February 24, 2012
Vol.XXXIX No.2

Print Capitol Letter                    

Table of Contents

Election Law

State Government Finance

Education

Environment

Firearms

Health Care

Immigration

Metropolitan Issues

 


 
LWV Minnesota advocates on public policy issues for the purpose of creating a strong democracy. Our positions are reached through a study and consensus process and are detailed in our Program for Action. The reports in each Capitol Letter™ are largely the work of volunteer citizen lobbyists.
 
The LWV Minnesota Education Fund, a separate entity, conducts voter service work and is never used to influence legislation.

 

 

 

ELECTION LAW

LWVUS Position: Voting is a fundamental citizen right that must be guaranteed.

LWVMN Position: Support improvements in election laws regulating election procedures, voting and school district elections.

 Sherri Knuth, Public Policy Coordinator

The bill proposing election changes in the state constitution moved ahead in the Senate, while at the same time, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie proposed an alternative, poll books that include photographs of voters.

Proposed Constitutional Amendment

As reported in the last Capitol Letter™, testimony was taken on SF 1577, authored by Sen. Scott Newman (R-Hutchinson), on Feb. 1, 2012 in the Local Government and Elections Committee. On Feb. 15, the committee passed the bill as amended, with all Republican committee members voting in favor and all DFL members voting in opposition.

The amended bill proposes amending the constitution to read, “Every person . . . who, at the time of voting in person, shall present government-issued photographic identification as prescribed by law, or who, when not voting in person, shall provide government-issued proof of identity as prescribed by law; and whose eligibility to vote has been established under this section shall be entitled to vote . . .”

In addition, the amended constitution would state, “All voters must be subject to substantially equivalent eligibility verification prior to a ballot being cast or accepted. Provisional and absentee ballots shall be counted if government-issued photo identification or government-issued proof of identity is presented or provided within ten calendar days to the appropriate elections official as prescribed by law.”

Discussion in the committee left many questions unresolved. First, voters would be asked to vote on the proposed amendment without knowing what kind of government-issued photo ID would be permitted, since the language “as prescribed by law” leaves that to the next legislature to decide. Second, it is not clear what constitutes “government-issued proof of identity” for someone not voting in person.

Third, the phrase “substantially equivalent eligibility verification” raises questions about Election Day Registration (EDR)--it would appear to allow an Election Day Registrant to register but only vote provisionally unless he or she had the required photo ID. Sen. Newman stated that it was not his intent to eliminate EDR but the Secretary of State’s office questioned the viability of both EDR and absentee voting under the “substantially equivalent” standard. Sen. Newman indicated that vouching would no longer be permitted if the amendment passed.

Fourth, the bill also adds provisional ballots to our election system. This is a substantial modification with significant costs to state and local government.

The bill’s next stop is the State Government Innovations and Veterans Committee.

The Secretary of State’s Suggested Alternative

At a hearing before the Senate Reform and Redesign Subcommittee on Feb. 17, 2012, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie offered an option to satisfy those who want photo IDs for voters, while at the same time satisfying those who oppose requiring voters to bring in a government-issued photo ID. The proposal is for electronic or paper poll books containing a photo of each voter derived from the Department of Vehicle Services database. A voter whose picture is not in the poll book would have his or her photo taken at the polling place.

The Secretary of State testified that this proposal has the advantage of not disrupting systems that are working well and may have bi-partisan support, unlike the bill for a constitutional amendment. An edited video of the Secretary Ritchie’s testimony is available.

LWV Minnesota will be watching this proposal as it develops.

