What did the Capitol do for women this year?

A perspective on the legislative session you haven’t seen elsewhere

Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Photo by Andrew VonBank, MN House of Representatives

Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Photo by Andrew VonBank, MN House of Representatives

With many losses and a few wins, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s leadership was one of the legislative session’s key victories for women

Bonding. Infrastructure. Budget. While these topics, along with partisan wrangling, made headlines during the legislative session, a few important accomplishments and many disappointing setbacks occurred that will greatly affect the status of women in Minnesota. And women’s leadership was spotlighted when House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher received kudos from leaders on both sides of the aisle for her calm, effective leadership.

Amy Brenengen, director of the Office on the Economic Status of Women, gave an overview of the legislative session. “The new public safety bills addressing domestic and sexual abuse that were signed into law represent important gains for women,” she said. “In many other areas of law that our office tracked-workforce/economic development, childcare, public assistance, health care-we often saw either no progression or veto [by the governor].

“When there is a budget deficit to manage-as we saw during this session and which is predicted for 2009’s session-many health and human services programs that impact women are either completely cut or reduced significantly,” said Brenengen, who promised that her office would be watching those areas carefully in coming months.

Mixed bag
The Minnesota Women’s Press focused on several key areas for women. Here’s our report.

Reproductive health Among the legislation enacted is a law that expands access to contraceptives by allowing RNs to dispense and administer all contraceptives, not just oral contraception. Deb Wilkens-Costello, executive director of Family Tree Clinic, said, “This legislation is very important to women. Eliminating as many barriers as we can and increasing access to reproductive health care for all women is critical. Allowing RNs to dispense contraceptives is the right thing to do.”

Legislation to allow expedited partner treatment for chlamydia patients succeeded. Expedited partner treatment would give a person diagnosed with chlamydia an option to receive medication for her sexual partner as well. This is significant because chlamydia rates are on the rise in Minnesota, more than doubling from 1996 to 2006. Legislation will help limit the re-infection of partners and infection of new partners.

Unfortunately, two beneficial pieces of legislation failed. The Responsible Family Life and Sexuality Education bill was dropped from the final Education Omnibus bill because Gov. Pawlenty threatened to veto the bill if it was included. Amy Brugh, public policy director of the Minnesota AIDS Project, a member organization of the Coalition for Responsible Sex Ed, expressed disappointment but promised future action. “We want to be clear that this issue is not going away and we will get creative next year on how we advance the sex ed bill at the Capitol,” Brugh said.

Gov. Pawlenty also vetoed a bill that would have banned phthalates and bisphenol-A, which are linked to adverse reproductive health effects, in children’s toys. Scientific studies show that phthalates are linked to, for example, early onset of puberty in girls and disruption to the male reproductive tract. Gov. Pawlenty said he is willing to consider limits on these chemicals in the future, but felt that current research is not based on “sound science.”

Safety Early in the session, legislation was introduced containing a $175,000 appropriation to fund a study documenting the trafficking of American Indian girls and women in Minnesota. The legislation also required that the state’s annual human trafficking report in Minnesota include data on American Indian women and girls. The bill received a hearing in the House of Representatives but not in the Senate. According to Suzanne Koepplinger, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, it did not receive a Senate hearing because a “lack of funding and the political climate around immigration made it unrealistic to be successful.”

In a victory, Gov. Pawlenty signed a bill that enhances Order for Protection laws. The changes increase the standard time period for an order of protection from one year to two years and allows the court to grant an order for protection and harassment of up to 50 years after multiple violations. Currently, women must renew their orders of protection every year, requiring some level of contact between the victim and abuser, which is potentially dangerous.

Early in the session the governor had recommended cuts to crime victim services funding, which aids victims of domestic abuse. The House Public Safety Budget Division recommended that there be no cuts to crime victim services and after negotiations, the funding emerged unscathed.

Other programs with services that benefit battered women weren’t so fortunate. Cyndi Cook, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women, was relieved about crime victim services funding but concerned about the ripple effect the other cuts will have. “We’re really excited that our programs will retain their funding this year, but we’re also concerned about all the other cuts to courts, legal aid and health and human services that will have an impact on women and families across the state,” she said.

Work Gov. Pawlenty vetoed legislation to increase the minimum wage to $6.75 an hour this year and $7.75 next year. He said he vetoed the bill because it did not include a “tip credit” for restaurant servers (predominantly female), and other tipped employees. A tip credit would allow businesses to pay less to employees who earn tips.

Kris Jacobs, executive director of the JOBS NOW Coalition, said that minimum wage is a women’s issue. “Female workers are far more likely than male workers to work in low paying jobs, [and] their living costs are often much higher, especially if they are single parents,” Jacobs said.

Pawlenty vetoed a bill to allow workers to use their sick leave to care for immediate relatives. Women are disproportionately the main caretakers of children, ailing family members and elderly parents. The current law only allows workers to use their sick leave to care for ill or injured children. Pawlenty called the legislation “an unfunded mandate” on local governments.

Health care reform The health care reform bill, which passed and was signed by the governor in a second version, (after the first version was vetoed) provided a few improvements to health care access. It extends coverage to 12,000 of the 240,000 uninsured people. Other provisions include initiatives to lower obesity rates and tobacco use, look to change the way doctors are paid and offer more information on cost and quality of care. While this is not complete health care reform, it is a step in the right direction, said Mary Jo George, a lobbyist with the Minnesota Nurses Association. “Although we didn’t make the gains we know are needed, we did make significant advancements through highly mobilized and organized efforts. It is essential we continue to press forward next year-and until we achieve the quality, affordable health care all Minnesota citizens deserve.”

According to the National Women’s Law Center, women not only use more health care services than men but are less likely than men to have health insurance coverage through their own employer because they are more likely to work part-time.

A leader emerges
Last year when Speaker of the House Margaret Anderson Kelliher was asked if she was too nice to minority party leaders, she told the Minnesota Women’s Press, “If we want to have a civil culture, good political debate and civic engagement, sometimes we need to look at changing our styles. It needs to be about getting the work done.” Anderson Kelliher did get the work done this year, and she received compliments and kudos from Gov. Pawlenty and Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller for her handling of the 2008 legislative session. Pogemiller said, “The speaker of the House made this happen.”

Kelliher emerged from this session as a strong-willed leader determined to control the events taking place but willing and able to compromise to get things done. She credited the entire Legislature for their hard work and teamwork saying, “We have worked hard and been more productive than any Legislature in recent history. We reduced partisanship and showed state leaders can work together.”

Looking forward
What can women expect from the 2009 legislative session? A projected large budget deficit means women may lose out. Health and Human Services, which houses many programs for women, makes up one of the largest pieces of the state budget, and will likely take the largest hit.

But grim forecasts for 2009 have motivated organizations and individuals to band together and prioritize women’s concerns in the state budget process. With a strong speaker of the House, an active community of women and hard-working advocacy organizations, women can have a large influence at the Capitol next year by unifying our voices.