- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 12

No raise for Minnesota’s poorest families - again

The 32,000 poorest families with children in this state won’t get a raise in monthly income this year - again. They’ll have to live on the $348 average monthly award that was set by the 1986 Legislature - again.

That’s the sorry story after a major push at the 2017 Legislature to boost the monthly allowances provided by the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), Minnesota’s version of welfare. Of all that the 2017 Legislature considered but left undone, this decision to stick with MFIP’s status quo is particularly disappointing.

This looked likely to be the year for a thaw in MFIP’s 31-year freeze. Key Republicans in the Legislature’s majority joined DFL champions for MFIP like Minneapolis Sen. Jeff Hayden in agreeing to a modest increase - $13 per month - in MFIP’s monthly grant.

That’s a very small raise. Advocates had sought a $100-per-month boost; this newspaper recommended a $75 increase. But understood as the first in a series of biennial cost-of-living adjustments, a $13 boost would have been a breakthrough. It would have been a reflection of bipartisan awareness that MFIP is de facto unemployment insurance for people who lose low-wage jobs that don’t provide such benefits. Like unemployment insurance for higher-wage jobs, MFIP’s grants should grow with the economy.

The $13-per-month increase was included in the first version of the human services funding bill to arrive at Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk. The bill was vetoed for other reasons. When the final version emerged, the MFIP increase was gone.

That’s a bipartisan failure. But we can’t help thinking that if an MFIP increase had been a higher priority for the DFL governor, it would have been part of the final budget. Dayton has supported an MFIP boost in previous years. But this year it was not included in his budget proposal, which emphasized increases in tax credits for lower-income working families. At his urging, both the working family credit and the child/dependent care tax credits saw increases this session, funded in part by the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program

Those increases are laudable. But the highest priority for TANF dollars ought to be help for people raising children in the poorest circumstances. In Minnesota, that’s the MFIP population. Just 13 percent of Minnesota’s TANF allotment goes to MFIP’s monthly grants, according to Senta Leff, co-chair of the Prosperity for All advocacy coalition.

MFIP families receive other help from taxpayers, including food stamps, health care assistance and, in some cases, housing subsidies. But there are some things children need that only cash can buy - and those things cost a lot more than they did in 1986.

MFIP enrollment last year was the lowest in the program’s history. That could be a reflection of a good economy. But Leff says it’s also a reflection of a program so laden with rules and paperwork that needy families avoid it unless they are truly desperate, and often homeless. That means some of the families policymakers aim to reach are going without the child-rearing stability that is MFIP’s goal, she said.

Low enrollment numbers should occasion a fresh look at MFIP during this year’s lawmaking interim. Leff said she tells legislators, “Homelessness is not a character flaw. It’s a math problem.” MFIP’s math needs to be brought into line with its good intentions.


The Free Press of Mankato, June 11

Tobacco: Raising legal age to buy tobacco an easy call

Edina recently became the first city in the state to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21.

It’s time the rest of the state does the same.

The Edina ordinance applies to all tobacco related products, including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.

Some progress was already made statewide when a Rochester state senator this year introduced a bill to raise the age to buy tobacco products statewide from 18 to 21. That bill would also raise the penalties for stores selling to underage customers. While the bill didn’t have time to move through the Legislature this year, it at least begins the process.

There is no good argument against increasing the age statewide.

The only ones arguing against the Edina ordinance were those representing convenience stores and other outlets that sell tobacco. It’s true their sales would be cut some because fewer people would become addicted to tobacco, but that is no reason not to proceed.

Indeed, the CDC released a report in 2015 showing an astounding 75 percent of adults favor raising the tobacco age to 21, including 70 percent of current smokers and 65 percent of those aged 18-24.

Hawaii and more than 125 cities in the United States already have raised the purchase age to 21, including New York, Boston and Kansas City.

