With an insider’s eye, Hot Dish tracks the tastiest bits of Minnesota’s political scene and keep you up-to-date on those elected to serve you.

Contributors in Minnesota: Patrick Condon, J. Patrick Coolican, Patricia Lopez, Ricardo Lopez, Abby Simons, and Glen Stubbe. Contributors in D.C.: Allison Sherry, Jim Spencer and intern Beena Raghavendran.

Franken's Pell Grant amendment fails in marathon budget voting session

Posted by: Beena Raghavendran under Minnesota U.S. senators Updated: March 27, 2015 - 3:06 PM

U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s amendment to the Senate budget to restore the Republican budget’s proposed cuts of almost $90 billion to student Pell Grants failed in the marathon Thursday-into-early-Friday budget resolution session.

Pell Grants, which give money to students with financial need — and, unlike student loans, these don’t need to be paid back — helped 160,000 students in Minnesota pay for college last year, Franken said on the Senate floor. His office said in a release that Pell Grants help more than 8.2 million students go to college.

The Republican budget would make cuts to this program and freeze the maximum Pell Grant award while tuition at many universities continues to increase. The House and Senate Budget Committees are planning to cut more than $3 trillion in 2016 through 2025 from programs that serve people with lower incomes, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported earlier this week.

Franken’s plan failed by eight votes on Thursday afternoon.

“When my wife Franni and I were in college, a full Pell Grant paid for about 80 percent of a public college education,” Franken said on the Senate floor. “Today, it pays for less than 35 percent. And yet, this budget would cut this program.”

The House Budget Committee, which said in its plan that it would cut $90 billion between 2016 and 2025, says that the Pell Grant Program will see a shortfall starting in fiscal year 2017. To compensate for that, the budget will be “targeting Federal financial aid to those most in need” and making programs more efficient.

Amendments introduced by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) passed in the Senate Thursday to make more than one Pell Grant available to students in a single year.

Sen. Franken to return to Dave Letterman in show's final weeks

Posted by: Allison Sherry under Morning Hot Dish newsletter, National campaigns, Democrats Updated: March 27, 2015 - 3:00 PM

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Al Franken has worked hard to eschew his comedic roots to prove to Minnesotans he is a serious senator.

After handily winning a re-election effort last year, the second-term Democrat is dipping his toe back in.

Franken is scheduled to appear on the Late Show With David Letterman Wednesday for the first time since 2008 -- before he was elected to a first term.

Before then, Franken was a regular on Letterman, first appearing in 1982 with his then-writing partner Tom Davis. He was a guest some 20 times in the 1980s and 1990s, when he was a writer for Saturday Night Live, staffers said Friday.

Apparently, there is no planned agenda, the two old friends will just likely riff.

Letterman's last show for CBS is scheduled for May 20.

Uber, insurance companies strike a deal, legislation heads to floor

Posted by: Abby Simons under Minnesota legislature Updated: March 27, 2015 - 3:47 PM

A "global agreement" cut between insurance companies and smartphone-based ride-sharing services like Uber extends to a compromise in Minnesota with legislation that would increase the company's mandated commercial insurance coverage without jeopardizing their presence in Minnesota.

A bill headed to the Senate floor mostly matches its House companion on how much rideshare services must insure drivers in “Phase One,” or after they’ve turned on the app but before they’ve triggered a button signaling that they’ve accepted a fare.

Under the dual pieces of legislation, Uber supply must supply its drivers in Phase One with minimum liability limits of $50,000 in death and injury liability coverage, $100,000 in total coverage and $30,000 in property damage. In phases two and three--after they’ve agreed through the app to pick up a fare and once the customer is in the vehicle—that coverage jumps to $1.5 million. (It remains $1 million in the House version.)

After lengthy debate over the nuances of the bill the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the measure, sending it to the floor for discussion after the Legislature returns from its two-week break.

The compromise comes a long way from an earlier Senate incarnation, which required Uber to furnish its drivers with $1 million insurance policies before their drivers accepted a fare. The legislation would have been the most stringent in the nation. While lawmakers backing the measure said it would close dangerous insurance loopholes, Uber representatives balked, saying the increased costs of such a requirement could determine whether the service expands—or even remains—in Minnesota.

Earlier this week, however, an agreement between the nation’s leading insurance providers and so-called Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft helped shape the legislation.

Much of that tension was alleviated after Friday’s hearing. Uber Minnesota General Manager Kenny Tsai said the company would like Minnesota’s current legislation to more closely reflect the “global agreement,” but said “We’re about 99 percent there.” Tsai said the company would like legislation to provide standard definitions of what a Transportation Network Company is, and what a driver’s duties for that company are.

“I think the clarity that we’d like to have is that this insurance bill applies to a driver that we partner with, and the nature of the relationship between drivers and us is clear.” He said.

Mark Kulda, Vice President of Public Affairs for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota, said the organization is pleased with the legislation’s incarnation.