 

 

STATE GOVERNMENT FINANCE

LWVMN Position:  Support a balanced and diversified revenue system that is equitable, progressive, and reliable.  Support of long-term financial management projections and a budget reserve. (1995)
LWVMN Position on Government Spending:  LWVMN believes that the highest priority areas for state spending are the following: (1) K-12 (regular) education; (2) Health Care: (3) Environmental protection....
Criteria for Limiting Spending…
(1) State subsidies for sports teams, convention centers and similar projects should be among the first items to be curtailed…

Debby McNeil, volunteer  lobbyist

The February 2012 Economic Forecast is slated for release by Minnesota Management and Budget at the end of this month. Lawmakers will be guided by this forecast in deciding whether to modify the budget in the current biennium, FY2012-13.   

The last economic forecast in November 2011 projected a general fund surplus of $876 million for our current biennium. This was a complete surprise, as many budget followers were bracing for a significant deficit.  But a surplus does not mean that the state’s financial problems are history.  As explained below, there are still outstanding obligations of $3.6 billion, along with a $1.3 billion structural deficit in the general fund. 

What happens to a forecasted surplus?

State law requires that the $876 million surplus be applied in this order: (1) to the cash flow account until it reaches $350 million, (2) to the budget reserve until it reaches $653 million, (3) to repay school aid payment shifts, and (4) to reverse the school property tax recognition shift. 1 Taken together, these outstanding obligations add up to $3.6 billion, more than four times as much as the surplus.

As we see below, the surplus is sufficient to refill the cash flow account and almost the entire budget reserve, but there is no money left after that to repay school aid shifts.  Even after the surplus is allocated to reserves, another $2.7 billion must still be repaid: 

Contingent Commitment  $ Owed    Repaid by $876 Surplus $ To be Repaid
Cash flow account     $255   $255 $0
Budget Reserve   $626   $621 $5
School payment delays   $2,125   $0 $2,125
K-12 property tax recognition shift  $565   $0 $565
Other   $26   $0 $26
          Totals:     $3,624   $876 $2,721

(all numbers in millions of dollars)

Source:  Based on presentation on Jan. 31, 2012 to Senate Finance Committee by Brent Gustafson, lead fiscal analyst, Senate Counsel, Research and Fiscal Analysis

The $2.7 billion owed would start to be repaid the next time there is a surplus in a biennium, unless the legislature takes some other action.

Deficit still projected for next biennium

What is the longer term picture for the general fund? The November 2011 forecast projected that there will once again be a “structural” deficit in the next biennium, FY2014-15. A “structural deficit” means that spending will exceed revenue, and this has been the general fund’s problem for a number of years.

November 2011 forecast for general fund, FY 2014-15 (in millions)

Current resources $35,718
Total Expenditures      ($37,017)
Structural deficit   ($1,300)

 

So a surplus in this biennium may not translate into a surplus in the FY2014-15 biennium.  The February forecast, however, will give us a more up-to-date prediction about next biennium’s revenues and spending.  The question is whether the picture for the next biennium will improve.

Read the next issue of the Capitol Letter™ for an update!

1Minn. Stat. Sec. 16A.152, subd. 2

 

EDUCATION

LWVMN Position:  All Minnesota children should have equal access to a good public education.  State funding for education should be at a level that makes programs of comparable substance and quality available to all.  A student’s access to a good education should not depend on the wealth of his or her school district.

MN Constitution: Article XIII Section 1. UNIFORM SYSTEM OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS. The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it is the duty of the legislature to establish a general and uniform system of public schools. The legislature shall make such provisions by taxation or otherwise as will secure a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the state.

Lonni Skrentner, Volunteer Lobbyist

There has been a flurry of activity at the Capitol in this post-caucus time period, but only three pieces of legislation have much possible impact on public education.  The bill dealing with changing teacher lay-off procedure has passed the House and moves on to the Senate.  The bill to require teachers to pass a basic skills exam passed the House and moves on to the Senate.  A bill with a much less certain future calls for referendum dollars to follow a student to charter school.


HF1870
, sponsored by Rep. Branden Petersen (R-Andover), would change lay-off procedure for public school teachers. It would provide that school administrators examine evaluations when making a decision to demote or discharge a teacher, or place him or her on an unrequested leave of absence.

