Rep. Debra Hilstrom (40B) – Legislative Update
One of our greatest responsibilities as a legislature is to take care of the veterans who have served us so honorably. After their service concludes, many of them face a variety of challenges with regards to housing, health care, employment, and others. We can certainly take greater steps to assist these men and women with these challenges, and I’ve introduced legislation to do this. Earlier this week in the House Veterans Affairs Division, I had two of these bills considered.
The first, HF 728, contains several provisions addressing current gaps in services we provide to veterans. The bill expands services provided under the State Soldiers Assistance Fund to also cover substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling to those veterans who have been directed by a court to receive this. Additionally, the bill increases investments for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, the Change Step program at the Domestic Abuse Project (which addresses domestic abuse by veterans), the Minnesota Honor Guard Program, and Veterans Courts. It addresses the waiting list for permanent placement in a Minnesota Veterans Home (currently nearing 1,000) by providing a tax credit toward 50 percent of nursing home expenses.
The bill also directs a study of health insurance availability for veterans and members of the National Guard, including the potential feasibility for them to buy into a public option such as MinnesotaCare or medical assistance, and increases funding to address veteran homelessness. I was joined by Peggy Moon, legislative chair for the Minnesota American Legion, and Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who spoke specifically to the effectiveness of Veterans Courts.
My second bill, HF 910, expands eligibility for the Disabled Veterans Homestead Exclusion, which holds down property taxes for these veterans, allowing more of them to stay in their homes. This is especially important because many of them have difficulty finding employment, if they are even able to work at all. Currently, a veteran must be 100 percent permanently disabled to take advantage of this. Because the review process is quite lengthy to receive this classification, and has a substantially high bar to meet, my bill would expand this to those with a 100 percent temporary disability rating. The bill also increases the threshold for exclusion from a value of $300,000 to $400,000. For presentation of the bill, I was joined by Brian Bergson, a veteran of the Army and Air Force.
Each of these bills both require further committee stops, but I’m encouraged by the bipartisan support each of them have received so far. I’m hopeful that especially in a time of a budget surplus, we can come together to address these concerns and make veterans a priority.
Another priority of mine this session is to strengthen protections for working people and ensure that they are compensated fairly. Earlier today I joined Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and other legislators for a rally at the State Capitol to stand up for these workers in opposition the practice of wage theft.
Simply put, wage theft occurs when employers refuse to pay for work performed. Additionally, this occurs when employers violate minimum wage, prevailing wage, or overtime protections, when employers coerce employees to work off the clock, when they make unlawful paycheck deductions, or when they misclassify employees as independent contractors to avoid paying workers’ compensation or unemployment insurance. Last year, more than 39,000 Minnesotans were victims of wage theft, totaling $11.9 million in wages they worked hard for, but were never paid.
This year, a series of investments have been proposed and reforms have been introduced to crack down on this practice. These include a $1 million appropriation to the Dept. of Labor and Industry to enforce current laws, establishment of a clear definition of wage theft in law, and an increase in the fines for willful and repeated violations from $1,000 to $10,000. I think we can all agree that this practice is unconscionable, and we should take this very seriously by empowering workers with the protection and tools they need to prevent this.
Please continue to contact me with any questions or input about issues that are important to you; it’s an honor be your voice in St. Paul.