'Public interest' bills dying at MN Capitol as deadline looms

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, speaks to reporters.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, speaks to reporters after a meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, May 19, 2018. "We're the legislature, we have a lot of options," Gazelka said when asked about a school safety funding bill.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Three high-profile bills at the Minnesota Legislature are struggling to survive the final days of the 2018 session.

A bill that would require drivers to use hands-free phone devices, another to force Big Pharma to help pay to treat a growing opioid overdose epidemic and a third that would guarantee more sexual harassment victims their day in court all showed some bipartisan strength during the session yet are now in limbo as the May 21 session deadline nears.

Frustrated lawmakers who backed the bills say they've seen this before: Legislation with broad support suddenly appears all but dead at session's end, usually with little or no public discussion as to why.

Legislators debate a bill on the house floor.
Legislators debate a bill on the house floor inside the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News

DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and others are pointing the finger this year at special interest groups using their power and money to quash legislation behind the scenes.

"Every time one of these common-sense things that's clearly in the public interest doesn't go anywhere, I wonder whose money is behind that," Dayton said this week.

Each of the three popular three bills in jeopardy captured headlines and the public's attention during the session — and they showed some vote-getting power.

An arrangement of pills known as Percocet
This Aug. 15, 2017, file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen, also known as Percocet, in New York.
Patrick Sison | AP

Opioids and pharmaceutical companies

Earlier this year, a bill to charge pharmaceutical companies and other distributors a penny-a-pill fee for all opioids sold in the state had the support of Dayton and key lawmakers in the Republican-controlled Legislature. They estimated it would raise $20 million per year for preventative and other measures.

Pharmaceutical companies opposed the tax, arguing it was a fee on doctor-prescribed medications that patients rely on to bolster the state's budget.

But they never made that argument in a public hearing on the proposal. Instead, drug companies and distributors amassed a team that included more than two dozen lobbyists who fanned out and held one-on-one meetings with legislators to make that case.

"They know they are the bad guys. They are no different than the cartels at this point, actively distributing these drugs knowing that people would become addicted to them," said state Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, whose daughter died of a heroin overdose. "They don't want to have a public face to that."

So far this session, their strategy is working, Eaton said.

The penny-a-pill proposal was taken out of the House bill in its first hearing. In the Senate, Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, eventually dropped the per-pill tax and replaced it with a licensing fee for companies that sell opioids, which passed the chamber, although it's struggled to stay alive in the House.

"We have been engaged with lawmakers and others on many fronts through this entire process, including offering real, concrete ideas for alternative funding mechanisms that would provide the state the necessary resources to achieve our shared goals," said Nick McGee, director of public affairs for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

If the proposal dies, Eaton said she'll ask Attorney General Lori Swanson to consider suing the pharmaceutical companies.

#MeToo

Lawmakers in statehouses across the country are tackling sexual harassment in the workplace after the #MeToo movement encouraged women and men to share their experiences. Women in Minnesota alleged harassment by two state legislators, who ultimately resigned late last year.

That translated into a push this session to change both legislative and statewide sexual harassment policies, including a measure from Republican House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, to effectively nullify a long-used "severe or pervasive" legal standard to determine if a sexual harassment case could be heard in court. Over the last several decades, judges had interpreted that standard it so narrowly that cases rarely made it to trial.

The proposal passed a key House committee and was amended on to a broader public safety budget bill on a 120-4 vote. But before the bill could get a Senate hearing, local government groups, private colleges and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce met privately with Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, the bill's author.

The chamber wrote to budget-writing lawmakers last week arguing that eliminating the standard would "open the floodgates" to litigation and make Minnesota an outlier in Minnesota employment law. No other states have gone around the standard.

"They are worried if we take that standard away, what standard will we put in its place," said Housley, who is running for the United States Senate seat that was vacated by Al Franken after he was accused of unwanted touching and groping. Housley said she's tried to find language to appease the concerned parties but acknowledged the bill is stalled.

The chamber's role irked Dayton, who supports eliminating the standard. "For the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce to be opposed to strong, enforceable sexual harassment protection, I just don't think they represent Minnesota businesses," he said, calling the group's behind-the-scenes lobbying "shameful."

A spokesperson for the chamber declined to respond to Dayton's comments.

Vijay Dixit holds up a sign about distracted driving deaths.
Vijay Dixit holds up a sign about distracted driving deaths near other families who have lost loved ones in auto accidents involving phone use.
Brain Bakst | MPR News

Hands-free driving

A bill requiring drivers to use hands-free devices easily cleared Minnesota legislative panels early in the session with no apparent opposition from anyone, said Mark Uglem, R-Champlin, the bill's House sponsor.

Police, cell phone companies and families who lost loved ones to texting and driving accidents all supported the measure. Sixteen other states already require drivers to use hands-free devices, including Georgia, which just signed a proposal into law this spring.

This week, however, Uglem said he was told his bill would not come up for a full vote on the House floor. "I am mystified," he said. "This is about saving lives on our roads. Who doesn't support that?"

Some House and Senate Republicans oppose the proposal but haven't been vocal about it. It's unclear how many members are voicing their concerns behind the scenes.

Asked which groups are pushing back on the bill, Uglem said only: "Talk to leadership."

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