February 6, 2009
U.S. Senate Recount Update
The Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments this week about whether Al Franken should be seated in the Senate while the election contest continues. Al Franken holds a 225-vote lead in the certified recount results. Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, have declined to sign an election certificate because state law says none can be issued before the legal battle ends.
Marc Elias, Franken attorney, argued that federal and state law demand that Franken be provisionally seated now in order for Minnesota to have full representation in Washington. Coleman attorney James Langdon and the state's Solicitor General on behalf of Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Governor Tim Pawlenty upheld the Coleman campaign's claim that the election contest must run its course before anyone can be seated.
A ruling on Tuesday will allow the Coleman campaign to introduce evidence and question witnesses about some 4,800 rejected absentee ballots the campaign believes may have been validly cast. The Franken campaign on Wednesday asked the three judges hearing the election trial for permission to pursue its own claims on several hundred absentee ballots the Franken campaign claims were validly cast but not counted.
DFL Legislators Fight for Health Care
DFL legislators are trying to find solutions to Minnesota's nearing $5 billion shortfall other than Governor Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal which would remove more that 113,000 people from state health programs. Senator Linda Berglin (DFL-Minneapolis) is concerned that removing these people off the state health care system will cause an overflow in emergency rooms, jails, prisons, and mental health treatment centers at a much higher cost for the state. Senator Berglin and her House counterpart Representative Tom Huntley (DFL-Duluth) both argue that with the unemployment rate rising and with thousands of people at risk of losing their employer health insurance, this is not the time to cut state funded healthcare benefits.
Under the Governor's proposal, state spending actually will rise by about $1 billion on Medicaid, MinnesotaCare, and other health programs. Without these cuts, the Governor argues that spending will swell by more than $2 billion.
Minnesota is hoping for the federal economic stimulus package to bring in nearly $2 billion to the state for state health programs. Berglin and Huntley hope that aid will include a requirement that the state not cut eligibility for Medicaid and other health programs that are federally financed. Berglin expects that a new state budget forecast, due March 3, to show that the projected state deficit has risen to $6 billion. DFL legislators are arguing spending cuts should be spread more broadly than the Governor proposes, including cuts to K-12 education. Spending on K-12 takes about 40 percent of the budget and would get an increase, not a cut, from Pawlenty.
Huntley and Berglin want to prevent cutting low-income people off government-paid health insurance and ease the governor's proposed 3 percent cut in payments to hospitals and many long-term care providers. They also want to prevent Pawlenty from taking a 50 percent cut to a new statewide tobacco and obesity program. The program is projected to cut health care costs by 6 percent. Last year, the Governor and Legislature agreed to finance the health campaign with $47 million from the state Health Care Access Fund, money primarily from a tax on health-care providers intended to support MinnesotaCare. As he has said before, Pawlenty wants to use half that fund to help balance the budget, but this time merge the fund into the state's General Fund. Both Huntley and Berglin have publically stated that they are doing everything they can do to stop this from being considered as an option.
GOP Senators Propose Pay Freeze for Government Workers
A group of Senate Republicans proposed Wednesday that government workers' pay be frozen for the next two years as part of a solution to resolve a budget shortfall that is predicted to be up to $6 billion by the March budget forecast.
Unions representing public workers criticized the proposal, arguing it would take away the right of workers to bargain.
The legislation would freeze pay through 2011 and would apply to lump-sum payments and cost-of-living increases. It would include state workers as well as Minnesota State Colleges and Universities workers and school district employees. Senator Geoff Michel (R-Edina) said the freeze would be preferable to layoffs and could save the state up to $1 billion. The bill has support from the Governor, who proposed the legislation in his budget proposal last week.
3,000 Minnesotans Receive Extended Unemployment
This session's first new state law will allow thirty-three weeks of extended unemployment benefits to 3,000 people. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the bill Thursday after it passed through the House with a 117-11 vote. The Senate approved the bill unanimously two weeks ago. The bill, sponsored by Representative Tim Mahoney (DFL-St. Paul), targets about 10 percent of jobless Minnesotans who have used up their state unemployment benefits but do not qualify for a federal extension.
Representative Mahoney said 3,000 people would be eligible immediately and another 150 could qualify each week. He estimated the total cost at $16 million and said the extra benefits would help the people keep their homes and health insurance. Mahoney said it would have little effect on the unemployment trust fund, which is already projected to run out of money and will need to borrow from a federal fund at the end of the year.
Attorney General and DFL Lawmakers Target Reverse Mortgages
Attorney General Lori Swanson and DFL legislators introduced a bill targeting reverse mortgages aimed at preventing lenders from taking advantage of senior citizens in the wake of the country's mortgage crisis. Swanson argues the increasingly bad health of the mortgage industry has led to a rise in the reverse mortgage business by lenders and brokers. Reverse mortgage is an option for seniors to take out the loans to convert home equity into cash.
The legislation would allow seniors to rescind a reverse mortgage agreement within 30 days. It would also require seniors seeking a reverse mortgage to get independent counseling on the risks and benefits of the loan. In addition, lenders would be required to show reasonable grounds for the reverse mortgage and demonstrate the reasons why it would be beneficial to the borrower.
For up-to-date information about the Minnesota Legislature, tune into Almanac: At the Capitol. This lively and informative program is aired Wednesdays during the legislative session on Twin Cities Public Television at 7:00 PM on Channel 17 and at 10:00 PM on Channel 2.
Almanac: At the Capitol is seen on all public television stations throughout Minnesota and in Fargo. Winthrop & Weinstine is the exclusive law-firm partner and a sponsor of the program.
For more information and to see previous broadcasts, check out the Almanac: At the Capitol Web site at http://tpt.org/aatc/.