Passed 68-61 by the House, the bill now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Pam Wolf (R-Spring Lake Park) is the sponsor of the Senate companion, SF 1690.  At this point, differences between the House and Senate bills may lead to a conference committee. The House bill leaves seniority as one of the criteria after student performance.

Critics contend the bill is being rushed, with the work on the teacher evaluation plan passed last session still in progress.  But Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), chair of the Education Reform Committee, replied that students can’t wait because they are not learning at the levels needed.

 According to Minn Post, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sent Rep. Petersen a letter on Wednesday to address her "serious concerns" with the legislation. Cassellius questioned how the bill would affect different-size districts and also attempted to redirect Rep. Petersen's priorities.

"It is clear that the fundamental issue that must be addressed is the persistent underfunding of our Minnesota schools, which leaves many districts with limited options other than layoffs," she wrote. "We cannot cut our way to a world-class education. Rather than focusing on layoffs, we should be focusing on strategies to strengthen and support our state's teaching corps."

HF 1770 and SF 1493, authored by Rep. Andrea Kieffer (R-Woodbury) and Sen. Ted Daley (R-Eagan), would require teachers who enter approved teacher preparation programs to pass a basic skills exam, including college level math.  The bill passed the House unanimously.


HF1860
, sponsored by Rep. Kelby Woodard (R-Belle Plaine), proposes that referendum revenue be transferred in an equal amount for each student who attends a charter school in his or her resident school district. This increase for charter schools’ general education aid would be offset by a corresponding decrease in the resident school districts’ general education aid. This would affect Minnesota schools beginning in fiscal year 2014.

The bill was heard on Jan. 24 by the House Education Finance Committee. Members of the committee discussed the bill, including adopting an amendment that would apply the legislation only to future levies that fund schools, not standing levies. No action was taken on the bill. It has no Senate companion.

Parents United testified in opposition to the bill.  “We believe charters’ need for further dollars is shared by all school districts and cannot be solved by simply taking operating levy dollars from one set of public schools and giving it to another,” it said. “The real issue here is the funding formula that affects all schools.”

 

ENVIRONMENT  

LWVUS Position: Natural resources should be managed as interrelated parts of life-supporting ecosystems. Resources should be conserved and protected to assure their future availability.  Pollution of these resources should be controlled in order to preserve the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the ecosystem and to protect public health.

Gwen Myers, volunteer lobbyist

Sulfide Mining Update

We continue to follow the several threads involved in the proposal to permit a new type of mining in northeastern Minnesota, one very different from our familiar iron mines.  Many LWVMN members have seen the short video "Precious Waters" which takes a look at sulfide mining's history of extracting metals such as copper and nickel from millions of tons of sulfide-bearing waste rock.  This has resulted in sulfuric acid mine drainage in other states and could do the same in this ecologically fragile part of Minnesota.1 This type of mining, if permitted, will threaten water quality and aquatic ecosystems in both the Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters watersheds.

Recall that PolyMet, a Canadian company, has proposed an open-pit sulfide mine on 67,000 acres of wetlands and forests in Superior National Forest. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) released in February 2010, was rated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “as Environmentally Unsatisfactory - Inadequate, or EU-3.  Environmentally Unsatisfactory (EU) indicates that [the EPA] review identified adverse environmental impacts that are of sufficient magnitude that the EPA believes the proposed action must not proceed as proposed."2 The EPA emphasized the harm to water quality and to wetlands, with approximately 1,000 acres of high quality, forested Lake Superior watershed wetlands impacted.  This latter issue raises the possibility of "substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts on aquatic resources of national importance."

