When it comes to an all-out ban on the indoor use of e-cigarette devices, Gov. Mark Dayton said he’s open to listen, but stood firm that such a bill should not pass this session.
“I don’t know that there’s conclusive enough evidence that would warrant banning of them in all buildings in Minnesota,” Dayton said Friday. “I think the timing is ill-advised…we raised taxes on cigarettes (last session). Some people say this is helping (smokers) quit, well that’s what we want them to do is quit.”
Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, is Senate sponsor of a bill that would ban sale of the devices to children and ban their use indoors in all public buildings. The bill is supported by groups like the American Lung Association and Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Edward Ehlinger, saying there are no studies that prove the vapor exhaled from the devices is safe. Proponents of e-cigarette use, often referred to as “vaping,” say there’s no proof that it’s dangerous.
Dayton first expressed his doubts about banning indoor use of the devices this week, after the Senate Commerce Committee cleared Sheran’s bill. Afterward, Commerce Committee Chair Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, asked that the bill be re-reviewed. However, Sheran dual-tracked her proposal through a Health and Human Services omnibus bill, meaning it will remain on the floor for a vote this session.
Sheran said that in the meantime, she plans to meet with Dayton in hopes of changing his mind.
Dayton said he despite the disagreement, he respects the opinion of Ehlinger and is meeting with Sheran next week. However, he stopped short of saying he was open to changing his position.
“I’m not enthusiastic about the absolute ban; I won’t say ahead of time whether I will veto it or not veto it,” he said. “I need to see the language again.”
Dayton said he wishes the bill would return in 2015.
Minnesota's business and labor communities, at odds over a proposed increase in the state's minimum wage and the question of whether future hikes should be automatic, found common ground Friday against a proposal by Senate Democrats to put the question to voters in November.
"We're here to oppose legislating through the Constitution. We've already elected people to support us," Ben Gerber, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, told a Senate panel.
"The constitution is not for giving specific guidelines to businesses in Minnesota," said Jennifer Schaubach, legislative director at the Minnesota AFL-CIO.
Other business and labor lobbyists, faith leaders and progressive activists and a low-wage worker spoke one after another against the constitutional amendment offered by Senate Democrats. If it were to land on the November ballot, voters would decide whether future increases in the state's minimum wage should automatically rise with inflation.
Despite the wide array of opposition, the Senate Jobs, Agriculture and Rural Development Committee approved the amendment on a split vote Friday. Democrats who hold the committee majority said it could be a way to break a stalemate with House Democrats on the minimum wage proposal.
The bill has been a top DFL priority this session, but has been bogged down for months by differences between the two chambers. House and Senate negotiators have agreed on an increase in the state minimum wage from $6.15 an hour to $9.50, but House Democrats want to include the inflation index. That measure lacks support from Senate Democrats, who now suggest voters should make the call instead.
"What this bill does today is open a new chapter," said Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing. "This may be our only path forward, and we have to be open to that path."
Republicans on the committee called the amendment, which is co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, a political stunt. Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Paul Thissen, also Democrats, both said Friday they disagree with pursuing a constitutional amendment on the issue.
"This shows a failure of leadership," said Sen. Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls. He said it would be a message from Democrats that they don't view a minimum wage increase as urgent as many of their allies claim.
The proposal now heads to the Senate Rules Committee, which Bakk chairs.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk is suggesting that Minnesota voters should decide an issue that's divided Democrats in the House and Senate: whether the state minimum wage automatically rises with inflation.
Bakk said Thursday that he's co-sponsoring a constitutional amendment introduced by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope. If they can get it to the November ballot, it would let voters decide if future minimum wage increases are linked to increases in the cost of living.
House and Senate negotiators on the minimum wage issue have agreed on an increase from the current $6.15 an hour to $9.50. But they are stalled over the desire by House Democrats to include the automatic inflator, which Bakk has repeatedly said lacks support among Senate Democrats.
Bakk said he believed voters would pass the amendment if it were on the ballot.
