Local legislators give wrap up on 1997 session

This article submitted by Stephanie Everson on 06/03/97.

The Minnesota State Legislature wrapped up its main session last week. Despite concerns from educators that more should have been done with the presently deadlocked K-12 omnibus education bill, which will possibly create the need for a special session.

Even so, the 1997 session did accomplish many different initiatives, affecting hundreds of various areas, departments, and agencies throughout the state; all of which will be applauded by some and booed by others.

The legislation included here are brief general overviews of major bills which pertain more directly to local citizens, and only those pieces of legislation that have been, up to this time, signed into law by the governor (unless otherwise noted).

Welfare reform
Welfare reform was one of the largest bipartisan efforts in recent Minnesota legislative history, according to many legislators, including Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville) and Rep. Doug Stang (R-Cold Spring).

According to Sen. Fischbach, the 1997 session was quite a bit different from last year's. "It was such a learning experience with the budget year and welfare reform-those changes were huge."

With a House vote of 120-14 and a Senate vote of 67-0, as of January 1998, all Minnesotans currently collecting welfare will be required to find employment, or lose a large part of their monthly public assistance checks.

There have been some safety nets built into the new law, such as up to two years of postsecondary education for parents seeking better job training.

MFIP: The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) ensures families some public assistance, such as cash, as well as child and health care if they need to accept a lower paying job.

The idea behind this particular program is that by allowing a parent to work while receiving some form of benefits, a low-skilled person will be able to gain work experience for a better paying job in the future.

A parent who doesn't work will have their families monthly check cut by 10 percent until the problem is corrected. If it happens additional times, the county will pay the family's rent and utilities directly from the grant amount, and will cut the remainder of the check by 30 percent before it is forwarded to the family.

MFIP, unlike several previous welfare programs, sets a five-year lifetime limit on MFIP benefits, with a few exceptions. Those who suffer from domestic abuse will have extra time to find a safe place to live before having to obtain employment, and a parent who wishes to stay at home to care for their child may do so for a child under one year old.

Children and education
K-12 omnibus: This major initiative in education for the 1997 legislative session, a $6.7 billion education finance plan, will be vetoed by Gov. Carlson unless the Legislature decides to include tax credits and more deductions for private school tuition and expenses.

A special group of legislators, including DFL leader, Roger Moe, are presently working up a compromise with the governor; but even so, the omnibus bill may prompt a special session of the Legislature. "It's a much better (education) bill than anything passed in recent years," commented Rep. Doug Stang.

"Nobody's giving," commented Sen. Fischbach, "but that could change overnight." Fischbach expressed her concern regarding the possibility that a special session could allow legislators to bring up other bills on the Floor. "When they open a special session, that does open it up to everything," she said.

Statewide testing: the governor did sign a bill making statewide testing of Minnesota public school students a requirement, beginning with next school year. All third, fifth, and eighth graders will be required to complete uniform, statewide testing.

Higher education funding: in regards to college and university funding, Gov. Carlson signed the omnibus higher education finance bill, appropriating $2.3 billion to fund the U of M and other state colleges and universities, as well as the Higher Education Services Office through the 1998-99 biennium.

The law also includes $12 million for the Minnesota Library Information Network (MNLink), which will provide Internet linkage between public libraries, school and private libraries, and the U of M and MnSCU libraries.

The bill will also try to tackle rising education costs through such measures as tax incentives, "Gopher State Bonds", a state work-study program, and individual institutional funding.

Child care programs: 12,500 Minnesota children are expected to move into daycare in the next few years due to welfare changes, which prompted the governor to sign a bill for $200.4 million to be spent on child care programs, early childhood, adult basic, and community education, after school programs, Head Start, food shelves, and homeless shelters.

Health care
The governor signed into law a couple bills that will no longer allow health insurers to withhold reimbursment for certain health care.

Ob/Gyn: as of January 1,1998, health plans will no longer be able to require a woman to get a referral from a primary care physician before seeing an obstetrician or gynecologist.

Diabetics: insurers will also be required to cover training and education, syringes, blood-testing devices, and other equipment needed for diabetics to manage their disease.

Ag. and environment
Milk prices: On April 21, Governor Arne Carlson signed Resolution 2, asking the federal government to provide Minnesota's dairy farmers with relief from the present federal milk pricing system. Currently, dairy farmers have seen a large drop in dairy prices, while at the same time, consumers are paying high retail.