This rating by the EPA required the DNR and the Army Corps to produce a “Supplementary DEIS” addressing the many concerns identified by the EPA. Some of the delays in this process, and PolyMet’s failure to provide adequate data, were described in the Star Tribune on Feb. 10, 2012. The predicted date for a completed SDEIS is now fall 2013, rather than the original projection of spring 2011. We have seen at least three extensions on the completion date. The repeated delays give an idea of the complexity of this project and suggest the difficulty of producing adequate data to complete an acceptable permit for this mining proposal.

There is no legislative activity on this issue at the moment; the Mining Cluster3 is working with the agencies and the governor’s office. The week of Feb. 20 will see members of the cluster meeting with DNR scientists and mining experts to discuss the impact on water. This will include an update on their well monitoring efforts; the status of their field studies on bedrock fractures at the mine site and tailings basin along with studies to determine the path of potential contaminants in these areas; status of research on subaqueous disposal and expected chemical reactions over time. Also included will be the status and involvement of tribal cooperating agencies. And finally, we will be anxious to get the latest information on the release of the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the PolyMet project.

1  See Capitol Letter™, Jan.15, 2009, for further description of this proposed project.

2  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cover letter on the DEIS

3 Friends of the Boundary Water Wilderness, Environment MN, Audubon MN, Sierra Club, North Star Chapter, MN Center for Environmental Advocacy, Water Legacy, Friends of Cloquet Valley State Forest , Minnesota Environmental Partnership, and LWV Minnesota, among others.

 

FIREARMS

LWVUS Position:  Protect the health and safety of citizens through limiting the accessibility and regulating the ownership of handguns and semi-automatic assault weapons. (1990)

LWVMN Position: Action to support restrictions on the sale, possession and use of firearms by private parties in the state of Minnesota.

Mary Lewis Grow, volunteer lobbyist

HF 1467/SF 1357, authored by Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Good Thunder) and Sen. Gretchen Hoffman (R- Vergas), is known as the “Shoot First” legislation.  The Senate floor vote on SF 1357 was expected to take place on Thursday, February 16 but was postponed.  Its companion, HF 1467, passed in the House last session. This bill would greatly expand the places and situations in which deadly force could be used with impunity.

Under current Minnesota law, which is based on English common law, deadly force, such as shooting to kill, can be used in a public place only as a last resort when no safe refuge from danger is available. Minnesota law has an exception to that rule within the home or “castle,” as that is the person’s last refuge.

The standard set by the proposed HF 1467 and SF 1357 would allow deadly force as a first resort if the shooter feels threatened with bodily harm.  But the judgment about legitimate threat would become a subjective one – an imprecise standard that would make prosecution of shooting homicides far more difficult.

At a recent press conference at the state capitol, representatives of the Minnesota Association of Chiefs of Police (Chief Tim Dolan of Minneapolis and Chief Thomas Smith of St. Paul), the County Attorneys Association (Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman and Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom), and the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (Dennis Flaherty) expressed their organizations’ strong opposition to the proposed legislation.  Chief Dolan and Sen. John Harrington (D-St. Paul), former police chief in St. Paul, explained that one of the greatest dangers faced by law enforcement is responding to domestic violence calls.  Under the new law, a police officer crossing the lawn of a house from which a call had been received could be shot with no fear of legal consequences if the homeowner could claim to have heard an unexplained noise or seen the shadow of a stranger on the lawn.  Worse still, the expanded “Castle Doctrine” would extend its loosened provisions to the public domain -- not end at the lawn or sidewalk of a homeowner.

At least one of the speakers at the press conference made a point also stressed in testimony before the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee last session – i.e. that this bill is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.  Current Minnesota law already protects homeowners who use deadly force against an intruder in order to protect home and family and there is no known case in Minnesota of a homeowner’s having been prosecuted for using a firearm to defend home or family.

The League of Women Voters believes that the concerns of police officers, chiefs, and prosecutors should be heeded. Legislators should vote with law enforcement rather than the gun lobby. We urge legislators to vote for the public’s interests.

