Proudly Serving District 32 - Chisago and Isanti Counties
Welcome! Thank you for visiting my legislative web page. Here, you will find updates on the legislative session as well as other resources that may be helpful to you.
It is an honor to serve the people of District 32. I am dedicated to promoting the principles that you and I share. My office is here to assist you with any constituent needs you may have. Feel free to call the office at 651-296-5419 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My Legislative Assistant is in the office during regular hours should you need to contact me or make an appointment. The phone number is 651-296-6200.
Minnesota is a wonderful place to live. Together, you and I can preserve our high quality of life for generations to come!
The legislature has ended and things have slowed down in St. Paul. I wanted to give you an overview of the budget deals which were the legislature’s focus this session.
As the Republican Minority Lead on education policy and finance in the senate, I spent a lot of time working on the E-12 education budget bill. This session’s bill spends $22 billion on our schools next biennium – a $400 million increase. It contains a funding formula increase each year of 1.5% for the first year and 2% the following year. This means an increase in funding for every student in every school district across the state by an average of $205 over two years. An increase in the funding formula was what our school districts wanted, rather than increased spending on mandated programs, and the legislature listened. Additionally, the bill contains $31 million for early learning scholarships for low-income families, which can be used for either public or private preschool. I’m pleased the legislature has taken this step to allow families to choose the preschool that best fits the need of their children. Other pre-K funding included $31 million for school readiness- money that allows some flexibility in use, for school districts.
Governor Dayton has vetoed the E-12 bill since it does not contain his mandated spending proposal for universal preschool. Many teachers and school boards believe Governor Dayton’s plan isn’t feasible. The Association of Metropolitan School Districts and the Minnesota School Boards Association have concerns about the plan. Policy experts have problems with the plan as well: Art Rolnick, the former research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and currently at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs has said there are better ways to do pre-school and that Governor Dayton’s plan is “not cost effective.” After hearing these concerns, the Republican controlled House and the DFL controlled Senate both decided to focus our limited state resources on putting more dollars into the classroom and more flexible spending options for pre-K. Neither the House nor the Senate ever passed Governor Dayton’s pre-K plan- not even in committee. Unfortunately, Governor Dayton is unwilling to accept the collective judgment of the legislature and many educators regarding his universal preschool plan and has vetoed the education bill. By vetoing this bipartisan bill, Governor Dayton has chosen to make a special session necessary.
Transportation funding is one rather disappointing area of the budget this year. When the session started, I hoped that Minnesota could really work toward fixing problems with our transportation system. I was especially interested in providing new funding to help pay for our local streets to keep down property taxes. Unfortunately, Governor Dayton and the Senate DFL insisted on raising the gas tax, even though the state had an almost $2 billion surplus. When they couldn’t get their way, they refused to do any comprehensive transportation plan.
On a positive note, I am very pleased that we were able to successfully prevent a gas tax increase. I heard from many of you about your strong opposition to a gas tax increase, which would have cost you and your family hundreds of dollars each year. I will continue to advocate for investment in our roads and bridges, without an increase in the gas tax, next year.
Health and Human Services
Health and human services funding will see an 11.5% spending increase over the next two years. The following two years would see nearly a 20% increase. Clearly, that is an unsustainable path but I am pleased this bill contained language to provide much needed additional funding to our nursing homes. The bill also spends $52 million to provide staffing and services to increase child protection oversight across the state. Of benefit to taxpayers, the Department of Human Services will be given new authority to detect and collect on the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on unnecessary or illegal payments.
Unfortunately, $11.7 million of your money will go to bailout MNsure, which has been plagued with problems since its inception and continues to be a cause for concern. After what can only be described as a damning report from the legislative auditor last fall, I was optimistic that this would finally be the session where we could make some real improvements to that program. Unfortunately, not much progress was made in that.
Agriculture and the Environment
Perhaps the most debate over an agriculture or environmental issue surrounded buffer strips. Governor Dayton insisted on a one-size-fits-all plan which would have harmed farmers and been difficult to enforce. In the end, the legislature passed a compromise where public waters, such as lakes and rivers, would be protected by buffer strips that average 50 feet and are a minimum of 30 feet. For public drainage ditches a 16.5-foot minimum width for buffer strips was established. These standards will be overseen by Soil and Water Conservation Districts, not the DNR.
Another agricultural issue that received a great deal of public attention was the avian flu outbreak, which continues to be a major threat to Minnesota’s economy. The legislature and the governor were united in support for Minnesota’s poultry farmers and authorized $26.5 million total for avian flu response and related disaster loans.
Although a special session is almost certain to occur, no date has been set. Once the details for a special session are determined, I will be sure to keep you updated. In the meantime, if you have any problems with which you think I could help; questions, concerns, or comments on anything the legislature has done (or may do in special session) – please don't hesitate to contact me.
Little Progress on Budget Deal
On Monday, May 18 – less than a week from today - the legislative session will reach the Constitutional deadline to end. Unfortunately, at this point, not a single major budget bill has passed. Not even an overall agreement on what the total amount of spending should be has been agreed upon by the Governor and legislative leaders. If all budget bills are not passed by the end of this coming Monday, the legislature will have to be called into special session and work to quickly pass bills to avoid a state government shutdown.
I'm hopeful that we will reach an agreement on the budget by Monday so a special session can be avoided. However, I'm seeing a few worrying signs. First, the senate leadership seems focused on passing small pieces of legislation that are not related to the budget. While I've voted for many of these bills because I feel they have merit, I am concerned about the lack of a sense of urgency from senate leadership. Quite simply, l am more concerned about providing funds to keep the government running than I am about making changes to how raffles operate or other small legislative tweaks to the law.
I'm also concerned that Governor Dayton is not fully appreciative of the looming time pinch. He canceled budget negotiations on Monday night, and Tuesday he chose to take time off to campaign for Hillary Clinton. The Governor did finally meet with legislative leaders to negotiate overall spending targets on Tuesday afternoon, but to quote the StarTribune(paraphrasing House Speaker Kurt Daudt) "the meetings thus far have been fruitless".
What appears to be a major holdup is the insistence by Senate Democrat leadership and Governor Dayton on including a large gas tax increase. A significant majority of Minnesotans oppose a gas tax increase, especially one which would automatically increase every time gas prices increase! Constituents in areas such as I represent would be hit harder than most anywhere else. I am unaware of even one Republican legislator who has voiced support for a gas tax increase. It is my read on the current situation that if the Senate leaders and the Governor will acknowledge there aren't votes to pass a gas tax increase, then negotiations would start to progress.
As I wrote earlier, if the state does not pass a budget on time, there is a chance Minnesota could be facing another government shutdown. To help minimize the disruption of a potential shutdown, I've introduced three bills: SF 2144 stops salary payments to legislators and the governor until a budget can be passed, SF 2145 ensures state employees continue to receive health benefits during a shutdown, and allows them to use vacation days to maintain a source of income, while also ensuring that law enforcement and public safety functions continue, andSF 2146 allows for state government agencies to be funded at 70% until a final budget deal could be passed, which would allow basic services to continue. It is my hope that a state budget is signed into law on time and that my bills never have to be passed. However, if a shutdown appears inevitable, I believe my bills will spare the people of Minnesota from the harshest effects of a government shutdown.
I will keep you informed about the budget process as these final days of the legislative session continues. If you have any problems with which you think I could help; or questions, concerns, or comments on anything the legislature is doing (or not doing) – please don't hesitate to contact me
Senate Democrats vote to raise gas taxes and fees
Almost everyone at the Capitol recognizes the need for increased spending on our roads and bridges. My fellow Republicans and I have introduced a solution that would dedicate existing money to fund a 10-year comprehensive transportation plan that would invest $7 billion to repair or replace 15,500 miles of roads and 330 bridges statewide. The plan even includes extra money to help maintain local roads. Importantly, the Republican plan would do all of this without raising gas taxes, but rather accomplishing this through smart budget prioritization, using part of the existing state budget surplus, and cutting wasteful spending.
Before Governor Dayton's reelection, I was encouraged to see him express renewed interest in working on this issue. Unfortunately, he and the DFL leadership in the Senate would like to raise the state's gas tax by 50% and increase a variety of other fees on drivers. The Democrats' plan will cost every Minnesotan $0.16 to $0.26 more per gallon at the gas pump. Multiply that by the number of gallons in your vehicle and the number of times you fill up per year, and families will be looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in new taxes. Other fee increases include vehicle registration fees, vehicle title surcharges and license plate fees. What's worse, costs will predictably rise for everyday household purchases like groceries, as it will cost more to transport these items to retail shelves.
We have a divided government in St. Paul, which means that both parties will need to come together on a solution to fund roads and bridges. My goal is for the final plan to include smart budgeting and prioritization, just as you would do with your own family budget. The Republican plan proves there is truly no need to raise taxes to meet our transportation needs.
The Right to Try Act gives new hope for terminally ill Minnesotans
Earlier this month, the Senate considered the Right to Try Act. The bill, which passed with strong bipartisan support on a vote of 60 to 4, gives people with terminal illnesses the right to try experimental drugs that are still working their way through the very long FDA approval process. Currently, many terminally ill patients end up waiting months or years to try new treatment options that have the potential to save their lives.
The experimental medicines made available would still have to pass the first phase of the FDA approval process. The patient would also need to obtain a physician's prescription and find a pharmacist willing to fill it. Patients would be responsible for any extra costs associated with this part of their treatment.
The Right to Try Act has been signed into law by Governor Dayton.
Avian flu disaster relief moves forward
On Tuesday, April 21, the Senate unanimously approved emergency funding to combat the spread of the H5N2 avian flu that is spreading through much of the Midwest. The outbreak, which began in British Columbia, Canada and on the West Coast of the United States, was discovered in Minnesota on March 4. It has since spread to a number of Minnesota counties, affecting nearly 3 million birds. Governor Dayton has declared a state of emergency in response to the avian flu.
Nearly 3 million birds have been killed either directly by the disease or to prevent its spread, a number which is rising by the day. In addition, there are reports the flu has infected chicken farms in Iowa and Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker has also declared a state of emergency.
Recognizing the urgency, the Legislature expedited the traditional legislative process to fast track the emergency funds into law. House File 2225 appropriates $514,000 to the Department of Agriculture and $379,000 to the Board of Animal Health to help stop the disease. The money specifically must be used for emergency response activities not covered by federal funding.