“This brings the clarity that is needed,” he said, adding that with emerging technologies like Uber and Lyft, the insurance industry will catch up as well.

“What is preserved in this is the ability for the insurance market to change and adapt,” he said, such as personal insurance policies that could include commercial policy provisions for drivers who want to work on the side for Uber or Lyft.

“There will be some new, innovative products that are actually in other states right now that will probably come here,” he said. “We can see the emergence of those new products hopefully within months. Having this now helps our industry say 'Hey, maybe we can adapt a product now the marketplace.”

Photo: Uber Midwest General Manager Michael White speaks at a "Save Uber" rally last week. Behind him are Twin Cities Uber drivers.

Capitol renovation project needs $30M more from lawmakers

Posted by: Patrick Condon under Minnesota governor, Gov. Mark Dayton, Minnesota legislature, Minnesota state senators, State budgets Updated: March 28, 2015 - 2:39 PM

Problems with water damage, additional need for security improvements and other unforeseen costs have added $30 million to the cost of a major State Capitol building renovation, Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers learned Friday. 

If the additional money is approved by lawmakers, it would push the total price of the multi-year renovation to about $300 million. Dayton and lawmakers discussed the additional costs Friday in a meeting of the panel overseeing the project, which also saw leading lawmakers second-guessing some of the decisions by the project's architects. 

The biggest chunk of the additional $30 million in costs, about $17 million, is tied to addressing what the architects described as "water intrusion and settlement." Last spring, demolition work tied to the renovation uncovered evidence of widespread water leaks into the Capitol basement, particularly underneath two outdoor staircases on the east and west sides of the building.

Dayton and lawmakers expressed some irritation about the idea of having to pony up more money for the project, but there seemed to be bipartisan agreement it was probably necessary. 

"I don't know what the alternative would be," Dayton said. Said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester: "This seems in order -- we're mobilized, we're in there already, let's do it right." 

The additional spending has to be approved through the legislative process. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said some of that might be able to come from construction bonds, but also suggested a portion may have to come directly from the general fund. 

About $20 million from a contingency fund for the project is mostly spent, which Dayton said was also unfortunate but not too surprising. 

"It's a huge building and it's 109 years old," Dayton said. 

After discussing the cost overruns, Dayton and lawmakers haggled with the project's planners about public access to the building. 

Severall senators were upset with tentative plans to park school buses and place handicapped parking spots directly at the building's front, facing south toward downtown St. Paul.

Bakk and Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, expressed a strong preference that school buses could instead be parked along the building's east side, on Cedar Avenue. Bakk noted that a new Senate parking ramp under construction just north of the Capitol would have a lot of handicapped spots. 

Dayton, as he has previously, weighed in on the building's art. A recent assessment by Ted Lentz, an architect and member of the Capitol Area Architectual and Planning Board, valued the building's art assets as a stunning $1 billion, but Dayton has been critical of certain aspects of the art, suggesting it over-emphasizes Civil War battles and portraits of former governors. 

A subcommittee of the Capitol Preservation panel has been working on envisioning how to highlight existing art and possibly incorporate new art, too. The panel on Friday backed a request for $3 million in additional dollars to restore existing art that in some cases is damaged. 

Senate DFL budget just shy of $43 billion, sets aside $250M for rainy day fund

Posted by: Ricardo Lopez under Minnesota legislature, Minnesota state senators, Democrats, State budgets Updated: March 27, 2015 - 11:01 AM

Senate DFL leaders on Friday unveiled a broad budget outline that called for spending $42.7 billion in the upcoming biennium, about $250 million less than what Gov. Mark Dayton in his budget.

It follows the House Republican budget targets, released Tuesday, which called for a a budget of $40 billion, though it left out a chunk of spending. Republicans did not include in their total budget the more than $600 million in general fund dollars they would divert to road and bridge repairs in the next two years. Once that is factored in, as well as a $2-billion unspecified tax cut plan, the gap between the Dayton, DFL and GOP plans closes substantially.

The DFL proposal, characterized by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk as a "middle ground between the House Republican budget targets and Gov. Dayton's budget recommendations," would set aside $250 million to grow the state's budget reserve, or rainy day fund.

Bakk was vague Friday about what the DFL budget proposal will look like, but said details will become clearer in coming weeks as budget negotiations get underway. 

The plan calls for $1.14 billion in new spending, about $730 million less than the projected $1.87 billion budget surplus. Of that, nearly half will be dedicated to education.

DFLer's tax proposal calls for $200 million in tax cuts, which is likely to include property tax cuts, said Senate Taxes Chair Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook.

In a statement, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, criticized the DFL budget targets. 

“The state budget should reflect Minnesotans’ values, but Senate Democrats clearly refuse to do the hard work Republicans are doing to eliminate wasteful spending," Hann said. "The Republican budget, on the other hand, is designed to increase family budgets and grow the state’s economy."

This is a developing story. Check back later for an update.

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