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Bill advances to save Minnesota taxpayers' money this year

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ST. PAUL -- As many as 192,000 Minnesotans would benefit if state legislators quickly pass a bill matching state tax law with federal law, the state House Taxes Committee chairwoman says.

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If that does not happen, Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington, told fellow lawmakers Monday: "You can imagine that you will have a lot of constituents that will not be happy."

The issue, known as "tax conformity," arose after Congress and the president agreed on tax law changes late in December. When that happened, it meant that Minnesota taxpayers would pay more state tax than necessary unless the Legislature acts.

The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill Monday to conform to federal law, but no Senate committee has considered the bill.

Among other things, Lenczewski's bill would allow teachers to deduct classroom supplies they buy, college tuition expense deductions would continue and tax benefits for donating to charities would be allowed.

Minnesotans who file income tax returns before the Legislature acts will be forced to file a three-page amendment if they are to receive tax breaks due them.

Gun debates start

Three days of hearings about gun violence start Tuesday in the Minnesota House with bills limiting use of assault weapons, increasing mental health screening for firearms permits and setting new penalties for people with guns on school property.

Hearings are to begin during the day Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with night meetings also expected Tuesday and Thursday. Gov. Mark Dayton delivers his State of the State speech Wednesday night.

An assault gun-related measure to come up Tuesday would limit who can have one, while a bill to be debated Wednesday would ban assault weapons.

Both sides of the gun issue are expected to pack Capitol meeting rooms in what the National Rifle Association has called an assault on gun rights.

A pro-gun control group sent an email Monday asking supporters to match the 150 to 200 gun supporters expected at the hearings.

"Can you be there to stand against the firearms industry's spending and scare tactics?" Protect Minnesota's email asked.

Mental health help

Mental health has become a major issue in the 2013 Minnesota Legislature, mostly as lawmakers look for ways to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.

But Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, on Monday discussed the need to invest in children's mental health.

"We know the tools that can work to help our children succeed and reach their potential," said Lourey, Senate health and human services chairman. "In our budget this year we are going to be working very, very hard to make sure we get our priorities right and that we have the tools that our kids need to succeed tomorrow and into the future."

He reported that just 20 percent of children between the ages of 9 and 17 that have a diagnosable mental illness or substance use disorder are being treated.

Almost a dozen bills will be introduced this year to deal with the situation.

Insurance 'limited'

Minnesota senators heard complaints about a new way to buy health insurance as the proposal went through the fourth of nine Senate committee hearings.

"It won't give all the best health insurance options to consumers," Kathryn Kmit of the Minnesota Council of Health plans said Monday.

While the council supports the health insurance exchange, the way the program is proposed would "limit consumer choice" and would provide policies too expensive for individuals and small businesses, she said.

The proposal authored by Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, would establish the exchange, as required by new federal law, that would be a mostly an online marketplace to buy insurance plans. If the state does not launch an exchange, the federal government will.

Kmit said she worries that expensive insurance plans on the marketplace could force more Minnesotans to drop insurance, which runs counter to the federal law's intent.

Kate Johansen of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and other business representatives said a board that would decide on what plans would be offered leaves the decision to four people on the seven-member panel.

Johansen and most others who testified against provisions in the bill said they appreciate Lourey working with them and the senator said the bill remains a work in progress.

Clergy want MNCare

A delegation of Minnesota clergy is lobbying federal officials to strengthen the state-subsidized MinnesotaCare health insurance program for the working poor.

The long-standing state program could be folded into a new health-care system established under new federal law.

"As faith leaders, we believe God calls us to health, wholeness, and love for our neighbor," the clergy wrote to federal officials. "In Minnesota, as elsewhere, the faith community has been central in advocating for the importance of health care as a shared endeavor. We share a common vision of implementing the Affordable Care Act in a way that improves the lives of Minnesotans. We seek a partnership with federal and state officials to fulfill the promise of this vision."

Among those who signed the letter are Bishop Ann Svennungsen of the Minneapolis Synod of the ELCA, Bishop Peter Rogness of the St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, Bishop Thomas Aitken of the Northeast Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, Bishop Jon Anderson of the Southwestern Minnesota Synod of the ELCA, the Rev. Paul Slack of the ISAIAH project and other clergy.

More than 130,000 Minnesotans now use MNCare.

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