Legislative Summary -- May 20, 2015

What a difference a year makes. After the fast-paced productivity of the 2014 session, the Minnesota Legislature fell into a mode of half-speed forestalling, posturing, and, finally, finger-pointing over the incompleteness of this year’s work. Transportation was supposed to headline this year’s outcome, but that fizzled for lack of an agreement around sustainable funding. The state’s largest spending bill, E-12, faces a certain veto by the Governor, and the popular Legacy funding bill did not get passed because of time mismanagement. A special session will have to be held sometime before June 30 to finish the work.

JRLC members can claim a piece of the credit for five successes, even if only partial successes, in areas where we spent considerable time and effort contacting lawmakers at Day on the Hill and right up until adjournment.

JRLC was part of the Kids Can’t Wait campaign to increase funding for child care subsidies and we were able to garner $21 million of new funding to buy down the waiting list (for about 350 families) for the Child Care Assistance Program over the next four years. This is far less than we had asked for, but we became very worried that we might not see any new funding after House and Senate Leaders agreed to a $328 million cut in the HHS conference committee target, even in the midst of an overall budget forecast of a $1.9 billion surplus.

JRLC members worked hard to help secure an additional $3 million for Human Trafficking victims. Specifically, it includes the following new, ongoing funding:

    • $1.3 million to DHS for Safe Harbor shelter and housing;
    • $300,000 to DHS for youth outreach;
    • $1.4 million to MDH for protocol, training, and additional support for Regional Navigators.

Our iCAN network was particularly active on this issue, generating letter-writing and other legislator contacts, often on the heels of the many local performances of BOTTOM, a play about sex trafficking in Minnesota that was co-produced by JRLC, iCAN, and Blank Slate Theatre.

We were pleased to assist in the passage of a Religious Exemption for Autopsy bill, legislation that was badly needed in the aftermath of a certain county medical examiner overstepping his authority, treating family members with disrespect, ignoring people’s constitutional rights to religious practices, and taking advantage of ambiguities in the current law. This bill passed easily with bi-partisan support after key issues were resolved with stakeholders.

For the second year in a row we supported a bill that passed again with broad bi-partisan support placing restrictions on the Minnesota Lottery’s expansion of Internet gambling. After vetoing the bill last year, the Governor allowed this to become law without his signature.

We joined with workers and organized labor to stave off efforts to weaken last year’s Minimum Wage increases. A tip penalty provision passed the House, but the Senate and Governor held firm and did not allow this to proceed. The automatic inflation provision also came under attack, but that also survived, intact.

The session ended a few minutes after midnight May 18th, leaving us with two deep disappointments. The Restore the Vote effort did not pass, despite heroic efforts by advocates and late-in-the-session rallies at the Capitol. The House never heard this bill, despite bi-partisan authorship, and then firmly rejected the proposal that had passed the Senate and were debated in the two separate Conference Committee negotiations.

Also, after much strong advocacy from the religious community, the $100 MFIP grant increase, after making its way into the Governor’s supplemental budget and the Senate’s HHS Finance bill, was lost in Conference Committee negotiations. We came close. This was one of the best chances we’ve had in years to increase the basic MFIP income level. Several advocacy groups worked tirelessly on this issue, and, in the last week of session, we were able to deliver a hastily-assembled letter to all lawmakers signed by 127 clergy from across the State. Our efforts were seriously hobbled by the lack of a tax bill, which was needed to free up TANF funds for the MFIP program.

Also, because there was no tax bill this year, we lost all efforts to increase tax credits for dependent and child care expenses.

The payday lending reform effort, which JRLC led last year, was not debated this year because the House Commerce chair indicated he did not want to hear the bill this year, and the Senate refused to act absent any House movement. Also, our long-standing advocacy for an impartial judiciary and judicial election reform was muted this year in favor of a future, better legislative climate.

JRLC District Leaders, lay and clergy volunteers, and our network members were once again a powerful presence at the legislature throughout the session, showing up in force at Day on the Hill back in March, and by sustaining our advocacy for several more weeks by writing and phoning legislators, submitting letters to local newspapers, and lobbying legislators all the way through the final day of the session. This truly is a remarkable interfaith movement for social justice in Minnesota. JRLC is nothing without the activism of intrepid leaders combined with the follow-through of our statewide, interfaith network.

Looking ahead we will raise our voices as needed during the Special Session and then turn our attention to agenda-building and organizing for the 2016 session.


