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Minnesota’s legislating women

Only two months ago, in these very pages, jubilation reigned as Minnesotans voted to send a record number of women to the Minnesota Legislature. Seventy women now serve, seven more than in the 2006 session. “We’ve reached the tipping point,” said Bonnie Watkins, executive director of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium, referring to the 40 percent of Senate seats held by women. “When we reach that number, we start to see real change for the women of this state.”

In the House, 37 percent of seats are held by women representatives, another all-time high. “The buzz around the Consortium is real excitement,” Watkins said, “because the elections went so well.”

Change makers
The celebrations over, the champagne bottles recycled and the confetti swept away, Minnesota women are ready to do business. But is this new Legislature ready and/or willing to live up to the election’s promise?

Incoming Sen. Patricia Torres Ray made headlines of her own when she became the first Latina member of the Minnesota Senate. “I think this is a very good year for women, families and children,” she said. “With 70 women in the Legislature we have the numbers. Clearly this gives us an opportunity to push for positions in leadership and on key committees.” And that’s where the power to change things really takes place, she noted. “In general, women who were elected are very strong, passionate, with very clear ideas about what they want to do. We are determined to change things,” Torres Ray said. “We’re going to fight for funding [for women’s issues]. We are determined to get the funding back.”

The cost of budget cuts
To that end, Torres Ray has co-sponsored a bill that would appropriate $8 million toward family planning grants. Connie Perpich, lobbyist for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, said that divisive abortion politics and deep budget cuts have left family planning clinics struggling to serve all who need their help, resulting in some startling statistics: Poorer women are four times more likely to have an unintended pregnancy, and three times more likely to have an abortion, than their more well-off counterparts. In Minnesota, Medicaid-funded abortions have increased 44 percent in the past five years, “while at the same time, abortions for middle-class and upper-class women have declined,” Perpich said. “Until now, people have not been making the connection about how you address this. I think those days are gone. I think the Legislature recognizes the link between the rise in abortions and rising health-care costs.” The Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that every dollar spent on family planning saves the state $4 in future spending.

“We’re able to show now that these clinics have been underfunded for five to 10 years,” Perpich said. Her concern is not only for the Planned Parenthood clinics that she represents, but also for smaller clinics that are under even greater financial pressure. “The cost of contraceptives is going crazy, and clinics are stressed.” Perpich said that the new Legislature “is willing to look at the fiscal pressures on clinics, and how [contraception] is a serious expense for a woman on a tight budget.”

Health care is a women’s issue
Recent legislative sessions “have been awful for women,” Watkins stated frankly. “We’ve been shell shocked by the budget cuts of previous sessions.” She lists cuts to MinnesotaCare to be the most disheartening. “We’ve let the guys be in charge of health care too long,” she said. “Women are the most frequent consumers of health care,” for themselves and their families, “and women are on the front lines as caregivers and deliverers of care. Women need to run things!”

One woman who’s been “running things” as chair of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee is Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis. She has presided over the committee since 1982, long enough to look beyond post-election euphoria to the hard work ahead. She agreed that women are the ones navigating the health-care system the most. This year Berglin has sponsored legislation that amends the state constitution to recognize affordable health care as a right of every Minnesotan.

“I personally believe that it’s not OK for people to go without access to affordable health care,” Berglin said. She feels that legislators need the accountability of a Constitutional amendment to ensure affordable health care. “I’m not sure we’ll get there with just good wishes.”

Optimism, realism both important
“Women have not been trendy [at the Capitol],” Watkins said. “Many people believe that women’s problems have been fixed.” She suggests that the 2006 election results themselves might play into this perception; after all, if so many women are being elected, we must have equality. Even the new House speaker is a woman, Rep. Margaret Anderson Kelliher. We’ve won, right?

Wrong. Watkins said. “I would like to be euphoric about the elections, but I think we’re creeping up on the reality that these people, both women and men, don’t always know all we need them to about our issues.”

But Berglin countered: “Give us a while here. All this damage wasn’t done in a week. It took eight years to pile this on. Anytime people think we’re not making enough progress, I tell them to take a look back. We were going backwards. Even if we’re not going forwards as fast as everyone would like us to, we’re not going backwards.”

The speaker of the House herself admitted that it’s difficult now to predict where the session will end. Budget negotiations will be challenging with a governor who is still adamantly opposed to raising taxes. But Anderson Kelliher wants women to remember those days of celebration in the tough days to come. “I think that their optimism is well placed,” she said. “I think that optimism will help get things done.”