Minnesota state legislators return Tuesday from an Easter-Passover recess.
The 201 lawmakers have finished a dozen weeks of their year’s work, with six remaining. With the break ending, it seems like a good opportunity to answer some questions about the time legislators have remaining to complete their work for the year.
With just six weeks left in the legislative session, is there much left to be done?
Oh, yes. Lots. In fact, all of the major work of the year remains.
In 12 weeks, it seems like there has been plenty of time to pass lots of bills. How many have passed?
Only five? What were they about?
Gov. Mark Dayton signed one in mid-March to enhance child protection. Earlier ones funded urgent needs, such as disaster payments, and a measure matching state tax laws with federal law to speed up Minnesotans’ income tax filings. He signed one that allows rural ambulance services to be more flexible when working with neighboring services.
Does the fact that so few bills have passed mean that not many bills have been introduced this year?
Not at all. As lawmakers prepared to head out on recess, representatives had introduced 2,139 and senators 2,011.
How will legislators find time to consider every one of those bills?
They won’t. While some states require legislative committees to consider most bills, that is not the case in Minnesota. Only a small fraction of bills ever makes it to committees. In some cases, there are duplicate bills. There also are times when a legislator introduces a bill to satisfy a constituent, but it has no chance of passage so the lawmaker never seeks a committee hearing. Much of the time, however, bills are folded into bigger ones, known as omnibus bills.
What is the biggest dispute left to settle?
In the Capitol, money almost always is the biggest issue, so the state taxpayer-funded budget is the hottest topic. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton wants to increase spending for education and other programs. Republicans who control the House want to provide $2 billion in tax breaks, with modest increases in most spending areas. Democrats in charge of the Senate fall in between, and emphasize putting more money in the bank to be ready when the economy heads south.
What other legislation could produce divisions?
Almost anything. The second biggest Democrat-Republican split now appears to be transportation funding. The governor and Democratic senators want to add a gasoline tax and increase a couple of transportation-related fees. House Republicans oppose new or increased taxes, preferring instead to divert some existing taxes to transportation and to borrow some money. However, both parties agree that billions of dollars are needed for roads and bridges in the next decade.
Do Democrats and Republicans disagree on everything?
It seems like it, doesn’t it? But the four bills that have passed this year gained bipartisan support. So will many other bills that pass yet this year. However, there usually are disagreements on the few omnibus bills that contain most of the legislation for the year.
When must lawmakers be done this year?
The state Constitution requires them to wrap up by May 18. If legislators and the governor do not have an agreement by then, Dayton can call them back into special session. If there is no budget in place by July 1, there would be a government shutdown.
Nearly every issue in front of lawmakers remains under consideration, but here is a look at where some issues stand:
Assisted suicide: A bill to allow doctors to prescribe drugs that people could take to commit suicide has been discussed, but no vote is expected until next year.
Blue alert: Provisions are advancing to establish a program to alert Minnesotans when a police officer is killed or seriously injured, much like Amber Alert is used to find lost children. Blue alert would be designed to help track down suspects in police attacks.
Body cameras: A Senate committee approved legislation, due for a full Senate vote, that limits public access to video from cameras worn by law enforcement officers. However, the House has not passed a body camera bill and a key representative in the debate wants a task force to study the issue.
Bonding: Republicans do not want the state to sell bonds to finance public works projects this year, while Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton proposes borrowing $850 million. Senate Democrats say they will be ready with a partial proposal in case Republicans change their minds.
Broadband: Rural Minnesotans say they need access to high-speed Internet, known as broadband, like their city cousins enjoy, not just for home use but for businesses to be competitive. As committees finish their budget work, they are considering proposals up to $100 million to boost broadband.
Budget: Republicans and Democrats disagree on many, many specifics, but it is pretty clear that the state will spend between $42.6 billion and $43 billion in the next two years. Spending in the current two-year budget is on track to be almost $40 billion. House and Senate committees will take the next few weeks to firm up plans about just how to spend the money.
Buffers: Dayton suggests there be a 50-foot vegetation buffer around bodies of water, an effort to cut water pollution. Farmers and agriculture groups oppose such an extensive requirement and talks are occurring to find a compromise.
Capitol renovation: No legislation is needed to continue an extension multi-year renovation effort, but it has hampered work during the legislative session as two-thirds of the building is closed. However, there is a $30 million request to restore art and repair leaky stairs.
Child protection: The governor has signed legislation into law designed to improve child abuse investigations. It would put a focus on the child’s safety instead of keeping a family together. More bills to fight child abuse are expected this year and next year.
