market reform, safety net discussed
A series of joint meetings providing common background information continued Thurs., Feb. 16, as members of the Senate Health and Family Security Committee and the House Health Care Cost Containment Division heard presentations on insurance market reform and the safety net for the uninsured.
Kip Sullivan, Minnesota Universal Health Care Coalition, said the newest fad in health care asserts that information technology (IT) can improve quality and thereby cut costs. There is absolutely no strong evidence to support the conclusion, he said. The concept of using IT is being promoted by parties with financial interests in its use, he said, such as insurance companies, care providers and the technology industry. Policymakers should treat these concepts as if they are new drugs or treatments, Sullivan said, and not blindly advocate wholesale adoption. Instead, we should encourage small-scale testing of the various proposals and move forward with caution.
Jenny Peterson, Twin Ports Health Access Program, and Jo Ann Hoag, St. Luke's Hospital and Clinics, discussed a proposed demonstration project for a community-based health care coverage program in Northeastern Minnesota. Under the multiple-share model, small employers, their employees and community and public sources would contribute funding to make the program affordable, Peterson said. Vondie Woodbury related the experiences a similar project that she directs has had in Muskegon, Michigan. Dr. Robert Meiches presented the Minnesota Medical Association's proposal for reform. The proposal is based on four features: a strong public health system, a reformed insurance market, a reformed care delivery market and systems fully supporting the delivery of quality care. John Nyman, a professor at the University of Minnesota, presented information he said suggests that health care savings accounts are not favored by the public and are not improving care.
Dr. Michael Belzer, medical director of Hennepin County Medical Center, said safety net hospitals focus on care, not cost. The hospitals are the last resort for no-pay patients, he said. A lack of insurance is more than an inconvenience, Belzer said, because uninsured patients are sicker, die earlier and have a generally worse health status. Contrary to myth, they are not primarily minorities, immigrants, unemployed or poor, he said. Sherlyn Dahl, executive director of the Family HealthCare Center of Fargo-Moorhead, said Greater Minnesota community care centers serve high-risk populations with few resources. We have done the best we can, she said, but there comes a time when creativity and determination are not enough and we need more money. She said community centers have a strong focus on preventive care and are using evidence-based medicine. Several others also discussed the challenges faced by community and last-resort providers across the state.
Health and Human Services Budget Division
Medicare Part D, bonding requests reviewed
Members of the Health and Human Services Budget Division, chaired by Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Mpls.), began a series of hearings Wed., Jan. 18, to review pertinent issues that will come before the panel. The division began with a review of the efforts made to prepare for the implementation of the new Medicare Part D prescription drug program. In addition, officials from the Dept. of Human Services outlined the difficulties dual eligible persons have encountered. Christine Bronson, Medicaid director, said the dual eligible population includes those who are Medical Assistance enrollees, Medical Assistance spend down enrollees, Medical Assistance for Employed Persons with Disabilities enrollees and Medicare Savings Program enrollees. She said there are approximately 104,000 dual eligible persons in the state. The difficulties included computer system glitches, persons enrolled incorrectly and the assignment of incorrect cost-sharing, she said. Bronson said the governor has issued an executive order to have the state step in to assist those experiencing difficulties getting their prescriptions filled.
Sandra Anderson, Minnesota Board on Aging, said that eventually enrollees will benefit greatly from prescription plan. She said the board is the state health insurance program assistance point. At the current time the board is occupied with acting as a triage point for Medicare Part D difficulties. Catherine Sampson and Dawn Simonson, from the board, described the activities of the board's Linkage Line. They said the Linkage Line acts to assist seniors with a variety of programs, but the last few weeks have been devoted to assisting seniors with Medicare Part D. They outlined the types of difficulties seniors have been running into ranging from not being auto enrolled, not showing up in the system, and being charged the wrong co-pay. Sampson said, while the majority of the problems are nationwide the state still needs to assist seniors with the program. Simonson said the board averages about 300 calls a day, but there has been a decline in the number of calls from dual eligible individuals since the governor issued the executive order last week. However, Simonson said, the order will expire shortly. The panel also heard testimony from a variety of individuals about the program.
Members then discussed bonding proposals that fall within the division's jurisdiction. Wes Kooistra, assistant commissioner, DHS, said one of the major items is a proposal for $44 million to expand the sex offender program at Moose Lake. He said the growth in the number of offenders and the increase in those committed for treatment mean that the state's sex offender facilities need to be expanded. Kooistra said the proposal also includes design money for further expansion. He said the rate of growth has changed how the department plans for capital budgeting. This year's request is for 400 beds using an adapted corrections model that allows the department to serve 400 individuals at the Moose Lake facility. The expanded facility could be used by the Dept. of Corrections if the need for sex offender beds diminishes, Kooistra said.
