Gov. Mark Dayton is proposing that the state fund clinical trials at Mayo Clinic of cannabis-based medications for children with severe forms of epilepsy, as well as a more comprehensive study of medical marijuana.
Several of Dayton's top deputies and his health commissioner met privately on Thursday with medical marijuna advocates. The governor ordered the meeting last week after he met with a group of advocates who showed up at his residence to demonstrate in favor of a proposal at the Capitol to legalize medical marijuana.
Dayton's new proposal would not make medical marijuana legal in Minnesota. His chief of staff, Jamie Tincher, said in a written statement the administration is looking for ideas that could pass during the current legislative session. The proposal would provide $2.2 million in state funds for medical marijuana research, with a main focus on possible health benefits of cannabidiol, or CBD, a marijuana compound that many parents of children with severe forms of epilepsy say is effective in reducing seizures.
"It is my understanding that key stakeholders in the law enforcement and medical communities _ including the Mayo Clinic _ would support and advocate for the approach we are considering," Tincher said. Dayton has repeatedly cited concerns from law enforcement and medical groups for his own hesitation to embrace medical marijuana, which is legal in 20 states.
State Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said the larger study would analyze the benefits, costs and risks of medical marijuana.
Dayton administration officials met with four patients who want access to medical marijuana and with Heather Azzi, who leads the pro-medical marijuana group Minnesotans for Compassionate Care. Azzi said Friday that her group supports further research, but has concerns about how it would work in practice.
Azzi said she appreciates the administration's efforts "but nothing here gets medical marijuana into the hands of people who need it," she said.
Dayton's proposal would be separate from the bill to legalize medical marijuana. Azzi said administration officials assured her Dayton is not set on vetoing that bill if it gets to his desk, and won't decide until it does. But top legislative leaders in recent days have been skeptical of the bill's chances this year.
Tincher said that discussions between the administration and groups interested in the issue would continue next week.
More than 1.2 million Minnesotans will get tax breaks under a sweeping tax relief proposal the Legislature overwhelmingly approved and Gov. Mark Dayton signed Friday.
Working families, married couples and those who adopted children will be among the biggest winners in a proposal that includes more than $444 million in permanent tax relief, including about $57 million that will be retroactive for 2013.
After passing the Senate 58-5, the House passed it 126-2. Dayton quickly signed the bill into law Friday night.
“The urgency was apparent,” Dayton said, during a celebratory press conference with DFL House and Senate leaders.
“This is a monumental victory for the DFL leadership in the Legislature and just shows that we have a balanced approach in Minnesota. That’s what people wanted," Dayton said.
Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans said that his staff would work through the weekend to put the tax cuts into place.
“If you have not filed your tax return yet, we would advise you to wait until Monday,” Frans said.
He said that the department will contact Minnesotans who already filed who would be eligible for refunds to make sure they get the money back that they deserve. About half of Minnesotans have already filed their 2013 tax returns.
Among those who may be eligible for tax breaks: college students, educators, lower income families and those with mortgage insurance deductions. A one-day delay, forced by Senate Republicans' unwillingness to vote on the measure the same day it was first released, will not change anyone’s eligibility for tax breaks, Frans said.
Legislators are also racing to finish the tax proposal to repeal new business sales taxes, including a much-criticized levy on warehousing services that is set to take effect in about a week.
Democrats, who control both chambers of the Legislature, are paying for the tax relief from a $1.2 billion budget surplus. This is the first windfall in years that wasn’t already earmarked to replenish reserves or repay billions the state borrowed from public schools to balance the budget during the last recession.
Along with the tax cuts, lawmakers added $150 million to the budget reserves, bringing the state’s rainy-day fund to more than $800 million. The state’s budget reserves are far below what is recommended by national credit-rating agencies, which have downgraded the state’s credit rating due to the low reserves and reliance on one-time accounting shifts and borrowing to balance.
Republicans have sharply criticized the increased budget reserves, saying the money is better off in the pockets of taxpayers than in the state bank account.
“They will spend it more wisely than government every day of the week,” said Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen. “And they will get a better return.”
State Senate Republicans want to increase tax relief for Minnesotans this year by proposing more than $360 million in permanent sales tax relief.
“Sales taxes affect everybody,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. Sales tax relief “is abundantly fair.”
Senate Republicans want to lower the state sales tax rate to 6.375 percent, from 6.875 percent.
