Legislators OK higher dropout age, minimum-wage hike

  • Article by: PATRICIA LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2008 - 7:14 AM

Legislators dropped the hammer on Minnesota teens, and passed a bill to raise the minimum wage in two stages. But a transportation policy bill that would have made the failure to wear seat belts a primary offense was sent back to a conference committee.

Legislators dropped the hammer on teens Thursday night, passing a bill that would force students to stay in school until age 18 and require physical education for graduation.

The DFL-led House voted 82-49 to send Gov. Tim Pawlenty the education bill, which, in addition to pushing up the dropout age, also would declare hockey to be the official state sport. The Senate passed the bill earlier.

But a transportation policy bill that would have made the failure to wear seat belts a primary offense in Minnesota, banned text-messaging while driving and restricted teens' ability to drive at night and to carry multiple passengers did not fare as well.

Late Thursday, the House voted 72 to 62 to send it back to a conference committee with a recommendation that the seat-belt provision be removed to improve the bill's chances for passage. The Senate did not take it up pending the conferees' actions.

On the education bill, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said many Minnesotans were unaware that students now can legally drop out as soon as they turn 16. "This sends a powerful message to our students," Mariani said.

Students also would be required to have a half-credit of physical education in order to graduate.

Minimum-wage hike approved

In their last act just after midnight Thursday, both houses passed a bill to raise the minimum wage in two stages, ignoring Pawlenty's threat to veto it.

The vote was 40-18 in the Senate and 89-45 in the House.

The bill would raise the lowest hourly wage for workers at large companies by 60 cents to $6.75 in mid-July and another dollar a year later. That's for businesses with annual sales above $625,000.

Smaller employers would have to pay at least 50 cents more an hour, or $5.75, starting in July and their minimum wage would go up to $6.75 a year later.

Seat-belt proposal held back

The seat-belt provision has long been controversial in the House, with opposition crossing party and geographical lines. The resistance held firm despite the prospect of as much as $25 million in federal aid for passage of a primary seat-belt provision.

Under the bill, drivers could have been stopped and fined $25 for anyone in the car older than 15 who wasn't wearing a seat belt. The Senate has long supported such a provision.

Rep. Ron Earhardt, R-Edina, had said that as many as 40 lives a year could be saved. Among the opponents was Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, a prosecutor, who said, "Stop trying to protect me from myself."

A later closing time for bars

Earlier, the Senate, by a vote of 42 to 20, and the House, by a vote of 112 to 22, approved authorizing local governments in the Twin Cities area to push back bar-closing times from 2 to 4 a.m. during the Republican National Convention. Pawlenty has said he'll sign the measure

It's left up to individual cities and townships in the seven-county metro area to decide whether they want to expand bar hours to 4 a.m. They're also allowed to charge bars a fee of as much as $2,500 for special permits to operate during the longer hours.

Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who co-authored the closing-time proposal in a broader liquor policy bill in the Senate, said she believed an informational session for legislators quelled concerns about enforcing the expanded hours and the ability of local jurisdictions to regulate it.

Under the measure, the later hours would be in effect only from Aug. 31, the day before the convention begins in St. Paul, through Sept. 5, the day after it ends.

Hot words over hockey

The move to make hockey Minnesota's official sport, which was part of the education bill, prompted some cross-checking on the House floor before it was approved.

Rep. Bud Heidgerken said it was demeaning to young athletes trying to choose a sport and wouldn't mean anything in some parts of the state where hockey isn't popular.

But Rep. Dean Urdahl said the provision didn't aim to put down any other sport but instead to recognize hockey's unique place in Minnesota and its history.

Late-night work

As midnight approached, the House and Senate were working madly to clear up major bills as they moved toward closure of a session scheduled to adjourn by May 19.

Also on the agenda late Thursday was the minimum-wage bill, targeted for a veto by Pawlenty.

Negotiations among Pawlenty and DFL legislative leaders on how to bridge their differences had continued on Thursday, working toward closing a projected $935 million budget deficit. They met again briefly in the afternoon before Pawlenty departed for Breezy Point Resort for the governor's fishing opener with no breakthroughs.

Earlier in the day, Pawlenty said he is considering his options -- including a special session -- if he and legislative leaders fail to reach a global agreement before May 19.

He said discussions continue on the level of spending cuts, specifics of a property tax cap and the use of reserves.

While discussions among staff members were expected to continue, it is unlikely Pawlenty and the leaders will meet face-to-face again until Sunday night.

Staff writers Kevin Duchschere, Norman Draper and Mark Brunswick contributed to this report, as did the Associated Press. Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288

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