The resolution asks the federal government to allow upper midwestern states to form a compact to guarantee a fair minimum price.

Environment omnibus bill: the omnibus environment, natural resources, and agriculture finance bill was signed by Gov. Carlson last Friday, appropriating close to $647 million in the next two years for programs to be managed through the Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the Department of Agriculture, among others.

Rep. Stang was a big proponent of easing the restrictions on wells in dairy barns, as long as previous tests were passed.

Fishing licenses are up to $15, and $5.50 for senior citizens. Out-of-staters will also be feeling a slight pinch; it's $31 for them, up from $27.50.

Ethanol producers were on legislator's minds this session. $49.6 million in subsidies for the next two years, ear-marked to assist them in producing the clean burning gasoline additive made primarily from fermented corn.

Snowmobilers haven't been left out. Registration fees are up by $15, for a total of $45 for a three-year registration. The extra money will be used to improve Minnesota's snowmobile trail system.

Snowmobile operators who will be 25 and under in the year 2002 will be required to take a safety training course, which will mainly be administered through local snowmobile clubs. "The clubs were interested in safety and training," said Sen. Fischbach. "They didn't want to see regulations."

Rep. Doug Stang, who voted yes on the final bill that included the safety provisions, commented, "you can't enforce common sense in some people."

Crime prevention
Crime prevention: last Friday, the governor signed the omnibus crime prevention bill, which will spend $1 billion in the next two years on such things as stricter DWI penalties, gang and arson strike forces, juvenile crime prevention projects, sex offender registration, and other general crime provisions.

In addition, the Alex and Brandon Frank Child Safety Act will strengthen visitation rules if a restraining order has been filed against a parent, and when deciding visitation or child custody rights, the judge will have to consider any evidence of domestic abuse.

"The programs and measures we have worked on this session were motivated by a number of important goals and principles," commented Rep. Al Juhnke (DFL-Willmar) "We looked at ways to utilize people and information effectively to attack a range of problems, and we looked at both the economic and social costs of crime in Minnesota."

Stalking: Gov. Carlson signed a new anti-stalking and harassing bill that redefines harassing or stalking behavior.

Mandatory minimum sentencing of one year goes into effect if the stalker wields a weapon; three years if it's a firearm and the first offense, and five years for subsequent offenses.

1997 floods
Effective as of May 7, $21 million will be provided for victims of flooding in Minnesota. The funds will be drawn from the state's $522 million budget reserve for flood relief. "Flood relief money will be distributed locally through Stearns county," Fischback mentioned.

Jobs and business
Economic development: the omnibus economic development bill was signed last Friday, appropriating $412.9 million to create jobs, tourism, trade, and various housing assistance programs aimed at helping low income and homeless people.

Liquor laws: Those who buy and sell liquor will likely be affected by Minnesota's new liquor laws. New legislation signed by the governor declares that no one may deliver alcoholic beverages, that were made outside the state of Minnesota, anywhere in Minnesota except to a licensed wholesaler; unless you're just passing through on the interstate, or you're going to drink it yourself.

In addition, you may import up to one liter of hard liquor, or 2.25 gallons of beer or wine from another state without paying an excise tax. Wineries that have a reciprocal agreement with Minnesota may ship up to two cases a year to an individual, but merchants may not solicit sales through the mail or Internet, unless to a licensed wholesaler.

Transportation finance: the omnibus transportation finance bill was signed on May 16, earmarking $3 billion for roads, bridges, transit, aviation, and public safety. $26 million was also included for airport development and assistance.

Farm permits: the governor signed legislation allowing 15-year-olds exemption from the new six-month learner's permit requirement, as long as they only drive while helping on their family's farm.

New Laws 1997 is a publication outlining all new laws in a brief summary of every bill passed by the House and Senate and signed or vetoed by the governor during the 1997 Minnesota legislative session. If you'd care for a copy, call the House Information Office at 612-296-2146 or 1-800-657-3550. The publication will be available in July, and copies will be mailed free of charge to those who request them.

As a footnote, the issue of building a new Twins stadium never made it through the committee hearings. "There was very little public support," commented Rep. Stang. "I don't think (the owners) realized how strongly the constituents felt about it."

According to Rep. Bob Ness (R-Dassel), a special legislative committee will study the baseball stadium issue over the summer. "I very much hope that the Twins will stay in Minnesota," Ness said, "but I'm not willing to place the financial burden of building a new multi-million dollar stadium on the backs of the taxpayers."

So that's the end of the stadium-for now.

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