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Viewpoint: Helping senior citizens and struggling students

Tony Jurgens

Last year I held a meeting with senior citizens at Regina Senior Living in Hastings. They told me they wished they had more money to spend from their Social Security checks.

I explained that they were not alone, and that the Legislature had begun to tackle the problem.

During the 2017 session, lawmakers approved a bipartisan tax relief law that addressed Social Security, providing nearly 284,000 senior citizen tax filers with tax reductions, and 72,000 of them no longer pay any state income tax on their Social Security benefits.

This session I am chief-authoring legislation that would eliminate state taxes on Social Security benefits for all senior citizens. My bill would benefit nearly 358,000 Minnesotans who would average savings of nearly $1,100 each from the elimination.

On Feb. 14, my bill was debated in the Minnesota House Taxes Committee, and was held over for possible inclusion in a more comprehensive taxes bill that will be unveiled later this year.

To me, there is no good reason to financially punish senior citizens. They've paid into the system their entire lives and the state shouldn't be relying on them to help fund government programs. I believe it's time to end this unjust law.

Increasing mental health grants for schools

In order to help students who are struggling, as well as schools who need resources to help them, I am chief-authoring legislation that would increase funding for state mental health grants for schools.

The number of students dealing with mental health problems in our schools continues to rise. Minnesota is behind much of the country when it comes to employing school psychologists and mental health professionals.

My bill would increase mental health grant funds by $10 million a year, allowing more schools to bring in professionals to work with students who are in need of help. Current funding is $11 million a year.

I have spoken to both Hastings Schools Superintendent Tim Collins and South Washington County Schools Superintendent Keith Jacobus on this topic, and both are supportive of addressing student mental health.

Expanding mental health services in our schools is a critical component of school safety and improving outcomes for Minnesota students, and will also assist parents who don't know where to turn for help for their child.

Many troubled kids who need help either don't have health insurance or have a poor health plan, so their parents don't seek assistance for financial reasons. We all want children to succeed in life. If we are able to reach kids in the schools who are dealing with untreated mental health issues, we greatly improve their chances at success in the classroom and beyond.

Special education funding becoming a crisis

If you ask school leaders what contributes to funding woes within their district, you'll likely hear about the lack of funding for special education.

In 1978, laws were written stating the federal government would fund 40 percent of special education services to the states.

It's never come close to holding up its end of the bargain.

Currently, Minnesota receives roughly 10 percent of what it needs from Washington. In addition to state funding, districts are forced to use general funds that are allocated to them from state government.

Don't get me wrong, the schools are doing the right thing. The problem is, the federal government's failure ultimately impacts all students. Because the district is forced to spend more state dollars on special education, money that could be available for other programming is eliminated. You don't close the achievement gap from the top down; you do it by raising all students up.

As a member of the K-12 Education Finance Division, I've heard the alarming statistics. Consider autism programing, just one segment of special education. In the last six years, Minnesota has seen a nearly 30 percent increase in the number of students on the autism spectrum. And in the last 11 years, the cost of educating each student with autism has risen by nearly 40 percent.

That's unsustainable. There might be light at the end of this tunnel, but it's coming in the form of a freight train that's going to hit schools head-on.

I recently met with Congresswoman Angie Craig who said the special education cross subsidy issue is also important to her, and that she is working with Minnesota Congressman Pete Stauber on this issue. This is good news. Hopefully we'll see some needed action from the federal government on this matter because it must step up and honor its special education responsibility to our schools.