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Republican bills zero in on Met Council, MNsure

In a predictable move, the state’s elected Republicans have begun to take direct aim at a group of unelected bureaucrats who, they say, carry far too much weight over state spending and policy.

No, not MNsure. Well, them, too. But the GOP’s most aggressive moves so far this session have instead been fixed on the Metropolitan Council, the regional board that guides transportation and infrastructure decisions in the seven-county metro area. Republicans have lamented the Met Council’s power for years, and are now full of ideas on how to cut the 17-member panel down to size.

That effort began in earnest this past week, first with the announcement of the formation of a House Subcommittee on Metropolitan Council Accountability and Transparency. One day later, Republicans held a press conference to draw attention to the “Metropolitan Council Accountability Act,” a series of parallel bills that are meant to rein in that body.

One bill, chief-authored by Sen. Dave Osmek, meant to give greater input to local governments in the appointment process — or, should it come to it, the option to remove a sitting Met Council member.

The bill would require that appointees be approved by a majority of the city councils under that member’s jurisdiction before advancing to a Senate confirmation vote. Dropping an existing member would play out similarly, with a majority of cities needing to pass a resolution in favor of their council member’s removal.

Another bill, from Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, would mandate legislative approval of the Met Council’s budget. During the press conference, Scott anticipated one potential argument from the regional body against the need for budgetary oversight.

“What they’re going to probably tell you is, ‘Oh, only 10 percent of our budget comes from the general fund,’” Scott said. “Well, 10 percent of their budget’s $100 million.”

The new House subcommittee, which is to be chaired by Rep. Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, will take a “deep dive” into the Met Council and its budget, Scott said, explaining that the Legislature had allowed the authority of the council to grow unchecked.

Osmek’s bill has a trio of DFL co-authors, including Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Finance Committee, but no DFL supporters in the House. Scott’s proposal, among the first 10 bills introduced by the House Republican caucus, does not have any Democratic co-authors in either chamber.

Insurance exchange bills

Now, back to MNsure. The oft-criticized health insurance exchange is still very much on the table for Republicans, especially in the House, where House Speaker Kurt Daudt announced the GOP lineup for the MNsure Legislative Oversight Committee. GOP Reps. Tara Mack (Apple Valley) and Joe Hoppe (Chaska) were reappointed to that bicameral committee, and will be joined by Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, according to a press release.

Wasting no time, those members immediately sent a letter to Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, co-chair of the oversight committee, calling on him to convene a hearing before the Feb. 15 close of open enrollment period. The House Republicans cited a number of reasons for the need to meet in the near term, naming disappointing enrollment figures and a $10 million MNsure operational provision in Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget.

Mack is already carrying a bill that would let consumers receive federal subsidies to purchase health insurance plans offered outside of MNsure. Davids, chair of the House Taxes Committee, got in on the act this week, offering another proposal that would effectively gut the state-level impact of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Under Davids’ House File 410, Minnesotans assessed a federal penalty for not purchasing insurance could claim a refundable tax credit in that amount; the bill amounts to a striking of the “individual mandate,” a key aspect of President Barack Obama’s signature health care bill.

On the Senate side, Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, has introduced a bill that would open a nationwide market, allowing individuals and businesses to purchase any insurance plan “permitted to be sold in any other state,” even if the plan has not been approved in Minnesota.  Nelson’s bill also calls for legislative approval of any increase to the premium withholding, or tax, used to fund the exchange’s operations, and would come with a mandatory cost-benefit analysis covering the first two years of MNsure.

Protecting children

Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-South St. Paul, has spent more than a decade working on reforming the state’s family law code, and is apparently pleased to see progress even if a Republican is holding the pen. Mahoney is one of several DFL backers of proposals brought by Peggy Scott, who chairs the House Civil Law and Data Practices Committee, that would change state law on child custody, child support and parental rights.

One element of Scott’s proposals, which are modeled on recommendations from an expert panel convened by the governor, would encourage courts to factor in the impact of domestic violence as part of custody decisions. Other provisions would alter the formula for calculating child support dues relative to employment, and impose mandatory enforcement of penalties for parents who willfully and repeatedly deny court-ordered parenting time to the other parent.

Scott said the proposals represent a newfound consensus for parties that had previously been “on opposite sides of family law issues,” while Mahoney called the bill “a substantial reform.”

Also on the child-protection front is a proposal from Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley, who wants to force a mandatory consultation with a doctor for parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. In a statement announcing the bill, Freiberg said children are at risk of contracting preventable ailments “because some parents do not understand the overwhelming evidence that vaccines prevent serious illnesses.” As of its introduction, Freiberg’s bill had only DFL co-authors in both the House and Senate.

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