Though the disease poses little danger to humans or the food supply, all poultry farms are at serious risk. Minnesota is the largest turkey producer in the country, and this crisis has the potential to devastate the entire $800 million industry without quick action.
More information about this important issue is available from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health here: https://www.bah.state.mn.us/avian-influenza
Health care bill offers no fixes for MNsure
Late last Friday, the Senate passed one of the larger bills it addresses each year, the Health and Human Services finance bill. The 2015 edition spends nearly $2 billion more next budget cycle than in the previous budget cycle, with funding for nursing facilities, for dental care, for chemical and mental health, for child protection improvements, and for the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. These are important programs that serve a public good.
Unfortunately, the bill also continues a trend of uncontrolled spending increases. It makes no effort to improve the system or to curb the spending growth that has been contributing to budget pressures we've had in recent years. Without making any attempt to change forecasted spending, we could soon be looking at more deficits in the not-too-distant future. Nobody wants to go down that path again, and we should be making efforts now to comfortably improve our long-term budget outlook while we can.
Notably, the Health and Human Service finance bill failed to make any significant changes to the most troubled area of health care, MNsure.
One of the most important questions facing legislators going into this session was what we would do to improve MNsure. Numerous news stories and reports have highlighted the many problems facing the failed exchange, including the scathing Legislative Auditor's report which concluded MNsure's failures outweighed its achievements.
Recognizing MNsure is unlikely to be scrapped any time soon, my Republican colleagues and I offered a sincere, thoughtful attempt at a bipartisan solution that would create more accountability for the program using the legislative oversight committee, add much needed industry expertise, move the exchange to the Department of Human Services under the authority of the commissioner, and require a task force report on recommended changes to improve MNsure. Disappointingly, the idea was rejected.
I was optimistic early in session when Democrats spoke about improving MNsure. Even Gov. Dayton admitted the program has not performed as well as he had hoped. But when given an opportunity to embrace changes that would have a real, positive impact on Minnesotans, Democrats chose to stick with what hasn't been working.
The bill will next go to a conference committee, where members from the House and Senate will get together to come up with their compromise HHS bill. I am hopeful the compromise will include some of the reasonable solutions we have offered in the past because too many Minnesota families are suffering the consequences of a failed system.
For those who like numbers
This link is to a pdf of a spreadsheet with budget proposal numbers from the House, Senate and Governor.
Activity is continuing to increase at the Capitol as the legislature moves toward adjournment in May. The biggest proposals recently have been regarding transportation, setting a budget for the next two years, and a controversial bill concerning assisted suicide.
Transportation Proposals Unveiled
There is wide agreement in the legislature that Minnesota’s transportation system needs to be a focus of this legislative session. However, two very different proposals have been offered. Democrat leaders in the senate, along with Governor Dayton, have proposed increasing the cost of license tabs and raising the gas tax by at least 16 cents per gallon; the tax would be based on the price of gasoline, so as gas prices rise, so would the size of the tax. I believe this is the wrong approach.
I know many people in Chisago and Isanti counties have long commutes and will feel an increase in the gas tax especially hard. Many families have not seen their wages return to what they were before the recession and I don’t support further stretching already tight family budgets, especially when the state government already has a nearly $2 billion surplus.
The impact on my constituents alone is enough for me to oppose increasing the gas tax. However, it is also bad public policy for the entire state. Many advocates of raising gas taxes argue the tax increase is needed to ensure Minnesota has a steady source of funding for our roads. While I agree road funding needs to be steady and reliable, experts across the country, with views across the political spectrum, have noted that as cars become more efficient, and more electric vehicles are used, less gasoline will be purchased and collections from the gas tax will continue to decrease over time. Simply put, the gas tax is becoming an increasingly unreliable way to raise money for our roads.
I am also concerned about the proposal for a gas tax that adjusts based on the price of gasoline; as gas prices increase, making life harder for everyone purchasing fuel and putting a drag on the economy more generally, the last thing the state should do is further drive up the cost of gas with an increased tax.
I support the Road and Bridge Act of 2015, a plan to repair or replace 15,500 lane miles and 330 bridges, and devote money to the repair of local streets without a tax increase. This is a long-term, future-oriented approach that puts real dollars - $7 billion over the next decade - toward improving our roads and bridges, starting immediately. One way this is done is by creating a new Transportation Stability Fund using existing sales tax revenue from auto parts purchases. Minnesotans tend to agree that when you buy new tires for your car, the sales tax for those types of purchases should go toward maintaining roads. The Road and Bridge Act also ensures Department of Transportation spending is more efficient, so we get the most from our road spending. By prioritizing transportation spending within our current budget, Minnesota can make needed improvements to our roads without raising the gas tax.
House Releases Budget Targets
This week, the new House Republican majority announced their budget targets. I’m pleased to say the House will hold state spending down to a much more reasonable level than we’ve seen in recent years. Additionally, their plan includes $2 billion in tax cuts for Minnesota families, about the same amount as the projected surplus. All of this will be done without raising taxes, and additional investments will be made in K-12 education, transportation, and long-term care for aging seniors, as well as increasing the budget reserve fund. The total budget target from House Republicans is $39.9 billion.
Governor Dayton’s latest budget proposal, coming out to an excessive $43 billion, would increase state spending by 25% in just five years since he took office. In the next budget alone he is asking for a 9% increase in state spending. Continuing on a path of large spending increases is unsustainable and irresponsible.
I firmly believe state spending should closely reflect Minnesotans’ family budgets. Just as your family might sit down at the dinner table to create a responsible budget for your household, elected officials should use common sense to hold state spending to a reasonable level so we can afford the things that matter down the road.
Assisted Suicide Bill Introduced, Heard in Committee
The Health and Human Services Committee has heard information on SF 1880, which would allow doctors to prescribe a fatal dose of medication to a terminally ill patient seeking to commit suicide. Although the bill was not voted on at the hearing, it can be brought up again at a later point.
This is an extremely controversial idea that would have profound impacts on our medical system and society as a whole. I encourage everyone to monitor this bill and contact your legislators with any thoughts or concerns you have with this proposal.
Audio of the committee hearing when SF 1880 was discussed is available here: http://www.senate.mn/schedule/schedule.php?ls=89&date=03/23/2015&cmte_type=standing&cmte_id=3059&type=daily&day_selected=Y&month_selected=N
Discussion of the bill is in Part 2 of the audio recording and begins at 1:16:12.
Five Laws Enacted This Session
So far, five pieces of legislation have been enacted into law this session. In addition to technical changes to current laws, the legislature has provided for future disaster relief funding and changed the way the state reports and investigates instances of child abuse. As things continue to get busier at the Capitol, the number of new laws will start to rise quickly. The Office of the Revisor of Statues keeps a list of all new laws here: https://www.revisor.mn.gov/laws/current/
I will continue to keep you informed about events at the Capitol. Please feel free to contact me about any legislative issue; I value your thoughts and opinions as I make decisions on legislation that will impact everyone in Minnesota.
The biggest news from the Capitol last week was the release of the state's budget forecast, which shows Minnesota running a $1.87 billion surplus for the 2016-7 biennium. Until the end of the legislative session in May, the focus at the legislature will be creating a state budget for the next two years.
Although the budget will take up most of the time this session, the legislature is also moving forward with other matters. I'd like to highlight a few below:
Education plan focuses on "Your School, Your Needs"
Last week I led Senate Republicans in introducing an innovative education funding bill, Senate File 1173, which would provide a burst of funding directly to our classrooms while relieving districts of costly, burdensome state mandates that have long tied the hands of school boards, principals, and teachers. Here are the details:
Equitable funding for every child
The "Your School, Your Needs" funding bill would allocate an extra $175 per student for 2016 and $180 per student in 2017 – an increase of 3%. Rather than applying this funding the same old way – which shortchanges many districts while giving more funding to others - it creates a new fair, equitable funding method that treats every student in Minnesota exactly the same. In comparison, Governor Dayton proposed a 1% increase to the current education "formula" that distributes money unevenly across the state, for example providing Minneapolis Public Schools with 21% more per student than the average school district.
No strings attached
In the past, the legislature has forced schools to spend new money on very specific programs that may not align with student needs, and this is exactly what Governor Dayton and Senate DFL leaders have proposed this year. My plan comes with no strings attached, giving schools flexibility to spend the money on innovative new ideas that boost student achievement. Locally elected school boards and parents will get to decide how their students will benefit from this funding. This plan also allows schools to opt-out of any future mandates that are forced upon schools for the next two years.
Another key feature of the proposal is the "lockbox" provision. It allows school districts to set aside money for specific projects so it cannot be touched during negotiations or other budget discussions. It's completely optional for districts, but I hope our local school boards will take advantage of the lockbox provision to innovate in the classroom.
"Your School, Your Needs" is about trust and priorities. For years, the only answer to problems facing our education system has been funding increases. But as we increase funding, we also cause harm to school districts with scads of mandates that tell them exactly what to do with the money. My bill places faith in local school boards and parents to determine how best to spend education dollars.
The needs of students in Chisago and Isanti counties are not necessarily the same as the needs of students in Minneapolis, so why do we let bureaucrats in St. Paul make education decisions for everyone in Minnesota? "Your School, Your Needs" empowers our schools to come up with bold, innovative ideas and deliver the best possible education to our children, and I'm proud to have introduced this plan.
Lawmakers and faith leaders take stand for religious freedom
Last Monday, a bipartisan group of legislators, including me, joined with leaders of various religious faiths to denounce religious persecution around the globe. The group introduced Senate File 15, a resolution asking President Obama and Governor Dayton to take additional steps to raise awareness for the subject and make religious freedom a higher priority.
It's easy to forget how lucky we are: we are fortunate to live in a country where we are mostly free of religious violence. Around the world, people of faith are more and more often being subjected to discrimination, violence, and even death for no other reason than their religious beliefs. The most recent in a long list of examples is the murder of 21 Coptic Christians in Egypt.
The U.S. State Department reported that in 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory. According to Pew Research, Christians face persecution in 151 countries – more than any other religious group. Christians are the only religious group at risk in each of the 16 worst countries for religious persecution.
I am proud that members of so many religious faiths are united in this common goal. We have a responsibility to use our offices and our positions to loudly condemn all forms of religious persecution. While this resolution is non-binding, I am hopeful it will continue the conversation about the importance of securing religious freedom around the world.