Commissioner raises: An early-session dispute between Democrat Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, occurred when the governor gave his commissioners raises without telling legislative leaders for a month. The two renewed their friendship and a provision passed to revoke the raises and give Dayton one day to reinstate them on July 1.
Disaster: Early this session, nearly $12 million was approved for June 2014 flood recovery efforts. There also are attempts to increase the amount of money Minnesota keeps in a disaster account so lawmakers do not need to be called into special session to appropriate money.
Drones: Legislation to limit unmanned aerial drone use has been debated, but little has passed through committees. One bill awaiting Senate action would forbid most drone use by law enforcement agencies without warrants.
Education: The governor wants to increase education spending, especially for pre-kindergarteners. Democratic senators’ budget plan calls for a boost in pre-kindergarten funding, but falls short of offering free pre-K to all students as Dayton wants. Republicans want to end the system that teachers with seniority get to keep their jobs during layoffs; the House approved a bill overturning the system, but it is unlikely to move in the Senate.
Elections: A wide variety of election-related changes have been discussed, but it is not clear what could pass this year. Proposed changes include allowing people convicted of felonies to vote, allowing early voting, registering people as young as 16 (although they could not vote until they reach 18) and advancing the primary election from August to June or March.
Health care: Some Republicans want to eliminate the MNsure health insurance purchasing program, but many lawmakers from both parties are behind efforts to eliminate the independent MNsure board and make the program a state agency that reports to the governor. Some Republicans are trying to eliminate the subsidized MinnesotaCare health insurance program.
License plate readers: Committees have discussed how to regulate car license plate readers, including how long images could be retained.
Loan forgiveness: Lawmakers are considering proposals providing loan forgiveness for a variety of professionals, including doctors and other health professionals who locate in greater Minnesota and for agriculture teachers.
Long-term care: Increased funding for nursing homes and home-care programs for the elderly and disabled is expected to pass, but the amount remains in question. House Speaker Kurt Daudt said he expects an increase of more than $160 million for the program, while the governor includes $25 million more in his budget.
Minimum wage: The state minimum wage increased last year, but Republicans now are seeking to change the law to include tips in how minimum wages are figured. While the GOP-controlled House passed the legislation, the Democratic Senate likely will not.
Online lottery: Discussions continue about whether online lottery games should be allowed.
Parks: The Dayton administration suggests raising fees to provide funds to improve state parks and facilities within them.
Rail safety: A variety of plans remain on the table for improving local public safety personnel’s response to oil train derailment, spills and fires. The governor and Senate Democrats want to increase taxes on railroads to fund safety improvements, while the House has not unveiled its plan.
School week: Greater Minnesota schools who have adopted a four-day week pleaded with lawmakers to allow them to continue after the state Education Department began ordering schools to return to five-day weeks.
Sex offenders: Even though a federal judge has told lawmakers they should take action to allow sex offenders to be released from a rehabilitation program where some are committed after serving their sentences, there has been no serious action to change state law. Without a legislative change, the judge could take over the sex offender program.
Sports: Legislative leaders and Dayton let Major League Soccer know they are not interested in providing state money for building a stadium for a new franchise. Meanwhile, the National Football League is asking for a $2.8 million increase in tax breaks for the 2018 Super Bowl game, to be played in Minneapolis.
Sunday sales: Liquor stores likely will remain closed on Sundays, but efforts are expected on the House and Senate floors to amend a provision onto other liquor bills to allow stores to open Sundays.
Taxes: House Republicans want to cut taxes $2 billion over the next two years, but have not said how those cuts would look. Dayton suggests tax cuts for families that pay for child care and Senate Democrats propose modest tax cuts, but like House Republicans have not released specifics.
Transportation: Dayton’s transportation plan calls for adding a gasoline tax and raising some fees to help fund his $11 billion, 10-year plan. Senate Democrats have a similar proposal. House Republicans want to use existing revenue for their $7 billion, 10-year plan.
Tuition freeze: The governor wants to provide enough funding to allow tuition freezes to continue at the Minnesota State Colleges and University of Minnesota systems, while House Republicans say their budget plan has enough money to freeze tuition at one system, but not both. Democratic senators also do not expect enough money for full freezes at both systems.
Workforce housing: Greater Minnesota officials have asked for state aid to build houses, mostly apartments, in communities that have job vacancies but not enough places for people to live. The proposals remain alive and will be decided in the state budget process.