Sen. John Hoffman Update: March 3, 2017

Welcome to week nine. REAL ID, student loan tax credits, a controversial elections bill, big changes in teacher licensure, reduced property taxes for veterans and schools teaching a civics class were all up in committees this week. While I disagree with how my colleagues across the aisle are handling most of these issues I will continue to work collaboratively to make sure we have the best outcomes for Senate District 36 and all Minnesotans.

The February forecast is projecting an increase of $250 million in addition to November’s projections, resulting in a $1.65 billion surplus. With the February forecast figures, the Legislature can begin making spending and tax decisions for the biennium. In the coming weeks, the House and Senate leadership will release budget targets for each committee to use in order to fund their priorities while Governor Dayton will update his budget recommendations to reflect changes in the forecast. This is typical for the process during year 1 of the biennium. 

It will be important to keep track of proposed targets in the coming weeks. I will continue to stand up for all Minnesotans.

Sincerely,

John Hoffman

What’s happening at the Legislature?

REAL ID

REAL ID was heard in the Finance Committee this week. The next stop will be the Senate Floor, on Monday. The committee considered and adopted amendments related to the cost of the bill. The amendment removed free licenses to those seeking a compliant license out of the natural renewal cycle which was in the original bill. Instead, it extends the life of the license by two years under those circumstances. This reduces the cost of the bill and is administratively more efficient for the Driver and Vehicle Services.

The main sticking point between the House and the Senate that continues to tie-up this urgent legislation is an attempt by the House to attach controversial language related to undocumented immigrants accessing limited licenses. The Senate hopes to pass a clean bill allowing Department of Public Safety (DPS) to implement REAL ID and allow Minnesotans to board their flights and visit their loved ones on military bases without adding other controversial issues.

The REAL ID implementation bill would grant the DPS the authority to get Minnesota driver’s licenses and IDs compliant with the federal standards. The bill creates a two-tier system with a REAL ID-compliant ID and driver’s license and a noncompliant instate ID and driver’s license. This allows those who have privacy concerns and those who will not be traveling by airplane to maintain their current driver’s license and ID, while also allowing the traveling public to get a REAL ID-compliant ID or driver’s license. DPS would have to begin issuing compliant IDs and driver’s licenses by Oct. 1, 2018.

MinnesotaCare Buy-In

This week the Senate Health and Human Services Committee heard the MinnesotaCare Buy-In legislation that would allow individuals and families buying insurance on the individual market of any income to buy in to MinnesotaCare, offering them quality health care at a price they can afford.

For over 25 years, MinnesotaCare has provided a high-quality, low-cost option to Minnesotans who lack access to affordable health insurance but still have higher income levels than those served by the Medical Assistance program. MNCare is currently available for Minnesotans who earn between 133% and 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG) ($32,398 to $48,600 for a family of four).

Just like health insurance policies offered by commercial health plans, Minnesotans who want to take advantage of this program would purchase their policy and their premiums would pay for the cost of their insurance coverage. Other than a one-time startup cost of $12.9 million, the plan would require no extra ongoing costs for Minnesota taxpayers. MinnesotaCare has just 3% overhead, making it an efficient, competitive, and accountable alternative to commercial health plans.

Limited health insurance options in areas of rural Minnesota, for instance, make it difficult for some Minnesotans to choose and keep their own doctors, as in-network care can be more than a county away. The vast network of physicians and care providers available through MinnesotaCare would offer more Minnesota families more options to choose and keep their own doctors – and at an estimated 12% less than the average statewide premium for commercial health plans in 2017. If this plan were approved by April 1, people could begin purchasing MinnesotaCare plans during the 2018 open enrollment period.

Due to the rising premium increases and the limited number of participating health plans on the individual market, Minnesotans over 200% of FPG need more affordable and accessible health insurance options. This plan would increase choices, encourage competition in the marketplace, and ensure that all Minnesotans have access to affordable insurance with a comprehensive network of health care providers. 

Schools encouraged to use federal funds for STEM, robotics education

On Tuesday, a bill was heard regarding funding for STEM activities from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. While it is not a mandate, the bill strongly encourages school districts to utilize federal ESSA Title IV funds for specific purposes, with an emphasis placed on robotics-related activities.

