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Candy and compromise: Health and Human Services omnibus

Posted by: Jennifer Brooks under Minnesota legislature Updated: April 24, 2012 - 7:40 PM

It took 40 pounds of M&Ms and a bipartisan effort, but the $18 million Health and Human Services omnibus sailed through the Legislature with near-unanimous support Tuesday.

“It’s like a ray of light, after the 24-hour dark days in Alaska,” said House sponsor Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who said this year’s painless passage was a far cry from last year’s budget showdown and shutdown. “I think we carefully spent the money. We listened to the governor; their priorities were actually realistic ones.”

The bill passed the House by a margin of 128-2, then cleared the Senate on a unanimous 64-0 vote Tuesday evening.

This, in spite of the fact that the 30-plus bills bundled in the omnibus included potentially hot-button issues like welfare reform, health care for immigrants, and services hit hard by last year’s budget cuts.

Welfare reform proposals drew outraged protesters to committee hearings earlier this year, but Abeler said the omnibus honed in on anti-fraud measures that almost everyone could support -- like using facial recognition software to identify people who use multiple driver's licenses to claim multiple benefits.

“I’m glad the Republican majority finally decided to join with us and do the right thing,” Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said in a statement, cheering a provision in the bill that reversed a 20 percent wage cut imposed during last year’s budget cuts for Minnesotans who serve as caregivers for their relatives.

Abeler said “the best came out in people” as both sides tried to come up with a bill that made the best use of scarce resources. And he used some resources of his own: piles of peanut butter M&Ms.

“We went through 15 pounds of peanut butter M&Ms at the first committee meeting,” he said.

More meetings and M&Ms followed, ending in the conference committee hearing where attendees plowed through a 23-pound box.

“When the M&Ms were gone,” Abeler said, “we were done.”

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