The Minnesota Legislature returned to work Thursday, with health care and jobs getting the early attention.
DFL leaders marked the opening of the 2010 session by unveiling a $1 billion bonding bill that they want to pass quickly. They also advanced a plan to provide health care coverage to the poor.
Hundreds of advocates and other concerned citizens filled the Capitol rotunda on the opening day of the session to call for continued health care coverage for the poor. They want legislators to pass a bill that extends General Assistance Medical Care, or GAMC, for another 16 months to an estimated 35,000 people.
Gov. Pawlenty vetoed funding for the program last year. Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter told the crowd to protect the health care safety net.
"We're going to save GAMC by not just talking the talk. Today we're here to walk the walk. We're going to save GAMC," said Carter.
DFL legislators want to move quickly on the extension, because GAMC will soon end. Their plan relies on a Medicaid surcharge for hospitals and HMOs, reduced provider reimbursement rates and a county share of 10 percent. Eligibility would also be tightened.
But during an afternoon committee hearing, Dr. Benjamin Whitten of the Minnesota Medical Association testified against the bill. Whitten said the health care system is already stretched too thin.
"We must ensure continued coverage for this population. But we cannot solve it by passing other cuts onto the physicians, clinics and hospitals that all of us rely on to keep us healthy and to treat us when we are ill," said Whitten.
DFL leaders in the House and Senate are also moving quickly with a proposal to borrow $1 billion for construction projects. They say the long list of college buildings, roads, trails and civic facilities will put people to work statewide.
The House and Senate bills are more than $300 million larger than the governor's bonding proposal. But Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, says the state should take advantage of low interest rates and builders who are willing to work at a cut rate.
"There's a sale going on out there, and this is the time to bond and build," said Langseth. "The time to bond to build is during the down times when you get your best deals, when you put people to work that aren't normally working."
“There's a sale going on out there, and this is the time to bond and build.”Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon
DFL leaders say Gov. Pawlenty can trim the bill down to an acceptable size with line-item vetoes. But Pawlenty has said he might veto the entire bill instead.
The House and Senate proposals also left out the largest single item in the governor's bonding bill, an $89 million expansion of the sex offender treatment facility in Moose Lake.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, says there are too many questions about the state's civil commitment policy.
"We have a higher population I believe than any other state in the country," said Hausman. "So people are beginning to say, 'Do we have to take a look at this? What's the policy behind it? Where are we going with the program? Is it sustainable?'"
Republicans were already complaining about the size of the DFL proposal. Now they're criticizing the omission of the Moose Lake project. House Republican Minority Leader Kurt Zellers says it's a case of misplaced priorities.
"That is an absolute public safety need, a necessity, something that should have been first and foremost. I think leaving that was a real big miss for us, or for the majority party," said Zellers.
The Senate bonding bill moved through Langseth's committee and is ready for a floor vote Monday. Passage of the House bonding bill is expected a week later.