"Toddler Tax Credit" is a tax cut for families
I'm pleased to support yet another tax cut plan to help return the state surplus to hardworking taxpayers. Minnesota families endure one of the highest costs of childcare in the nation, and even those parents fortunate enough to stay home with young children make significant financial sacrifices to do so.
The "Toddler Tax Credit" would provide a $1,000 tax break for each qualifying child, adding up to nearly $500 million in tax relief for families over the next two years.
There is good reason to believe this proposal may gain traction in the legislature. Governor Dayton has already proposed a childcare tax credit, but it would only benefit families that incur childcare expenses and fall under a certain income threshold. This plan expands on that concept by including all families with children 0-4 years old who pay taxes in the state of Minnesota.
The "Toddler Tax Credit" is modeled after the federal child tax credit. It would be non-refundable, have no income limits, and lower the tax burden on the families of an estimated 250,000 Minnesota children.
Commissioner Pay Raises
Much has been reported regarding Governor Dayton's action to dramatically raise the salaries for his commissioners. This week KSTP conducted a new poll proving what we already knew – the pay raises are wildly unpopular with Minnesotans. I've heard from many constituents on this topic, and I appreciate your opinions.
This all started two years ago when both the Senate and House had DFL majorities and they chose to give Governor Dayton the power to unilaterally increase commissioner salaries. My concerns at the time were the same as they are now: when Governor Dayton gave multiple commissioners $35,000 pay raises overnight, it sent a clear message that taxpayers' money is not being spent wisely or carefully. The raises seem even more unfair after realizing the average Minnesotan makes less than $50,000, while commissioners make upwards of $150,000 apiece.
Two weeks ago in a party line vote, I joined my GOP colleagues in voting for an amendment that would have rolled back the pay raises, taken away Governor Dayton's power to reinstate them, and given the legislature oversight in the future. Unfortunately, our proposal was blocked. This week, I had the option of voting for a bill that would accomplish two of the three goals: roll back the increases for the short-term, and give the legislature oversight to approve pay raises in the future. While I agree wholeheartedly with these goals, unfortunately the bill also gave Governor Dayton the option to still increase salaries again one more time if he chooses. I didn't think this was fair to you or to any other Minnesotan, and I voted no.
The bill did pass the legislature and Governor Dayton has already signed it. I hope the negative attention he received recently will provide him with a change of heart about those large salary increases. The good news is future governors will now need to come to the legislature for approval of salary increases.
As always, I will try keep you updated with any new developments.
The pace is beginning to pick up at the Capitol. The legislature has passed its first pieces of legislation this session, bipartisan bills to fund disaster relief programs and to make filing taxes easier by ensuring Minnesota's tax code does not conflict with federal law. The tax conformity bill will provide over $20 million of tax relief for Minnesotans, and has been signed into law. While many pieces of legislation have been introduced, I'd like to highlight a few important items below.
Senate Republicans Protect Social Security Benefits
Along with many of my Republican Senate colleagues, I co-authored the "Retire in Minnesota Act," which would eliminate the state income tax on Social Security income. This bill would slowly phase out the Minnesota income tax on Social Security income by 10% per year for ten years until it is completely eliminated.
Unfortunately, our state is financially punishing Minnesotans for choosing to retire here. Minnesota is one of only seven states that does not offer tax breaks on Social Security benefits when they are paid out to retirees. I'm proud to be part of legislation to ease the burden on our seniors by letting them keep more of the Social Security benefits they earned.
Bill to Give School Boards More Taxing Power Introduced
Senate File 76 would give school boards new power to tax their constituents, without an election, in order to pay for the maintenance of school facilities. Historically, school boards have had to seek voter approval when seeking to increase property taxes. While I share the goal of ensuring our schools are well maintained, I'm concerned about giving new taxing powers to school board members until new elections are held. I believe voters should have the right to look their public officials in the eye and ask them how they will handle taxing and spending decisions before a new taxing power is granted.
DFL Plans for Universal Pre-School Overly Costly
DFL lawmakers have introduced a plan to massively increase the size of our public school system by providing public pre-school education across the state. The cost of this plan would be over $581 million when fully implemented. The cost of this program is roughly the same as the increase in state spending given to all grades, K through 12, during the last legislative session. If the DFL proposal were to become law, the high cost of the program would take resources from other education programs that are already in place and would direct pre-school students to schools of the government's choice, rather than giving parents a wider option of pre-school choices.
Given the high cost and limitations it places on a student's educational options, I do not support this bill. Minnesota would be better served by a program that targets pre-school funds to those families with the greatest need and one which allows families to choose the right pre-school for their child, rather than being directed into a one-size-fits-all system.
Debate over Automatic License Plate Readers Intensifies
A bill introduced in the Senate would allow law enforcement agencies to keep information collected by automatic license plate readers for 90 days and would require police to produce reports about how these technologies were used. Across the country, including in Minneapolis, police departments have used this equipment to photograph the license plates of vehicles and upload the images to a database. These images can then be used for a variety of law enforcement purposes. However, there have been growing privacy concerns since this technology can be used to track the movement of any individual that drives. There is also debate about who should have access to the data and if police should need a warrant to use it. I will closely monitor this legislation to ensure the civil liberties of Minnesota's citizens are protected.
Vision Therapy Pilot Project
Once again I will co-author legislation to establish a pilot program to provide comprehensive eye exams to elementary school students, and provide vision therapy when needed. The goal of the program is to catch and fix vision problems early in a child's education. For some students, vision problems cause significant challenges that prevent them from succeeding in school, sometimes leading these students to be directed to special education programs for conditions that are easily treated. This program would help students with vision problems succeed academically and could even save the taxpayer money as fewer students are unnecessarily diverted to special education programs which are expensive for schools to administer.
Appearance on "Your Legislators"
I was honored to have the opportunity to appear on "Your Legislators," a program produced by Pioneer Public Television, featuring legislators from both parties and both chambers of the legislature. Video of my appearance is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jM738_YoMlQ
I will do my best to keep you informed on legislative actions in the weeks and months to come, throughout this session. Again, if you have any problems with which you think I could help; or questions, concerns, or comments on anything the legislature is doing (or not doing) – please don't hesitate to contact me.
Session Kickoff: The start of the 2015 legislative session
The 2015 legislative session kicked off on January 5, and while things have been moving slowly at first, many important decisions will be made this session. This year the senate will be focused on setting a budget for 2016 and 2017. While Minnesota is expected to have a budget surplus, we won't know the exact conditions of the state's finances until the Minnesota Management & Budget Commissioner releases the February forecast. The projections in that document will be the basis for our overall budget size.
I'm optimistic about what we can accomplish this session. I would like to reform our education system to give all students equal access to a great education and to ensure quality schools, teachers and education results. I would like to make your commute less stressful by emphasizing improvements to roads and bridges. I would like to provide relief to hardworking taxpayers, plan for long-term budget stability and make Minnesota a more welcoming place for families and job creators.
Most importantly, remember I was elected to be your voice in St. Paul. I want to hear from you often. We are working on policy that will affect your life and the lives of your children; please be part of the discussion. I value your experience, your ideas, and your suggestions. My contact information is on the bottom of the page so don't hesitate to use it!
It is an honor and a privilege to serve as your state senator.
Legislature to Pass Disaster Relief Funding
This week, Senate File 1 is expected to pass easily with bipartisan support. This bill provides funding to the state agencies that provide disaster assistance; last summer, these funds were depleted as our state responded to flooding caused by heavy rains. Having money set aside for emergency purposes allows the state to react more quickly to disasters without incurring the extra expense of a special legislative session, which otherwise would be required to provide funding for disaster relief.
GOP Caucus to Push for Education Reform
As the GOP lead on the Senate's Education committee, I'm overseeing the rollout of a number of pieces of legislation that will make our state's schools more student focused, rather than run for the adults in charge of the school system. Among our proposals will be giving parents more choices regarding where to send their child to school, increasing academic standards for students and reforming the way teachers are hired and fired, allowing schools to keep the most talented teachers instead of just those who have been there the longest.
I will do my best to keep you informed on legislative actions in the weeks and months to come, throughout this session. Again, if you have any problems with which you think I could help; or questions, concerns, or comments on anything the legislature is doing (or not doing) – please don't hesitate to contact me.
April 11, 2014
Greetings from the Capitol!
At the midway point of the 2014 Legislative Session, below are some highlights…..
Minnesota Senate Republicans supported a plan to raise Minnesota’s minimum wage from $6.15 to $7.25 per hour, matching the federal minimum wage and putting the state in line with neighboring states. The proposal was rejected by Democrats who are in the majority, who insisted on a much higher rate of $9.50 per hour. Based on nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office numbers, that will result in 8,000 to 9,000 fewer jobs in Minnesota. Border areas, like the district I represent will face particular challenges when businesses near the border will be required to have tens of thousands of dollars more cost compared to their competitors across the border.
Recently passed Senate legislation will build an unnecessary new Senate Legislative Office Building that is a prime example of more questionable spending. The Democrat majority in the Senate ignored public objections and put taxpayers on the hook for a $90 million Senate Office Building without giving the public consideration to more cost-effective alternatives.
Unfortunately, the House this week concurred with the Senate and passed the final form of an anti-bullying bill. The legislation will expose our schools to potential lawsuits (a similarly worded law in NJ already is facing a 1st Amendment lawsuit), forces a $19 million per year unfunded mandate on our schools, lacks any requirement for parental notification or involvement, reduces freedom of speech and shifts local control to state bureaucrats. The anti-bullying legislation was not requested by our schools - and most schools say they don't need or want it. I supported a reasonable alternative that would have fixed all those problems, but it was rejected on a party line vote in the Senate.
The anti-bullying legislation goes against what most of people want from their schools: parental empowerment and important decisions made by local parents and trusted officials in their school districts. The only step left to citizens who object to the anti-bullying legislation is to contact Governor Dayton's office and request a veto.
This week the Minnesota Senate passed a large supplemental budget bill that increases last years pending increase, passed by the DFL controlled legislature, by another 10%. The bill spends $209 million now, and skyrockets to $742 million in future budgets.
Republicans offered an amendment that would have simplified the bill to focus on two bipartisan budget priorities, including road maintenance and a 5% increase for caregivers of the disabled and elderly. That amendment received unanimous Republican support, but failed to gain enough democrat votes to pass. Reasonable spending that benefits the whole state is beneficial, but this bill asks for too much and I’m concerned it will put a strain on future budgets.
