2008 Session Roundups: Minnesota

With a last minute deal to close a billion-dollar deficit, Minnesota had a good session that would have been a landmark one -- if the Governor had not vetoed more bills (34!) this session than in any other since World War II.  

The Budget Deal:  The deficit was dealt with through a combination of budget cuts, draining much of the rainy-day fund, and closing a corporate loophole.  $355 million in cuts to health and human services means state universities will probably be seeing tuition hikes, hospitals will be losing reimbursements, and courts will be cutting back on hours.  A tax break for businesses with overseas operations was restricted, raising over $100 million.  And half a billion was taken out of budget reserves.
The other part of the budget deal was a 3.9% per year cap on property tax increases for three years, although exemptions were allowed for certain fast-growing cities and if local referendums support an override.  Gov. Pawlenty's resistance to any significant revenue increases means, as advocates noted, the state still faces an additional $2 billion deficit in coming years.

Transit: The other key fiscal decision of the session was the approval of a $6.6 billion transit bill, HF 562, to fund roads, bridges and mass transit over the next ten years, approved with an override of the Governor's veto.  The bill included a 5-cent gas tax increase -- the first one in twenty years --, the ability for counties to raise local sales taxes to fund joint transit projects, and a $1.8 billion bonding program.  The final budget deal also included $70 million for additions to the St. Paul-Minnesota light rail line. 

Health Care:  While more far reaching health reform was stymied in the face of the Governor's vetos, the state approved SF 3780 to extend coverage to 12,000 more Minnesotans by covering of families earning up to 275% of the poverty line.  The bill also gives patients more information on the cost and quality of care, offers incentives to providers to cut costs and improve quality, and increases outreach to encourage more people who qualify for coverage to sign up.  The state also approved the Insurance Standards of Conduct bill, SB 2822, to collect damages from insurance companies who deny coverage without a valid cause.

Veterans:  The state created new tax breaks for veterans and members of the military, including a $750 credit for long-term and disabled veterans and a doubled credit for time spent overseas.  The state also enacted legislation to protect military families from facing adverse employment actions at work, including protecting their right to attend military family events.  Military and other overseas voters were also given the right to request and receive their absentee ballots electronically.

Clean Energy:  The legislature enacted a few key energy bills this sessions, including:

  • Coordinating Reduction of Greenhouse Gases:  SF 3337, the omnibus energy bill, created a Legislative Energy Commission to study progress towards the goal of an 80% reduction in global warming emissions by 2050, and ordered key agencies to provide a greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan to the legislature.
  • Sustainable Buildings:  All buildings built with state bonding dollars will now be required under SB 2706 to use 50% less carbon-based energy, with this target increasing 10% every five years, until all new state-bonded buildings are carbon-neutral in 2030.  The bill also directs a University of Minnesota Center to create and update energy-efficiency building standards every three to five years.
  • Green Solutions Act:  HB 3195 requires state agencies to complete studies on economic, environmental and public health costs and benefits from regional cap-and-trade systems under the Midwester Greenhouse Gas Accord, along with creating an advisory group to work with the Governor in negotiating rules with other states.
  • Energy and Green Jobs Funding:  The Budget bill created a Green Jobs Task Force to develop a plan for attracting green jobs to the state, along with funding a few small programs for workforce development and smaller green jobs projects.

Telecom:  The omnibus energy bill, SF 3337, included provisions for the state to map where gaps exist in access to internet broadband, while SF 1918 establishes an Ultra High Speed High-speed Internet Task Force to develop a plan, including possible legislation, for achieving ultra high-speed Internet  in the state.

While the above bills are significant, they are almost dwarfed by the progressive agenda approved by the legislature but vetoed by Gov. Pawlenty.  The list of vetoed policies include:

  • Foreclosure Moratorium:  In a veto that caught national attention, Pawlenty blocked a bill, SF 3396, to delay foreclosures and require lenders to renegotiate mortgages-- denying 12,000 Minnesota families at risk of losing their homes help.
  • Minimum Wage:  Pawlenty vetoed SB 875, a minimum wage increase to $7.75 per hour in 2009.
  • Sick Leave:  Pawlenty blocked legislation, MN SB 1128, to allow workers to use sick leave to care for their immediate relatives.-- which would have extend the right workers currently have to use sick leave to care for ill children.
  • Toxic Toys:  Pawlenty blocked ban on phthalates in products marketed to children, such as in baby toys, teething rings and rubber ducks.
  • Domestic Partners: He vetoed a bill, SF 960, to allow local governments to offer health care or other benefits to the domestic partners of their employees.
  • Statewide health insurance pool for school districts: Another veto stopped local districts from pooling their health care to spread risk and lower costs.
  • Employee Free Choice Act:  He vetoed a non-binding legislative resolution supportingfederal legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions.
  • Real ID:  Pawlenty vetoed HF3807, which would have blocked Minnesota's participation in the federal program setting nationwide standards for state identification cards, although he later issued an executive order to restrict the states compliance with Real ID..
  • Minnesota Medical Privacy Protection Act:  SF3132, developed by Attorney General Lori Swanson, but vetoed by the governor, would have prohibited  health care providers from disclosing patients' financial or medical debt information to anyone other than authorized third parties.
  • Due Process Employment Rights:  A vetoed provision in the Child Welfare Bill would have required agencies to have clear and convincing evidence of criminal conduct by an applicant to disqualify them from employment.

With Gov. Pawlenty bowing to corporate interests ranging from the insurance industry to predatory lenders to toxic toy producers in vetoing all these bills, what could have been a historically great session for Minnesota working families became merely a decent one.