Constituent stories critical to passage of 2021 bills supporting volunteer drivers

MN State Senator Jeff Howe
Senator Jeff Howe

Minnesota state senator Jeff Howe offered encouragement and strategic guidance to stakeholders and supporters of volunteer drivers and the 80,000 Minnesotans they serve each year. Howe was a featured speaker during the Dec. 9 forum in Minnesota's Road to Volunteer Drivers Virtual Forum Series, which focused on policy issues and real-life stories.

Howe joined longtime public transportation advocate Sherry Munyon for a discussion about ways to advance legislation considered key to recruiting and retaining volunteer drivers in the state.

Central Minnesota Council on Aging executive director Lori Vrolson opened the forum by sharing data and stories told by volunteer drivers and riders highlighting the crucial difference the services continue to make in meeting basic needs, especially for older adults and people with disabilities in every corner of the state. Organizations with volunteer driver programs serving Minnesota served nearly 80,000 people in 2018 and drivers covered more than 9.5 million miles.

Dawn Simonson, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Agency on Aging and co-chair of the Volunteer Driver Coalition, shared information and survey data about how essential volunteer drivers are to Minnesotans. Simonson also echoed Howe's call to action. The Coalition created a Call to Action toolkit to make it easy for constituents to contact their legislators.

Howe, who has been a champion for volunteer drivers in the Minnesota Legislature, represents the mostly rural District 13 just west of St. Cloud. Howe's legislative collaborators in support of volunteer drivers, Rep. Dan Wolgamott, who represents District 14B in St. Cloud, and Rep. Dave Lislegard, who represents District 6B on the Iron Range, were unable to participate in the forum as originally planned.

In recent years, volunteer drivers and the organizations they serve have been hampered by a handful of discouraging barriers with increasing financial implications. Among them, volunteers have experienced increasing insurance rates, liability concerns, and inadequate and often-taxable mileage reimbursements.

So far, legislative remedies at the state and federal levels have proven elusive. This year, the legislative efforts will focus on the definition of volunteer drivers and a tax subtraction for reimbursements to volunteer drivers. Howe's goal is to have the bills introduced at the start of the legislative session.

"I'm very, very optimistic that with the new bill this year, we'll be able to get something done," Howe says, with one stipulation. "We need to emphasize how critical your part is in getting these bills through the legislature. It is important for you to contact your legislators, both in the House and the Senate."

Howe explained the importance of personal stories in the legislative process, especially through letters, phone calls, emails, text messages, and, if possible, personal visits or presentations to legislators.

"When they hear from their constituents that need these services, it makes a huge impact," he says. "It's important to have that touch — how it impacts you or someone you know. Those stories stick with people."

When possible, Howe recommends sharing links to videos with personal stories, then following up with a phone call, asking for their support, and providing any information the legislator needs to make an informed decision.

See the forum web page for presentation materials, including links to the real-world stories and the Volunteer Driver Coalition's Call to Action toolkit.