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Senate taps tobacco tax to keep safety net

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Continuing to play good cop to the House's bad, the Senate approved a health and human services spending bill that contains few of the cuts to social service programs in the version passed by the House.

The $8.5 billion bill, which also funds prisons, passed early Saturday 38-27.

Debate began with Democratic Sen. Linda Berglin, the chairwoman of the Senate's health and human services finance division, asking her colleagues to step forward if they'd be willing to sacrifice their own state-paid health care benefits.

None volunteered.

"I would just like to point out," she continued, "that each and every one of us is financially more capable of paying for our own health insurance benefits than any single person that is affected in this bill that we have before us today."

Each and every one of us is financially more capable of paying for our own health insurance benefits than any single person that is affected in this bill that we have before us today.
- DFL Sen.Linda Berglin

From there, the senators sparred over issues monumental and mundane.

The Senate plan would avoid most of the cuts in health insurance, child care and welfare programs that are contained in budget plans by Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the GOP-controlled House.

It rejects, for example, a merging of health insurance programs that's expected to leave 68,000 no longer eligible for state help by 2007.

To get there, though, the Senate plan would get money from a proposed $1 per pack cigarette tax increase. The plan also would have the state stop paying for treatment of certain illnesses, such as the common cold or lower back pain, that doctors can do little to treat.

That prioritization plan, used now in Oregon, is described as rationing by opponents, but Berglin said it would be better to give basic health care to more people than a Cadillac version to fewer.

It's just one of many big differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Pawlenty has outright rejected using any tax increase for the budget, and the Republican-led House has taken the same stance.

Senate Democrats offered their Republican colleagues a chance to vote for Pawlenty's budget plan for health and human services. Twenty five the 32 who caucus with Republicans voted for Pawlenty's plan.

The cigarette hike would put Minnesota's per-pack tax at $1.48, compared to the national average of 68 cents.

"There are people out there struggling and you people are just putting more taxes on them all the time," Republican leader Sen. Dick Day said.

Without the tobacco tax, the Senate plan would fall more than a half-billion dollars short of money over the next two years.

More than 50 amendments were offered to the bill during debate, but few major changes were made.

Several measures backed by abortion opponents failed. One requiring that women seeking an abortion be told more information about contraceptive options passed. It would be in addition to information the women are already required to be told under a new law mandating a 24-hour waiting period.

The Senate plan would also:

-Fully fund senior nutrition and volunteer programs, including Meals on Wheels. Pawlenty's budget includes cuts.

-Avoid cuts to child care subsidies. The House plan would make fewer people eligible for the help.

-Not require, as the House and governor do, co-pays on prescriptions and doctor visits for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

-Like the House, use the balance of the tobacco endowment, created from the state's court winnings against tobacco companies, to put more than $1 billion toward the budget deficit.

-Allow prisoners to be housed two per cell at high-security prisons in Stillwater and St. Cloud.

-Allow the Department of Corrections to serve two meals instead of three each day to inmates on weekends and holidays.

-Have felons with less than six months to serve do their time in local jails instead of state prisons. Unlike Pawlenty's plan, it would reimburse counties part of the cost.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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