The 2016 Legislative Session is completed, unless the Governor calls a special session to address bonding and transportation.
The session had mixed results for working families. Two issues impacting working families were addressed in the tax bill. The Dependent Care Tax Credit increases the maximum credit available to families from $720 to $1050 for families with one child and from $1440 t0 $2100 for families with two or more children. This is a total cost of $9.8 M in FY 2017 and $22.8 M in FY 2018.
The Working Family Credit was expanded to allow many Minnesotans to claim it for the first time and allows others to claim a larger credit. Notably, the expanded credit will provide tax relief to approximately 386,000 individuals and families. Workers 21 and older are now eligible for the credit, regardless of whether they have children, dependent on income level. In addition, the amount of the credit is increased for many individuals and families. The bill allocates $49 M for FY 17 and $102 M for FY 18. The tax bill also includes funds for free tax preparation for our poorest families, increasing the likelihood they will get the tax credits for which they are eligible.
The JRLC and several coalition partners worked hard to increase funding for the Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) to help the 7,200 Minnesota families that are eligible for assistance but on the waiting list. We also lobbied to increase provider rates under CCAP in order to retain high quality providers in the program. Ultimately, the Legislature created a bipartisan task force to assess affordability issues for providers and parents, review the loss of childcare providers across the state (especially in Greater Minnesota) and other issues. No new funds were allocated.
Unfortunately, no increase was made to the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) that provides basic cash assistance to our poorest Minnesotans. Lori Sturdevant of the Star Tribune wrote an impassioned editorial about the need for an increase, stating in part; “If state lawmakers won’t adjust MFIP grants for inflation 30 years after their last increase, when the economy has fully recovered and the state is running a surplus, will it ever do so? Do Minnesotans still see that the whole state benefits when children are spared the worst ravages of poverty?” In the Senate, several legislators spoke of the need for these families to get an increase that was long overdue. This will continue to be top priority for the 2017 session.
The Legislature made several improvements in the Safe Harbor program to assist victims of human trafficking. Services will be expanded to include young victims up to age 24, recognizing that many of these victims become involved in trafficking when they were minors. In addition, funds were allocated for both the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services to address the challenges created by trafficking. The Departments of Health and Human Services will each receive $33,000 in FY 17 $750,000 in FY 18 and $750,000 in FY 19.
On several of our key issues, bills did not advance to hearing or no vote was taken. In the Senate, an amendment to the Elections Omnibus bill would have allowed persons convicted of a felony to vote after they are released from prison, unless a warrant has been issued for their arrest for violation of their probation. There was no comparable provision in the House and nothing was included in a final bill. The Senate held a hearing on background checks for guns but did not take a vote. No hearing was held in the House. No payday lending reform bills advanced.
The JRLC also worked to oppose the expansion of gambling in our state. The “Fantasy Sports Bill,” crafted as an exemption from the state’s gambling statutes, would have greatly expanded lawful gambling. Many Minnesotans are involved in fantasy sports leagues or pools on the NCAA tournament in which they know those against whom they are betting and all proceeds stay within the group. This bill addresses operators such as Draft Kings or Fan Duels that function as an online casino, directly profiting by retaining a portion of the funds gambled. The JRLC is particularly concerned about the appeal of this activity to our younger Minnesotans who could access fantasy sports sites from a home computer, Xbox or cell phone 24 hours a day. This bill has been laid over until next year, allowing more time for review and study. Fantasy sports will certainly be an issue in 2017.