Society is comfortable with the current law that prevents those under age 21 from buying alcohol. While alcohol is clearly a problem for many users, it can be argued tobacco is a bigger problem for its users. While many can drink without addiction, virtually everyone who starts using tobacco will become addicted and the multiple health problems and death associated with smoking are well known.

If it makes sense to require someone to be 21 to drink, certainly the same is true for tobacco use.

Studies show nicotine is especially addictive to adolescents and their health is greatly impacted because of their developing bodies and brains.

Of course, just as with alcohol, people under 21 would still find a way to get tobacco if they really wanted. But a higher age limit would certainly reduce the number of people addicted to tobacco. A recent study published in Minnesota Medicine said raising the legal age would reduce the number of young smokers in Minnesota by more than 30,000 in the next 15 years.

During the next legislative session it should be an easy call for lawmakers and the governor to approve raising the tobacco-buying age to 21.

If lawmakers fail to act next year, Mankato and North Mankato should take up the issue as local ordinances.


Post Bulletin, June 9

Legislators shouldn’t booby-trap bills

Article IV, Section 17 of the Minnesota Constitution states: “Laws to embrace only one subject. No law shall embrace more than one subject, which shall be expressed in its title.”

This is what is known as the “single-subject clause,” and there’s a good chance that we’ll all be hearing a great deal about it if and when the current battle between Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders reaches the state Supreme Court.

The purpose of this clause is both clear and significant - namely, to prevent the corruption, graft and dark-of-night political shenanigans that can and often do occur when unrelated pieces of legislation are bundled together. Party A wants a certain bill to be passed but needs a few votes from Party B to get the bill across the finish line. Party A sweetens the bill with an unrelated “earmark” that appeals to specifically targeted voters in Party B - and the bill is passed.

Obviously, the spirit of the single-subject clause is now being routinely ignored by the Minnesota Legislature. For the sake of efficiency, the vast majority of legislation that reaches the governor’s desk is packaged together in “omnibus” bills that require very broad titles to encompass the multitude of their components.

This year’s omnibus environment and natural resources finance bill, for example, opens with appropriations for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Dozens of pages later, there’s a section about golf carts being OK on the golf course portion of Fort Ridgely State Park when the course is operated by a non-state entity. Dozens of pages later, there’s a clause stating that hunters may now wear “blaze pink” as an alternative to blaze orange while hunting deer and small game.

We could go on and on. There might very well be a few legislators who read that bill in its entirety before voting on it, but we suspect it was very few indeed - and we’re certain that the same can be said for all of the omnibus bills that go to the governor.

It’s not a great system, but for the most part, it has worked as long as everyone played by the unwritten rules against hiding political grenades inside omnibus bills.

As you may have heard, those unwritten rules were tossed aside during the recent special session.

Hamline University professor David Schultz has written extensively on this topic, and he points out that the current conflict, with the GOP inserting a “poison pill” into the tax bill and Dayton retaliating by defunding the Legislature unless they come back to address lingering issues, is not our state’s first constitutional crisis related to the single-subject clause. Two years ago, legislators used a similar strategy to give counties the authority to have their books audited by someone other than the State Auditor. That legal battle is ongoing, with State Auditor Rebecca Otto vowing to continue the fight last week after the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the legislation.

How can such battles be avoided in the future? Should we do away with omnibus bills and instead have hundreds, perhaps thousands of pieces of stand-alone legislation working their way through the Legislature every year?

Probably not. But if the state Supreme Court gets a chance to weigh in, we’d like it to issue a clear directive that legislators be mindful of the single-subject clause. At the very least, leaders on both sides of the aisle owe it to their constituents to communicate with each other regarding any last-minute additions or deletions from major bills.

Failing that, our governor is left to wield his line-item veto, which is precisely what he did this time. He couldn’t nix the poison pill that would have defunded the Minnesota Department of Revenue, so he fought back in a way that probably won’t hold up if it is argued in front of the Supreme Court.

But if that veto increases awareness of and adherence to the single-subject clause of the Minnesota Constitution, then Dayton may have done our state a great service.

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