Good morning. Time to catch up on the political news with your Wednesday Digest.
1. Graduation gaps narrow as rates head up. Minnesota’s statewide high school graduation rate hit an all-time peak in 2018, as the state made some progress in narrowing the persistent graduation gap between students of color and white students. Just over 83 percent of students graduated on time in 2018, according to data released Tuesday by the Minnesota Department of Education. That was up about half a percentage point from a year earlier. Yet significant gaps remain between the graduation rates of white students, more than 88 percent of whom graduated in four years, and students of color. Overall, the gap between white students and all students of color was about 17 percent — down about a percentage point from a year earlier. That forward progress adds to bigger strides made over the last five years, when the divide between students of color and their white peers has narrowed by 15 percent. “I am proud that the graduation gap is closing, but I am not satisfied,” Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said. “As we move forward, I am eager to partner with communities across our state to better support all of our students.” (Star Tribune)
2. Diversifying the state workforce. Gov. Tim Walz has chosen Chris Taylor to serve as the state’s new chief inclusion officer. Taylor, who currently works in a similar position at the Minnesota Historical Society, will be charged with helping state government recruit and retain a more diverse workforce, as well as increase government contracts with diverse businesses. Taylor says racial disparities are built into systems like state government. “A lot of the big challenges that we see is the systemic nature of disparities and inequities, privilege that is built into the system that we don’t see every day,” he said. “I think by working to illuminate that and understand that we can start to then acknowledge and address those issues.” Taylor will work to create job postings in state government that are inclusive, as well as train staff already employed in state agencies to increase cultural competence. (MPR News)
3. Final session push begins with notes of optimism. Gov. Tim Walz and top legislative leaders were sounding optimistic Tuesday about competing their work on a new, two-year budget in the remaining month of the 2019 session, but some big hurdles remain. Lawmakers returned to action after their Easter/Passover break with several budget bills on the agenda. The DFL House was debating an E-12 education bill, with a debate on a jobs and energy measure up next that includes a provision for paid family leave. The Republican Senate was taking up an agriculture bill and an environment and natural resources bill. “This is the beginning of the end,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. Both bodies are scheduled to hold lengthy floor sessions each day this week to pass budget bills. Then House and Senate negotiators will need to work out many significant differences in those bills. House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said leaders are already looking for ways to compromise. “Sometimes leaders dwell on where are we different,” Hortman said. “We’re working very hard, Senator Gazelka and I, to find where is the common ground.” (MPR News)
4. A new legal challenge to public unions. A child care worker in a Forest Lake public school district is challenging her union membership in a case that could make it harder for public sector unions in Minnesota to collect money from employees who don’t want to join a workplace union. Laura Loescher, a child care site manager at Scandia Elementary School, is expected to file a federal lawsuit this week against Scandia Elementary School and Teamsters Local 320 over their alleged refusal to let her resign from the union and stop paying dues. Loescher said she asked to leave the union after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Janus v. AFSCME, which barred public sector unions from collecting reduced “fair-share” fees from nonunion members instead of dues to cover some union costs. Kim Crockett, vice president of the Center of the American Experiment, a free-market think tank that is using Loescher’s case to underscore a public awareness campaign, said Minnesota’s guidance to public unions after the Janus decision did not go far enough to comply with the ruling. (Star Tribune)
5. A billion-dollar plea regarding healthcare assets. Attorney General Keith Ellison called on lawmakers Tuesday to reverse a consequence of 2017 law that repealed Minnesota’s ban on for-profit health maintenance organizations, saying for-profit companies could pocket billions in assets now held by the state’s nonprofit HMOs that should be spent on health care instead. “This issue of HMO conversion can sound a little complicated but it’s actually pretty simple,” Ellison said, pointing to a sign carried by a supporter standing nearby at his news conference. “That’s our money.” As nonprofits, Ellison pointed out, HMOs pay little to nothing in taxes. Minnesota granted those tax breaks, protected them from competition from for-profit companies, and gave them exclusive rights to run public health care programs in the expectation that they would act in the public interest, he said. By the end of 2018, he added, Minnesota’s nonprofit HMOs held about $6.7 billion in reserves, about $300 million more than at the end of 2017. “The only appropriate use of that money is for improving the health of all Minnesotans,” the attorney general said. “We need to pass some controls now to make sure that if or when an HMO converts from nonprofit to for-profit status that money stays in Minnesota.” (Associated Press)