Earlier this month, a group of robotics students met with legislators to express their desire to see more funds going towards their programs. In response, the suggestions contained within the bill include mentor-led, hands-on STEM education and engagement with materials that support inquiry-based and active learning; increased student participation in STEM competitions, including robotics competitions; and mentor-led, classroom-based, after-school activities with informal STEM instruction and education.

South High graduate and current NASA astronaut training manager, Alicia Robinson, testified to the need for STEM funding and hoped to encourage women in STEM fields. The bill was heard in the E-12 Policy Committee and was laid over to be considered for an omnibus bill.

Civics credits would be required for high school seniors

JoEllen Ambrose former Champlin Park teacher testified in support of SF 1061

A bill to require a half credit of civics be taken in either the junior or senior year of high school was laid over for possible inclusion in the E-12 Omnibus bill. This would go in effect for students entering ninth grade this year. Concerns have been raised over the lack of knowledge many graduates have about our representative democracy. Since last year, schools are already required to administer portions of the United States citizenship test to students prior to graduating.

Teacher licensure bill provides clarity

A teacher licensure bill that received its first hearing in Education Policy Committee on Thursday provides some clarity to Minnesota’s licensure structure, but still contains some issues that should be worked out before passage.

The bill places all teacher licensure functions in one entity, the new Board of Professional Educators. The Board of Teaching currently sets the requirements for licensure and the Minnesota Department of Education reviews license applications, makes licensure decisions, and issues the licenses. This process has created confusion for licensure candidates. The bill also sets up a tiered framework for a new teacher licensure structure.

The bill is in response to a working group’s recommendations made to the legislature prior to the start of the legislative session.

Bill would replace MCAs with ACT

A bill heard in committee this week would replace the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) with the American College Testing (ACT) test to meet state and federal testing requirements. Education stakeholders argue that this change would help to ensure college and career readiness and save students money on college-prep tests by integrating the nationally normed college entrance exam into high school curriculum.

If passed, the new law would go into effect August 1, 2017 and apply to students entering grade nine in the 2017-2018 school year and later. Combining the state graduation requirements with college entrance exams would mean fewer tests for high school students. The bill was passed as amended by the E-12 Policy Committee on Wednesday and re-referred to the E-12 Finance Committee.

Veterans may qualify for lower property taxes

Minnesota veterans with certified disability ratings above 70% may be eligible to exclude a portion of their property’s market value from property taxes under current law. Veterans with a service-connected disability rating higher than 70% can apply with their county to exclude $150,000 of market value from property tax calculations. Veterans who have 100% permanent disability may exclude $300,000 of market value. In addition, surviving spouses of veterans killed in the line of duty may continue receiving this exemption for eight years after the veteran’s death.

Three bills considered by the Tax Committee this week would expand this exclusion. Two of the bills would allow surviving spouses to qualify indefinitely as long as they stayed living at the property. One of those bills also would open the exclusion to surviving spouses of any veteran who qualified for the exclusion, not only those with 100% disability ratings. A third bill would increase the exclusion amounts available to veterans with ratings between 70% and 99%, so the benefit would be incrementally higher for those in that range. A 97-year-old surviving spouse testified on behalf of these bills, stating that the current exclusion has provided the financial flexibility to stay living in her home even after her spouse passed away.

All bills were laid over for possible consideration in the Omnibus Tax Bill.

Student loan tax credits considered

Last year’s tax bill included a DFL initiative to create a first-of-its-kind tax credit for taxpayers making student loan payments. That bill was unfortunately vetoed over an unintended mistake, but a bipartisan group of legislators is aiming to make this credit a reality once again this year.

The Senate Tax Committee heard two bills this week. The first is a clone of last year’s DFL proposal and would offer a maximum $1,000 tax credit to individuals paying more than 10% of their Adjusted Gross Income toward student loans. All eligible individuals could claim 50% of eligible payments; those in public service and educational professions would receive slightly higher credit allowances: 65% and 75% of loan payments made, respectively. At least 71,300 taxpayers would qualify for an average refundable tax credit of $842 in 2017. (SF 941)

The second bill is much more expansive, offering up to a $5,000 credit for individuals or parents of individuals making qualified loan payments. Annual payments toward qualified loan interest and principal would qualify for the credit. The cost of this credit is far higher, at nearly $1.5 billion for the first two years of implementation. The bill author concedes the proposal would need to be scaled to a more affordable range, but the cost highlights the enormous student debt problem facing so many early- and mid-career Minnesotans.

