Legislative update, week 11: Health insurance exchange finalized?

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It's crunch time for legislation aimed at creating a whole new way for Minnesotans to shop for health care insurance.

Lawmakers have worked quickly on the landmark legislation that would establish an online marketplace that 1 million residents, nearly one-fifth of Minnesotans, including some of its poorest and uninsured, would use to obtain insurance.

They have been in a rush because of a March 31 deadline – the state must establish the health care exchange by then or relinquish control of it, at least for now, to the federal government. Minnesota is one of at least 17 states that intend to operate their own exchanges, MPR noted.

So there was a blizzard of action last week, when a group of House and Senate negotiators hammered out a final version of the legislation. The House approved it 72-61.

The Senate is expected to vote on it this week.

The measure has generated controversy. "Is this bill going to make Minnesota more competitive? Is this going to help job creators in Minnesota do what they do best? Create jobs? Unfortunately I think the answer to that question right now is, 'no,' " House Minority leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.

Proponents say the exchange will save the state money as well as offer consumers more choices on an open market. "This is without a doubt the most significant health insurance reform in 50 years," Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights said. "Not since Medicaid or Medicare in 1965, have we seen anything this significant."

Gun buys

In other action this week, legislation that would require universal background checks for gun purchases is scheduled for a vote in the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee.

A Senate panel last week approved a similar bill that would require background checks for all gun buyers, including firearms buyers at gun shows. That controversial legislation also includes other measures, including stricter penalties for straw buyers – people who buy guns and sell them for a profit to criminals. Meanwhile, a competing bill that has bipartisan support and the backing of the National Rifle Association, which lacks the background check requirements, is still very much alive, the Pioneer Press reports.

Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, chairman of the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, has said he is working with Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, sponsor of the competing measure, to see if there is a compromise they can both agree on that includes background checks.

Last week

Dayton's new budget

Gov. Mark Dayton unveiled a newly revised budget proposal for lawmakers to chew over, which dropped his earlier plan to broaden sales taxes in the state. He also scrapped a proposal to offer $500 property tax rebates to Minnesota homeowners. Dayton's new $37.9 billion state budget proposal includes a $1.1 billion income tax increase on the wealthy. GOP lawmakers are already outlining their criticisms of the bill. Dayton is planning "Meetings with Mark" in communities around the state to get Minnesotans' thoughts on the budget. Lawmakers likely will be working on the budget into May.

Bonding bill

Dayton is also seeking $750 million from the Legislature for capital projects, including money to renovate the Minneapolis Veterans Home and the expansion of civic centers in Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud. He also wants additioanl money to continue the renovation of the State Capitol.

Immigration

A Senate education panel approved a measure that would enable undocumented students who meet certain criteria to pay in-state tuition rates at all Minnesota colleges and universities. If approved, Minnesota would join 12 other states with similar bills, but the legislation's future is uncertain, the Star Tribune notes.

Snack food tax

The House Tax Committee set aside a proposed tax on snack foods, leaving an option open to attach it to other legislation later in the session, KARE 11 reported. So the legislation is still on the table, but some lawmakers said they couldn't stomach it, given some of the confusing rules about what kinds of food are taxed. Proponents say chips, pretzels, cookies ought to be subject to the state's 6.88 percent sales tax, perhaps to raise money to address health issues.

Crime labs

All of Minnesota's crime labs would have to be accredited, according to legislation making its way through the Legislature, the Pioneer Press reported. The bill grew out of controversy around the unaccredited St. Paul crime lab, where sloppy work and lax rules have thrown many cases into question.

Gay marriage

Two panels – one in the House and one in the Senate – approved legislation that would legalize gay marriage in Minnesota. The bills now go to the floor for votes in both chambers, but that likely won't happen for a few weeks.

Chili cook-offs

Residents in Crosslake, Minn., are working with their lawmakers in the Capitol to push legislation that would loosen state health rules that chili and soup dishes must prepared on-site or in a commercial kitchen for cook-off competitions. Residents prefer to cook at home and let their chilis sit for a few days so that the flavor "melds" properly.

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