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Health-care grants produce partisan fighting

ST. PAUL - A health-care spending political battle between Minnesota Senate Republicans and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton heightened Tuesday when each side basically called the other a liar.

Sen. David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, ended a contentious meeting of his Health and Human Services Committee by asking fellow senators to let him know their thoughts about whether the state should spend millions of dollars that the federal government is offering Minnesota for health-care programs ranging from those to monitor wells to keeping tabs on childhood cancer.

It appears that regardless of what Hann and his colleagues want, the Dayton administration will go ahead and spend the money.

Hann charged Dayton aides of finding a way around a state law that allows him, as a finance committee chairman, to stop the spending of federal funds if he has questions about them. Dayton's Minnesota Management and Budget office simply designated the funds as "urgent," which removes legislators from the decision.

Normally, legislators must approve all state spending.

Hann said that when he met with Dayton commissioners, they said no Minnesotan's health would be harmed by holding up the federal grants.

Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger said that he did not get a chance to warn Hann that people would be affected because the senator rushed him and others out of a meeting. Hann denied that.

"When you and I talked about this, it didn't come up," Hann said about putting 5,000 children in danger.

Dayton said he stands by his letter that claimed Hann's action "will severely harm 5,000 Minnesota children with cancer."

The program in dispute, one of several that would be funded by federal grants, would speed reporting of cancer treatment in hopes it could help children with the disease.

"I do not recall saying no one would be harmed," Ehlinger told Hann.

However, Hann has repeatedly said in the past week that the commissioner and others assured him that no direct care would be affected by holding up the grants. Hann said Dayton officials told him that the grants were just to improve internal agency processes.

"I did not expect this to be controversial," Hann said, because all he wanted was more information about how the federal money would be spent. "There is something wrong here."

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said she heard no testimony to support Dayton's claim that 5,000 children would be harmed. "What numbers did they use, or is it completely inaccurate?"

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, added that all Hann wanted to do was ask some questions, not stop the grants.

Several GOP senators, including Sen. Gretchen Hoffman, R-Vergas, grilled Ehlinger and other Dayton administration officials. Hoffman questioned the benefits of a federal program that would, among other things, tell Minnesotans that obesity can be avoided when programs like that already exist.

Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, asked for the tone of the meeting to become less partisan. As the lead Democrat on Hann's committee, Lourey stood up for Dayton.

Now that his administration has declared the grant spending as "urgent," his officials may go ahead and use the funds. However, a legislative commission may hold a meeting and provide Dayton with advice first. The commission is made up of Republicans.

Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.