Everyone wants to keep Minnesota’s schools, hospitals and state government operations running, so, eventually, a budget is going to be signed into law.
Just about everything else is up in the air.
A variety of hot-button policy issues remain unsettled this session, and the gulf between positions taken by the governor and either or both legislative chambers leaves just about many of those proposals in jeopardy. Failing movement from one side, some issues might fall by the wayside as legislators, in one of the most commonly used Capitol phrases, end up “kicking the can down the road” until 2016.
Experts and insiders say state law on the environment, education and health and human services are all worth watching as the Legislature reconvenes.
One notable exception in the expected gridlock might come in the area of sulfate standards for wild rice waters, where the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has proposed a cut in the current limit of 10 parts per million. Instead, the MPCA would pursue a “lake-by-lake” standard, assessing the sulfate impact on each of some 1,300 lakes and streams affected by the of the taconite mining by-product.
Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township, applauded the move following a meeting with MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, saying the method would “hopefully protect the economy in northeast Minnesota as well as clarify the environmental standards that protects our waters.”
DFL activist and Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown said the MPCA plan, if approved —and funded — could avoid threatened lawsuits that would have challenged legislative proposals to change the standard. Brown said Gov. Mark Dayton had effectively tried to “break the logjam” on the issue, which generally pitted Republicans and Iron Range DFLers, such as Anzelc, against the Legislature’s more liberal Democrats.
On other proposals, the governor might end up being part of the logjam. The governor has spent part of the Easter/Passover break touring the state to reach constituents. According to media reports, the governor was met with hostile crowds on stops in Austin and Worthington, where Dayton held townhall-style meetings on his proposal to enforce a 50-foot buffer zone around almost all of the state’s lakes, rivers and streams.
Thom Petersen, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said that proposal is largely unpopular with House Republicans — including its chief author, Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska, who has said the legislation “goes too far.” The GOP caucus has also pushed forward with a bill that would strip much of the power from the MPCA’s citizens’ board, canceling that body’s authority to require environmental reviews for farms, while the same plan has little support in the Senate.
“They’re just so different in the bodies,” Petersen said, referring to the House and Senate. “I’m just wondering what’s going to get traded at the end, or not traded.”
The disagreement might mean no environmental policy bill is passed this session, Petersen said, which would suit one environmentally minded Democrat just fine. Republicans, along with rural and Iron Range Democratsm have been looking to relax standards on air and water quality for years, and 2015 looks like their best chance.
“[Environmental law] is where there’s the possibility of the biggest change — for the worse,” the DFLer said. “No environmental law that we can pass would do any good.”
Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, has been crusading against the “last in, first out” (or LIFO) seniority protections for teachers since joining the Legislature in 2011 and, frankly, is a bit tired of the debate. He thinks other members are too, and he hopes that might work in his favor.
“I’m starting to sense some fatigue on the LIFO discussion,” Petersen said. “It’s been on the table, now, for the third session in a row.”
House Republicans have made ending seniority protection a top priority of theirs, and have already passed the lower chamber bill to end LIFO. Senate Democrats have remained resistant, but Petersen said strong public polling support to eliminate mandatory seniority protections could help DFL caucus leaders convince all but the most strident pro-union members.
“I don’t see House Republicans walking away from that policy,” Petersen said. “And [Senate Democrats] are not going to trade everything just to prevent this from happening.”
The House GOP plan would see teacher evaluations incorporated into layoff decisions, but Petersen said a more likely policy could include on of several compromise proposals. One would allow district superintendents greater discretion to save a certain number of teachers despite poor performance reviews; another would see the seniority provision simply stricken from state law, forcing local districts and teachers to collectively bargain their own new terms.
“It’s in everybody’s interest to come to some agreement,” Petersen said.
The situation could hardly be more different for the state health insurance exchange, where it seems like striking a deal could be painful for all sides. Republicans have steadfastly opposed the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, since its inception, and have never voted in favor of any piece of the state exchange. The GOP’s control of the House means that party will, for the first time, have to leave its fingerprints on some piece of MNsure.
That awkward scenario is partly to blame for the House GOP’s disjointed work on MNsure this session, with competing proposals pitched before and during the session. Working to fix MNsure, rather than kill it altogether, is a “huge philosophical leap” for Republicans, according to one insider, and might explain why the latest Republican plan would fold MNsure back in to the federal exchange.
But that proposal has “zero prospect” of winning over the Senate, or getting signed by the governor, according to University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.
Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Finance Committee, has moved forward with a bill that would turn MNsure into a regular state agency, answerable to the governor, for its leadership, and the Legislature, for its budget. But Republicans are so wary of that plan that Lourey could not even land a GOP author in the House, and instead, the bill is being carried by Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, a freshman.
Resolving the different approaches could mean no MNsure bill passes at all, according to one lobbyist. A middle ground could include adding more private-sector industry influence to the MNsure board, folding MNsure’s operation in with the Department of Human Services [DHS], and possibly killing any chance for the exchange to enact “active purchaser” powers.
“It’s going to be some strange hybrid, in one of the omnibus healthcare bills, and it’s going to be agreed to behind closed doors,” said the lobbyist.
Jacobs said finding a solution will be a complicated process, especially for Democrats and Dayton, who, by agreeing to pass MNsure legislation, would be acknowledging that the exchange was not working.
“Stablizing the financing, and how to improve affordability of MNsure … raises some fundamental questions that divide the parties — and also creates divisions within the DFL,” Jacobs said.