Two political appointees of Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday survived confirmation votes in the Minnesota Senate, despite objections by Republican legislators.
The DFL-led Senate voted 35 to 22 to confirm Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, first appointed to the post in 2011. State senators voted 38 to 22 to confirm Adam Duininck as chairman of the Metropolitan Council. He has served on the 17-member Met Council since 2011 and was appointed by Dayton as chair in January.
Rothman drew particular fire from Republican senators, who singled him out for the Commerce Department’s response to allegations of overspending by a Minneapolis nonprofit charged with helping low-income residents. He also faced criticism over how the Commerce Department reported rate increases in MNsure, the state’s health care insurance exchange.
“His fingerprints are all over MNsure,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, who opposed Rothman’s confirmation. While Gazelka praised some changes made during Rothman’s tenure, such as beefing up the department’s anti-fraud efforts, Gazelka said Rothman has “made a couple of major missteps.”
Gazelka and other Republicans blamed Rothman for the exit of PreferredOne from MNsure, after the Star Tribune reported last fall that the Commerce Department in 2013 asked the Golden Valley insurer to consider lowering its initially proposed rates. They also criticized the choice by the agency to report 2015 rate increases as a straight average of rates from the returning insurers, even though PreferredOne accounted for nearly 60 percent of MNsure enrollees when it departed from the state exchange.
“That is absolutely misleading,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge.
The Commerce Department has steadfastly defended its handling of Community Action of Minneapolis, the shuttered nonprofit that state officials said had misspent $800,000 in taxpayer dollars. Rothman said late last year that the department immediately imposed corrective action in 2012 when it learned Community Action had doled out excess state dollars for its energy-assistance program.
Rothman last year also defended the reporting of an average 4.5 percent hike in MNsure premiums. Some experts said a weighted average would be more accurate because it would take into account the percentage distribution of enrollees across the returning insurance carriers, whose rates vary. Calculated that way, the increase in MNsure premiums for 2015 is not 4.5 percent, but 11.8 percent.
Debate over Duininck’s confirmation included accusations of cronyism by Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, because Duininck is married to Dayton’s chief of staff.
Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, rejected those accusations.
“I find it a little offensive when someone is objected to … because of their spouse,” she said. “It’s not unusual that two people dedicated to public service would end up together.”
The Met Council, which oversees the strategic growth of the seven-county metro area, including its parks, wastewater system, housing and public transportation network, has faced calls over the years to change how board members are selected. Members are currently appointed by the governor, but at least four bills pending in the Legislature seek to change that.
Photos at top: At top, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman in 2013. Below, Adam Duininck testified at his confirmation hearing this month. (Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune)
House legislators on Monday voted 89 to 37 to allow farmers to cultivate industrial hemp in an amendment to the agriculture budget bill.
The measure, put forth by Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, and Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, was adopted despite objections that it could lead to the cultivation of marijuana.
Supporters of the measure sought to dispel such concerns, arguing that hemp fibers have many acceptable uses in paper, clothing and textiles, among other uses. Cultivation of marijuana would still be illegal.
The state Senate defeated a move Wednesday to repeal a Minnesota High School League policy that allows transgender students to use locker rooms and bathrooms that don't match their sex at birth.
The GOP-led House of Representatives passed an identical provision on Saturday, attaching it to an education policy bill on an unrecorded voice vote. But the DFL-controlled Senate voted it down 40-25 during debate on its own education policy measure.
Last December, the Minnesota High School League adopted a policy that opens up transgender student-athletes to participate in girls' sports. State law already lets female students participate in boys' sports. Since then, the Minnesota Family Council and other socially conservative groups have pushed for the locker and bathroom prohibitions.
"I believe, and believe parents believe, that biologically female students should not have to worry about a biological young man sharing their locker room or bathroom," said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. "Nor should our daughters be put in a position of sharing a locker room or bathroom with a bunch of adolescent young men."
But Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said such a prohibition would increase the stigma facing transgender students, and expose them to greater discrimination and physical violence.
"Gender identity is not a matter of choice or amenable to change," Dibble said.
The vote on the amendment fell largely along party lines, but with several crossovers. Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, joined most Republicans in backing it. Three GOP senators -- Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen, and Carla Nelson and Dave Senjem of Rochester -- voted against it.
"This amendment makes me incredibly sad because it targets so very few Minnesotans," Ortman said. "I encourage members to be brave and vote no."
Since the House backed the measure, it will be up for debate in final House-Senate negotiations over the education policy bill. Gov. Mark Dayton has spoken in favor of the High School League policy, and has been critical of what he has called attempts to demonize transgender students.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday entered the preschool debate in Minnesota, urging lawmakers to invest in early-learning programs.
Duncan visited with preschoolers at Richardson Elementary School in North St. Paul. Joining him were Gov. Mark Dayton, whose top legislative priority is offering preschool to all four-year-olds in the state, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.
The delegation spent about 10 minutes visiting with preschoolers before speaking with reporters.
Duncan entered the politically charged debate at a critical moment. Dayton, Senate DFLers and House Republicans are locked in a three-way battle over how — and how much — to fund early learning efforts, with few signs of compromise so far.
Dayton is pushing hard on a proposal that would make preschool a part of the public school system. The cost would start at $343 million for two years. His early-learning proposal also continues the $54 million in scholarships, which have funded 12,000 youngsters at private preschools, as well as at public schools offering pre-K programs.
The House GOP's recently-approved education bill ignored Dayton's universal preschool plan, preferring instead to support the existing network of private preschools. They would offer an additional $30 million in vouchers tied to a ratings system that helps parents assess the quality of preschool programs.
The Senate DFL is taking an altogether different approach, with a small $5 million boost for preschool vouchers, but $70 million for “school readiness” programs that offer individual schools maximum flexibility in determining how to prepare children for kindergarten.
Duncan expressed support for Dayton's universal preschool plan for four-year-olds. Duncan said it's important to also serve children from birth to age 3 to ensure they are prepared to enter kindergarten.
"I can't overstate how important this is, and I hope, I just really hope this state doesn't squander this opportunity," Duncan said.
"We have this false argument [over scholarships or universal preschool]," Duncan said. "If you could and you can provide this to every single child, my question is, 'Why wouldn't you do that?' "
Photo: U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan greets students at Richardson Elementary School in North St. Paul. (Ricardo Lopez/Star Tribune)
A bill to pay back budget shifts and give modest tax relief to property owners and businesses that hire veterans was released by the Senate DFL today.
The $460 million price tag is far apart from the Republican-controlled House, which has outlined a plan for $2 billion in tax cuts for business, Social Security recipients, military retirees, people with student loans a host of other interest groups.
The Senate plan would use $225 million to pay back accounting shifts that occured during tough budget years.
The plan would provide about $200 million in tax relief, much of it directed at property taxpayers, either through direct cuts or by increasing local government aid, which could give local governments the ability to hold down taxes.
The Senate plan would also spend $47 million during the next two years on a tax credit for businesses that hire veterans.
The Senate Taxes Committee will take up the bill Tuesday.