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Against the backdrop of a large rail yard in St. Paul, Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble outlined a bill they plan to introduce at the start of the upcoming legislative session that would impose a fee of about one-one hundredth of 1 cent per gallon of crude oil transported across Minnesota by rail or pipeline. The Minneapolis Democrats said the fee would raise $15 million to $30 million a year to help state agencies and local authorities with planning and training for potential oil spills.

The state’s ability to respond to oil emergencies is “woefully inadequate due to a lack of preparedness and a lack of resources,” Hornstein told reporters.

The drilling boom that’s made North Dakota the country’s No. 2 oil producing state behind Texas has led to a boom in crude oil shipments by rail, because existing pipeline networks can’t handle the volume. The shipments involve long “unit trains” that typically haul around 100 tanker cars each to refineries elsewhere.

The legislators’ proposal would require state agencies that oversee the industry to adopt stricter standards and stronger response plans than federal law requires, and provide funding for emergency response programs statewide. While the bill is aimed primarily at rail shipments, it also would require the state to develop response standards for spills on Lake Superior in case proposals to ship oil on tanker ships via the Great Lakes go forward.

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MNsure site improving, but budget remains shaky

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Minnesota lawmakers warned leaders of the state’s health exchange Wednesday that they need to figure out how to cover a possible budget shortfall, as insurance enrollment trends continue to point to a deficit starting in 2015.

“How much more expensive is this going to be?” asked Rep. Joe Hoppe, R-Chaska, at a meeting of a legislative panel that oversees MNsure, Minnesota’s exchange. “I think people want to know how expensive it’s going to be and how it’s going to be paid for.”

MNsure executives, while acknowledging the possibility of budget difficulties ahead, have not yet answered those questions.

As of this week, about 92,000 Minnesotans have obtained insurance coverage through MNsure. But more than two-thirds of that enrollment has been in taxpayer-subsidized plans; the rest, about 29,500, have been in private insurance - considerably less than what had been projected by this time, and well below the 70,000 predicted to be signed up in private plans by the end of March.

That prediction is important because the money to fund MNsure starting in 2015 is supposed to come from a premium tax on private plans sold on the exchange. If current enrollment trends continue, the agency would have to find some funding source for potentially millions more to cover its operating costs.