One thing the bill does is plug the hole left by last year’s budgeting shift, enacted in order for the state to afford ObamaCare. In the 2013 budget bill, $400 million was shifted from the Health Care Access Fund to pay for the expansion of Medicaid under ObamaCare. The success of that program is in question, as the Dayton administration has been unable to determine if any (or how many) newly insured people are enrolled in the state’s troubled healthcare exchange.
Last year we were told the budget enacted by Democrats, who control the entirety of state government right now, was clean and free of shifts and gimmicks. Unfortunately that was not true, and now $400 million that could have been used for beneficial things like tax relief for working families, had to be used to fix last year's budget shift gimmick. Unfortunately, beyond that, this shift 'fix' will still leave a $250 million shortfall in future budgets.
The MNsure enrollment deadline has passed. I and other GOP members of the MNsure oversight committee recently raised concerns regarding the failure of the Dayton administration to fulfill the promises made while bringing ObamaCare to Minnesota.
We have asked the Governor to take action now that the March 31, 2014 enrollment deadline has passed:
- Reveal how many uninsured Minnesotans now have coverage
- Come clean about MNsure operations
- Disclose how much premiums will increase when rates are released in September 2014, rather than waiting until mid-November to release that information
A main concern is the lack of MNsure balance between public and private plans, and also between younger, healthy enrollees and others. That imbalance is likely to result in higher premiums for all insurance, and has resulted in budget deficits for MNSure. The federal government launched an investigation into Governor Dayton and Democrats’ implementation of ObamaCare in Minnesota. A portion of a letter issued to Governor Dayton from U.S. Representative Darrell Issa on March 28, 2014 reads:
“It’s clear that the Minnesota exchange has failed to live up to expectations. Despite receiving over $155 million in federal grants to set up its ObamaCare exchange, the exchange has managed to enroll only approximately 38,000 people. Put differently, for every person enrolled by the exchange, federal taxpayers gave the state approximately $5,000.”
In addition, the non-partisan Legislative Auditor is now in process of two separate investigations/audits of MNsure use of funding and their operations.
Thank you to everyone who has visited the Capitol! It was a pleasure to meet with you.
Healthcare Freedom is worth Fighting For
Monday, March 31st was the official deadline to enroll for Obamacare/MNsure. Minnesotans may no longer buy private insurance unless they: qualify for medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, have a qualifying life event or are a small employer enrolling through the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP). Therefore, people who have not enrolled in Obamacare/MNsure will have to wait until November 15, 2014 to enroll, and the earliest one will receive health insurance is January 1, 2015. The 2014 federal penalty for not having insurance is $95 or 1% of annual income above the tax filing threshold – whichever is greater. MNsure’s own economists estimate that nearly 50,000 Minnesotans will be fined. Obamacare/MNsure advocates are not being straightforward about the fact that over 70% of enrollees are on public assistance programs, which means that they are not private market, full premium paying individuals. We need to do everything we can to minimize damages from Obamacare/MNsure. This should be the legislature’s top priority, because all Minnesotans have been affected in some way by the healthcare law changes:
- 240,000 Minnesotans lost their existing health insurance plan because of President Obama and Governor Dayton’s broken promise that you could keep your plan.
- Minnesota families and seniors are seeing their premiums and deductibles rise.
- People were forced to abandon their life-long doctor because of limited choices.
- $160 million taxpayer dollars were wasted on a website that is still not fully working, and many forms still being processed on paper.
While this is happening, Obamacare/MNsure officials have been allowed to keep their excessive bonuses. Goals for private plans, young people, and small businesses are still far off the mark – MNsure tried to hide enrollment problems by providing an extension to people who “got in line” before the deadline. Nobody knows how many previously uninsured people have been covered - which was the point of Obamacare/MNsure in the first place. The good news is Minnesota had a great healthcare system, with over 90% of citizens covered. Minnesotans can have this again – we only need to empower consumers rather than government bureaucracy.
Senator Nienow Supports School Safety Policies that
Empower Parents and Students
Parents, teachers, and principals are best equipped to protect all students.
(St. Paul, MN…) Yesterday the Minnesota Senate passed a controversial anti-bullying bill that allows parents to be cut out of the communications loop when their child is being bullied or is accused of bullying in school. The bill also failed to win the support of the Minnesota School Board Association, even after a year of negotiation and undergoing multiple revisions.
“Protecting our students’ ability to learn in school is something everyone can get behind, but parents should always be included when their students’ safety is concerned. I fear that without a strong parental notification requirement, this law will not protect our kids,” said Senator Nienow.
I voted in favor of an amendment to strengthen current anti-bullying laws, which:
Includes strong parental notification requirements at the beginning, middle, and end of any bullying investigation, for parents of both bullied students and alleged offenders.
- Is supported by the Minnesota School Board Association.
- Received an A++ rating from the national website BullyPolice.org.
- Was referenced by Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson as a model to replicate. Is patterned after tested legislation that has worked in other states.
The amendment ultimately failed to win support of the Democrat controlled Senate.
“School safety is a non-controversial issue, and I supported an amendment that would have kept parents at the center of any conversation about their kids. It’s unfortunate that the amendment didn’t receive enough bipartisan support to pass,” added Senator Nienow.
Other controversial aspects of the bill that passed today include:
- The addition of a million dollar taxpayer-funded School Climate Council and a School Climate Center within the Minnesota Department of Education that will be charged with implementing and enforcing the new law.
- A new $19 million cost per year to local school districts, which was not funded.
- Additional rules that make it harder for elected school boards to craft anti-bullying and student safety policies that fit their district.
- A list of demographic groups who will receive special protection under the law, raising concerns that students who don’t fall under one of these categories will not be equally protected.
Common Sense Solutions Missing
Extravagance for the Elite Sends Wrong Message to Taxpayers
Minnesotans are practical people who appreciate common sense solutions to problems. You would think that the people’s elected representatives would epitomize that Midwestern value, but in the case of the $90 million Senate Office Building, Governor Dayton and Senate Democrats have chosen the opposite route.
Let’s say you were renovating your home; where would you live during the temporary construction? You could find an apartment, or you could move your family into another area of the house. Both scenarios would create an inconvenience; perhaps the kids would have to share a bedroom and some furniture would be placed in storage, but Minnesota families would hang tough and make it work.
During the Capitol renovation in the coming years, Governor Dayton and Democrats are doing exactly what Minnesota families would not do, by building a brand new house across the street. Not only will the extravagant Senate Office Building be a permanent solution to a temporary problem, it will cost taxpayers well over $1 million per Senate office! With heated parking and 60% more office space for the Governor, their plans far exceed common sense.
Democrats have had many opportunities to remedy their mistake, but they refuse to acknowledge that there’s even a problem. I, on the other hand, helped introduce a bill to repeal this unnecessary spending. We resolve to make the common sense decisions that your family would make. I will gladly live with a temporary office in St. Paul in order to protect the interests of Minnesotans in the rest of the state.
Senate Republicans put “Families First” Plan – Propose Permanent Sales Tax Cut
It has been another full week at the Capitol - Republicans in the Minnesota Senate announced this week a comprehensive plan to account for the projected $1.2 billion surplus by placing “Families First.” The plan is a permanent half-percent cut to the state sales tax, reducing it from 6.875 to 6.375. The sales tax reduction builds on Republican efforts to fully repeal the unnecessary consumer tax increased passed in 2013 and conform the state income tax system to the federal government. Republicans also announced support for a $200 million one-time infusion into the transportation spending – specifically, roads and bridges. When the budget surplus was announced in February – Republicans voiced support for repealing the business to business taxes, provide full conformity on income tax reductions, repealing the gift tax and fully funding the 5% Campaign.
The State Senate passed a tax bill today that includes some immediate relief for overtaxed Minnesotans, but still results in a net $1.7 billion tax increase for the budget cycle. The tax bill corrects only a few of the mistakes the Democrats majority passed last year when they raised taxes by $1.84 billion. Governor Dayton agreed with the Democrats last year and now agrees with the Republicans – these taxes are excessive and need to be repealed.
The Republican plan for tax relief, reduction and federal tax conformity makes sense – it offers permanent tax relief for Minnesota families. The Democrats refuse to go this route. The passage of this bill provides $431 million in tax relief, which is only 1/3 of the current budget surplus. Therefore, we now have minimal tax relief to Minnesotans and an excessive amount of money in the governments control to spend.
I will continue to work on your behalf at the Capitol.
Dear Friends and Neighbors,
As your State Senator in St. Paul, I want to keep you informed on important issues happening at the Capitol…..
On Tuesday, March 11th a controversial proposal to address bullying in public schools was debated and amended by the Senate Education Policy Committee. While some amendments were adopted to make administration of the law simpler, a number of other amendments pertaining to protection of student rights, parent involvement, and local control rather than unfunded state mandates were turned down leading to a divided vote on passage. The legislation has been re-referred to the Senate Committee on Finance. The bill still falls short of my support – because it has the following problems:
This bill requires school districts to spend money that would be better used in the classroom educating our kids.
- The list of enumerated classes of bullying conduct remains in the bill (i.e. "color, creed...sexual orientation, including gender identity and expression"), which means that kids who are “just different” aren’t as protected as those who fall under one of the protected classes.
- Emphasis on "preventive measures," "valuing diversity," and "sexual orientation, including gender identity and expression" make it likely that a controversial social agenda and curriculum will result.
- There is complexity in understanding definitions and terms, and potential legal liability for incorrectly applying the law to students and/or situations.
- There is a reliance on top-down state government involvement, which doesn’t give school districts the flexibility to create policies that work locally (for example, the state model policy, the state school climate center and council, and authorizing the state commissioner to withhold school funding).
- An amendment that would protect students’ First Amendment rights was defeated. This bill doesn’t do enough to ensure that kids can follow their conscience and speak freely at school.
- The bill does not have the support of the School Board Association.
- While some changes have been made to make the law easier for school administrators - nothing was done to address the concerns of parents and students.
- Everyone agrees on wanting to protect kids at school, it’s reasonable to expect that the final bill should be thoroughly vetted and bipartisan. We should keep working until this bill is non-controversial.
