Daily Digest: Private talks continue

Good morning. Here’s your Thursday Digest:

1. Deal on budget still nowhere in sight. Minnesota lawmakers slid past a self-set deadline for striking a budget agreement in a day of fits-and-starts negotiations, although the unwillingness of top leaders to say much about their talks suggested real deal-making was in full swing. The closed-door discussions — a ritual that the new crop of leaders had hoped to keep to a minimum this year — left little public indication of what obstacles had been dispensed with and what pressure points remained. Key questions include: Is a gas tax increase sought by DFL Gov. Tim Walz and House Democrats for transportation and other initiatives gone? Will a tax on medical procedures remain in place to feed a health care fund used for a variety of programs? And will schools get a big enough aid boost that would head off down-the-line budget cuts? Walz, the first-term DFL governor, was the only one in the high-level discussions to say much of substance on Wednesday. And even those comments weren’t specific to the talks. He stepped away from negotiations in the evening to attend a memorial service to fallen law enforcement officers, held annually on the lower mall of the Capitol. There, he referred to the “chaos” of politics and the need to rise above it. “Shame on us if we can’t figure out a way to work with one another,” Walz told the audience. “Shame on us if we can’t figure out a way to work together to better the lives of Minnesota.” (MPR News)

2. Agreement reached on steps to prevent elder abuse. A landmark agreement has been struck to overhaul Minnesota’s porous system for protecting seniors from abuse and neglect. Senior advocacy groups, state regulators and the elder care industry finalized the deal Tuesday after two years of contentious deliberations, hearings and protests. It would license assisted-living facilities for the first time and require them to maintain minimum standards of care, much the way the state already regulates nursing homes. It would also establish new safeguards for the more than 80,000 Minnesotans who live in senior care facilities. Residents would be able to use surveillance cameras to monitor care, report abuse or poor quality care without fear of retaliation and be protected against arbitrary discharges. The far-reaching deal, widely expected to become law this session, would represent the broadest expansion of protections for vulnerable seniors in Minnesota in generations. A bill containing many of these protections passed the Minnesota House by a clear majority last Friday, though it’s unclear if the measures will ever come to a vote on the Senate floor. Senate Republicans, in particular, have raised concerns about the cost of enforcing the new regulations, which will reach $50 million over the next four years. Lawmakers said the new protections likely will be wrapped into a larger, omnibus budget bill if the Senate does not act. (Star Tribune)

3. Opioids bill may be in trouble. Sen. Chris Eaton was confident when the 2019 session began that the Minnesota Legislature would finally adopt a response to the opioid crisis. The plan was to pass a law imposing fees on the makers and distributors of the painkillers to pay for treatment, prevention and dealing with the fallout from opioid addiction. Doing something was a priority for both the DFL and the GOP, the legislation was even included on the list of “early wins” lawmakers thought could get done — items that would show voters that a divided legislature could agree on important issues. Now, however, the Brooklyn Center DFLer is far less encouraged. In fact, Eaton, who has made addressing the opioid crisis one of her top legislative goals since her daughter Ariel died of an overdose in 2007, said this week she thinks the issue is likely to remain unresolved, a victim of the same partisan disagreement that is endangering passage of a state budget. “This has never been an adversarial issue between parties, and it is now,” Eaton said Monday. (MinnPost)

4. Feds renew mineral leases for Twin Metals project.  The federal Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday renewed mineral rights leases for a proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota, a project that environmentalists fear would spoil the pristine Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Mineral Management Joe Balash renewed the leases following a 41-day public review and comment period. “Mining on public lands balances conservation strategies and policies with the need to produce minerals that add value to the lives of all Americans by providing raw materials used in the manufacture of medical aids, automobiles, smartphones and computers, and household appliances,” Balash said in a statement. “Mining strategic metals in the United States is beneficial to national security, national and local economies, and job creation.” The leases cover land in the Superior National Forest 9 miles southeast of Ely that encompasses vast reserves of copper, nickel and precious metals. According to Twin Metals Minnesota, the renewed leases add new conditions, including higher annual royalty payments, project milestones and additional environmental requirements. Twin Metals Minnesota CEO Kelly Osborne calls the lease renewal “a critical step” for the company to present its proposal for an underground mine. Environmental groups are fighting the project, fearing mining would spoil the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the country’s most-visited wilderness. (AP)

5. Ellison: Schools can’t keep kids from graduating due to unpaid lunch bills. Minnesota students who have unpaid lunch debt cannot be blocked from walking in their graduation ceremonies, Attorney General Keith Ellison said Wednesday. Ellison issued a written opinion and cited two state laws on school lunches and lunch aid to support his conclusion. “Minnesota law supports the principle that living with the dignity and respect that comes from participating in a graduation ceremony cannot be restricted by your ability to afford your life,” Ellison said. He issued the opinion at the request of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, who received a letter from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that said some school districts were blocking indebted students from walking in graduation ceremonies. Jessica Webster, an attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, said her firm has followed this issue for the past decade. They sent public records requests to Minnesota school districts to examine meal debt policies and found that some threatened to revoke certain privileges from students in debt. Roseville and Mahtomedi were among the school districts with such policies in the 2017-2018 school year. Both schools say the policy is not in place this year. (Pioneer Press)

6. Report says high cost of housing in the Twin Cities will hurt economic growth. A newly released report from the Family Housing Fund says the cost of housing in the seven-county Twin Cities region is higher than cities like Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tenn.; and St. Louis. The report also says the region is on a trajectory to becoming as expensive as Denver or Seattle. The report, which analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other state and federal organizations, also concluded there is a significant shortage of housing in the Twin Cities to accommodate a growing workforce — which could hurt economic growth over time. In March, the housing advocacy group Minnesota Housing Partnership released a report that said more than 110,000 of Minnesota’s poorest households don’t have affordable housing options. That’s defined as housing that costs 30 percent of household income or less. Family Housing Fund President Ellen Sahli said 1 in 5 workers in the Twin Cities region pays more than 30 percent of their income each month for a place to live. “We are sounding the alarm,” Sahli said. “Housing in the Twin Cities is less affordable than most realize, and if we don’t take action soon, our housing future is not pretty.” According to the Family Housing Fund report, the housing shortfall could result in nearly 50,000 fewer jobs in the region in 20 years. “Affordable apartments are disappearing from our landscape, we have a dramatic shortage of entry level homes to purchase and at the same time, we have a projected economic growth that will bring 368,000 new workers to our region over the next 20 years,” Sahli said. (MPR News)

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