Legislative Update -- May 1, 2015

This week the MN House passed their version of the Health and Human Services Finance Bill. Of great concern, the House bill eliminates MinnesotaCare, which has provided quality, affordable healthcare to Minnesotans (especially in Greater Minnesota) for over 20 years. Instead, it would move about 100,000 enrollees onto the MNSure exchange with an undetermined state subsidy, likely resulting in loss of coverage, higher premiums, and higher deductibles. The bill includes $2.3 million for Safe Harbor services for victims of human trafficking (this compares with $3 million in the Senate, and $4 million in the Governor’s supplemental budget). Despite early bi-partisan authorship and support, the House bill does not contain an increase for the Child Care Assistance Program. In contrast, the Senate increases funding by $20 million to reduce the wait list in 2016-’17, and by $24 million for the ’18-’19 biennium. The House HHS bill does not contain the MFIP grant increase that is in both the Senate bill and the Governor's supplemental budget. The House Health and Human Services budget is much smaller than the Senate's because the House bill emphasizes large tax cuts that necessitate spending reductions in health care programs.

Restore the Vote! passed the Senate as part of the Judiciary Omnibus bill. However, the House has made no movement on the measure. This will have to be reconciled in conference committee and the matter will likely be part of end of session negotiating. 

Religious Exception to Autopsy SF 1694 (Lourey); HF 1935 (Green) awaits action on the House floor where it has had its second reading. It will likely be heard in the Senate Finance Committee next Tuesday. The Senate version calls on the MN Dept of Health to analyze autopsy data over the last several years which means it has a fiscal impact and needs to clear the Senate Finance Committee.


Legislative Update -- April 8, 2015

Child Care
The Kids Can’t Wait bill: HF 1059 (Franson); SF 1200 (Hayden). The HHS appropriations are in HF 1057 (Franson); SF 1199 (Hayden); the tax credit provision is in HF 1064 (Loon); SF 1494 (Eaton).

The Senate HHS Finance Committee is hearing the bill today and we are hopeful that a large commitment to the Child Care Assistance Program will be part of the Senate’s Omnibus HHS bill. The Governor has $12 million in his budget and the Senate HHS Committee target appears to be big enough to allow for this and more if the Senate decides to put more emphasis on direct subsidies for child care rather than tax credits.

The House HHS budget target is vastly smaller than the Senate's and we don’t know yet what Chair Dean has in mind for child care. Much depends on the money he proposes to save by eliminating MN Care, which is rumored to be in the $800 million range. Plus the House wants to spend $200 million on nursing homes, so making room for child care funding will be very challenging. A JRLC action alert went out Monday. We need to raise our voices to make child care a priority this year.

MFIP Grant Increase
HF 869 (Franson) and SF 734 (Hayden), raises basic MFIP grant levels by $100 per month by using TANF federal funds for their intended purpose. Money is included in the Gov’s Supplemental Budget and is up for a hearing this Friday in Senate HHS Finance.

House leaders have been helpful in bringing TANF funds back from the Tax Committee to the HHS Committee, but the House HHS spending level will be predicated on eliminating MN Care.

JRLC has written to Governor Dayton and Senate Finance Chair Cohen on this topic and is in the process of writing an op-ed piece.

Restore the Vote
HF 342 (Cornish); SF 355 (Champion). Now the language is included in SF 455, Senate Omnibus Elections Bill. The bill was not heard in House and missed the first deadline. Looks like this issue will be on the list of end-of-session horse-trading.

Human Trafficking – Safe Harbor Services for Victims
SF 552 (Pappas) / HF 1061 (Miller) will be heard in the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee this Thursday, April 9 at 12:45 pm.  This is now a money issue -- $8.3 million needed for statewide services.

Religious Objection to Autopsy
S.F. 1694 (Lourey) / H.F. 1935 (Green) will be heard in Senate HHS Finance this Friday. Bill specifies those circumstances that constitute a compelling state interest for a medical examiner to override a family’s religious objection. Also specifies the standards and a process for court ruling if the medical examiner petitions for other reasons to override objection.

Payday Lending
The Governor and Commerce Dept introduced a 30% interest rate cap, but the bill was technically flawed (did not cover the largest payday lenders, the ILTs!); we alerted the authors of the need to fix the language. Revised bills will be introduced. Two weeks ago President Obama and the CFPB released a “first look” at federal payday lending regulations. Loans greater than $500 would have to meet underwriting standards (much like those in the bill we introduced last year) that affirmed a borrower’s ability to repay the loan. Loans up to $500 could skip underwriting but would be limited to 6 in a year with a cycle-breaker after the third loan, and a total of 90 days of indebtedness in a year. We are thinking about dropping in a bill that would echo the CFPB’s parameters.

Mental Health Crisis Intervention
This bill would create and fund ($8 million/biennium) eight mental health crisis intervention programs (four metro and four Greater MN) to divert people with serious mental health issues from jails and emergency rooms. HF 240 (Zerwas) did not receive a hearing; SF 141 (Goodwin) has had two hearings and is in the Finance Committee.