This legislation is very important to our district – I support anti-bullying efforts of local schools – however, we want a final bill to be bi-partisan. While some changes have been made to make the law easier for school administrators, not much was done to address the concerns of parents and students. You can count on me to bring reasonable and responsible solutions to running the great state of Minnesota and to stand for your rights. I welcome your feedback and ideas. You can contact me by email or phone at 651-296-5419 or Sen.Sean.Nienow@senate.mn.
Memorial Highway named after fallen soldier, Nicholas Patrick Spehar
(St. Paul, MN.) – Senator Sean Nienow’s (R-Cambridge) legislation S. F. 2035, Nicholas Patrick Spehar Memorial Highway bill, passed the Senate Transportation Policy Committee and was sent directly to the Senate floor for passage. U.S. Highway 8, from the southwestern border of Chisago City to the eastern border of Center City, will be designated as “Nicholas Patrick Spehar Memorial Highway.” Nicholas Patrick Spehar, Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) was a 2005 graduate of Chisago Lake High School and was killed on August 6, 2011 in a helicopter crash in Wardak province, Afghanistan, that killed 30 American troops. His decorations include Army Commendation Medal, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medals, Good Conduct Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Rifle and Pistol Marksmanship Medal.
"Everyone who knew Nicholas can't speak highly enough of his character. He exemplified the best characteristics of our special forces, with his determination to give 110% to every endeavor and dedication to protecting those back home. He is a hero to all Minnesotans, and it will be an honor to memorialize him in this way," said Senator Nienow.
Minnesota State Legislators Hold Business Owners Town Hall Meeting
August 12, 2013
(ST. PAUL) – Four state legislators met with local business owners on August 7th at Stars and Strikes Entertainment Center to discuss the past legislative session and listen to ideas and concerns from area business owners and managers.
Senator Sean Nienow and Representatives Bob Barrett, Brian Johnson and Bob Dettmer each gave a short recap of the past legislative session with a particular focus on the state budget and the over $2 billion tax and fee increases which began kicking in with the new budget on July 1.
Taxes and health insurance concerns about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) implementation of the new state insurance exchange were among the most discussed issues. Senator Nienow said, "I was pleased to see the level of interest by those who own, or manage local businesses that employ area residents. It's clear from the concerns I heard at the meeting, that the nearly $2.5 Billion in tax and fee increases passed this last session are going to have a negative impact on their ability to create and retain jobs for local residents. I will do what I can to send that message to Democrat legislative leaders, and I hope they will listen and be open to revisiting onerous regulations and high taxes so that local employers can create more jobs for our families."
Representative Dettmer talked about how the new Warehouse Tax was affecting businesses in his district (District 39A) and said he enjoyed discussing the various issues with those in attendance Wednesday and looks forward to future meetings. Representative Bob Barrett said, “We heard loud and clear that raising taxes to fund a 10% increase in government spending will not help businesses succeed.”
Several new taxes were discussed including the Wheelage Tax (also known as the family car tax), recently passed by the Chisago County Board of Commissioners, property taxes and a telecommunications tax. “The telecommunication tax will affect repairs and upgrades in greater Minnesota. This is a concern for both residents and businesses,” said Representative Brian Johnson.
The business owners’ town hall was the 5th of six town hall meetings held by District 32 legislators this summer.
Nienow was re-elected in November to the newly reconfigured Senate District 32, which includes most of Chisago and Isanti counties. Nienow welcomes comments and questions and can be reached by telephone at (651)296-5419, by mail at 105 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Senator Sean Nienow Appointed to Teacher Licensure Advisory Task Force
July 10, 2013
(ST. PAUL) – State Senator Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) has been appointed to the Teacher Licensure Advisory Task Force. The Teacher Licensure Advisory Task Force was established to make recommendations to the Board of Teaching, the education commissioner, and the education committees of the legislature on requirements for: teacher applicants to demonstrate mastery of reading, writing, and mathematics skills through nationally normed assessments, a professional skills portfolio, or accredited
college coursework, among other methods of demonstrating skills mastery; and an alternative licensure pathway for nonnative English speakers seeking licensure to teach in a language immersion program.
“I am pleased Senate Leadership values my knowledge and expertise by appointing me to the Task Force. My commitment to ensuring the children of Minnesota have the best possible education and opportunities is why I continue to devote time and energy to serve on the Education Committee and these additional boards, “said Senator Nienow.
In addition to the Teacher Licensure Task Force, Senator Nienow also serves on the MNSure Legislative Oversight Committee, the Nonemergency Medical Transportation Advisory Committee, Early Childhood Education and Care Advisory Board, and the Council of State Governments (CSG) Midwestern Legislative Conference on the Education Committee.
Nienow was re-elected in November to the newly reconfigured Senate District 32, which includes most of Chisago and Isanti counties. Nienow welcomes comments and questions and can be reached by telephone at (651)296-5419, by mail at 105 State Office Building, 100 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senator Sean Nienow Appointed to MNSure Legislative Oversight Committee
June 21, 2013
(ST. PAUL) – State Senator Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) has been appointed to the MNSure Legislative Oversight Committee. MNSure is the name for the Minnesota Insurance Marketplace (insurance exchange) established under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). The Legislative Oversight Committee was established to provide oversight to the implementation and operation of the insurance exchange. The committee will review the operations of the Minnesota Insurance Marketplace and recommend necessary changes in policy, implementation, and statutes to the board and to the legislature.
“I am pleased Senate Leadership values my knowledge and expertise by appointing me to the committee charged with oversight of MNSure, the Minnesota health insurance exchange. The exchange is an important element of an historic overhaul of the health care system. Regardless of people’s opinions of the Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, it is the law of the land and the Minnesota Insurance Marketplace is how those not insured by their employer will access the available options for health insurance. I will do my best to ensure proper legislative oversight of MNSure, “said Senator Nienow.
The Legislative Oversight Committee is made up of five members of the Minnesota Senate and five members of the Minnesota House of Representatives, three of which come from the majority party and two from the minority.
Nienow was re-elected in November to the newly reconfigured Senate District 32, which includes the Chisago and Isanti counties. Nienow welcomes comments and questions and can be reached by telephone at (651)296-5419, by mail at 105 State Office Building, 100 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
LEGISLATURE ADJOURNS – SENATOR S NIENOW SAYS HARD WORKING TAXPAYERS ALL PAY MORE FOR WASTEFUL GOVERNMENT SPENDING
$3 billion in new government spending makes Minnesota’s budget the largest in state history
May 21, 2013
(St. Paul, MN) – On Monday, May 20, the Minnesota Legislature adjourned and completed its work on the state’s budget for Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015. The budget plan, passed largely with Democrat support includes $2.1 billion in a variety of new taxes and closes a $627 million budget deficit, for total state spending of $38.3 billion, the largest budget in state history. This is an 8.1% increase over current state spending. State Senator Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge), voted in opposition to the tax plan that increases an array of sales, income, and business taxes.
"If you remember one thing about this legislative session, it’s that every hard working taxpayer will pay more in higher taxes for increased wasteful and inefficient government spending under the Democrats’ plan. Minnesotans deserve a budget that protects hardworking taxpayers, not abuses them," said Senator Nienow.
New items that will be taxed in the final plan pushed by Governor Dayton and Democrat leaders include new sales taxes on internet purchases, digital downloads like iTunes and eBooks, car rentals (nearly 50% tax increase), storage facilities and equipment repair for businesses, and telecom equipment. Additionally, cigarettes will see a $1.60 per pack sales tax increase. Adding insult to injury, more of the people’s hard earned money will be spent in fees on state services such as driver’s license transaction fees, vehicle title fees and other fees thereby adding millions more to an already heavy tax burden on Minnesotans.
Senator Nienow continued, "Why did the Democrat Majority raise $2.1 billion in new taxes to remedy a $627 million deficit? We can – and should- be doing a better job for taxpayers to make sure state government is more efficient and effective. We don’t need to spend more, we need to spend smarter."
Senator Nienow worked hard for taxpayers, urging the Democrat majority to show constraint as they proposed increased gas taxes, clothing taxes and alcohol/beer taxes. He helped stop the assault on the people’s Second Amendment rights. He fought for school districts by authoring legislation to bring equity to education funding. Nienow authored and the legislature passed the Arson Wildfire Bill increasing penalties for arson fires like the fire of 2009 near Carlos Avery that burned 2600 acres and required 31 fired departments’ assistance yet resulted in only probation for the one convicted.
Many residents of District 32 are aware of the successful work Senator Nienow did to bring about greater accountability and transparency to the way Medicaid is funded in Minnesota. Recent audits confirmed Senator Nienow’s concerns and oversight has improved because of his efforts. Those efforts helped bring about an investigation by the Federal Office of Inspector General which is ongoing.
"Thank you to all the constituents who wrote, called, emailed, and visited me during the session. Your views are very important, and I’m honored to serve as your state Senator," said Senator Nienow.
Minnesota State Senator Sean Nienow on HF1054/SF925 Same Sex Marriage Bill
May 15, 2013
(ST. PAUL) – State Senator Sean Nienow statement on passage of the bill granting legal marriage of same sex couples.
Monday's historic vote legally sanctioning same sex marriage comes on the heels of the unsuccessful vote last fall to prevent Minnesota Courts from redefining marriage as anything other than the union of one man and one woman. Despite telling Minnesotans that nothing would change if they voted "No" on that question last fall, changing the definition of marriage became a priority for the new DFL majorities in both the House and Senate. When the new law takes effect this summer, they will have succeeded in redefining marriage. I did not vote for the proposal.
Marriage predates governmental definitions and regulation. Government did not create marriage. Marriage laws were crafted to acknowledge a socially beneficial structure, an institution (marriage) which existed and benefitted society through childbirth and a strong social structure for the rearing of those children- a stable environment with both a mother and father, which is well known to be the most beneficial environment for a child. Gay marriage advocates want to use the force of the state to change a pre-existing institution. If the state can change the definition of an institution it did not create then it can force people to do so as well. There is a distinct potential the new law could adversely affect traditional families and certainly will come into conflict with certain individuals expression under First Amendment rights to adhere to religious beliefs.
Minnesota will have to sort out in the courts paternity and parental laws as well as the legal use of words like mother, father, husband and wife which will now be prohibited by law in various instances. Those terms will now be required by this law to change into something "gender neutral". I see fundamental societal challenges ahead as Minnesota grapples with a new law that seems to imply that to be a child’s mother has nothing to do with being female, and to be a child’s father has nothing to do with being male. This is our new law.
