Senator Jerry Newton: 2018 Legislative Session Biggest Disappointment in Recent Memory

When the 2018 legislative session concluded at midnight on Sunday, May 20, I felt heartbroken for everyone who was counting on the Legislature to give them a helping hand. State lawmakers had three months to listen to Minnesotans, turn their ideas into action, and make a positive difference in people’s lives.

In the end, a lot of good ideas died as a result of partisan politics and special interest lobbying. It was perhaps the biggest disappointment I’ve witnessed in my quarter century of public service. To that end, I believe it is important to talk about what happened in hopes of avoiding the same mistakes next year.

When the Legislature kicked off the 2018 session on February 20, consensus between Republican and DFL lawmakers emerged on plans to address elder abuse and the opioid epidemic. Lawmakers also agreed that making schools more secure in the wake of a Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school was a top priority.

Consensus fell apart when the majority party threw everything but the kitchen sink into a 990-page budget that got introduced and passed in the dead of night just 24 hours before the Legislature’s constitutional deadline. Lawmakers (and the public) had just several hours to read the 14-pound stack of paper before it got sent to the governor, who all along implored the Legislature to pass single-subject bills as our state Constitution prescribes (Article 4, Sec. 17). The majority party did not listen, and the governor vetoed the budget as promised.

Partisan politics hurt lawmakers’ ability to make progress, but lobbying from big money special interests did a lot of damage, too.

For example, the Minnesota Senate approved by a margin of 60-6 a plan requiring opioid manufacturers to contribute to the costs of the crisis they knowingly created. After that happened, dozens of Big Pharma lobbyists flooded the Capitol and lobbied my colleagues in the House to kill the bill before it became law. Big Pharma succeeded. As a result, taxpayers will continue to pay for 100 percent of public safety and substance abuse costs stemming from the opioid crisis.

Similarly on elder abuse, there was great hope for progress. A working group of consumer advocates, including AARP Minnesota, the Minnesota Elder Justice Center, Alzheimer’s Association, Elder Voice Family Advocates, and Legal Aid, provided lawmakers with recommendations to address abuse, neglect, care, and safety of residents in care facilities. The recommendations are based on feedback from victims, family members, consumer advocates, services providers, direct care workers and facility staff members.

In the end, intense lobbying from some providers killed a bipartisan plan to protect seniors and other vulnerable Minnesotans. Infuriated consumer advocates like AARP Minnesota sent a letter to legislative leaders expressing their disappointment in the outcome of the session.

To everyone who was let down by partisanship and special interest lobbying this year, I am sorry. You deserve a Legislature that is responsive to your needs and allows you to participate in the legislative process from beginning to end. That didn’t happen this year. Despite all the disappointment, I remain hopeful that progress is just around the corner. Advocates and grassroots organizations have done an incredible job laying the groundwork for big change in the 2019 session, which begins in January.

 

This commentary was originally published in ABC Newspapers.

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Jerry Newton represents District 37, which includes portions of Anoka County in the northern Twin Cities metropolitan area.

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