Consumer protection, clean energy absent from Republican budget bill

Senate Republicans passed a budget bill this week intended to address consumer protection and energy issues. Although the name of one of the committees that generated the bill is Commerce and Consumer Protection, the legislation contained little for actual Minnesota consumers. And in sharp contrast to the clean energy priorities of the DFL House and Governor Walz, the bill falls woefully short of funding energy project that will bring the state closer to a carbon-free future.

Republicans blocked a vote to add a nation-leading effort to prevent the surge in catalytic converter thefts by imposing penalties and providing enforcement tools that currently do not exist. Republicans also refused to allow a vote on creating a permanent statute protecting consumers from price-gouging during emergencies – something 36 other states have in law, and which has been an important protection as an executive order during the pandemic.

The same bill also gives $150 million in taxpayer dollars to health insurance companies with a request – not a requirement – that they do not increase health insurance premiums too much. The program, called reinsurance, has been running since the 2017 legislature invested $542 million for the purpose. DFL Senators questioned why, during a year of record health insurance company profits, Republicans are committing $150 million to these companies rather than focusing on permanent methods to reduce consumer health care costs. 

While DFLers offered nearly a dozen amendments on the floor to improve the energy provisions in the bill, each amendment was rejected by Republicans for various reasons. One DFL amendment would have extended the state’s cold weather rule, which protects low-income Minnesotans from having their utilities shut off during winter months if they are unable to pay their utility bills; when pressed to include the provision, Republicans claimed it was not yet ready for inclusion, which is largely due to their refusal to hear it in committee as a standalone bill. Another amendment Republicans rejected would have protected access to landline service for seniors and rural Minnesotans, and several others would have taken meaningful steps towards decarbonization and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Though the bill contained some of the budget requests necessary for state agencies to continue their work, DFLers made it clear: this year’s Senate Commerce and Energy omnibus bill simply doesn’t go far enough to address the items Minnesotans are asking the Legislature to take action on. (SF 972)