Greetings! The Legislature was greeted with committee meetings and an additional floor session this week. In addition to the daily activities, constituents continued to fill the halls as they joined the political process. It is so encouraging to see people participate in this process.
Here is an update from the Capitol this week:
The Legislature is expecting the governor to sign a pair of election reform bills in response to the embattled 2008 U.S. Senate race. The measure requires all counties to establish absentee ballot boards to ensure that every absentee ballot is processed in a similar manner regardless of the voter's residence, replacement of an absentee voter's signature with a matching ID number to reduce subjectivity by election judges, bar coding ballot envelopes, and centralized processing of absentee ballots. An amendment that would have replaced the problematic personal "vouching" practice with a more official provisional ballot was defeated by the majority.
This week the reworked capital investment bill returned to the full Legislature and was passed in both the House and Senate Thursday.
Earlier, a joint House-Senate conference committee approved the package, still at about $1 billion, but now containing some funding for key priority projects requested by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, such as $47.5 million of the $89 million Moose Lake phase II expansion, Department of Corrections radio system, security system and perimeter fence upgrade for the state prison at Oak Park Heights, and renovation for the Minneapolis Veteran Affairs Building 17.
Despite the changes, the bill appears to be in need of some trimming; Pawlenty wants to borrow only $725 million for the entire package. He has the option of vetoing the entire bill or using line-item vetoes to cut the bill down to size, and has indicated that he will likely use line-item vetoes to bring the spending to a preferred size. A motion to re-refer the bill to committee to try to trim the bill down to within the accepted budget level was rejected in the Senate.
Haiti deduction now law
A bill designed to encourage donations to earthquake relief in Haiti has been signed into law. It allows those who contributed to relief efforts between Jan. 11 and March 1 to deduct charitable donations on their 2009 state income taxes instead of waiting until next year. It also lets corporations deduct donations from corporate franchise taxes. The changes match state tax law with federal law.
Talk of Racino - the proposed expansion of slot machine gambling to the state's two horseracing tracks - continues in light of the state's budget shortfall. Supporters say it could potentially supply $125 million annually for the state, money that could be used for a variety of needs, including education or to finance a new Vikings stadium, as well as provide jobs. There are also opponents who resist the expansion of gambling and claim that the potential of return is still unknown. In the end, the bill was laid on the table in committee, and it is unclear whether the proposal will see any further consideration during this session.
This week Senate Committees passed the first in a series of three deadlines for the session.
Friday was the deadline for committees to act favorably on bills heard in their respective houses.
March 19 is the deadline for committees to act favorably on bills, or companions of bills, that met the first deadline in the other house.
March 29 is the deadline for divisions of the House and Senate Committees on Finance to act favorably on omnibus appropriation bills. However, some issues can still return as amendments to other bills on the House or Senate floor.
The Senate Finance Committee heard a series of budget-trimming plans for various departments, among those was a $42.2 million public safety cut proposed by DFL leaders. This was almost two and a half times more than Governor Pawlenty proposed and will affect levels of safety, adequate staffing, and maintaining of our prisons across the state. I'll talk more about this issue in coming updates.
This week Senate members were given the opportunity to hear public testimony on the newest proposal for a GAMC reinstatement. Time was of the essence to reach an agreement, because the governor's plan to enroll all current GAMC recipients into MinnesotaCARE was to begin last Friday at 6 p.m.
The proposed bill is not a reinstatement of the vetoed GAMC program last session, but a step toward reform. Designated clinics will be called Coordinated Care Organizations, and will work in cooperation with counties. The bill is currently awaiting a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee, and I will continue to provide updates on its progress.