House, Senate focus on ed, minimum wage and health exchange
Published 10:24 am Tuesday, January 15, 2013
A jump in Minnesota’s minimum wage and raising the threshold for putting constitutional amendments on the ballot are among the top legislative issues this session, in addition to legislators’ main focus, the budget.
The Senate minimum wage proposal would bump pay up to $7.50 an hour for most of Minnesota’s lowest paid workers, while a House plan would raise it to $9.38 starting in August. Future increases would be automatic and tied to inflation.
Minnesota’s minimum wage last went up in 2005 to $6.15. Of the 45 states who have minimum wage requirements, Minnesota’s is the third lowest in the nation, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have rates higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
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The Senate’s bill came through the Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, led by Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin.
Sparks said he would consider different proposals before deciding whether to support a measure to kick up the minimum wage.
“We want to make sure people have livable wages,” he said. “But at the same time, we want to make sure it’s not too burdensome on small businesses.”
Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, also said she has to consider a possible increase in minimum wage further before she takes a stance on it.
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said giving workers sustainable wages will help grow the state’s economy and bring economic stability to families.
“It addresses a basic value we hold in Minnesota. That honest, hardworking people deserve a fair and living wage,” Eaton said.
Republicans are most concerned with the automatic increases tied to inflation, which takes away the legislative back-and-forth over whether a raise is economically sound, Senate Minority Leader David Hann said.
The first bill introduced in the House would accelerate repayment of money owed to schools. The state still owes about $1.1 billion of the $2.7 billion borrowed from schools to help balance past budget shortfalls.
“That’s something we’re very interested in pursuing,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. “It sounds like the Senate is not as interested in that, at least in the way that we’re proposing to do it.”
Bakk said there are already mechanisms in law to pay back schools when new dollars come into the state.
“I think we’re on our way to repaying that in full,” Sparks said.
Poppe stressed it was an important topic going forward, even after the borrowed amount is paid back.
“As the economy gets better, the money goes to the schools,” she said. “We do need to talk about, overall, how do we continue to improve the economy so we don’t have to borrow from schools in the future.”
As a separate effort, the Senate wants to provide funding for all-day kindergarten for districts and parents that want it, which would cost the state an additional $160 million a year, according to estimates from the state education department. Minnesota now gives districts only enough money to provide half-day, but many districts have decided to pay for it on their own.
Sparks said while funding all-day kindergarten is a priority, he believes the state would need to wait and see what the February forecast looks like.
Still, Minnesota lags behind the rest of the nation in kindergarten options. About 44 percent of the state’s kindergartners are in full-day, publicly funded programs compared with approximately 70 percent of students nationwide.
The Senate majority leader highlighted a bill he’s offering to make it harder to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. Bakk said he talked to candidates in Edina who while doorknocking had to climb over lawn signs urging people to vote yes or no on amendments to ban gay marriage and require photo identification for voting.
“Minnesota just came off of one of the most divisive elections our state has ever seen. The sign wars in communities, the sign wars in neighborhoods … I hope that we never have to go through another election like that, where we have purely partisan amendments on the ballot,” Bakk said.
His proposal would require a three-fifths majority of the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the ballots in hopes of having more bipartisan support before measures go to voters for approval.
Poppe said she was glad voters paid attention to the issues in the 2012 election and got informed about what the amendments on the ballot meant, but she hopes it will be more difficult to get such questions on the ballot in the future.
“I am in favor of increasing the threshold for changing the Constitution,” she said.
Sparks agreed, saying the Republican majority used the amendments as a way to get around Gov. Mark Dayton’s input.
“They kind of circumvented the process and leap-frogged the governor,” he said.
Hann said over the past two decades, Minnesota has averaged about two or three amendments per election cycle. And all but two of those years DFLers controlled the Senate.
“Democrats certainly haven’t been shy about putting constitutional amendments on the ballot,” Hann said. “I guess it’s only a problem when Republicans do it.”
State health insurance exchange
The Legislature will need to put a bill through setting up the state health insurance exchange, an action required by the 2010 federal health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act. The online marketplace will offer individuals and small businesses a place to compare and shop for private coverage.
“That’ll start to happen pretty quickly,” Sparks said. “You’re going to start to see a lot of action on that bill.”
Poppe said a bill has already been introduced on the House side, adding final legislation will need to be signed by the governor by the end of March.
—The Associated Press contributed to this report.