The following is a copy of Senator Terri Bonoff's (DFL-Minnetonka) weekly Capitol Update (#18, for the week ending May 13, 2011).
Budget Work Picks Up
With just 10 days left in the 2011 legislative session, Republican leaders in the House and Senate continue to work to reach agreement on a comprehensive budget proposal so that it can be negotiated with Governor Dayton’s plan to solve the $5 billion budget deficit. Governor Dayton has made it clear he cannot negotiate with pieces of the budget – he requires a complete recommendation for solving the budget shortfall before he can consider its merits and areas to compromise. Conference Committees met throughout the week to work out differences between House and Senate omnibus budget bills, and work will continue over the weekend in an effort to come to agreement before the May 23rd adjournment date.
Several conference committees have already reached tentative agreement, namely in the areas of Education, Transportation and Higher Education. After much disagreement between legislative leaders and state agencies regarding the accuracy of the numbers being reported, Republican leaders have now agreed to use the administration’s fiscal estimates. Unfortunately, that meant each budget area suffered additional cuts from when the bills were passed off the House and Senate floor. It is good that we are now dealing with sound numbers and can accurately assess the impact of proposed cuts. We can now negotiate from common ground.
Senate Republicans also moved forward several controversial policy bills and constitutional amendments this week including a constitutional ban on gay marriage and legislation to expand the legal use of deadly force with a firearm. I strongly oppose shifting our focus from the budget debate to these matters which will be discussed in more detail in this update.
Marriage Amendment Passes off Senate Floor
The constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was heard on the Senate floor this week. The bill proposes to amend the Minnesota Constitution to recognize marriage as only between one man and one woman.
I am both frustrated and saddened by this ill-timed effort. I am frustrated that we would use one of the last two weeks of the legislative session to debate a controversial social issue that ultimately serves to marginalize one group of people and divide our state. I shared my views on the Senate floor. Follow http://bit.ly/l4czsH to view the speech.
The constitutional amendment proposal passed the Senate and awaits further action by the House. If both bodies of the legislature approve the proposal, the amendment question will go on the 2012 general election ballot.
“Shoot First” Bill Moves in Committee
The Minneapolis and Saint Paul chiefs as well as our very own Chief of Police from Plymouth, Mike Goldstein, joined legislators this week to express their opposition to a bill moving late in session that would expand what is known as the “Castle Doctrine.” The bill would allow residents to use deadly force to defend themselves in more than just their homes, including, among other sites, a garage, motor vehicle, tent or boat. The state already provides the right for an individual to protect themselves with deadly force in public or in their home if they are facing death or serious bodily harm, and there have been no cases of a person being charged when they were defending themselves under current law in Minnesota.
The bill reverses the common law “rule of retreat” that sets the standard that killing another person should be done only as a last resort. The bill allows shooting whenever there is a perceived threat, even if the shooter could safely walk away.
Lowering the standards for the use of deadly force poses serious and unnecessary dangers to citizens and law enforcement. This provision could provide legal cover for gang members to shoot and kill without any duty to retreat when involved in a confrontation with other gang members, and it would be more difficult to charge offenders for shooting someone because they could claim they were threatened.
I left the finance hearing very distressed after discussing this bill. It is hard to understand how we could pass a bill such as this when the overwhelming majority of our police officers, including Minnetonka Police Chief Raquet as well, have strongly opposed it. It seems to me to be an “over- reach” of our role as citizen legislators to dismiss the concerns of our experts, the law enforcement community.
The bill has cleared public safety and judiciary committees and now awaits a finance committee hearing before it may be heard on the Senate floor.
MinnesotaCare Changes Pass Senate
This week, the Senate passed a bill that will take away affordable health care coverage from thousands of low-income Minnesotans and replace it with an unaffordable voucher program involving the purchase of high-deductible private health insurance. The bill essentially dismantles MinnesotaCare, a program that began in 1992 for low-income working people who cannot afford
health insurance. Under the bill, families who are at or above 133% of poverty ($24,645 for a family of three) would lose their MinnesotaCare coverage and instead pay a monthly contribution to receive a voucher for a high-deductible health insurance plan from a private insurer.
A non-partisan analysis of the bill indicates that those participating in the private voucher program would pay about 40% more for health insurance under the Republican plan and, at minimum, a $3,000 deductible will be required – an amount this group of Minnesotans cannot afford to pay.
Senate Republicans also are seeking federal approval to expand this system to the Medicaid program for the poor.
My concerns regarding this policy are two-fold. First, it dismantles an extremely successful and innovative program that has served Minnesotans well since it was created under the Carlson administration. Frankly, I thought our MNCare program and our subsequent reform efforts to enhance quality while keeping costs down should have been the backbone of the Affordable Care Act. Second, dismantling this program and asking low-income Minnesotans to use vouchers that would not cover the cost of purchasing acceptable insurance goes in the wrong direction. We would increase uninsured and increase costs.
During the Senate debate on the bill, Republicans rejected an amendment that would have replaced the health insurance of state lawmakers with the proposed voucher system, requiring legislators to try out the plan for three years before subjecting Minnesota’s more vulnerable citizens to this program. Very few voted for the amendment and it did not pass. The bill was approved along party lines, with Republicans voting for the bill and Democrats voting against it.
In summary, let us all bring our strongest intentions to bear, that we as policy makers move to the middle in the final days of session. I envision ending on time, but do not yet see the path to get there. Enjoy the weekend. Best of luck to anyone who is fishing!