Daily Digest: Meanwhile, at the state Capitol

Good morning, and welcome to Thursday. The Legislative Auditor is scheduled to release a big report on MNLARS today. Until then, here’s the Digest:

1. Bill would cut costs for college students. A group of students and legislators are pushing for a debt-free college model in Minnesota that would help out lower- and middle-income families. They announced a bill that calls on the state of Minnesota to pay school costs for students with annual family incomes of $125,000 or less. The grants would cover tuition, fees and course materials for two years at any state school, minus money from Pell or state grants or scholarships. Pell grant-eligible students would receive an extra $2,000 to cover additional expenses.  State Sen. Kari Dziedzic co-sponsors the legislation. The Minneapolis Democrat said even if the bill doesn’t go far, it brings up an issue a lot of people deal with. “Let’s have that conversation: What is best for students, families and taxpayers? What is the best amount that we should pay for higher ed?” The bill does not have a cost attached, but Dziedzic said the figure could range from $56 million for a focused program to $450 million.\ State Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, chair of the Higher Education Financing and Policy committee, said affordability frequently comes up. “I think the bottom line on this is the promise or the idea of free college is great. I have a lot of respect for Sen. Dziedzic, but we also need to be really sensitive to the financial realities we’re facing,” Anderson said. (MPR News)

2. Committee approves ‘conversion therapy’ ban. Wil Sampson-Bernstrom still can’t remember it all. Bernstrom spent four years in therapy designed to “cure” him of his attraction toward men, sometimes through a process he likened to hypnosis. “We’d pray for God to bring up these lies from my past, and almost like with your DVR remote, we deleted those memories,” he said. “I can’t explain what that looks like or feels like, but I know to this day that there are spots in my brain, that when I try to remember my life, my family, I see the bright light that was supposed to represent the love of Christ.” He said he is now happily out and married to a man, but it didn’t erase the years “that I was told I was a threat and dangerous to other people.” He was in St. Paul on Wednesday testifying in a House committee in favor of a proposal that would ban a mental health practitioners or professionals from attempting to change someone’s sexual orientation — a practice known as conversion therapy — on a minor in Minnesota. Members of the Health and Human Services Committee in the House heard hours of emotional testimony that stretched into the evening, eventually approving the bill by a 10-6 vote. (MPR News)

3. Senate Republicans lay out budget principles. Minnesota Senate Republicans vowed to fight additional taxes and hold down government spending as its top priorities as state begin negotiations over the next two-year budget. Senators laid out their budget principles Wednesday, and will be pushing those goals as they help develop an approximately $47 billion budget over the next few months. Some of their values conflict with the aims of the Democratic-dominated House and Democratic Gov. Tim Walz. Senate Republicans said nonetheless they want negotiations to be transparent and meet deadlines. “These are the pillars we are laying out, so that when the governor lays out his budget we’ll compare that,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said. Walz is scheduled to release his budget plan Tuesday, providing a starting point for the looming financial debates. The state will release an economic forecast the following week showing how much money lawmakers have to work with, and legislators will likely come out with their own budget proposals after that. (Star Tribune)

4. Bill that would restore voting rights for felons faces roadblock in Senate. Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, knows first-hand the challenges faced by convicted felons–he is one. Dehn’s trouble with the law came as a teenager. He won a pardon as an adult. As a state legislator, Dehn wants Minnesotans in similar circumstances to vote again sooner than is allowed under current law. Several people spoke in favor of Dehn’s bill before it cleared a House committee Wednesday. No one testified against it. Rob Stewart of Owatonna said he spent years trying to get his life back on track after a felony drug conviction. But Stewart, who now works for the group Second Chance Coalition, told lawmakers that being ineligible to vote made it hard. “Every election became a reminder that I was an outsider, that I wasn’t included as part of my community, of our community, and that my voice didn’t matter. To be perfectly honest, I was tempted to check out and stop caring.” Current law prevents felons from voting until they complete all aspects of their sentence, including probation. There is no requirement for state officials to notify felons when their voting rights are restored. DFL House leaders expect to pass the bill this session. It also has the support of Gov. Tim Walz, whose wife Gwen is publicly advocating for the measure. But there is strong resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate. “We’re not going to be taking it up this year,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, which would be the first stop for a companion bill introduced last week.  Limmer said his focus this session will be on victims of crime rather than felons. “I have no one in my district ever calling me saying ‘let’s give felons – after they’ve victimized our citizens – the right to vote,” he said. (MPR News)

5. Sports betting bill a longshot.  Top legislative proponents of legalized sports betting in Minnesota have pared back their plan in an attempt to win support of American Indian tribes. A bill set for introduction soon would allow betting on professional and collegiate games at tribal casinos only and not by any virtual method. The state would take a half-percent cut of the wagers and put parameters around the betting. Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said he’s been in discussion with tribal representatives about working out an agreeable plan, acknowledging that nothing will advance without their blessing. “These conversations have been going on for close to a year. We’ve addressed the concerns people have brought forward to us,” Garofalo said. “We hope this will be enough to get us across the finish line and begin that process of having these compacts negotiated.” The Minnesota Indian Gaming Association has made clear it opposes any off-reservation gambling. It has yet to formally weigh in on the new proposal. Buy-in from tribal nations is considered crucial to any plan moving forward. In a letter to state leaders last month, the group’s chairman Charles Vig advocated instead for “careful study” of implications of sports betting and an examination of experiences in states where it has been made legal. (MPR News)

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