Wednesday, April 05, 2006

COLUMN -- Favorites fell, but it's only halftime at the Capitol

Posted by Craig Westover | 9:36 AM |  

Wednesday, April 4, 2006

March madness came to an end this week. Duke's loss to LSU busted my bracket early. Then Connecticut fell to Cinderella George Mason. My Minneapolis bracket looked good until Villanova edged Boston College in overtime. I did get UCLA to the Final Four, but I had them beating Kansas to get there.

I didn't do a whole lot better in March with my legislative favorites.

More March madness. A bad pun would have it that for much of March the focus was on the "court" — the state Supreme Court — and what justices did or did not say about Minnesota's marriage law to DFL Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson.

The Senate Ethics Committee turned the ball over on that one, sending the issue into overtime. Last week, two complaints were filed with the Judicial Review Board calling for an investigation of Johnson's allegations against the court. Johnson and the Senate Ethics Committee had opportunities to put this one away, but at crunch time no one in the Senate wanted the ball.

Wilting under pressure. Just having a person step up and take charge isn't always enough, however, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Case in point, another first-round defeat for educational access grant legislation in the House Education Policy Committee.

Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, ran the offense for parental school choice. Access-grant legislation provides state-funded vouchers for a limited number of low-income families in the St. Paul and Minneapolis school districts. Vouchers can be applied to tuition at any accredited private schools freely chosen by recipient families.

Speaking in favor of the bill, people of color painted a devastating picture of the consequences of poor public schools on their communities and their families. Testimony from bill opponents emphasized the negative impact of choice on their public school system. Kids versus the system: This game was over at the opening tip.

If quality of testimony mattered, Buesgens' bill would have been a slam dunk. However, the education establishment remains zone-up against any suggestion of school choice. It kept the pressure on. The Buesgens bill fell 15-13 with three predictable Republicans joining a unified DFL in blocking any drive for parental school choice.

Almost a great upset. Another David-vs.-Goliath March matchup took place in the House Health Policy Committee. Convinced of a plausible connection between the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal and neurological disorders in children, Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, championed legislation requiring physicians to use thimerosal-free vaccine whenever reasonably possible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationwide there is one diagnosed case of autism in every 166 live births. Data compiled by bill supporters show an autism rate of one in 109 births in Minnesota.

This matchup of concerned parents, armed with university research supporting a vaccine connection to autism, vs. government and private health care professionals refuting that claim, produced some great debate. The committee fired insightful questions at both sides. Committee Chairman Fran Bradley, R-Rochester (home of the Mayo Clinic), scored in the final minutes of the hearing by reading a lengthy list of prestigious medical organizations opposing the bill.

When there's disagreement among scientists, say proponents of the bill, why take a risk with children's health? Opponents start with the system. Resolutely refuting any connection between vaccines and autism, they object to increased vaccine costs and limited availability of thimerosal-free vaccine. The committee sided with the system, and at the buzzer, the bill went down on a mixed-party 8-to-6 vote, with two abstentions.

One winner. Despite these bracket busters for those of us rooting for legislators to do the right thing rather than the political thing, March madness did give us one winner. By a 64-2 vote the Minnesota Senate passed eminent domain reform that sets some definitive criteria for when the government can legitimately take private property for public use.

Although the legislation passed the Senate by a wide margin, committee hearings were hard-fought matchups between the League of Minnesota Cities, which opposed the legislation, and a broad coalition of groups assembled by public service law firm the Institute for Justice and the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. Legislators, like NCAA round-ballers, respond when there are fans screaming in the stands.

NCAA March madness was filled with upsets. In the Senate, access-grant legislation is still alive. So is the thimerosal bill. Eminent domain still faces a fight in the House. It's only halftime at the Capitol. The head says "not likely," but the heart is holding out for a comeback.