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Tracking Minnesota’s political scene and keeping you up-to-date on those elected to serve you

Sens. Franken, Klobuchar question Neil Gorsuch on big business

WASHINGTON – Minnesota senators sharply questioned federal Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch during Wednesday’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, grilling him on whether he’d be protect the interests of ordinary people over corporations.

Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are among the nine Democrats on the 20-member Senate Judiciary Committee, where President Trump’s nominee coasted through three days of hearings and will receive a vote next month before his confirmation goes to the full Senate.

Franken assailed corporate policies that prevent customers and employers from filing lawsuits and restrict them instead to settle grievances through arbitration – what he called a permission slip for corporations to opt out of the civil justice system.

He asked Gorsuch if it was fair to enforce arbitration in all cases, describing how a Minnesota soldier who lost his legs in Iraq saw his house foreclosed upon and was prevented from filing a class action suit involving other service members.   

“I’m a big believer in jury trials,” said Gorsuch, adding that he’d worked with colleagues to make litigation cheaper, faster and more accessible.

When Franken asked if the blocking of the suit was unconscionable, Gorsuch said that if he was a lawyer that would be an argument -- and that he’d possibly ask Congress to revisit the nearly century-old Federal Arbitration Act.

Franken said he was worried about various 5-4 decisions on the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts that had restricted people’s rights to a jury trial “and that’s why frankly there’s so much at stake here … There’s a sort of core group of cases in which the Roberts court continually has ruled in favor of corporations and against workers and consumers that’s what this is about.”

Noting that Trump’s election was supposed to be about the little guy, Franken added that Democrats were trying to figure out whether they’d see a continuation of bias toward big money “where the weight shifts against the little guy and for the big guy.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said Franken’s discussion of arbitration had been compelling, “but I don’t see exactly how that applies to the judge sitting in front of us.” He said that was a matter that should be handled through legislation.

Klobuchar pressed the nominee on the unanimous Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday that required schools to provide better services for special education students. The ruling rejected a standard set by Gorsuch on the appeals court in 2008, in which he ruled that a Colorado school district didn’t have to pay for the private school tuition of an autistic boy.

“A student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimus progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” the Supreme Court ruled.

Klobuchar told Gorsuch that requiring educational standards to be merely more than "de minimus,” or minimal, creates more of a ceiling than a floor for students.

Gorsuch said that he had followed precedent in his ruling, and questioned that Klobuchar would suggest that he and other appeals judges were out of the mainstream in their legal reasoning.

Later in the day, Klobuchar also questioned him about antitrust issues, though Gorsuch, who has taught antitrust law, was somewhat circumspect on the topic. When she asked him if the court had made antitrust enforcement too difficult, and what he said in his classes about it, Gorsuch said that he tried to expose his students to all views on antitrust issues so that they could make up their own minds.

“I believe that’s an important function as a teacher, not to be a doctrinaire but to be challenging,” Gorsuch said.

He did acknowledge the problems of courts making antitrust enforcement too difficult, saying they would lead to a lack of competition that produced higher prices and lower output, and praised the original federal regulations in that area for still being vital today.

Additionally, Klobuchar asked how he taught a 2008 controversy regarding the Federal Trade Commission’s criticism that a report by the U.S. Department of Justice on cracking down on monopolies was too favorable to big corporations.  

Gorsuch said he tried to expose his students to all the learning that’s available and that his course was comprehensive and one of the more difficult classes at the law school.

“So you don’t want to weigh in on this debate?” she asked.

“Oh, senator!” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to get me to weigh in on this debate.”

Photo at top: Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), second left, talks with Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) before Durbin questioned Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, of the third day of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington, March 22, 2017. Photo by Gabriella Demczuk of the New York Times.

Minn. House GOP plans targeted tax breaks, more road spending

Republicans in the Minnesota House said Monday they’re aiming to pass a $46 billion budget for the next two years, focused on new tax breaks, more spending on road projects and cuts to state agencies.

Lawmakers are still refining specific spending plans in House committees, but Republican leaders of those committees are all aiming for the same targets, including $1.35 billion in tax cuts or credits and $450 million in new spending on roads and bridges. Republicans are also looking to cut nearly $600 million from the state’s Health and Human Services budget, more than $21 million in environment and natural resource spending and another $90 million from state government operations and veterans programs.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt and other GOP leaders said they intend to spend more money on education and public safety. But a primary goal is directing the bulk of the state’s anticipated $1.65 billion surplus back to residents and businesses in the form of tax breaks.

“We know how hard (Minnesotans) work to generate our state’s significant surplus, and for that reason our budget represents a $1.35 billion tax cut that will go back in the pockets of Minnesota families,” he said.

Daudt, R-Crown, said that tax cut is unlikely to come in the form of an overall reduction to tax rates. Instead, it will likely be targeted to specific groups, like farmers or businesses.

Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the GOP will not try to remove the tax increase Gov. Mark Dayton and fellow DFLers approved on the state’s highest earners a few years ago. He said it will also avoid across-the-board cuts to government agencies — a strategy Dayton had said would prompt a veto.

Knoblach said lawmakers should be focused on reducing the size of some state government operations because cuts from the federal government could force reductions in the near future.

“We need to be figuring out how to trim back the growth of some of these programs, given that we may have less money for some of them in two years than we have today” he said.

The House proposal leaves about $26.6 million to stash away in the state’s reserve fund. The House Republicans’ budget announcement follows a similar move by Senate GOP leaders last week. The Senate plan includes $900 million in tax cuts and similar spending increases in transportation and education. It also targets environmental and natural resources operations as a key area for cuts.

The governor’s updated budget plan, released last week, would spend a near-equal amount of money — about $46 billion — to the House GOP plan. It includes a smaller tax cut and more spending on schools, including expanding prekindergarten programs. Other recent updates include $3 million for a rail line expansion between St. Cloud and the Twin Cities, among other priorities. The governor’s plan would leave about $200 million to save for future expenses.

In a statement Monday , Dayton said it was “impossible” to respond to the House Republicans’ proposal, because it included few specifics.

“When the Committees start making these numbers real, we will then have something to discuss,” he said.

The House Ways and Means Committee will vote on the GOP budget plans at a meeting Wednesday evening, after hearing public testimony on the issue. House lawmakers will then have to work with members of the Senate to refine the plans that will be sent to the governor for his approval.