Stephen Musser, executive director, Veterans Home Board, outlined the board's $60 million bonding request. Musser said the request includes $10 million for asset preservation, $2.4 million for the upgrade of the emergency power system at the Minneapolis campus, a proposal for adult day-care at the Minneapolis campus to make up for a lack of federal funds, renovation at the Silver Bay facility, $500,000 for an addition to the Luverne special care unit, $5.3 million for the kitchen upgrade at the Minneapolis campus, $637,000 for the design of an Alzheimers' unit at Fergus Falls, renovation of Building 16 at the Minneapolis facility to add assisted living at the campus, $6.2 million for a 30 bed supportive living facility in Hastings, and $175,000 for design of phase three of the master plan for the Minneapolis campus.
Bonding, potential fed cuts discussed
The Health and Human Services Budget Division began the Thurs., Jan. 19, hearing with a discussion of S.F. 2332. The bill, authored by Sen. James Metzen (DFL-South St. Paul), provides $3.1 million for an assisted living facility in Dakota County. Cheryl Jacobson, assistant director of administration, Dakota County Community Development Agency, said the facility is designed for low income individuals, over the age of 75, who need the types of services an assisted living facility provides. She said the units would rent at below market rates. Jacobson also said that it has been found that assisted living facilities provide services at lower cost than other types of accommodations.
Members, chaired by Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Mpls.), then began the process of prioritizing the bonding projects that are under the panel's jurisdiction. Berglin said the ballots for bonding projects will be given to the Capital Investment Committee for consideration.
Potential federal cuts in human services programs were the focus of the second portion of the hearing. Berglin said the cuts are significant and could have quite an impact on state and county government budgets. Christine Bronson, Medicaid director, Dept. of Human Services, outlined the proposed changes. Bronson said in many cases federal reimbursement for state expenses are being eliminated. She said Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) reauthorization provisions in the conference report now before Congress would discourage the present state practice of placing families in separate state programs. Under the conference report, TANF is authorized through Sept. 30, 2010, and funding for the TANF block grant is at the current level of $16.5 billion through 2010. In addition, funding for the TANF supplemental grants to states is provided at current funding levels and continues the $2 billion contingency fund through FY 2010. The conference report changes the base year for the credit to 2005 from the current base year of 1995, Bronson said. The measure also contains changes to participation rates, verification and oversight procedures and data reporting, she said. In addition, Bronson said there are changes in the child care and development fund, child support provisions, the federal parent locator service, and medical support.
Bronson also outlined changes in third party recovery, restructuring Medicaid pharmacy payments, Medicaid long-term care reform, asset tightening provisions for long-term care, reductions in payments to nursing facilities for bad debt and revising the state children's insurance health program funding rules.
The panel also heard testimony from Nan Madden of the Minnesota Budget Project and Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt about the effects on the state and counties. Madden said the savings in the budget reconciliation bill before Congress are derived from an expectation of states' failure to meet federal requirements and having to make up the funding difference. Reinhardt said the targeted case management cuts are devastating for counties.
The division also heard reports on changes to alternative care grants and restructuring of mental health funding mechanism.
Lisa Rotegard, DHS, and Dan Peterson, Perham Memorial Home and Hospital, spoke on concerns relating to changes in alternative care grants.
Wes Kooistra, assistant commissioner, Dept. of Human Services, provided an overview of restructuring the funding for mental health services to a prepaid model rather than a fee for service model. He said there as been a lot going on in the development of community mental health services over the last four years. He outlined the types of community services available for persons with mental health issues. In addition, he said the restructuring is an ongoing collaborative process. Kooistra said the goal is to provide services that best suit the individual, including improving screening, improving outcome reporting, changing the Mental Health Act to better focus county and state efforts and improving state wide infrastructure. Marion Brandt, South Country Health Alliance, described the mental health services provided by her organization and the way the new funding model will affect service delivery.
Mental health funding, health impact fee discussed
The Health and Human Services Budget Division met Tues., Jan. 31, to continue their discussion on mental health funding restructuring. The panel, chaired by Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Mpls.), heard a presentation from Rachel Tschida and Kathy Thurstone, both of AXIS Health Care.
Tschida said the aim of AXIS is to work in partnership with persons with physical disabilities along with mental health or brain injury conditions. Thurston said the organization works to integrate coordinated care for persons with complicated health conditions. She said Axis's responsibilities include care coordination, provider relations, member services and enrollment services.
Commissioner Gail Dorfman, Hennepin County, said the mental health programs in Minnesota are too fragmented. She said the state needs to be sure that the infrastructure is in place at the right time in order for clients to have access to a wide array of services. Programs must integrate physical care, health care and social services, Dorfman said. She also outlined some suggestions for improvement and said that counties want to work with the administration to provide integrated mental health services. Dorfman also expressed concern over federal budget cuts.
