Legislating for Children

Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn with her middle child. Courtesy photo

Many Minnesota advocates were frustrated at stalled legislative action this year. With the governor’s race and all legislators being decided, and 51 incumbents not returning, the November election is pivotal.

Rep. Jeremy Munson (R–District 23B) wrote in a newsletter to his southern Minnesota constituents that Republican strategy last session was to wait until after the November elections to decide how to spend the budget surplus. As he put it, “The Governor was supposed to spend $4 billion, give $4 billion in tax relief, and leave $4 billion on the bottom line for next session. … When Senate Republicans looked at this deal, they decided no deal was better than a bad deal and they ran out the clock.”

Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn (DFL–District 49B) is running for re-election in the recently redistricted 49B, serving Eden Prairie. She serves as the vice-chair of the House Commerce Committee and sits on the Early Childhood Finance & Policy Committee, the Behavioral Health Committee, and the Workforce & Business Development Committee. We talked to her about the status of legislation focused on children and families.

Foster Care

“We passed a bill I am particularly pleased with — a proposal to establish the office of foster youth and an ombudsperson for foster care. Youth in foster care don’t always have the support they need in order to contact somebody if they are dealing with issues in the system. This office allows them someone — a paid support person at the state — who can help them elevate their voices and concerns,” says Kotyza-Witthuhn, who co-sponsored the bill.

She and her husband have four young kids, three of them adopted from the foster care system, “so I am really passionate about that program.”

The rates of homelessness, incarceration, and lack of higher education are high for children who age out of the foster care system without having been adopted, says Kotyza-Witthuhn.

Other new legislation enables foster youth to access two years of state university schooling for free. The Office of Higher Education is dispersing new Fostering Independence Grants this fall, as part of the most comprehensive college support package for fosters in the country.

Public Safety & Justice

In the 2021 session, the Minnesota Legislature created a new Youth Justice Office within the Department of Public Safety Office of Justice programs. This office will be comprised of a director, a compliance specialist, an ethnic and racial disparities coordinator, and a health and resiliency coordinator. The intention is to address racial and ethnic disparities, and provide protections and supports, for those involved in the juvenile justice system, including mental health resources.

There was no agreement about how to move forward in reducing violent crime, with the legislature largely divided about whether to invest in more law enforcement or in community-based violence prevention programs.

Housing

This year, Democrats and housing advocates proposed a $1.5 billion budget for affordable housing developments and to protect people from evictions. Senate Republicans wanted to expand homeownership and reduce rent control measures. With a wide gap in priorities, housing bills were not passed.

This fall, housing advocates seek legislators who support renter protection policy reforms. Minnesota is one of only four states that do not require that a landlord formally notify a tenant before filing an eviction action for nonpayment of rent. An eviction action makes it difficult to find new housing even if the case was dismissed, settled by agreement of the parties, or the household’s finances improved. On average, more than 13,000 residential evictions are filed in Minnesota.

Solutions proposed for the 2023 session include the Pre-eviction Notice [HF20/SF766], which would require filing a notice 14 days before a formal eviction action can be brought in court to provide tenants an opportunity to fix the problem, negotiate an agreement, or vacate the apartment unit, which would make an eviction filing unnecessary. Expungement Reform [HF265/SF771] would prohibit eviction reporting unless a court judgment is rendered in favor of the landlord.

Toxicity

The Healthy Rural and Urban Kids Project measured 21 chemicals in the urine of 232 children from two communities: neighborhoods in North Minneapolis and three counties in north-central Minnesota. Both areas have long held concerns about potential exposures to chemicals in their environments.

Children from the urban area showed higher levels of chemicals from air pollution compared to kids from rural areas and the U.S. average in children. Children from rural areas showed higher levels of a pesticide used on crops and lawns compared to urban children.

In addition, Kotyza-Witthuhn says: “There are products like playmats and high chairs where our babies spend a lot of time. We know we can absorb [toxic chemicals known as PFAS] through our skin. With PFAS, when they have such teeny bodies, there is no real way to get those chemicals out of their system.

“We also had a good proposal to address lead contamination in some of our drinking water pipes and systems, and wanted to move forward with pipeline replacement through a grant program. But again, we had a hard time getting that through the senate. A lot of this is so frustrating. A lot of people are hesitant — ‘small government, we don’t need more regulation’ — but when you think about it, not all regulation is bad.”

Another bill [HF2556], authored in the House by Rep. Kelly Morrison, would require lead-free hunting ammunition. It did not pass.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, one in five loons die due to lead poisoning from fishing tackle. A third lead-related bill [HF157/SF2813] was aimed at limiting toxic fishing tackle. It did not pass.

Child Care Credit

The Great Start Tax Credit bill had bipartisan support and was included in the final tax bill but did not pass. It expanded on the existing Dependent Care Credit, which helps pay child care expenses for families that work or are looking for work. The proposed bill started off with a $10,000 credit for the first child, up to $20,000 if there is a second child, and an additional $5,000 for a third child. Currently there is a credit for up to two children for a total of $6,000 were spending twice our mortgage payment on child care. We had a two-, three-, and four-year-old. For families who have more than [one child], any little bit helps.”

Kotyza-Witthuhn repeated irritation we have heard from other legislators that too many colleagues support “side projects,” such as a literacy program, rather than working together on big-picture solutions.

“How are students going to be able to reach grade level if they don’t have food on the table? If they don’t have a safe place to sleep at night? All of those things go together. When [legislators] stonewall on these really big issues, it is really frustrating.”

Mental Health

In June, Governor Tim Walz signed an omnibus mental health budget bill into law that invests over $60 million in the state’s mental health system to increase school- and shelter-linked programs; add 22 inpatient psychiatric beds at Children’s Hospital; address workforce shortages and lack of diversity by paying for supervision and increasing the loan forgiveness program; expand services to children such as crisis beds; and add another $9.6 million for mobile mental health crisis services.

Mental health advocates were disappointed, however, that the legislature could not move ahead on millions of dollars that could have increased funding for school support personnel, special education, day treatment programs, child care workers, bonding for housing, and funding to implement the 988 suicide and crisis phone line.

In a two-month period this summer, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline in Minnesota fielded over 4,200 calls; 25 percent were under the age of 25, with 1 in 10 callers under the age of 15.

Minnesota has one of the worst student-to-counselor ratios in the nation, which varies district by district. There was no increase this year in school guidance counselors, but there was an increase of $2 million for school-linked programs that co-locates community mental health providers in schools.

Kotyza-Witthuhn says, “What we have heard over and over from the other side of the aisle for the last two years is that we are locking our kids out of school, kids can’t learn when they are wearing masks. When it is time to make investments in our students’ mental health and that of our educators, where are they? It is just so disappointing. In a year when we have a historic budget surplus, we really had the opportunity to make historic investments in the future of Minnesota, and [opponents] just said no.”

Resources

National Alliance of Mental Illness Minnesota encourages people to pledge to #Vote4MentalHealth and take the time to understand how their vote impacts mental health. namimn.org

Ourhomes-ourvotes.org supports advocates who want to engage in election work, especially voter engagement. Minnesota candidates’ views on housing: mhponline.org/candidate-questionnaire-2022