Talks to save GAMC ongoing; religious pressure buildingby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Democrats are negotiating to try to find a way to extend funding for General Assistance Medical Care.
There's no deal yet, and several religious groups are ramping up pressure on the governor and the Legislature to fix the problem. They're reminding lawmakers that taking care of the poorest Minnesotans is a moral issue.
At a Wednesday morning news conference, Pawlenty said he made an offer to Democrats to extend health care coverage for people who risk losing it because of his veto of funding for General Assistance Medical Care.
The program serves roughly 30,000 of the poorest Minnesotans. The governor didn't provide many details of his proposal.
"It kind of outlined a framework that we think could work. They didn't say no. They want to think about it," Pawlenty said. "I think they'd like to have some public comment about it, so the ball is in their court in terms of next steps. But at least the framework was put on the table."
The latest offer comes after nine months of negotiations. Pawlenty initially vetoed funding for the program last year. He later proposed rolling the clients into a more expensive, less accessible state program called MinnesotaCare.
Two weeks ago, lawmakers passed a plan with broad bipartisan support that would have extended health care coverage under GAMC for another 16 months. Supporters said the plan was cheaper and more effective than the governor's alternative.
But Pawlenty vetoed that bill too, and this week the House failed to override that veto. The lobbying on the override vote was intense, and much of it came from religious leaders.
"Governor, please stop talking to us about God," said Grant Stevensen, a pastor at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in St. Paul, at a news conference on Monday before the override attempt.
Stevensen criticized Pawlenty for invoking God during stump speeches, but blocking funding for essential programs for the state's most vulnerable residents.
"The governor is going around saying, 'God is in control.' We elected you to be making decisions for this state that will help everyone in this state. Things that will lift up the poorest in this state," said Stevensen. "Don't pass this off on God. That's no God we've ever heard of. And please stop lecturing us about God. It's offensive."
Stevenson is referring to one of the key talking points Pawlenty uses when he talks to Republican activists across the country. He included it in a speech to a GOP gathering in Las Vegas on Saturday night.
"One of the first principles that we should turn to always, and remember, is that God is in charge," Pawlenty said to the group.
When asked about the criticism Wednesday, Pawlenty sidestepped the question, saying he has to balance the budget. He also emphasized the need to better control state health care costs.
But Alexandra Fitzsimmons with the Minnesota Catholic Conference says the governor and lawmakers need to consider the state's poorest residents when balancing the budget.
"There does seem a difference in approach from looking at it as a human life issue versus an economic issue," said Fitzsimmons. "I think the human life piece needs to come first."
Catholic Charities, the Catholic archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and bishops from several other denominations have also sent letters supporting a fix to GAMC.
But at least for now, that hasn't happened. DFL leaders say reports that they are close to an agreement with the governor are overly optimistic. They're not saying much about the governor's latest proposal, but they add that they plan to keep working to find a solution.
- All Things Considered, 03/03/2010, 5:20 p.m.