If low-income children can't afford a nutritious, hot lunch, the state of Minnesota should pick up the tab, the House Education Finance Committee decided Thursday.
After reports that more than half the public school districts in Minnesota deny hot lunches to students who can't pay for them, the Legislature is rushing to find the $3.5 million it would take to expand the state's free lunch program to the thousands of low-income children enrolled in the reduced-price lunch program.
"This is a great opportunity to, in a bipartisan manner, make the statement that no child shall go hungry in Minnesota because of an inability to pay," said Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, who sponsored legislation that would let the state cover the cost of expanding free lunches to the thousands of students in the reduced-price lunch program.
A searing report by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid last month found that a majority of school districts substitute cold sandwiches, or no lunch at all, when students run out of money in their lunch accounts. Some sent children home with hand stamps or stickers to alert parents that they had come up short. The districts noted that they often continued to provide the lunches long after the money ran out, which led to large deficits in their own budgets.
Right now, families in the low-income lunch program, pay 40 cents per child per meal, which might not sound like much, but can add up for families and districts alike.
Selcer offered a hypothetical: A single parent with two children, earning $32,000 a year, wouldn't qualify for any other supplemental food assistance, like SNAP, and would be left with a monthly food budget of about $51 a month. Any expense, like a car repair, could erase the family's entire school lunch budget, she said.
"A child who has decided not to have lunch, because he or she knows that mom and dad hasn't paid this month's lunch bill, is more likely to go home and overeat on the starchier foods that the family can afford," Selcer said. "That child is less likely to do well academically at school, as we know that good nutrition plays a huge role in learning."
The legislation would shift the cost of lunch to the state and mandate districts to provide nutritious hot lunches to low-income children, regardless of their parents ability, or willingness to pay.
The committee signed off Selcer's bill by voice vote Thursday morning. It now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee. Gov. Mark Dayton also included the lunch money in his budget request.
Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration rolled out a comprehensive government streamlining package Tuesday, outlining more than 1,000 proposed changes to make state services easier and more efficient.
The overhaul seeks changes in every corner of state government, from speeding environmental permitting to making it easier and faster the buy fishing licenses and pay taxes. The initiative also seeks to root out antiquated laws clogging up the books and adding work for state agencies.
Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Chairman Tony Sertich, who is leading the streamlining effort for Dayton’s administration, said state law is filled with antiquated provisions. He noted one state law even has a detailed prescription of exactly who must capture or kill wild boars in the state.
Dayton is staking a lot of political currency on the outcome of the initiative, which he calls “unsession.” He wants legislators to devote a significant amount of time weeding out antiquated or cumbersome laws.
But Dayton is not merely trying to declutter the state law books. He wants to make it easier and less aggravating for consumers of state services, which has been a frequent gripe when dealing with state government.
Dayton is not the first governor to try such an effort, but it is the most concerted one in a long time.
In selecting Sertich to lead the effort, Dayton has tapped a former House Majority Leader with a strong sense of how to get things through the sometimes unruly legislative bodies.
Dayton’s top policy advisers have been meeting regularly and touching base with legislative committee chairs, who will be vital to the success or failure of the effort.
Legislative committees will begin holding hearings on the streamlining measures this week.
Gov. Mark Dayton signed off of $20 million in emergency state aid for low-income heating assistance.
A bitterly cold winter, combined with a propane shortage, has nearly depleted the state's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. When legislators returned to work this week, they rushed to shift the money out of the general fund before the program could run out of money in early March. The measure passed both houses unanimously and moved to the governor's desk on Thursday.
“The amount of propane needed to heat Minnesota homes, farms, and businesses during this exceptionally cold winter and the skyrocketing cost of propane threatened to exhaust our state’s LIHEAP funding and put our citizens out in the cold," Dayton said in a statement, after signing the emergency relief bill into law Friday morning. “We are continuing to do everything possible to keep Minnesotans safe and warm during this emergency.”
Some 180,000 Minnesotans depend on the program pay their heating bills this winter. For many, those bills have been even more burdensome this year as a Midwest propane shortage sent fuel prices skyrocketing. More people applied to the program, needing help with larger and larger home heating bills, and the assistance fund struggled to help them all.
In a statement, Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman, whose agency oversees the low-income heating assistance program, estimated that nearly 180,000 Minnesota households will receive heating assistance by the end of this winter -- "a 30 percent increase over last year."
The state expanded LIHEAP assistance this year to Minnesotans who earn less than 60 percent of the state median income.That opens the program to a family of four earning less than $52,370 per year, or a household of two earning less than $35,612. The Minnesota Department of Commerce projects that roughly 30,000 to 40,000 newly-eligible households will apply for heating assistance this year.
