Boosting state dollars for programs that benefit senior citizens will remain a top priority of Republicans in the Minnesota House next year, a group of them said Monday.
"We've been good to seniors in the last year and I think there's an interest in continuing that trend," Rep. Joe Schomacker, R-Luverne, said at a news conference to showcase a handful of bills aimed at an older demographic.
That includes eliminating Minnesota's tax on Social Security income by phasing it out 20 percent a year over five years. The GOP-controlled House approved that measure earlier this year, but it didn't make it into the final budget signed by Gov. Mark Dayton. Under the proposal, the state would lose about $237 million in tax revenue in 2016-17, and about $641 million in the two years after that.
"Minnesota is one of only six states that still taxes Social Security income," said Rep. Tama Theis, R-St. Cloud.
House Republicans also want to change state law to allow insurance companies more flexibility in their long-term care insurance options, for example the ability for a customer to convert a no-longer-needed life insurance plan into a long-term care policy. Schomacker said additional proposals would come together in the coming months under what he and colleagues labeled the "CARE Act" — "Caring for the Aging, Retiring and Elderly."
Legislators return to St. Paul on March 8 for their next regular session. Dayton and lawmakers alike are looking at about $1.2 billion in surplus state funds with which to boost spending, cut taxes or do some of both.
Dayton will lay out his own plan for the budget surplus sometime in the new year. An additional chunk of surplus, about $700 million, is automatically diverted under state law into a rainy-day fund.
The DFL governor has already signaled where he wants to spend some of those surplus dollars, most notably his oft-stated wish to increase state funding for prekindergarten classes at public schools.
House Republicans have been much more reluctant to get behind new spending plans. But Monday's proposals from Schomacker and five House GOP colleagues, with promises of more to come, show that even Republicans are thinking about ways to spend part of the surplus.
"The proposals we have are likely going to be investments of some sort," Schomacker said.
Also in the works, Schomacker said, are proposals to implement partnerships between high schools and adult basic education programs in order to train more caregivers; a study on how technology can be used to improve quality of life for seniors in affordable ways; something to improve veterans' health care options; and law changes that make it easier for people to construct so-called "backyard senior cottages" on family property.
Funding for state programs that primarily benefit senior citizens has been an emphasis for House Republicans since they took over the House majority last January, reflecting that GOP members increasingly hail from outstate Minnesota districts with higher proportions of elderly residents. The two-year state budget finalized at the end of the 2015 session included $138 million to boost salaries for nurses at nursing homes, a provision that was particularly championed by House Republicans.