 

HEALTH CARE

LWVUS Position on Healthcare:  A basic level of quality health care at an affordable cost should be available to all U.S. residents. (1993)

LWVMN Position on Violence:  Support violence prevention programs in our community.  Allocation of public moneys in governmental programs to combat violence ….. by identifying and responding to individuals who have been violent or are at risk for violent behavior.  (1994)

LWVUS PositionSupport violence prevention programs in all communities.   

Barb Person, volunteer lobbyist

Over the past ten years, prosecutors have seen several extreme cases of abandonment and purposeful deprivation of needed care and services to vulnerable adults over a sustained period of time.  In the serious cases, bodily injury, bodily harm or death occurred as a result of abandonment. 

Under current law, all criminal acts of intentional neglect of a vulnerable adult are prosecuted as gross misdemeanors regardless of the level of harm to the victim. Proposed bills will change the crime to a felony punishable by imprisonment and fines depending on the severity of the crime.

HF 1945, authored by Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud), would modify the penalty for criminal neglect and abuse, assigning penalties for violation depending on the amount of harm or abuse.

Groups supporting seniors, nursing organizations and labor groups were successful in their efforts to include provisions protecting caregivers from prosecution when facilities are operated with inadequate staffing levels, inadequate supervision, or inadequate institutional policies. The final version included three affirmative defenses to protect caregivers from prosecution except in cases of intentional abuse. 

The bill has been heard in the Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee and will be heard in the Public Safety and Finance Committee on Feb. 23, 2012. The Senate companion, SF 1586 authored by Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), was passed by the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

 

IMMIGRATION

LWVMN Position: Support incorporating immigrants into our communities by providing access to education, by endorsing the development of secure identification documents, and by respecting the right of law enforcement personnel to perform their duties without the burden of interpreting federal immigration policies.

Judy Stuthman, volunteer  lobbyist

HF 1888, sponsored by Rep. Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis), and SF 1672, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis), were introduced in an attempt to rectify the unintended consequences of legislative action in 2011. That legislation removed state-funded Medical Assistance eligibility for certain non-citizens, even though they are here legally.  Many of the people, cut from this coverage as of the middle of January, are elderly and lack the language skills to read and understand what is happening to them.

The Alliance for Racial and Cultural Health Equity (ARCHe), a coalition of Minnesota’s racial, cultural and ethnic communities, held a meeting recently to help get the word to people affected by this change and to let them know how they might receive care.  Some will be moved to MinnesotaCare but not all will be eligible.  Some will qualify for Medicaid from the federal government.  Some will need to seek care from hospital emergency rooms if their condition becomes life-threatening.  But many services, such as chemotherapy, dialysis, mental health treatment and outpatient drugs, are no longer covered. 

Litigation could help restore some care, but the Minnesota legislature is unlikely to undo all the cuts this year that they made last year.  The Department of Human Services and key legislators want to work with immigrant communities to establish a better permanent program for non-citizens.  ARCHe hopes to bring racial and ethnic communities together with leaders of government and health care so they can influence the changes that affect them.

Other Pending Legislation

HF 2159, authored by Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent), and SF 1713, authored by Sen. Julie Rosen (R-Fairmont), would establish an immigrant and minority microloan program.  This could have a positive impact on rural communities.

HF 1976, authored by Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa), and SF 1842, authored by Sen. Al DeKruif (R-Madison Lake), would require the legislative, executive and judicial branches to use the federal E-Verify program for all newly hired employees.  In 2008, Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered the names of all new hires be run through E-Verify, a Department of Homeland Security database that checks work eligibility in the U.S.  In 2011, Gov. Mark Dayton eliminated this requirement, stating “the E-Verify process has been inefficient and yielded negligible results.”  In 2009, the state severed its contract with a Texas company hired to do the E-Verify checks after private employee data was found online.

Once again bills have been introduced to designate English as the official state language.  These bills are HF 64, sponsored by Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa), and SF 175, sponsored by Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen (R-Alexandria). LWV MN opposes these bills.