Minimum Wage
A tip penalty sub-minimum wage bill passed the House on a mostly partisan vote, but the Senate and the Governor do not support this weakening of the wage floor and so this another issue that will be added to the end of session negotiations.

FAIM Coaching
The Financial Assets for Independence in Minnesota (FAIM) is a matched-savings program that encourages low-income families to save for education, home-buying, or business start-up. This bill will provide $500,000 over the biennium for the FAIM program to recruit and train financial coaches in non-profits and financial institutions, relating to budgeting, debt reduction, asset-specific training, and financial stability activities including expanded use of FAIM savings accounts. HF 522 (Zerwas) has been heard and is in HHS Finance; SF 137 (Clausen) has been heard and is in Senate Finance Committee. Next step is to see if it makes either or both Omnibus HHS bill.


 

JRLC Priority Issues for 2015 -- Adopted January 14, 2015

Family Economic Security

-- Child Care Assistance for More Families

About 8,000 eligible Minnesota families are on waiting lists to receive child care assistance because the state’s appropriation is capped and insufficient. We support increased funding for the Child Care Assistance Program to support working parents and to provide greater employment options for families. Access to stable, quality child care means more children in economically stressed households can spend their earliest years in stable, nurturing environments where they learn, thrive, and prepare for success in school. Expanding child care assistance is one of the key recommendations of the Final Report of the Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020. (See JRLC’s No Poor Among You, 2010.)

-- Payday Lending Reform

We support legislation that protects consumers from predatory payday lending practices. Current law includes loopholes that allow much of the payday loan industry to bypass regulations on these small, short-term loans. Basic consumer protections and underwriting standards are missing, very often resulting in repeat-cycle “debt trap” lending. It is not unusual to see borrowers paying fees and interest that amount to 400%, or even higher, for many months or whole years. JRLC will negotiate in good faith with lenders and other stakeholders to provide consumer protection in this area. (See JRLC’s Payday Lending in Minnesota, 2013.)

-- Expand Child and Dependent Care Tax Credits

We support tax credits that allow families to care for their children and loved ones while maintaining financial self-sufficiency. Expanding refundable, family-friendly tax credits can lift families out of poverty, reward work, make regressive tax burdens less onerous, and improve families’ ability to secure caregiving services. (See JRLC’s No Poor Among You, 2010.)

Impartial Courts in Minnesota

JRLC supports passage of the Impartial Judiciary Act and a subsequent constitutional amendment ballot question in the 2016 general election in order to reform our system of appointing and electing judges in Minnesota. (See JRLC’s Selecting Impartial Judges, 2008.)

The Impartial Judiciary Act and the constitutional amendment would:

  • Mandate a merit selection system to be used by the Governor for initial appointments to all levels of the state courts;

  • Institute performance evaluations of all judges by a public evaluation commission;

  • Institute retention elections, rather than contested elections, at the end of each judge’s term of service.

 

The US Supreme Court and federal appellate courts have made rulings in the past decade (see the White and Citizens United decisions) that have opened the door to highly partisan judicial elections funded by large amounts of special interest campaign contributions. JRLC issued its policy paper in 2008 following similar reports and recommendations made by the Quie Commission, the League of Women Voters, and the Minnesota Bar Association, all calling for a judicial election reform based on merit selection, public evaluation, and retention elections.

Human Trafficking Victims’ Services

JRLC supports funding for services that address the needs of trafficking victims including case management, housing, health care, language interpretation, and legal services. Especially needed are safe housing opportunities to ensure the safety and recovery of victims. The Safe Harbors legislation has begun the process of funding a statewide network of victim services; increased appropriations are needed to build the network statewide. (See JRLC’s Human Trafficking in Minnesota: A Violation of Human Dignity, 2012.)

Restore the Vote

JRLC supports the restoration of voting rights for persons with felony convictions upon return to the community. Current law restores voting rights only after all probation and parole periods are completed. (See JRLC’s Felon Voting Rights, 2008. 

Gambling

JRLC will continue to oppose the state increasing its reliance on gambling revenues. Specifically we oppose the Minnesota Lottery’s efforts to expand Internet gambling (See JRLC's No Expansion of State-Authorized Gambling, 2005).

Other Efforts

JRLC will monitor proposed improvements to the child protection system and report to our Sponsors’ faith communities new policies and procedures that are being considered or implemented.

Based on issue papers approved by the Boards of Directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, the Islamic Center of Minnesota, the Minnesota Catholic Conference, and the Minnesota Council of Churches. Copies of issue papers here.