The proposal comes as DFL leaders who control the Senate finalized more than $500 million in tax relief for consumers and businesses. The measure is expected to get a final vote Thursday.
Legislators are wrestling with a $1.2 billion projected budget surplus, which comes largely from the state’s strong economic performance.
Republicans have argued that Democrats raised too many new taxes last year. They have proposed returning nearly all of it to taxpayers, which could dramatically wipe out projected surpluses in the following years and potentially send the state into deficit again.
Senate Democrats are taking a more cautious approach and are trying to spend the money in ways that doesn’t blow a monster hole in the budget it future years. The Senate strongly supports using some of the surplus to bolster the state’s reserves by another $150 million, bringing the state’s rainy-day fund to around $750 million.
Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Rod Skoe said he does not want a repeat of the last decade, where the state was locked in cycle of deficits and emergency budget cutting that damaged the state's credit rating.
“We don’t want to go through that again,” said Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook. “A little bit of caution is in order.”
Republicans oppose building up the reserves, saying the tax money should be in the economy, not sitting in the state’s bank account.
“We are better off letting people keep their money in their pockets,” Hann said.
Top legislative leaders from both parties were pessimistic Friday about chances that medical marijuana would be legalized this year, even after Gov. Mark Dayton put new weight behind finding a compromise on the controversial bill.
A day earlier, Dayton abruptly shifted on the issue after a two hour meeting with medical marijuana advocates. After downplaying the proposal’s chances Thursday morning, Dayton instructed his chief of staff and health commissioner to find a compromise on Thursday afternoon.
But at a Friday news briefing, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy declared it “probably not possible to get this conversation done yet this session.” House Speaker Paul Thissen and Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, both DFLers from Minneapolis, echoed her pessimism.
“There may be a more fruitful discussion that happens after this session into next year, that will yield a better outcome on this issue for Minnesotans,” said Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
While law enforcement objections to the proposal have been widely aired, Murphy said she wanted to see more input from the medical community.
Police and sheriffs have long argued that legalizing marijuana for patients who get a doctor’s prescription would make illegal uses of the drug harder to control, and open the door to full-scale legalization.
The issue has scrambled partisan lines at the Capitol, with both Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the debate.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said Friday he thinks marijuana could be beneficial for some patients; but said the lack of consensus in the medical community “could put pharmacists and medical professionals in tough positions.”
Dayton instructed a handful of top staffers and Health commissioner to meet with advocates and other concerned groups to see if there’s still room for compromise.
Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said Friday that the governor’s chief of staff, Jamie Tincher, is working on setting up those meetings.
Photo: Medical marijuana advocates demonstrate outside Gov. Mark Dayton's residence in St. Paul. Souce: Star Tribune.
Minnesota school kids deserve a hot lunch at school, the Minnesota House decided unanimously on Thursday.
The House approved spending $3.5 million in state funds to make sure that low-income school kids get the lunch they need.
"Together in a bipartisan fashion we can say that no child in the great state of Minnesota is going to go hungry because of an inability to pay," said Rep. Yvonne Selcer, a Minnetonka DFLer who sponsored the school lunch measure.
Last month, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton were outraged to learn that some school districts swap students hot lunches for cold lunch and others deny students lunch if they are without funds to pay for hot lunches.
The measure that passed Thursday would have the state underwrite the cost of hot lunch for students who are eligible for reduced priced lunch. A similar measure is also awaiting action in the Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton set aside money to pay for the lunches in his budget proposal last week.
Dayton said he was shocked by reports that some school districts deny hot lunches to students on reduced-priced meal programs.
“It is so unMinnesotan,” he said on Thursday. “Let’s extend the Minnesota hand of compassion,”
Students in families that earn less than $25,000 a year are eligible for free lunches at schools. Students whose families earn more than $36,131 a year must pay for lunch. But the students whose families earn between $25,000 and $36,131 pay a reduced fee. It is those 62,000 students whose- lunch cost the state will now subsidize.
During floor debate, House members added a provision to forbid schools from stigmatizing or demeaning students who lacked the funds to pay for hot lunches.
According to a report from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, some schools hand-stamped students who lacked funds with the words "lunch" or money" to remind the students to ask their parents to refresh their lunch funds.
"The unfortunate part of that is essentially you are punishing the child and there have been cases where then child has been bullied by other children," Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. "We don't want to see them be punished for something that the adults are responsible for."
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