Putting the inflation index in the constitution would take it out of the political arena, he said, expressing worry that if Republicans regain a majority at some point in the House or Senate that they would repeal the inflator and force Democrats to bargain on an issue important to their labor allies.
However,the coalition pushing for the minimum wage hike criticized the constitutional amendment proposal. Labor groups and their allies "do not support legislating by constitutional amendment. Minnesotans elected legislators to govern," said Peggy Flanagan, executive director of Children's Defense Fund Minnesota and a co-chair of the Raise the Wage Coalition.
Bakk himself recently introduced a constitutional amendment that would make it harder to put future amendments on the ballot, by requiring a supermajority vote by the House and Senate.
The constitutional amendment is up for review by a Senate committee on Friday. Bakk said he has not yet polled his caucus members on the issue but said he thinks it should be part of ongoing negotiations over the minimum wage bill, which has been stalled in recent days.
A proposal to regulate the emerging e-cigarette industry, including a prohibition on using the products indoors, is headed for a vote by the full state Senate.
The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill on Monday. The committee also voted down an amendment that would have allowed private businesses to continue to allow use of e-cigarettes, or "vaping," indoors on their property.
That provision has been heavily criticized by e-cigarette store owners and industry lobbyists, and it has been removed from a companion bill in the House. If the House and Senate approve differing versions of the bill, differences would have to be reconciled in a conference committee.
E-cigarette advocates say they offer a way to use nicotine that's not as unhealthy as cigarettes, and that the product has helped many smokers quit. The indoor ban's supporters say there are still many unknowns about possible health consequences of the vapors created by e-cigarettes.
"The risk inherent is unclear. It is not proven to be safe," said the ban's Senate sponsor, Sen. Kathy Sheran of Duluth.
Jesse Griffith owns Smokeless Smoking, an e-cigarette store in Woodbury. He said most in the industry don't oppose the bill's other main provision, to ban the sale of e-cigarettes to minors. But he said the indoor ban would have a negative effect on about 200 e-cigarette retailers, about 80 percent of whom have popped up in the last year.
"It will make it harder for businesses like our to survive," Griffith said. He argued that restricting the use of e-cigarettes could result in some former cigarette smokers lapsing back into the habit.
But Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said there's not enough known about possible health ramifications for lawmakers to exempt vaping from Minnesota's Freedom to Breathe Act, which bans indoor smoking.
"If you workin a hotel, restaurant, bar or VFW, I'm not sure you want to be forced to choose between keeping your job and being exposed to some unknown array of chemicals being released into the atmosphere," Latz said.
Minnesota's Department of Revenue has some advice for taxpayers: Please wait.
Given a new tax relief law in place, after quick legislative action last week, the agency is asking taxpayers who could benefit to wait until April 3 to file their taxes. By then, the agency, software vendors and tax preparers should have updated forms in place to process the tax breaks.
The department also wants taxpayers who have already filed their returns -- and about half of Minnesotans have -- to wait for the department to contact them about getting refunds if they will benefit from the new law. It may take months, but the agency expects that it will simply send out checks to the taxpayers who overpaid or contact them for further information.
"This is a pretty complex task," said Minnesota Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans. "This is not something you normally want to do this late in the filing season."
Last week, after some hullabaloo, the Legislature and DFL Gov. Mark Dayton approved a $444 million tax relief package. The tax relief, coming after a year when Democrats raised taxes by nearly $2 billion, gives Dayton and lawmakers a popular talking point now that they're up for re-election.
Only about a quarter -- $57 million in tax cuts -- will apply to 2013 taxes, meaning those who filed already will get refunds and those who have yet to file will pay less in taxes. Individual taxpayers will end up paying about $49 million less in taxes this year and businesses will pay an estimated $8 million less.
The tax cuts will apply to about ten percent of all taxpayers this year, or about 250,000 to 270,000 Minnesotans.
The people who will benefit fall into 22 different categories. A dozen of those are businesses. Others include low income families, college students, parents who adopted children last year and educators who paid for classroom supplies.
See the full list of individual taxpayer categories below. See the department's general guidance for individual taxpayers here.
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