As acknowledged in the bill language attempting to protect some religious institutions, this law has an inherent conflict with some religious liberties. I addressed some of those concerns during Senate debate, and I highlighted the fact (as acknowledged in a letter by renowned law professors) that there are some religious liberties protections for institutions and corporations in this new law but individual protection does not existent in the language. That is highly problematic, and I hope that particular flaw in the law will be addressed in the very near future.
Nienow was re-elected in November to the newly reconfigured Senate District 32, which includes most of Chisago and Isanti counties. Nienow welcomes comments and questions and can be reached by telephone at (651) 296-5419, by mail at 105 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Senator Sean Nienow Introduces Bill to Delay Vikings Stadium Construction
Until a Proven Revenue Source is Identified
April 4, 2013
(ST. PAUL) –State Senator Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) will introduce a bill next week to delay the selling of bonds to fund the building of a new Vikings stadium until the funding revenue shortfall from E-pull tabs is reconciled.
The Dayton Administration’s projected revenue from E-pull tabs is off by 95%. The original projections by the Administration were that E-pull tabs would generate $35 million in revenue. Current projections are at $1.7 million.
This colossal error in calculation warrants immediate action before the state is forced to take money from education and health care to pay for the new stadium.
Senator Nienow and Representative Mary Franson (R-Alexandria) have authored legislation to delay the implementation of general bond sales until a proven revenue source is determined.
“Are we really going to build a sports stadium and take money from education, health care and maintaining roads? In whose world is that a good idea? When the Stadium bill was debated I said the E-pull tab revenue source was based on ‘fairies and fufu dust.’ It appears I have been proven correct,” Sen. Nienow said.
Nienow was re-elected in November to the newly reconfigured Senate District 32, which includes the Chisago and Isanti counties. Nienow welcomes comments and questions and can be reached by telephone at (651)296-5419, by mail at 105 State Office Building, 100 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155, or via e-mail at email@example.com.
Here is an article I sent to the local papers.
Sen. Nienow Guest Commentary – March 25, 2013
The Minnesota Legislature is buzzing with activity these days. While we await the official legislative budget bills to be introduced, there are other issues that are getting the attention of the media and the public.
You may have seen recent news stories in print, television and radio outlets talking about an issue I have been working on for over two years. Medicaid programs in Minnesota are in big trouble. It’s not that there is a lack of money going into these programs. The problem is the Department of Human Services (DHS) has poorly managed the programs. As a result, we have a significant percentage of $8 billion a year being lost through these enormously unaccountable government programs. What is truly heart breaking is the suffering this brings into the lives of our neighbors, who, already struggling in tough economic circumstances, are in pain and unable to get the medical care they need and these programs are supposed to provide.
Two years ago I began asking questions about the apparent lack of transparency and accountability in the management of Medicaid, a program that is funded by roughly 50% state and 50% federal funding. There have been three audits of Minnesota’s Medicaid programs that have consistently confirmed our worst fears; that the Department of Human Services dropped the ball on oversight and that the rates being paid to the HMOs who administer these programs have been very high. While providers of medical services; doctors, dentists, chiropractors etc. continue to receive low reimbursements for the care they provide Medicaid patients, the HMOs to whom these programs have been outsourced, according to the audits, are sitting on huge sums of money. A “for-profit” business would call these profits however, because the HMOs are “non-profits,” they are called “reserves.”
It is the persistent questions from myself and others, concerned about the lack of integrity in the Medicaid programs, that have resulted in these audits and a current investigation into Medicaid in Minnesota by the federal Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General. I welcome and applaud this effort because, in order for Minnesota to know a fair rate of reimbursement for health care services, we must know what it actually costs to provide those services. The rising cost of health care and the massive overhaul that the passage of the Affordable Care Act imposes on us make it imperative that we get to the bottom of this now.
The real tragedy in not getting to the bottom of the Medicaid program mismanagement is the heart breaking stories of people suffering because they cannot find a doctor or dentist who will take Medicaid. I recently heard from Sherri, a working woman from our community who deals with a disability and could not get dental care unless she paid for the anesthesia out of her own pocket. This is just awful! Taxpayers have already paid for these programs and expect the money will actually be used for the medical care these patients need.
Since the Dayton Administration seems unwilling to restore the integrity of Minnesota’s Medicaid programs through a comprehensive audit, it has become necessary for me to have conversations with Congressman Darrel Issa’s office. Congressman Issa, chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Government Oversight Committee is investigating the way Medicaid rates are paid in Minnesota and other states. Additionally, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann has introduced the Medicaid Integrity Act of 2013, requiring annual audits of Medicaid programs nationwide. Recipients of these programs, like my constituent, Sherri, are counting on the money that is allocated for medical care, in fact, result in medical care not be wasted through mismanagement.
February 22 Article:
As I write this column, the legislature is wrapping up hearings on Governor Mark Dayton’s budget proposal. We continue to review the Governor’s budget while awaiting the final budget forecast due out in late February. In the meantime, other policy measures are being introduced and discussed. Recently I introduced a bill in the Minnesota Senate that pertains to the use of drones, unmanned aircraft, in Minnesota. This proposed legislation prompted much media interest and as such is the topic of my commentary this week.
With the introduction of Senate File 485, Minnesota joins at least 18 other states in being proactive about establishing common sense guidelines in the use of a technology that is about to vastly expand in the United States. In fact, Congress passed a law that requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to allow drones wide access to U.S. airspace by 2015 and the Federal Aviation Administration predicts over 10,000 drones will be in use within the next five years. Clearly, given these projections, it is prudent that Minnesota establish individual privacy protection guidelines.
Drones are already here and they provide opportunities to benefit the public when used properly and with respect to our civil liberties and Fourth Amendment rights. The FAA reports that it has issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators since 2007. While it is anticipated that local and state law enforcement will be the largest drone users, as supply and demand expand and prices go down the potential is certainly there for other people to use drones. Already, state transportation departments and universities are using drones.
This bill would prohibit the use of drones for gathering evidence or information on individuals except for high risk incidences or after obtaining a warrant. The bill provides civil remedies should an individual’s rights be violated in this manner.
We are increasingly becoming a “surveillance society” where Big Brother is using cameras to watch the activities of average citizens. States have an obligation to be proactive in ensuring protections are in place before problems arise. That is just common sense.
Town Hall Meetings for February:
Education Town Hall
February 19: 7:00 - 8:00 PM.
North Branch High School Auditorium
Open to the public and all parents and educators, staff, are welcome and encouraged to attend.
Braham Town Hall
February 16: 10:00- 11:00 AM
201 So. Broadway Ave.
Cambridge Town Hall
February 23: 10:00 - 11:00 AM
Minnco Credit Union
236 2nd Ave SW
Early March: TBD
January 28th article submitted to local newspapers:
Governor Dayton’s Task Force on Education Finance Workgroup Recommendations
I serve on the Senate Education Committee and recently received the recommendations from Governor Dayton’s Education Finance Workgroup. There are components of these recommendations that the residents in District 32 should know about. Today I write to inform you how, if implemented, these recommendations might affect you and your communities.
Essentially Governor Dayton’s workgroup recommends the state take the money that some school districts receive through their education levy and put it in the General Education Fund. The state would then give that same amount of money to all school districts. So, what does this mean for school districts that do not have a levy, such as North Branch? The state would give the local school boards the authority to impose a levy to obtain the money that would be given to the state and redistributed back to the school district in the General Education Fund. This is problematic on a number of fronts. First, North Branch has, six times in the last ten years, said no to the school district’s proposed referendum to increase the levy. The voters have consistently and clearly said through their vote that they do not want their property taxes increased. The Governor’s work group recommendation goes around the voter, disenfranchising their vote, and gives the authority directly to the school board to impose this increase in your property tax even though they were never elected with that authority.
The school districts do not have authority to raise your taxes and what’s more, when you voted for your local school board member you were not given the opportunity to ask them how they would stand on raising your taxes. You, as a voter and resident of the community had no opportunity to base your vote on this information. These recommendations take the authority for imposing taxes out of the hands of the legislators who have to answer to the people for how they would handle that authority and puts it in the hands of school board officials who do not. Furthermore, on page 9-10 of the Workforce Recommendations it states that if the school board chose to levy less that the stated amount, the state could reduce education aid payments by a dollar for dollar amount. Would this pressure the school boards to impose the full levy out of fear that their education funding could be cut? It almost certainly would.
Just how much money are we talking about here? The financial impact summary released by the Workgroup shows that North Branch would receive a 13.1% increase in education property tax; Cambridge would see an 8.4% increase in education property tax; Chisago Lakes and Rush City would each see about 2.5% increase and Braham and Princeton would stay about the same. I cannot support the state reaching farther into your household budget and taking more of your money while at the same disenfranchising your vote.
Next I’d like to address equity in education funding. Equity in funding, or better described as the inequity in education finding is important and those who have followed my work on education at the legislature know that I have advocated closing the gap between the disproportionately high levels of funding going to Metro schools compared to what our local schools here in Isanti and Chisago County receive. In 2011, Minneapolis Schools received approximately $14,000 per pupil while North Branch received about $8700 and Chisago Lakes received about $8500. Cambridge Isanti Schools received $7600 and Braham Schools received $8500. Minneapolis Public Schools receive over $5000 more than our schools, per child yet between 2007 and 2011 less than half of Minneapolis public high school students graduated in four years. In addition to that, 73% of 11th grade students in Minneapolis Public Schools did not meet the Math Standards in 2012. Clearly this is not due to a lack of funding. I know Governor Dayton talks about a better Minnesota, but there is a better way for Minnesota. Our educational system, receiving 40% of our state’s budget, is structurally flawed and rather than using sleight of hand funding tricks that take away your right to vote, we should build a structurally sound system that results in highly educated students.
Funding education is a high priority in Minnesota. It should be done responsibly and not on the backs of homeowners and small businesses and certainly not by going around their right to vote on local education levies.
You can count on me to continue to bring reasonable, responsible and compassionate solutions to the running of the great state of Minnesota and to stand for your rights. I welcome your feedback and ideas. You can contact me by email or phone at 651-296-5419 or Sen.Sean.Nienow@senate.mn.
