For working families, 2015 session yields mixed results – and uncertainty

The Move MN Coalition launched a "Duct Tape Tour" of the state from MnDOT headquarters in St. Paul this morning.

The Move MN Coalition launched a “Duct Tape Tour” of the state from MnDOT headquarters in St. Paul this morning.

The frenzied finish at the Capitol yielded mixed – and uncertain – results for Minnesota’s working families.

Although the Legislature approved a record investment in long-term care before adjourning last night, unions said lawmakers squandered an opportunity to use the state’s $1.9 billion budget surplus to restore cuts to public schools, expand access to pre-kindergarten and rebuild the state’s transportation infrastructure.

School employees held out hope for improvement on the Legislature’s $400 million package of funding for K-12 public schools. Gov. Mark Dayton, who made expanded access to pre-kindergarten his top priority this year, today vetoed the bill.

In a letter to Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt, the DFL governor noted that the Legislature’s proposed increase to the K-12 education budget is smaller than increase lawmakers approved two years ago, when they faced a projected deficit of $627 million.

Dayton called it “incomprehensible that estate tax cuts for millionaires and property tax relief for large corporations are higher priorities for your House Republican Caucus than investing adequately in our students and young children.”

Dayton’s veto will recall legislators into a special session – a prospect welcomed by Education Minnesota, the union of 70,000 educators, and Local 284 of the Service Employees International Union.

“We can do better than a formula increase that only limits layoffs,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “We can reduce class sizes and start to bring back art, music, world languages, physical education and other courses we’ve lost to cuts over the years. We can also give all families access to high-quality preschool, not just a targeted few. There’s still a huge surplus. If not now, when?”

Carol Nieters, executive director of Local 284, said the Legislature’s bill would leave school districts across the state struggling to keep up with rising inflationary costs.

“The debate may be ongoing, but our members know the importance of funding that keeps up with inflation and allows school districts to maintain their buildings, particularly in Greater Minnesota,” Nieters said. “Anything less for our students is unacceptable.”

Transportation advocates, meanwhile, resigned themselves to continuing to push for a comprehensive, long-term plan to rebuild and repair the states roads, bridges and transit ways.

Members of the union-backed, pro-transportation Move MN Coalition today launched a three-day, 10-city “Duct Tape Tour” from St. Paul, warning that short-term, “lights-on” investments aren’t enough for the state’s aging transportation infrastructure.

“To say we are disappointed would be a huge understatement,” said Todd Pufahl, president and business manager for the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota. “This issue isn’t going to go away. And future improvements will only cost Minnesotans more.”

On the tour members of the coalition, which includes unions, business groups and non-profit organizations, will visit potential transportation-construction sites across the state left to languish without state funding, and they will hear from local residents about the consequences of inaction for their local communities.

“As Minnesotans, we know duct tape is pretty amazing stuff, but there are things it can’t fix,” said Pufahl. “You can’t use duct tape to fill in a pot hole. You can’t use it to shore up a crumbling bridge. You can’t use it to mark a bike lane. And most importantly, you can’t use it to fix the gaping hole in transportation funding.”

Legislators also failed to agree on a new safety regulation requiring two-person crews on most freight trains passing through the state, a measure backed by the United Transportation Union. The bill advanced to the Senate floor, but failed to gain traction in the House.

“Our minimum crew requirement remains controversial to the Republican House leadership … despite our best efforts and one-on-one conversations with Republican members,” UTU Minnesota Legislative Director Phil Qualy said.

While much of the public focus was on the rift over education funding, lawmakers quietly passed the most significant increase in long-term care support in 30 years.

The measure, included in the nearly $13 billion health and human services budget, does not require a particular percentage of the payment increase to go to wages, but pay for long-term care workers is expected to go up.

“For long-term care workers, especially in Greater Minnesota, the advocacy of front line staff and other supporters over the last few years paid off with record funding for this important work,” said Jamie Gulley, president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, one of several unions that represent long-term care workers. “Investing in the health and safety of Minnesotans is always a good investment, and we are proud that SEIU Healthcare Minnesota members fought so hard to make this a reality in the long-term care field.”

The Minnesota Nurses Association also praised the Legislature for taking steps to prevent violence against workers in health care facilities, following a dramatic attack on staff at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood last November. Under the new law, hospitals will be required to create and implement violence prevention plans.

“We saw a horrific event at St. John’s,” MNA President Linda Hamilton said. “The truth is nurses are assaulted in hospitals and nursing homes every day. They’re pinched, hit, and kicked by patients and their families. We’re glad to see efforts that will protect nurses and other healthcare workers from violence.”

– This report includes material from Workday Minnesota.

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