Daily Digest: Now what?

Good morning, and welcome to the last Friday of the (regular) legislative session. And thanks to everyone who gave to MPR during our fundraising drive. It’s over! Now let’s check the Digest.

1. Talks off again, Senate Republicans prepare for the possibility there will be no budget deal. Budget talks involving Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders ended early Thursday night, and Senate Republicans began taking steps to avoid a state government shutdown, which would happen on July 1 if there is no new two year state budget in place. It was hard to get a good read on what’s really happening because the players in the high-level budget negotiations aren’t sharing what is happening in their closed door negotiating sessions. The most Walz and lawmakers will sometimes provide is an update that’s really not much of one. When reporters asked Walz about the talks Thursday afternoon he said he was, “Ready to get it done. I got a haircut for the occasion, so this is it. We’re going to go.” “How close are you governor?” asked a reporter. “We’ll see,” Walz replied. Republican Senate leaders said they too were still hopeful. But that was hard to square with a step they took with a potential government shutdown in mind. On short notice, they fast-tracked a bill that would pay for state agencies and programs at existing levels if a new budget isn’t in place by July 1. (MPR News)

2. Lots of rallies, lots of waiting at the Capitol yesterday. Minnesotans filled the Capitol halls and rallied on the steps in 80-degree heat for more healthcare funding, immigrant drivers’ licences and restoring felon voting rights, while rank-and-file legislators filled the hours in committee rooms, combing through budget bills line-by-line. All of them were waiting on Thursday for word — any word — from Gov. Tim Walz and the top two leaders in the Minnesota Legislature, who’ve spent days in closed-door negations on the state’s two-year, nearly $50 billion budget. Time is running short for a deal. The House and Senate are constitutionally required to adjourn the regular legislative session by midnight on Monday, and all parties have said they want to avoid going into an overtime special session, or worse yet, a potential government shutdown later this summer if they don’t finish on time. But other than an occasional glimpse of the governor, legislators and staff dipping in and out of meetings, there’s been no word on whether a deal has been struck or what it might entail. That left everyone else in a waiting game Thursday. (MPR News)

3. That elder abuse agreement isn’t yet a done deal.  The wide-ranging bill would establish a new licensing requirement for assisted living facilities. It would also allow residents of care facilities to have surveillance cameras in their rooms. “It’s been a long time in the making getting this agreement, to get all stakeholders to agree upon language to help take care of our elderly,” said Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point. Minnesota is the only state in the country that doesn’t currently regulate assisted living facilities. The legislation would impose standards similar to those already in place for nursing homes. Housley, who chairs the Senate’s family care and aging committee, said the deal struck this week lifts a huge weight off everyone’s shoulders. She has been working on the elder care issue for two years. Legislation pushed last session failed to cross the finish line. Housley said Senate Republicans support the effort. But she cautioned that several steps and decisions are needed in the remaining days of the 2019 session to get the bill passed and sent to Gov. Tim Walz. “Do we try to get it still as a standalone?” she asked. “On the Senate side, it would have to still go through the finance committees. So, that’s a hang-up there. Or do we try to amend it on something else, or do we just put it in the big HHS omnibus bill?” The DFL-controlled House passed its version of the elder care bill last week, despite complaints from Republicans that it was missing specifics about the cost of new licensing fees. (MPR News)

4. Legislature moves to regulate pharmacy benefit managers. With just four days left in the legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers struck an agreement to license and regulate pharmacy benefit managers. Will that impact what you pay for your medicine? Pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, negotiate with drug makers on behalf of insurance plans. They manage drug pricing and decide which medications are covered by insurance companies. In theory, PBMs are supposed to act in the best interest of patients and negotiate with the goal of keeping drug prices down. Drug makers offer rebates to the managers as an incentive to get their medications on insurers’ lists of preferred drugs. But there are questions over whether the managers are profiting off the rebates instead of using them to pass savings to patients. Those questions and others have gone unanswered because all transactions with PBMs are deemed trade secrets under current law. Without oversight, critics say PBMs can pick the drugs that net them the highest rebates — even if they are more expensive for patients. State lawmakers in the House and Senate want PBMs to be more forthcoming about their deals. Lawmakers in both chambers passed a package of reforms Thursday that would require PBMs to be more transparent. It now heads to the desk of DFL Gov. Tim Walz. (Pioneer Press)

5. Groups try to stop copper-nickel mining in court. With Minnesota facing the prospect of a new mining boom on the Iron Range, lawyers for a coalition of conservation groups told an appellate panel Thursday that the state’s rules governing metals mining are inadequate to protect the environment. They have petitioned the state Court of Appeals to declare the entire chapter of rules invalid, but said in court Thursday they would not object if just some of the rules were deemed too vague and struck down. The case is the first legal test of Minnesota’s environmental rules for copper-nickel mining, and comes as international companies plan the state’s first hard-rock mines: two large copper mines near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) in northeastern Minnesota. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness and other advocacy groups filed a petition challenging the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rules last December, shortly after the agency issued a key and final permit to PolyMet Mining Inc. The permit to mine was the first ever written under the state’s untested rules, and the petition is one of seven legal challenges to PolyMet’s project. At issue is Chapter 6132 of DNR agency rules — “Nonferrous Metallic Minerals Mining” — adopted in 1993. The rules for ferrous mining, such as iron ore and taconite, are not being challenged. (Star Tribune)

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