OP-ED: The 2013 Legislative Session
On January 8th I was sworn in as state senator serving District 32, Isanti and Chisago Counties. It is an honor and a privilege to represent the good people of our wonderful communities in Isanti and Chisago and I look forward to the next four years and the opportunity to bring your voice to the Minnesota Legislature.
Over the last two years the legislature made good progress in managing the states checkbook. When I took office the state was facing problems left by the previous legislature which had overextended state spending leaving Minnesota with a projected $6.2 billion deficit. When the two-year legislative cycle ended we had turned that deficit into a $1.2 billion surplus according to Governor Dayton’s budget department. It was good progress and I am optimistic that we can continue in the right direction. The state budget will be a priority for many of us.
The election last November resulted in a situation in which the Minnesota Senate, House of Representatives and Governorship are all under the control of the Democrat Party. This will make it difficult for the normal and healthy debate of ideas and the balance of power that tempers the extremes from swinging the pendulum too far in either direction. None the less, I am optimistic that there will be bi-partisan efforts to do what is right for the people of Minnesota. You have my commitment to bring the your concerns and ideas to that debate and work for results that keep us moving forward to financial stability as a state and opportunities for Minnesotan’s to live high quality lives.
The committees I will serve on include Finance; Health, Human Services and Housing, and Education. I am also the Minority Lead on the Education Finance committee. These committees oversee very important aspects of life for Minnesota and it pleases me to serve on them.
Education is an important matter to the people in my town and yours. It has been a challenge to bring equity to the funding of education locally. You can count on me to work to resolve this problem so the children in Isanti and Chisago can have every opportunity for a high quality education that schools in the Twin Cities receive. No child should be marginalized simply because of where they live. Health Care is another important matter I will write about in a future piece.
If you plan a trip to the State Capitol, be sure to call ahead and plan to stop in. Making time to meet with residents of District 32 is a top priority for me because your opinions count and I want to hear your ideas and concerns.
January 18, 2013
(ST. PAUL) – State Senator Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) has been appointed by Minnesota Leadership to serve on the Early Childhood Education and Care Advisory Board. The board was created in 2008 by then Governor Tim Pawlenty. It includes members of the legislature, the Commissioner of Health or his designee and parents of children under the age of six.
The responsibilities of the board include conducting a periodic statewide assessment concerning the quality and availability of early childhood education and development programs and services. The board will also work to facilitate improved collaboration and coordination between the state and federal programs and amongst state agencies with the aim to improve early childhood education in Minnesota. The Advisory Board makes recommendations regarding statewide professional development and career advancement plans for early childhood educators.
“I am happy to serve on the Early Childhood Education and Care Advisory Board and continue to make a difference, improving education for Minnesota’s children and education options for parents. Serving as the GOP Minority Lead on the Education Finance Committee affords me additional opportunities to speak out for the families of Chisago and Isanti Counties to ensure their children, and all Minnesota children have the high quality education they deserve,” said Senator Nienow. Senator Nienow will serve on the Early Childhood Education and Care Advisory Board with Senator Patricia Torres Ray.
Nienow was re-elected in November to the newly reconfigured Senate District 32, which includes most of Chisago and Isanti counties. Nienow welcomes comments and questions and can be reached by telephone at (651)296-5419, by mail at 105 State Office Building, St. Paul, MN 55155, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
December 11, 2012
BACHMANN, NIENOW APPLAUD AUDIT OF MINNESOTA’S MEDICAID PROGRAMS
(ST. PAUL) -- Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Minnesota State Senator Sean Nienow today commended the U.S. Office of Inspector General for stepping up the investigation into Medicaid rate setting in Minnesota. Both Bachmann and Nienow introduced legislation in 2012 requiring audits of Medicaid programs.
In a letter dated November 20, 2012, The Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notified the Minnesota Department of Human Services that the OIG will audit the rates that were charged by health plans, “nonprofits,” to administer and pay Minnesota Medicaid claims on behalf of the poor and disabled.
Protecting Medicaid from fraud should not only be a Minnesota-specific goal, but a national one. Both the U.S. Congress and the Minnesota Legislature held hearings in 2012 on the need for greater transparency and accountability as calls for Medicaid auditing were made by federal and state lawmakers like Bachmann and Nienow.
“Taxpayers have been paying huge sums of money to health plans without ever getting an itemized list of what the money was for,” said Bachmann. “It is time that we find out, once and for all, why the health plans have been amassing huge reserves, and at the same time, increasing the rates they charge for paying Medicaid claims. When Medicaid money is lost through waste, fraud and abuse, the very people who need it don’t get the care they should. It is unconscionable to do nothing and leave our poor suffering in the wake of inadequate access to care.”
"Future rates are determined based on previous years’ costs, and the Affordable Care Act includes a vast expansion of Medicaid. We simply lack verifiable claims data to support what the health plans have been charging. This problem exists at every level, all the way to the top including the MN Department of Health, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services,” said Sen. Nienow. “A proper audit at the granular level is what is needed. People are finding it difficult to get services and providers suffer low reimbursements for the care they give. Proper audits will go a long way to restore integrity to these programs which, hopefully, results in better care for Minnesota’s poor families.”
Earlier this year, Bachmann introduced The Medicaid Integrity Act of 2012 calling for independent, third-party financial and performance audits every other year of the health plans who administer Medicaid. Senator Nienow authored legislation in 2012 to implement audits of payment data and administrative expenses after discovering that no such audits have ever been performed in over a decade.
June 29, 2012
Nienow: Health Care Programs Need Closer Look Before ObamaCare Expansion
On June 28th, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare), including its individual mandate that virtually all Americans buy health insurance, was mostly upheld by the Supreme Court on a 5-4 vote. Unless and until repealed, ObamaCare is the law of the land.
A significant part of this federal law includes a very large expansion of Medicaid – subsidized health insurance for the poor – a program riddled with fraud. Over the last several years, allegations have been made that Minnesota inflated Medicaid spending figures in order to receive additional, unwarranted taxpayer dollars from the federal government. Congressional subcommittees of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearings regarding the lack of transparency, accountability and oversight of Medicaid funding in Minnesota and around the country. The final report from the hearings specifically cites Minnesota as an example of “how states are failing to properly ensure the appropriate use of taxpayer dollars spent”. Also, a recent Federal Government Accountability Office Report to Congress said that without corrective action in the program we “continue to put billions of taxpayer dollars at risk of improper payments or waste.” With a massive expansion of Medicaid set to occur under ObamaCare, the time to take action to improve accountability and increase transparency is now, not later.
The enormous expansion of Medicaid underscores the grave urgency for audits of the Minnesota Medicaid program administered under managed care (HMOs). The same HMO’s run both the Medicare and Medicaid programs, but historically Minnesota Medicare costs have been among the lowest in the nation while Medicaid costs are among the highest even though Medicare is only for the elderly who typically use more health care and are more expensive to cover. On its face, something does not look right there. We simply cannot expand Medicaid under ObamaCare without first auditing our system to get an accurate picture of what the true cost should be. An expansion based on fraudulent or artificially inflated numbers would be an egregious waste of taxpayer dollars. We must get an accurate assessment of the current program before adding hundreds of thousands of people onto Medicaid.
In Minnesota, Medicaid is run by just four HMOs. Current state law prohibits market competition from other HMO’s who would like to make a profit here, even though competition almost always lowers prices for the consumer. Expansion of Medicaid, if we are to avoid a cartel-like situation, must include opening Medicaid programs in our state to other competitors. Before Minnesota can move to a block grant system or any other appropriation from the federal government, we must have audits done immediately and make our Medicaid payment rates default to the Medicare rate in Minnesota where we have accuracy and accountability.
I am glad to say I was able to enact a state law requiring audits of these programs. Due to budget constraints, funding for that state audit might not be available until 2015. I recently sent a letter to the federal Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) requesting they conduct an immediate audit of Minnesota’s public health care programs and their funding. CMS can do this using the Medicaid Integrity Program included in the Social Security Act and expanded in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. CMS has the resources to commence an audit this year. With the conclusions reported after the two Oversight Committee hearings, the need to take action is critical.
Since half of the Minnesota Medicaid program is paid for with federal tax dollars, the federal government has a clear financial interest in finding any waste or fraud as soon as possible. If CMS performs the audit now rather than waiting until Minnesota’s audit, the federal government will get an immediate account of the Medicaid spending in Minnesota. As an added benefit, Minnesota’s future audits will be less expensive. It is a classic win-win. The federal government gets the accountability needed to prevent fraud and abuse, the state saves time and money and taxpayers get the transparency in government they deserve. The best result – those “billions of taxpayer dollars at risk” will be safe from fraud and government health care programs would become accountable to the people of Minnesota.
NIENOW: FINANCIAL STABILITY THROUGH REFORM AND RESTRAINT
After Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) projected a $6.2 billion budget deficit in November 2010, it became very apparent that government needed to rein in spending growth to get our state’s finances back in the black. When we entered the last biennium in January 2011, we set a goal to put the state on a more sustainable fiscal path by cutting waste in government and eliminating unessential spending.
I’m glad to say we mostly achieved that goal. Over the last two years, the Legislature has taken steps to reduce spending growth and reform government. In February, the Dayton Administration’s MMB official state budget forecast unveiled an almost $1.2 billion current budget surplus.
I am also proud to say that I was directly involved in a number of reforms that have helped put our state on the path toward financial stability.
As a member of the Health and Human Services Committee, I supported efforts to reduce unsustainable spending increases in our state’s health care programs by $1.8 billion by modifying policies that were no longer working for our state.
I also worked diligently to shed light on the potential misuse of Medicaid health care dollars. The federal government has launched four investigations into how Minnesota pays HMOs for Medical Assistance which comes, in part, as a result of my work and legislation. I will continue efforts to create accountability and transparency in Minnesota’s health care programs.
This year I served as Chairman of the new Reform and Redesign Subcommittee which sought to find efficiencies in government. On that committee, we consolidated the state’s IT functions, encouraged agencies to work with private firms to find efficiencies, looked for cost-savings in government so our state operates more effectively and efficiently.
Our reforms are working and Minnesota's economy is improving. Before these recent budget actions next year’s deficit was projected to be $4.4 billion, but our reforms trimmed that by 75% to about $1 billion. In addition, every month MMB has been reporting higher budget surpluses – an extra $34 million last month alone!
