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Minnesota Session

2009 proved to be one of the most challenging sessions yet for Minnesota lawmakers, with the legislature and the Governor clashing over how to balance the budget. Governor Tim Pawlenty had originally advocated borrowing $1 billion, a plan that met with near universal disdain in the House, which voted 130-2 against. Lawmakers held listening sessions throughout the state to hear from over 10,000 citizens on how best to handle an unprecedented deficit of $6.4 billion. Ultimately, after the legislature passed two omnibus budget bills including a balanced budget and failed to overcome the Governor's veto,  Pawlenty decided to use his unilateral power of unallotment to slash $2.7 billion of funding over the next two years, hitting cities, counties and health services the hardest. The amount is 10 times as much as any other Governor has cut without the legislature's consent, and critics believe that shortsighted cuts without tax increases will actually lead to even more painful budgetary cuts down the line. The unallotment included including $1.8 billion in education payment deferments. One of the overlooked casualties: dental clinics that provide dental care to low income Minnesotans may have to close.

Despite the budget turmoil, legislators managed to pass some progressive policies, and Minnesota was quick to take action on $2 billion in federal stimulus funds, including over $500 million for highways and bridges, $107 million for water treatment, and $94 million for mass transit.

Tax, budget and stimulus: The state enacted a law to ensure balanced budgets for 2009-2013.  Minnesota was singular amongst the 20 states with the worst budget deficits to not raise taxes, although both houses passed progressive tax reforms. HF 885 would have taxed high earners, surtaxed excess interest rates and increased tax compliance.  SF 2074 would have added a new top rate on income over $250,000 per year for married couples and increased taxes on credit card companies charging usurious rates while HF 2323 would also have taxed high earners, increased the alcohol and cigarette tax and simplified many other taxes.

  • Stimulus and Health IT: HF 1904 extends health care insurance for unemployed individuals, while SF 1890 establishes a deadline for implementing electronic health records and a loan mechanism to fund programs.
  • Energy: The Energy Stimulus Bill included $132 million for low income weatherization assistance, $9.5 million for energy-efficiency improvements in commercial projects and industrial facilities, and $2 million in grants to help businesses manufacture renewable-energy technology components.  It also included equitable access for disadvantaged women-owned businesses and businesses of color; and reports progress on how weatherization programs have explicitly benefited people of color and low income people. (SF 550)
  • Healthcare: SF 49 was enacted which allows a tax credit equal to to 20 percent of the health insurance premiums for an individual, while SF 203 establishes rural healthcare cooperatives.  In signing the health services omnibus bill (HF 1362), Pawlenty line-item vetoed General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC) in Minnesota, which provides care for the poorest people in the state including veterans, senior citizens and other Minnesotans without children. In total the $381 million cut is estimated to eliminate medical care for 30,000 of Minnesota's poorest, sickest citizens and cost as many as 8,000 jobs in hospitals across the state. On a slightly more positive note, the bill also provides health care to over 22,000 children and provides a public option to families that do not meet the eligibility levels for MinnesotaCare.
  • Unemployment Insurance: The state enacted unemployment insurance modernization including an alternative base period and UI benefit extensions, as well as coverage for those who need to leave a job for compelling family reasons such as sickness or if a spouse moves. The governor vetoed HF 925 which was sponsored by the House Majority Leader. The bill would have calculated the "real" unemployment rate using more comprehensive measures including those who have been unemployed and stopped searching for work and part-time workers who wish to be employed full-time. 
  • Agriculture: SF 1122 was enacted which renewed the Farmer-Lender Mediation program for another four years. SF 213 allows WIC participants to use food stamps to purchase organic foods.
  • Education: The education omnibus bill included a number of cuts, but also included $10 million for a new pilot “Summer of Success” program to set up an intensive summer school for 8th graders that are tested as not yet proficient in math or reading.  SF 1910 establishes licensing procedures and standards for education providers, while SF 2083 says that public university bookstores must provide American made clothing to the largest degree possible.

