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Senate panel trims financial penalty from bullying bill

ST. PAUL — State Senate Republicans have been able to alter, but not stop, controversial bullying prevention legislation that DFL lawmakers and their supporters say is a top priority this legislative session.

The latest changes came Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee, where Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, won two DFL votes to strike an enforcement provision from the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act. Nienow’s amendment removed the state education commissioner’s ability to withhold funding for districts that don’t comply.

The committee went on to advance the legislation back to the Senate floor, where it was tabled last may after the threat of a Republican filibuster. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged the change was a setback, but said he was happy the bill continued to progress.

“Yes, I’m disappointed, of course,” Dibble said. “But it doesn’t do grievous injury to the ideas in the bill. It is a test of how serious we are going to take this. I still think it is a good bill.”

DFL Sens. Terri Bonoff of Minnetonka and LeRoy Stumpf of Plummer voted in favor of Nienow’s amendment. Before the vote, Bonoff said she felt money was a poor enforcement mechanism for bullying prevention.

Earlier this month, Dibble presented an amended version of the bill to the Education Policy Committee, which supporters said addressed many of the concerns of school district advocates. They’ve argued the bullying prevention law will create a bureaucracy that will be costly for districts to implement.

While the changes have been welcome, the financial argument remains a key issue for those who oppose the bill. Reports to the finance committee Wednesday found the legislation would cost state government about $1 million a year and school districts’ cost could reach $20 million annually statewide.

Republicans have put forward alternative legislation they say would be less costly and divisive. Nienow tried to introduce the alternative measure again as an amendment Wednesday, but it was rejected.

“This bill saves us $40 million,” Nienow said of the GOP alternative. “It gets rid of the unfunded mandate.”

Dibble has disputed the cost estimates, saying the methodology of using a survey to determine the impact was “deeply flawed.”

Backers of the Safe and Supportive Schools Act say their bill includes key provisions designed to protect every student by encouraging efforts to prevent bullying.

“Literally, thousands and thousands of young people stay home from school because of the way they are being treated,” Dibble said.

Next week, the bill is expected to go to the Senate floor, where Dibble says he expects continued opposition to the measure.

If it passes in the Senate, it must then be reconciled with the House version that was passed last year and doesn’t include the recent changes. House lawmakers can concur with the Senate’s changes or send the bill to conference committee.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.