Secure Communities

On Feb. 7, 2011, Minnesota became the 27th state to join the federal immigration program known as Secure Communities.  This program, designed to share fingerprint information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is mandatory; all states must join by 2013.  Under this program, all fingerprints from individuals booked into local and county jails are automatically scanned and sent to ICE to determine the individuals’ immigration status.

Although the original goal of Secure Communities was to deport violent undocumented immigrants, critics say it has been used as a tool to deport ordinary law-abiding immigrants and minor offenders.  They claim it has strained ties with local immigrant communities and prevents victims of crime from reporting offenses.  Several states have tried to opt out of the program but have not been successful. According to an editorial by the Los Angeles Times reported that half of the 148,481 immigrants removed from 2008 through Oct. 2011 had either no criminal convictions or only minor ones.  Of those deported, more than 3,000 were U.S. citizens that were mistakenly removed.

 

METROPOLITAN ISSUES

CMAL (Council of Metropolitan Area Leagues) Position on the Met Council: Support the Metropolitan Council as the decision-making body for metropolitan needs…. Support provisions for coordinated metropolitan services focused through the Metropolitan Council. Support retention of an appointed Metropolitan Council with greater use of its existing powers. (1969, 1976, 1993)

CMAL Position on Transportation: Support the Metropolitan Council as the single metropolitan agency planning and coordinating a diverse transportation system….

CMAL Position on Land Use and Environmental Quality.  CMAL recognizes… the need for a strong public voice in land-use decisions.  CMAL supports metropolitan-level planning, programs and policies [in order to]:  (1) preserve and enhance the natural environment; (2) use public investment to the best advantage; and (3) provide area residents with diversity in choice of facilities and amenities.

Lois Quam, volunteer lobbyist

In my last report I focused on the $775 million bonding plan put forward by Governor Dayton.  His proposal is consistent with CMAL positions because of the contributions it could make toward such features as transit (the Southwest Corridor light rail), enhancing Minneapolis’s Nicollet Mall and improving energy efficiency at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus.

Although the Governor’s proposed bonding plans were reported in his State of the State address, as of the date this report was written, no comprehensive bonding bill has been introduced in the legislature.

Background information on the state’s bonding capacity is available on the Minnesota Management and Budget website.  Minnesota Management and Budget provides two Debt Capacity forecasts a year, in November and February.  The November 2011 forecast identified slow progress in moving out of the Great Recession, and it predicted even slower growth in 2012-13. A new report is due this month, and it will be interesting to see whether projections have changed since November.  I would expect that positive changes could cause the Governor to adjust the amount he is prepared to press for in a bonding bill.

At the most recent CMAL meeting in January, members heard from representatives from Anoka and Washington County, among others, who provided their perspectives on what they need from Metropolitan Council members and staff.  They argued in favor of respect for the wishes of individuals who want to enjoy an open-space feel while still living close to a metropolitan area.  However, a compact and dense urban area can provide economic advantages for individuals who want a seriously urban lifestyle with fewer cars owned, fewer miles driven and more miles walked as an alternative to driving. 

The Met Council has issued a report on Metropolitan Land Use, and it shows that the recession has had an impact on the rate of consumption of land for development in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area.  The second half of the last decade shows a marked decrease in growth:

Year of Study

Developed Acres Added

2010

4,500 per year

2005

7,500 per year

1990s

9,200 per year

 

The report quotes Council Chair Susan Haigh, “What I find encouraging despite the obvious slowdown, is the growing trend towards intensifying land uses.  More multifamily homes and more mixed-use development lead to a more efficient use of both land and our regional investments.  Mixed use may account for a small portion of land use, but it is a telling trend in these more austere times.  As we go forward, we want to put even more focus on development along transit corridors to better integrate land use for housing, jobs and transportation.” 

 

Copyright 2013 League of Women Voters Minnesota (LWV Minnesota)