Schools health care worth fighting for



Our schools and health care access were the main beneficiaries as we wrapped up the recent special session of the Minnesota Legislature. We approved a record funding package for schools and maintained access to health care for more than 40,000 working Minnesotans.

I deeply appreciate meeting and hearing from so many of you.

The special session concluded with a new two-year budget and some key accomplishments. I have highlighted a few of them below.

Our Schools

The Education package provides an additional $800 million in funding for early childhood through 12th grade education. The funding increases will bring an additional $9.2 million to North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District 622.

Other funding highlights include:

• General Education Formula: An 8 percent increase (4 percent annually) in the General Education formula is provided for schools. The General Education formula in FY06 will increase by $182 per student to $4,783, and another $191 per student to $4,974 in FY07.

• Special Education: An additional $23 million in special education funding help pays for escalating costs. Governor Pawlenty had proposed cutting $70 million from special education in 2003 and "froze" any future increases.

• Gifted and Talented: The bill contains funding to help school districts design and fund gifted and talented education programs. Schools will receive $4 per student in 2006, and $9 per student in 2007 for gifted and talented programs.

• Four-Year-old-Pre-Kindergarten: Schools will receive help to continue their four-year-old pre-kindergarten programs.

• Alternative Compensation for Teachers (Q-Comp): The bill funds teacher pay reform at $78.5 million in aid and $9 million in levy. Under the design of Q-Comp, districts and local teacher bargaining units may construct compensation packages that do not solely rely on a teachers' length of teaching experience and level of higher education. Most of the funding will be available in fiscal year 2007.

• School Employee Statewide Health Insurance: No provisions for a mandated school statewide health insurance were included in the bill. I worked with many local and state officials in opposition to this proposal because of increased costs to local districts.

Other policy changes include: a character education provision encouraging school districts to integrate or offer instruction on "character education," an anti-bullying policy that requires school districts to design anti-bullying policies, establishes a special education task force, and allows schools boards to establish a transportation safety committee to recommend transportation safety policies.

Health care access

Most importantly, all Minnesotans enrolled in MinnesotaCare will remain eligible. I heard from many concerned constituents regarding the threat of losing health care coverage. For the next two years, nursing home workers will receive a 2.26 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment for Long-Term Care and Home and Community Based Services providers starting in October.

Public safety & protection

In addition to health care, education and transportation packages, we passed a comprehensive Public Safety bill that targets the "worst of the worst" sex offenders. It includes life in prison without the possibility of release for the most egregious sex offenders. The bill also includes life without parole for first-degree murder with premeditation. In an effort to curb the methamphetamine epidemic, Sudafed and similar products used in illegal meth labs are now placed behind pharmacy counters. The bill also funds crime victim assistance, battered women shelters, and more probation officers so that offenders can be more closely monitored.

Transportation -

reducing congestion

The transportation bill allocates $46 million ($23 million per year) additional for transit. Along with anticipated fare increases, this funding is aimed at avoiding deep cuts in service.

• The Northstar Line, commuter rail in the northwestern Twin Cities area, was also approved.

• The bill authorizes special plates as follows: Iraq War Vet, Afghan War Vet, and Global War on Terror Veteran. It also provides for a special Disabled American Veteran license plate.

• A portion of Trunk Highway 371, between U.S. Highway 10 and U.S. Highway 2, is designated the Purple Heart Memorial Highway.

Honoring our veterans

The Legislature considered several bills intended to address some of the difficulties our soldiers' and veterans' families face.

• A WWII Veterans Memorial on the Capitol grounds will be built to honor our Minnesotans who served in WWII.

• A bill was passed to declare May "Hire a Veteran Month" to encourage employers to consider veterans seeking work.

• National Guard tuition reimbursement was increased from 80 percent to 100 percent.

• "Support Our Troops" license plates will be sold and the revenue collected would go into a special fund used to alleviate financial hardships by Guard and Reserve members and their families.

• Several tax credits and benefits were passed to assist Minnesota residents in active duty, National Guard and military families.

These are just some of the positive things we were able to accomplish this session. I encourage readers to contact me with any questions or suggestions. You can call me at 296-6820 (Capitol) or 770-0283 (home), send e-mail to sen.chuck.wiger@senate.mn, or write to 301 State Capitol, St. Paul, MN 55155. Please visit my Senate website at www.senate.leg.state.mn.us/members/bios/sendis55.htm. I also encourage you to come and see me at the Capitol, or let me know if you'd like me to stop by your home or apartment for a visit. Also, please tune in to my local cable TV show, "Your Capitol: What's Up?," which appears on public access channels 15 and 16.

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