Minnesota employment has recovered more rapidly than the rest of the country. In February, Minnesota's 5.7 percent unemployment rate was 2.6 percent below the nation average. Overall, Minnesota's economy appears to be on the mend. We have more work to do to reinvigorate the economic climate, but it’s encouraging that Minnesota is moving in the right direction. We will continue to work to pass our legislative agenda, which puts Minnesota’s economy on a forward path.
Within 18 months we were able to turn a $6.2 billion deficit into a $1.2 billion budget surplus and reduce future projected deficits by 75%. We did this by focusing on fiscal restraint, government efficiency and job promotion. If Minnesota continues fiscal restraint and focuses on policies that support job-growth and government reform, we will see stable budgets without raising taxes. Because we exercised a steady hand when dealing with Minnesota’s budget, we were able to improve Minnesota’s financial outlook. I will continue to support Minnesota’s economy by focusing on policies that promote responsible spending and encourage government reform.
This is a letter I sent to the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services calling for an immediate audit of the states Public Health Care Programs (Prepaid Medical Assistance Programs). There are currently four federal investigations into how Minnesota pays four HMOs for administering Medical Assistance which come, in part, as a result of legislation I introduced in 2011 and 2012. I will continue to work to bring accountability and transparency to the serious and expensive public health care programs in Minnesota. To be good stewards of the tax payer dollar, we must have complete and accurate data on how this money is being spent.
Marilyn Tavenner, Administrator
Department of Health and Human Services
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20201
June 7, 2012
Dear Administrator Tavenner,
I am calling for an immediate, independent Medicaid Integrity Contractor audit (MIC) of Minnesota’s managed care Medicaid Program.
On Thursday, June 7th, Ann Maxwell, Regional Inspector General from the Office of Inspector General, testified before the Subcommittee on Government Organization Efficiency and Financial Management of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. In her testimony she reported challenges that limited the potential to successfully identify Medicaid fraud, stating, “Most fundamentally, there are significant shortcomings in the data available to conduct efficient, national Medicaid program integrity oversight through data analysis and data mining.” This is consistent with what I have discovered at the state level in Minnesota.
Minnesota’s management of the Medicaid program by the state’s Department of Human Services is problematic for several reasons:
- The Minnesota Council of Health Plans has stated that the Department of Human Services does not have the ability to review the data nor assess the administrative expenditures by the Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO) who administer the program.
- The Medicaid rates in Minnesota are two and a half times higher than the national average and growing faster than the national average.
- Providers have reported flat reimbursement rates for a decade or more.
- The HMOs have reported large amounts of money deposited into their reserve accounts over the last several years.
- The Department of Human Services former Director of Managed Care Contracts is alleged to have stated that they are engaged in the manipulation of risk reserve calculations to obtain unwarranted federal funding.
- One HMO, UCare of Minnesota, returned $30 million dollars to the state of Minnesota in 2011, and cited one of the reasons for the return of money was, “Historically DHS rates set for General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) resulted in health plan losses which were offset by higher Medical Assistance payments. When GAMC moved out of managed care in mid- year 2010, Medical Assistance rates were not lowered to reflect this overpayment.”
Minnesota has been the target of several investigations into its Medicaid program. These investigations underscore efforts I have made in the Minnesota State Legislature to bring greater accountability and transparency to the way the Medicaid program is administered. Legislation passed in 2012 at the state level provides for an independent third party audit of the program which does not begin until 2015 and is authorized to only look back to 2014. However, the facts that have compelled the federal investigations indicate that potentially hundreds of millions dollars may have been overspent in Medicaid services in Minnesota dating back to 2003.
These facts warrant an immediate audit of the Medicaid program in Minnesota because, if it is true that funds have been obtained from the Federal Government in excess of what is appropriate, potentially hundreds of millions have been paid to the HMOs but not necessarily to providers or in services to patients. Historically, Medicaid audits are performed to detect overpayments to providers. It is imperative that an audit be performed on the HMOs in Minnesota, where no such audit has ever been performed because the state Department of Human Services doesn’t have any encounter data to audit. The Minnesota Department of Health issued a report on February 15th, 2012 which states, “The lack of consistency in reporting administrative expenses and investment income made it extremely difficult to compare the health plans to each other. It also made it difficult to determine if the reported administrative expenses were reasonable. To the extent health plans participate in the commercial market as well as state public programs, it was not possible to determine if administrative expenses and investment income was being properly and fairly allocated among all of a HMOs lines of business.”
The lack of encounter data justifies the need for an immediate audit. The health plans say the state has the encounter data but cannot read or use it. However, the state and Deputy Commissioner Scott Leitz recently said that encounter data is analyzed and used every day. This contradiction needs to be reconciled because the state has for years been sending CMS reports saying the rates are based on sound actuarial assumptions. The Actuary for the state (who has also been a consulting actuary for the health plans in Minnesota at the same time) states they do not verify the data that is given to them, and the health plans are saying the state can’t read the data. If this is true then the veracity and reliability of the data rests squarely on the health plans. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann testified to this fact in her statement at the aforementioned hearing when she stated “There is a complete lack of verifiable data.” I can attest to this in my own conversations with the HMOs and the Department of Human Services. CMS has the Medicaid Integrity Contractors and the funding in place to commence an immediate examination of this egregious lack of accountability.
The Medicaid Integrity Program provides CMS with the ability to perform an immediate audit in Minnesota. I urge you to take such action before the end of the current year, 2012.
Why I Voted no on the Vikings Stadium Proposal
The Legislature passed and the Governor signed the Vikings Stadium bill which spends nearly $1 billion dollars of which the state has committed $400 million. The price tag and the process attached to this bill compelled me as your elected Senator and steward of the taxpayer dollar to vote against the bill.
The Vikings Stadium proposal had several alarming elements that, despite the efforts of myself and other legislators, was not remedied. A primary source of funding for the stadium is to be derived from electronic pull tabs. In order for this to work, pull tab revenue will need to double and then increase by another 30%. Even then, pull tab revenue will need to continue at that pace for 30 years. When one considers the fact that over the last ten years pull tab revenue has declined by 30% one can see that we are bucking a negative trend with the hope that we will reverse the trend, increase it by 130% and then keep it up for thirty years. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration the regressive tax and social costs of gambling addiction.
Proponents of the bill claimed that the Vikings owner compromised by agreeing to increase his funding by $50 million to $477 million, however in the end deal the Vikings owner obtained the naming rights which are estimated at $200 million, plus another $100-200 million in personal seat licenses. Top that off with a $200 million grant from the NFL and you have a sweet deal for the Vikings with the Minnesota taxpayer picking up the tab.
Some may choose to criticize me for voting to pass the Conference Committee Report on this legislation and I make no excuses for this vote which was a procedural move to slow down a bill that was being forced on legislators without proper deliberation (one must have voted yes on passage of the report in order to move that motion for reconsideration).
Media hype, pressure from lobbyists, and even something as popular as the Minnesota Vikings, will never be a reason for compromising on principle and fiscal responsibility. This was a raw deal for the taxpayer and I could not in conscience vote for it regardless of my fondness for football.
March 23, 2012
CONGRESSMAN ISSA TO HOLD HEARINGS ON HEALTHCARE SPENDING
(ST. PAUL) - Congressman Darrell Issa (R-California), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has announced that congressional subcommittees will hold hearings regarding the lack of transparency, accountability and oversight over Medicaid funding in Minnesota.
Allegations have been made that the state inflated healthcare spending figures in order to receive additional, unwarranted matching funds from the federal government. State Senator Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge), a leader on the issue of HMO transparency, sent a letter to Issa alerting him to the potentially improper use of healthcare funding
Nienow stated, “I am pleased that Congressman Issa plans to hold hearings on HMO transparency and the alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars earmarked for Minnesota’s healthcare programs. Steps must be taken both at the state level and at the federal level to ensure Minnesota’s healthcare programs have proper oversight. I have requested hearings in the State Senate to help shed light on what may have been an improper use of tax dollars and to encourage independent, party audits of Minnesota’s HMOs who administer our healthcare programs.”
State Senator Mike Parry (R-Waseca), chair of the Committee on State Government Innovations and Veterans, also plans to hold an oversight hearing to explore Department of Human Services’ failure to comply with the Office of the Legislative Auditor’s request for information on the alleged misuse of healthcare dollars.
State Senator John Marty (D-Roseville), an advocate for increased HMO transparency, was also encouraged by the upcoming hearings. “MARTY STATEMENT,” Marty said.
According to Issa, a hearing entitled “Is Government Adequately Protecting Taxpayers from Medical Fraud?” will be held on April 25th at 9:30 AM in a joint meeting of the Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census and National Archives and the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending.
For more information, Issa’s statement and other supporting documents can be read it at ______________.
|NIENOW BILL CREATES PERMANENT SOLUTION TO PAY BACK CURRENT AND FUTURE SCHOOL SHIFTS|
(ST. PAUL) -- Senator Sean Nienow (R-Cambridge) introduced a bill today that creates a permanent statutory mechanism to pay back the current, and any future, school shift at an accelerated rate by withholding one percent of general fund appropriations until the shift is paid back.
Senate File 2452 directs the commissioner of management and budget to withhold one percent of general fund appropriations, with the exception of constitutionally-allocated and debt service payments, to provide an annual increase in the aid payment percentage for school districts. Under the bill, all state budgets will continue to receive less funding until the school aid shift is paid.
“Paying back any school shift must be a top priority. This legislation will create a permanent statutory mechanism to GUARANTEE it happens. Key reforms and job-creating measures contributed to a budget surplus that allowed us to already pay back nearly half of last year’s new shift and pending legislation could fully repay it. However, existing shifts from previous budgets will still exist. Current law does not guarantee payback at all, but this legislation will change that,” Nienow stated.
Aid payment shifts have been used since 1983 to assist in balancing the state budget during difficult financial periods. In 2011, the final budget agreement increased the shift from a 70-30 shift to a 60-40 shift. However, job-growth policies and budget restraint resulted in a budget surplus and a reduction of the shift.
Nienow added, “This bill not only will pay back the current outstanding shift to our schools, but it also guarantees any future shift will be paid back in a responsible manner as well. This is a permanent, structural solution that will give our schools additional financial certainty. Putting this bill into law in combination with other responsible legislative measures could result in the shift being paid back in as few as eight years.”
The bill was given its first reading on the Senate floor and referred to the Senate Education Committee.