Members also heard an update on the status of the court ruling on the tobacco health impact fee. Mike Vanselow, Office of the Attorney General, said after the last session the major tobacco companies claimed that the state had breached the settlement agreement and that the breach violated the contract clause of the constitution. Two groups joined in, the distributors and a group of smaller cigarette manufacturers, he said. The smaller manufacturers argued that if the large manufacturers were successful, they also would not have to have the fee imposed. The state's argument is that the agreement was not violated, because the fee is not a claim against the manufacturers. The court found on the side of the tobacco companies and the state immediately appealed, he said. He said the state also asked for accelerated review by the Minnesota Supreme Court. He added that the case is on the Supreme Court's April calendar. Brent Gustafson, Dept. of Finance, also briefed the panel on the impact of the loss of the fee on the budget.
Dr. Sonne Magnan, director of consumer health for Blue Cross/Blue Shield said the cigarette fee was one of the most successful ways of deterring young people between the ages of 18 and 24 from starting to smoke. She said the population is particularly sensitive to price increases. In addition, she said that after the implementation of the fee, calls to the Blue Cross/Blue Shield smoking cessation telephone line increased dramatically.
Kristen Ehresmann, Dept. of Health, outlined the governor's budget request from the department that is part of his immigration package. She said hepatitis B and tuberculosis are of particular concern among immigrant and refugee populations. The budget request of about $500,000 will be used to address the health problems of those populations.
Mary Manning, Dept. of Health, updated the division on goals of the smoking cessation program.
Reverse mortgages discussed
The use of reverse mortgages to finance long-term care at home was the focus of the Wed., Feb. 15, meeting of the Health and Human Services Budget Division.
Reverse mortgages are loans that allow homeowners age 62 and over to convert their home equity into cash while living at home, said Barbara Stucki of the National Council on Aging. Homeowners can choose to receive the cash as a lump sum, a line of credit or monthly payments, she said. Stucki said a common misconception is that the lender or bank assumes ownership of the home; the homeowner maintains ownership, she said, and any growth in value of the home is additional equity for the homeowner. The reverse-mortgage loan comes due when the borrower dies, sells the home, or moves out, Stucki said. Funds from a reverse mortgage are useful for filling gaps in services, providing a cash-flow cushion and helping seniors stay in their homes by making repairs and necessary modifications, such as the installation of adaptive devices, she said.
The panel, chaired by Sen. Linda Berglin (DFL-Mpls.), also heard an update on the Medicare Part D program from Christine Bronson, Medicaid director at the Dept. of Human Services (DHS), and Jim Varpness, director of Adult and Aging Services at DHS. Bronson and Varpness discussed the state's efforts to deal with problems in the federal program, especially difficulties encountered by dual-eligible persons. While the state has been able to provide temporary assistance, they said, many of the problems need final resolution at the federal level. Julie Johnson, Minnesota Pharmacists Association, said the state's pharmacists assumed a huge financial burden as the program began. We have ensured that people get their medications without knowing if we would ever get paid, she said, but we cannot continue that practice. Chris Eaton, a nurse at the Anoka Regional Treatment Center, said nurses across the state have observed that the complexities of the Part D program have added significant stress to their clients' lives.
Jobs, Energy and Community Development
Transmission capacity for renewables discussed
Members of the Jobs, Energy and Community Development Subcommittee on Energy met Mon., Feb. 6, to discuss the need for space on transmission lines for energy generated from renewable sources, including wind and biomass. The panel, chaired by Sen. Gary Kubly (DFL-Granite Falls), heard from private citizens, local government officials and representatives of power companies and environmental groups. Subcommittee members were told that numerous issues affect the erection of new transmission lines, including their cost, the distance between where power is generated and where it is being used and the resistance of property owners to allow transmission lines to cross their property; renewable energy sources also face special problems competing for space on transmission lines with traditional sources. Suggested remedies included adjusting the process by which energy sources reserve transmission space and requiring all new transmission lines to reserve a portion of their capacity for renewable energy.
Presumption of joint custody discussed
The Judiciary Subcommittee on Family Law, chaired by Sen. Thomas Neuville (R-Northfield), met Tues., Feb. 21, to discuss a proposal to specify that there is a presumption of joint custody in marriage dissolutions. Neuville said the hearing was simply to gather information and that no action would be taken on the proposal until after the session begins.
Former Representative Andy Dawkins, now an attorney in private practice, said the parties involved in drafting the proposal all had a common purpose of reducing the conflict in child custody hearings. He said joint physical custody should be the norm unless the court finds differently. "Now that the income sharing method for setting child support has passed, it is necessary to move toward the sharing of custody," Dawkins said. He said, "Kids need meaningful relationships with both parents."