Minnesota graduates from the class of 2015 carry an average student debt load of $31,526 – the fifth-highest average in the nation. As many as 338,700 taxpayers would qualify for an average credit of $2,147 in 2017 if the second bill passed, according to the Department of Revenue. That is a significant portion of the population who are struggling to choose debt payments over other important life investments, such as purchasing homes and cars, or even beginning families. That number also includes parents paying on their children’s student loans, who may be delaying retirement decisions because of the added debt. Providing some tax relief would allow more investments in our economy and may even attract more young professionals to grow their careers in our state. (SF 165).

Both bills were laid over for possible inclusion in the Senate’s tax bill.

Elections Bill

An Omnibus Elections Bill has passed a second committee and is on to another in the Senate. The bill would impose provisional ballots in Minnesota for anyone with a challenged status at the polls. Sometimes a voter’s information can be incorrect at the polls or a voter can be mistaken for another person who is ineligible to vote. In these cases, a voter is allowed to testify under oath they are eligible and cast their vote. The proposed bill would repeal this ability and require challenged voters to cast a provisional ballot. While most states have provisional ballots, Minnesota does not because same-day voter registration is available. In the 2012 Presidential Election, over a quarter of the provisional votes cast nationwide were never counted.

The Secretary of State and the League of Women Voters have testified in opposition to this bill based on the provision implementing provisional ballots.

Another concern with the Omnibus Elections Bill is a matter of voter data privacy. Currently, anyone can purchase limited voter data from the Secretary of State’s Statewide Voter Registration System. It also includes private data on the history of a voter’s challenged status. The Omnibus Elections Bill would make this data public, even after a voter resolved their challenged status with the county auditor.

Due to these issues, the Omnibus Elections Bill has been very contentious in the Senate and will likely continue to be without further changes. Governor Dayton has indicated he will not sign any elections bill that does not have bipartisan support, and has vetoed divisive elections bills in the past. 

My Bills

SF 846-A bill to prevent discrimination of parents with disabilities and assist them

Despite the 14th Amendment, the Olmstead Act, and the ADA, parents with disabilities are the only distinct community of Americans who must struggle to retain custody of their children.

Bills passed in other states have addressed attitudinal bias in child welfare and family court proceedings; lack of knowledge of disability, adaptive equipment, and family preservation services; problems in the production of good evidence and challenge of bad evidence; and laws leading to discrimination by allowing the removal of a child without showing a nexus between the disability and detriment to the child.

Minnesota’s common sense approach is to proactively support parents with disabilities and prevent an events leading to child welfare action. Legislation creates a pilot program, establishes an advisory council, appropriates funding, and requires a report

  • Leaves the responsibility for child rearing and decision making in the hands of the parent.
  • Promotes recognition of parenting capabilities with and without supports
  • Reduces fear of having a child removed solely based on the presence of disability.

Its a common sense bill to address a very serious problem for parents with disabilities.

SF 1102-Opening up PCA services to people with mental illness

This bill does one small change to the statute regarding eligibility for PCA services, it removes the word “constant’, but this small change will have a big impact on the lives of people with mental illnesses.

In 2009 due to budget issues, the legislature made changes to the PCA program to limit the eligibility which were phased in over time. It did result in many children and adults with mental illnesses being moved off the program. Changes included requiring two dependencies, instead of one, in activities of daily living and adding the word “constant” to supervision and cueing.

The problem, for people with mental illnesses, is that they don’t need “constant” supervision and cueing to accomplish an activity of daily living, but they will need intermittent supervision and cueing. For example, someone with a mental illness does not need hands-on assistance to eat, and would not need constant supervision or cuing to feed themselves. They may, however, need cueing to see if there is food in the refrigerator or cupboards, the steps needed to make the meal, etc. They can take their medication independently, but may need reminders to take the medication. They may be so depressed that they cannot get out of bed. They don’t need help physically to get out of bed, but may need encouragement and emotional support.

Just because someone doesn’t need constant cueing doesn’t mean that they don’t need assistance.

If you have any questions or concerns feel free to call my office at 651-296-4154 or by e-mail at jhoffman@senate.mn