Whatever might be said about the way it got done, the actual product of the 2019 legislative session will produce some solid wins for Minnesotans gained through hard-won compromises.
Among the less heralded but most welcome successes is a long-overdue increase in the monthly cash assistance for the more than 90,000 families on the Minnesota Family Investment Program. The $100 bump negotiated may not sound like much to some, but it’s enough to buy a week’s groceries for a small family, pay a utility bill, get a few tanks of gas to go to work or perhaps buy the shoes that young children constantly outgrow. It is the first increase to that program in more than 30 years. Like many bills that sometimes get little notice, this was the product of bipartisan effort by Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, and Sen. Jerry Relph, R-St. Cloud, along with Gov. Tim Walz, who gave the increase a gubernatorial push as part of his budget proposal earlier this year.
Kunesh-Podein knows intimately the difference such a benefit can make. Twenty-three years ago, she was a young mom with three kids and desperate need. Struggling to put herself through college on the weekends while juggling day care costs, Kunesh-Podein said “the day came when I realized I didn’t have enough to get us through the next month.” Because of MFIP, food stamps and the recently created MinnesotaCare program, which provided health insurance, Kunesh-Podein got back on her feet and became a middle-school library specialist. Her original bill proposed a $200 increase, but she quickly compromised with the Senate and Walz on $100. “I knew we needed to keep it very trim if we wanted to get anything through, and I knew that would still make a big difference to a lot of families. It felt doable for everyone.”
Such compromise wins can be found across the budget that the Legislature enacted in another grueling marathon special session that ended Saturday morning. Cities and counties will get a state aid increase that will finally restore state funding to a level last seen in 2003. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, who blocked Walz’s gas tax increase, nevertheless said he was satisfied to see the aid increase, which can be used for local infrastructure projects. He counts as wins the middle-income rate cut, “because that felt like something where we moved the needle,” and Walz’s commitment to tackle waste and abuse in government programs such as child care.
Another win Minnesotans can be proud of: One of the nation’s toughest laws on wage theft. Employers who try to cheat workers could be charged with a felony. The law also will broaden the state’s ability to prosecute violators. Wage theft costs Minnesota workers about $12 million a year and harms businesses that play by the rules.
E-12 schools and higher education got less than they sought, but enough to make some improvements, particularly for E-12, where schools have been forced to meet unfunded federal mandates on special education. Walz signed the E-12 bill on Thursday, joined by a bipartisan group of legislators.
Perhaps the toughest battle — whether to continue a 2% provider tax that has funded health care in this state for decades — was resolved in favor of the families who need such assistance. Republicans, who had engineered a sunset of the tax some years earlier, finally compromised with DFLers.
In his first session, Walz suffered some keen disappointments — his energy proposal and transportation package both fell to partisan opposition. But, he said, “My number one goal was to bring us together to create a budget that works for Minnesota, and to do so without animosity and the nastiness. I believe that happened.”