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The University of Minnesota Duluth

BRIDGE - Summer 2007, Volume 25, #1

Education, the Environment, and Health Care: Yvonne Prettner Solon and Tom Huntley Take Leadership Roles  

Yvonne Prettner Solon
Tom Hutley

This spring the Minnesota Legislature will tackle a number of issues that have state and national implications. Both Minnesota Senator Yvonne Prettner Solon, UMD alumna (BS '79, MA '81), and Minnesota Representative Thomas E. Huntley, associate professor, UMD Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, School of Medicine Duluth, are taking active strides to shape the debates.


This spring, just one month into the session, Prettner Solon orchestrated a historic renewable energy bill. The bill calls for Minnesota's electric utilities to generate clean energy. The state's largest utility, Xcel Energy, would have to generate 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and other, smaller utilities would have to reach 25 percent by 2025.

Prettner Solon took over as chair of the Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Committee this year and was determined to bring a six-year debate on clean energy to a conclusion. "We gathered the stakeholders to review the issues," she said. "Utilities, environmentalists, Chamber of Commerce people, Republicans, and Democrats all participated in the process, and we found more similarities than disagreements." The goal was to eliminate carbon emissions for cleaner water and cleaner air and to reverse global warming.

"We did our homework," said Prettner Solon. "We began the session with a conference on global warming." Four committees in the Senate and four in the House invited explorer Will Steger, Lucinda Johnson from UMD's NRRI, and two researchers from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, David Tilman and Lee Frelich, to make a joint presentation on climate at the Minnesota State Capitol.

The strategy worked and the bill passed in the House and the Senate in record time. "Minnesota is a great state," said Prettner Solon. "We need to be its stewards to preserve it for future generations, to care for its land and environment, its economy, and the health of its citizens."

Tom Huntley also raced the clock. As chair of the Great Lakes Commission, a bi-national agency representing the eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces that border the Great Lakes, Huntley authored passage of the "Great Lakes Compact," an agreement reached by the governors of the states within the Great Lakes watershed to legally protect these waters from large-scale diversions outside of the Great Lakes watershed. In order for this agreement to become legally binding, it must be ratified by each of the state legislative bodies and by Congress. Under Huntley's leadership, Minnesota was the first state to ratify this important piece of legislation to protect the Great Lakes and Lake Superior.


Some issues are complex and don't have easy answers. Prettner Solon is dedicated to the education of Minnesota's young people. "Education is the best tool for people to succeed," she said. "And pre-school education is the best bang for our buck. Every dollar invested in pre-school gives us an $8 return, and it translates into success and careers later in life." Prettner Solon would like to see all day, every day kindergarten, and she supports other ways of helping parents. "Ideally, every parent would be assisted in providing their children with early childhood educational opportunities."

She also is concerned about higher education. "It's unfortunate that college students have been saddled with so much debt," she said. "We've cut higher education funding back from where it needs to be. Minnesota used to have a policy to fund 60 percent of a student's higher education. That has fallen to 40 percent and student debt has risen." She wants to reverse that trend. "If I had to do it my way, I'd see that everyone in Minnesota could go all the way from pre-school right through college."

Huntley also believes in strong funding for education. From 1960-2000, Minnesota experienced higher-than-average income per-capita growth relative to other states and the nation as a whole. "That's when we invested in our young people, in K-12 education and in higher ed," he said. "Since 2000, when there was a move to cut taxes, incomes haven't kept up." Minnesota's per capita personal income slipped from seventh to ninth among the 50 states, and the state had one of the slowest income growth rates in the nation. "We are losing income by not investing in young people."


Hand in hand with education is a concern for health care.

Huntley serves as chair of the Health Care and Human Services Finance Division. That committee oversees most of the Department of Human Services and 30 percent of the state's budget. "The ratio of health care to higher ed spending used to be about 50/50. Now health care is three times that of higher ed," he said.

Huntley's goal is to fix the policies that don't make sense. "We can't wait for the federal government to institute health care reform," he said. "States have got to take the lead."

Huntley had a concrete example. St. Mary's/Duluth Clinic did a pilot study. "Nurses and nurse practitioners were in daily contact with patients with heart problems. They installed monitoring equipment in the home and called or visited every day." The results of the study made Huntley take notice. SMDC saw a 48 percent reduction in spending, 82 percent reduction in hospital stays, 81 percent reduction in length of stay for those admitted, and 88 percent decrease in emergency room visits. "Yet, Medicare doesn't reimburse for nurses and equipment. The payment system is out of whack. The medical system should be rewarded for prevention." Instead, Huntley said, money spent on health care is wasted in unneeded procedures, inefficient delivery, excess paperwork and administrative costs. "We have policies that don't make any sense, and a payment system that doesn't reward for doing the right thing."

Prettner Solon agrees, "Our health care system is so fractured, we just can't continue this way. We've put bandages on it many times, and it is still bursting at the seams." She said the lack of heath care is breaking the system. When someone without health insurance gets sick, they are often forced to wait until they are so ill they need to go to the ER rather than the physician's office and end up getting more expensive care. "We pay for illness rather than wellness," she said. "And that needs to change." Many Minnesotans can't afford health care; and even many with health insurance can't afford the premiums and the co-pays. "My vision is to cover health care for all children from birth to age 25," said Prettner Solon. "That way we can catch problems early and we can practice good prevention. Keeping children healthy actually cuts healthcare costs in later life."

These two legislators prove to Minnesota and to UMD, by their words and their actions, that the people of Minnesota are their first priority.

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