Sports betting, flavored nicotine, Minnesota flag: Capitol roundup

Some of the most interesting and intense proposals to come out of Minnesota’s 2024 legislative session were at the center of the action at the state Capitol on Tuesday.

Legalized sports betting

Legalized gambling on sports is still a risky bet to pass the Minnesota Legislature this year, but has made progress.

A Senate committee heard a slightly different version of the bill than the one Sen. Matt Klein, (DFL-Mendota Heights) introduced last year.

It would now use a portion of the tax proceeds to support emergency services like police and firefighters.

Some of the legislators who aren’t big fans of sports betting asked for the change in an effort to help reduce some of the public safety and health issues attributed to problem gambling, which is likely to grow with legalized sports betting.

"This bill would represent the largest expansion of gambling in Minnesota during my lifetime," said Sen. Jordan Rasmusson (GOP-Fergus Falls), who is 30 years old.

Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville), opposed what he called the biggest gambling expansion in state history when he held up the bill last year, but now seems to be taking an active role in reshaping the rules for a new law.

The bigger dispute last year was centered on where people could place bets on sports.

The main bill limited it to casinos, but horse tracks wanted in on the action and weren’t satisfied with early offers.

Those negotiations are still underway behind the scenes, and it’s still a 50-50 bet whether any bill will pass.

Flavored tobacco, nicotine banned

Flavored nicotine could be on the way out of Minnesota under a proposed new law.

The bill would prohibit Minnesota retailers from selling menthol cigarettes or any flavored vaping products.

Supporters say the products are often marketed to young people to create a new generation of nicotine addicts.

Manufacturers told the House Health Finance and Policy committee on Tuesday they shouldn’t ban flavored products because e-cigarettes help people quit smoking and a lot of quitters use flavored tobacco.

A doctor who treats children didn’t buy that argument.

"Some may talk about e-cigarettes as ‘harm reduction’ and that flavored e-cigarettes can be used for quitting," said Hennepin County Medical Center pediatric pulmonologist Dr. Gail Brottman. "These products are highly addictive and come in flavors that are attractive to children."

A retailer representative pointed out the law would also ban wintergreen chewing tobacco, which he said would be like banning Busch Light beer.

One convenience store owner said the ban would drastically damage his bottom line.

Supporters say the health impacts of nicotine addiction are a huge cost to taxpayers.

Minnesota flag, seal debate

Minnesota Republicans have fired up the debate over the new flag and seal.

Unless the current legislature votes against it, the new emblems would become official on Statehood Day, May 11.

A few of the old flags flew on the Capitol steps Tuesday as a couple dozen people rallied against the changes to come.

County government leaders are worried the cost will fall into their budgets and it’ll be in the tens of thousands per county.

Republican lawmakers say the least the state should do is reimburse counties for new flags, seals, and badges.

But they also submitted new bills Tuesday to put the new emblems on the November ballot.

"The goal is not to go back to this flag or to go to the new flag," said Rep. Bjorn Olson (GOP-Fairmont). "The goal remains Minnesotans deserve the right to vote for what represents them."

Democrats who were on the redesign commission say they did the right thing, considering almost 22,000 public comments.

"I am proud of that process, and the result, and look forward to seeing the new flag fly over the Capitol," said Sen. Mary Kunesh (DFL-New Brighton). "In the meantime, the DFL has real work to do on behalf of the people of Minnesota, who have clearly moved on from this to more important issues in their lives."

Health insurance, treatment

One of those issues may address the tangled web of health insurance and delayed treatments.

Minnesota Senate Democrats, including a medical doctor, are pushing a new bill to stop insurance companies from slowing down treatment with a prior authorization process.

Health insurance companies require doctors to get permission to use certain medications or treatments – known as a prior authorization process, to which many hospitals dedicate entire teams of employees.

In 85% to 95% of cases, the medication or treatment is ultimately approved.

But Sen. Kelly Morrison (DFL-Deephaven), who is also a doctor, says it delays treatment for patients by an average of five to seven days.

"If they have to wait 5 to 7 days before they have access to that medication they need, sometimes that just reinforces what they already believe about our health care system, that they're we're not here to help people," Sen. Morrison said.

She says a lot of patients will just give up, so the insurance companies are motivated by the potential savings.

The bill heard in a Senate committee on Tuesday says prior authorization shouldn’t be used for preventative services or for services where a delay in treatment could harm the patient.

Insurance companies oppose the bill.

They say it would lead to an increase in unnecessary and inappropriate care.