Dr. Susan Phipps-Yonas, psychologist, said what is most important for children is that there be as much continuity as possible in their relationships with both parents. In addition, we need to be sensitive to developmental issues, she said. Phipps-Yonas said, "Children don't need a label as to who their primary caretaker is. What they do need is a predictable schedule and an agreement in place about how to resolve conflicts when they arise."
Stephen Arnott, of the Family Law Section of the Minnesota Bar Association, said the Family Law Section is opposed to the proposal. "It is important to note that children are not property and that one size does not fit all cases." There are instances parents should not agree to joint physical custody, but the proposal presumes joint custody, he said. "The ideal situation is to have no presumption," Arnott said. Ellen Abbott, also of the Family Law Section, said, "I am exceedingly concerned about the effect the proposal will have." She said parenting plans are great when people have the time and resources to do it, but having a joint custody presumption doesn't conform to the reality of families.
Other speakers also spoke against the proposal and said that having no presumption was a preferable situation. Ron Elwood, Legal Services Advocacy Project, said, "Custody issues should be looked at on a case by case basis and having a presumption of joint custody flies in the face of doing that." He also said that another problem is that the joint presumption apparently would apply to paternity cases. Finally, Elwood said having mandatory mediation is problematic for many families.
Tax issues discussed
The Tax Committee, chaired by Sen. Lawrence Pogemiller (DFL-Mpls.), met Thurs., Feb. 16, to discuss several tax issues. Pogemiller said he wanted to meet and review property tax issues, the impact of the Federal Deficit Reduction Act on local governments and tax fairness in order to prepare for the upcoming legislative session.
Senate staff reviewed market value growth rates, limited market value increases, and a comparison of 2005 and 2006 final certified net tax capacity and market value levies. Staff also reviewed a summary of fee changes from all areas of state government.
In addition, members heard from state and county officials on the impact of the federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 on local governments. According to Don Allen, Dept. of Human Services, the act will impact Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), child care, child support, child welfare and Medicaid. Kris Johnson (DHS) reviewed Title IV foster care administration claiming changes that will result in an additional $28 million per year for counties and local collaboratives. In addition, Anne Martineau (DHS) said states will be prohibited from using incentive grant funds to draw a federal match for child support enforcement. Finally, changes in Medicaid prohibit federal matching fund for any service that the federal government's Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) believes would be provided by state or local government in the absence of Medicaid coverage, Allen said.
Nancy Schouweiler, Dakota County commissioner, said the cost to counties will be much larger than the federal government claims. In addition, she said the act assumes states will make up the counties' shortfall particularly in the area of targeted case management. Dan Papin, Washington County Community Services, said the cuts in targeted case management alone will result in the loss of $87 million for Minnesota counties.
According to the Metropolitan Inter-County Association, the act will disproportionately harm Minnesota and is likely to lead to additional property tax increases in 2007.
The panel also briefly touched on the difference in the state and federal married/joint standard deduction. Pogemiller said the issue is one the committee may want to address during the session.
Airport zoning and land use planning discussed
A joint Senate Transportation and House Transportation Subcommittee on Aeronautics, chaired by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope) and Rep. Michael Beard (R-Shakopee) met Wed., Feb. 15, to discuss airport zoning and compatible land use planning.
Members heard a presentation from representatives of the Dept. of Transportation (DOT) Office of Aeronautics that provided a national perspective, the purpose behind hiring an airport zoning consultant, the history of airport zoning statutory changes in the state and the conclusions and recommendations of the airport zoning consultant.
According to the presentation, federal airport law enacted in 2003 requires compatible land use planning and projects by state and local governments. The presentation indicated that on average less than five percent of the national aviation system is being protected 80 to 100 percent of the time. Among the initiatives recommended by the American Planning Association is to revise the Federal Aviation Administration advisory limiting height of objects around airports to focus on compatible airspace and land use. Another initiative aims at protecting the national airports system while meeting national aviation demand and making airports valued neighbors. A third initiative aims at assessing the impacts of incompatible land uses near airports. The results of the assessment will provide the basis for zoning rules.
The presentation also described how other states are addressing the issue and the scope of the task for an airport zoning consultant. According to the presentation, the consultant is to evaluate national and Minnesota laws and rules, make recommendations for Minnesota law changes and identify "best practices" based on national experiences.
Members also reviewed a draft report of the consultant hired by the Minnesota Department of Transportation Office of Aeronautics. The report contains recommendations that representatives from the department said have not been completely reviewed. The recommendations for the Legislature include changes to address enforcement of existing laws, changes to clarify or correct existing laws and changes to enact new laws and rules.
The panel also heard from William Towle, St. Cloud Regional Airport director. Towle described the expansion plan for the airport over the course of the next 20 years and the zoning changes that will be needed. He said that the scenario for the St. Cloud Regional Airport is not unique and that other airports will face similar challenges.
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