ST. PAUL, Minn. - Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers are proposing major changes to the state's oversight of Minnesota's senior care facilities.

Widespread abuse and neglect of seniors and the state's lax oversight have made it a top priority for lawmakers this year. An audit released last week found "deep and pervasive failures" in the state agency that handles complaints. It revealed reports of abused had increased 50 percent in five years.

"The complaints were of a magnitude that I think caught regulators unprepared," Gov. Dayton told reporters Tuesday. "For which I take responsibility, for which I apologize to all vulnerable adults and their families, who’ve gone through this difficult time when we have not been fulfilling our responsibilities."

The legislation unveiled Tuesday would streamline reports of abuse, boost licensing requirements for assisted living and dementia care facilities and create stricter criminal penalties for employees who threaten or abuse seniors in their care, and larger civil penalties for companies that own the facilities.

"Long-term care providers have an obligation, and I believe, a sincere mission to prevent elder abuse and neglect," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm remarked. "And regulators have an obligation to assure performance according to standards that protect the public."

Malcolm said the well-documented failures of the state's watchdog agency, the Office of Health Facility Complaints, created an increased sense of urgency for regulators and brought much needed attention to the growing problem of neglect, mistreatment and abuse at elder care facilities.

"The patchwork of regulations in this field is quite extraordinary, and we simply have not kept pace in the public policy sense, with the changes that have happened in the elder care industry," explained Malcolm, who came on board after former Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger abruptly resigned in December.

The Dept. of Health had a backlog of 3,000 complaints when 2017 ended, but that backlog has been virtually eliminated. The Office of Health Facility Complaints, with the help of a team from the Dept. of Human Services, has wrapped up 448 abuse investigations since January.

Republican Lieutenant Gov. Michelle Fischbach, who is still serving as Senate president, signed onto the bill and made a rare joint appearance with Dayton.

"This is an issue that I think brings people together," Fischbach said. "This is an issue that is so important that we need to deal with it this year, and both the governor and I have this on our hearts."

The chief author of the bill, Sen. Tony Lourey, a Democrat from Kerrick, added, "This issue transcends politics. I don't want to call it bipartisan--it's not about politics. It's about respect and dignity for these people."

Sen. Lourey's bill is based on the recommendations from a working group that included AARP Minnesota, the Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota, the Elder Justice Center, Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and Elder Voice Family Advocates.

The AARP's Will Phillips said it's critical that regulators stay on their toes, and that change happens this session, because abuse complaints continue to mount.

"The reality is, we're seeing 400 cases of abuse being reported each week in our state, so we can't stop here," Phillips said.

Sen. Karin Housley, the Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Aging and Long-term Care Policy, criticized the plan.

"The governor’s proposal does not consider any of the recommendations of the senior care facilities, which were almost entirely left out of the conversation," Sen. Housley wrote, in a statement to the media.

She said the overwhelming message she received from stakeholders is that the state's oversight agency must be repaired first. Housley, who is running for US Senate, accused Gov. Dayton of shifting the blame to the facilities where the patients were abused.

"The governor refuses to accept accountability for the failings of the executive branch."

Dayton did apologize for the failures of regulators, but said providers have a role to play in stopping abuse.

"The focus is on, and properly so, the failure at the Department of Health, and that’s completely our responsibility," Dayton said. "But these are people who call themselves care providers. They’re providing care for vulnerable people."

Dayton says it's a top priority for his final year in office. He's seeking nearly $15 million from the state's surplus to make needed improvements.