LIHEAP applicants who heat their homes with propane and heating oil also qualify for up to $1,000 in crisis payments – an increase of $500.
For information about how to apply for heating assistance, contact the Minnesota Department of Commerce website or by calling 800-657-3710. The state also operates a propane hotline for residents who are having trouble obtaining or paying for the fuel: 800-657-3504 in greater Minnesota or 651-297-1304 in the Twin Cities.
If Minnesota senators want a new office building, they may need to convince their colleagues over in the House.
The proposed $90 million office building and parking facility hinges on the approval of the House Rules Committee.
It's a great deal of money and committee members had a great number of questions at their first hearing on the subject Thursday night: Why was the project included in a tax bill conference committee report at the end of session, instead of working its way through the usual series of public hearings? Why do plans for the $63 million office building only have office space for 44 of the 67 Senators, while the rest will remain in offices in the crowded Capitol across the street? Would it be possible to scrap plans for a new office building and simply rehouse senators in an existing state office building?
But on one topic, most of the state Representatives seemed to agree: If the Legislature shells out millions of dollars for a new Senate office building, Senators should move into it. All of them.
"I've heard both from Democrats and Republicans a fair amount of skepticism and also, I think, a lot of alignment around the idea that if the building is to proceed, that there should be 67 senators in that building, or 67 offices, even if the senators aren't all in them to start," said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, who chairs the Rules Committee. "I think we have a question before us that needs some thought."
The informational hearing concluded without a vote from the committee members.
House Republicans have been vocal critics of the project. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt took to the House floor Thursday to criticize the process that wrapped plans for the Senate office building into the $2.1 billion tax ominbus in the final days of the 2013 session.
"Here we are. Democrats in St. Paul are about to spend between $60- and $90 million dollars of taxpayers' hard-earned money to build themselves an office building," Daudt said. "This looks horrible."
The Senate Rules Committee has already approved plans for the new office facility, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has warned that delaying construction of the new office could hamper the $272 million restoration project now undeway at the century-old State Capitol. Those plans were drafted with the assumption that senators would shift out of the Capitol and into the new offices midway through the renovation project.
The Minnesota Department of Administration has estimated it would cost between $2.4 million and $2.9 million a year to rent temporary office space for senators, and tens of millions of dollars more in to retrofit them, if the new office building is not built. Senators and staff will need at least 135,000 square feet of space near the Capitol during the renovation. Moreover, the renovations will carve into the office space the Senate currently holds in the Capitol.
Lawmakers have been gone from the Capitol for months, and return on Tuesday with all the politics and policy they left behind last year.
But in the House, they started the session with some bipartisan work.
The House unanimously passed $20 million bill to help low income Minnesotans with heating bills. With another week of subzero temperatures in the forecast and the region still gripped by a propane shortage, the measure is backed by the leadership of both parties and the governor.
"When we get hotline calls, people are calling in fear and desperation," Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman told members of the House Ways and Means Committee at an informational meeting Tuesday morning.
The measure will particularly aid those who have been struggling with high propane bills in Minnesota's particularly cold winter. After 45 minutes of debate, the measure to shift funds out of the general fund and into the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said the heating assistance bill will likely be the first measure on the governor's desk this session. Senate spokesman Amos Briggs said the Senate will act "quickly and urgently" to complete the legislative work on the bill.
Bakk told Senate members on Tuesday that the Senate may act on that bill on Monday.
Bakk said the $20 million House bill the House passed does not match with a memo he has from Gov. Mark Dayton, which said $17 million is needed.
Bakk said the earliest date he saw for the emergency fund run out of money was March 1, which is Saturday, when state employees won’t be sending out checks.
“Even if it is March 1, getting the bill to the governor March 3 is, I believe, plenty timely,” he said.
Given the accelerated timeline, Dayton will likely be able to sign that $20 million measure into law by next week.
The House and Senate also appointed, or re-appointed, members to deal with bicameral negotiations on a bill to hike the minimum wage.
Last year, the all Democratic Capitol failed to pass any minimum wage increase, despite the fact that DFL leaders said it was a priority, when the House and Senate could not agree on an increase.
This year advocates, who will hold a large rally at 4 p.m. in the Capitol today, are pushing to raise the wage from one of the nation's lowest -- $6.15 an hour -- to one of the nation's highest -- $9.50 an hour by 2015.
Sen. Chris Eaton, who is sponsoring the minimum wage measure in the Senate, said the Senate plans extensive hearings on the measure before it brings it up for votes.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she thinks it is time to pass the measure.
“Minnesotans have talked about that minimum wage all summer and fall,” Murphy said. “I think the Senate is listening to them and I think we’re going to be able to make the action complete this year.”
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