Public safety: SF 462: The state expanded a breathalyzer ignition interlock pilot program statewide. With HF 1242, the state established a new Missing Persons Act and procedures for finding missing individuals.

Workers' rights: SF 1476 establishes that employers must begin paying disability and workers comp payments within a reasonable period of time. SF 910 defines who exactly is an independent contractor in the trucking and messager/courier industries.

Voting rights: The Governor vetoed SF 763 which would have required the Correction Department to inform felons of when their voting rights were taken away and when they were granted again. Also vetoed was HF 1053, a landmark voter registration modernization bill which would have made the state first in the nation in opt-out registration and among the most advanced in maintaining clean, accurate voter rolls. Pawlenty also vetoed election changes in SF 1331 which would have moved primaries to August and processed absentee ballots in a central location rather than by election judges in each precinct. Early versions of the bill included online voter registration, early voting and various absentee voting reforms which were removed in conference to urge bipartisan support.

Consumer Protection: SF 247 - Minnesota is the first state to ensure that all baby bottles and sippy cups in Minnesota will be free of bisphenol-A, a chemical linked to cancer, diabetes and other negative health outcomes. SF 298 would prohibit consumers from being charged for unauthorized cell phone uses. SF 99 mandates seatbelt usage and establishes fines. SF 1147 provides notice to tenants of foreclosed buildings.

Immigration: SF 2082 extended the Commission on New Americans. The Governor vetoed SF 2081 which would have granted money towards immigrant and refugee workforce training.

Civil liberties: HF 988 ensures noncompliance with the federal REAL ID act.

Other issues:

  • HF 1728/ SF 1509 amends and updates child care programs, program integrity, adult supports, and Minnesota family investment program, and regulates the provision of housing and bedding units for the homeless.
  • HF 1711 grants car dealerships fair and reasonable compensation in the event that car franchises fold.
  • Three anti-choice amendments to ban abortions and remove funding for family planning or abortions failed on largely party line votes.

Vetoes and Missed Opportunities:

  • Housing: A number of bills to expand homeowner rights were passed by the Legislature but vetoed by the governor, including SF 1033 which would have helped cities enforce rent-control provisions in subsidized housing agreements. 
  • Homeowner Warranties: Pawlenty also vetoed HF 362 which would have allowed home owners to file warranty claims over the phone or by email, in addition to writing a letter; and he vetoed HF 330 which would have extended a home warranty from six months to a year so that homeowners have more time to spot flaws in housing construction and to request remediation. HF 412, also vetoed, would have clarified and extended the period of time that a homeowner could bring a lawsuit for a warranty violation. Currently no one can bring a suit after 12 years but some courts use a stricter 10 year guideline. The governor also vetoed HF 211, under which homeowners who successfully sue a builder or contractor for a warranty violation would be eligible to receive reasonable attorney fees and any other suit-related costs. Currently construction companies, which have more legal resources at disposal than individual homeowners, can drag out cases in court to exhaust homeowners' legal recourse and expenses.
  • Predatory lending: Pawlenty also vetoed SF 489 which would have fought predatory lending practices by tightening the standards for reverse mortgages which have higher interest rates, and are due in full when borrowers move or die.
  • Foreclosure prevention: Another homeowner protection bill that Pawlenty vetoed was HF 354, the Homestead-Lender Mediation Act, which would have allowed mediation to prevent foreclosure to homeowners who had already received mortgage counseling, requested the mediation and demonstrated in good faith that they could meet the financial obligations of a refinanced mortgage, an adjusted repayment schedule or other arrangements. The program would have been operated by the Attorney General's office and funded by increasing fees charged to lenders for recording a notice of a pending foreclosure sale by $125 per foreclosure.

Resources:
Progressive States -- Pathbreaking voter registration Modernization Bill is Vetoed by Minnesota Governor Pawlenty
NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota -2009 Legislative Scorecard