Republicans look for opening

House GOP candidates

By Don Davis

Minnesota Republicans are looking for any opportunity to get a foothold in a state government dominated by Democrats.

Sen. Scott Newman announced Thursday that he is seeking to upset two-term Democratic Attorney General Lori Swanson and become the first Republican to hold the office in 43 years. The announcement means Republicans now have challengers for every statewide office.

A few minutes later, about 60 Republican state legislative candidates gathered on the Capitol steps, where their leader proclaimed that the GOP is ready to retake control of the House chamber after losing it two years ago.

And today, Republicans gather in Rochester for a two-day state convention that should produce endorsed U.S. Senate and governor candidates, even though the races move on to the Aug. 12 primary election.

Democrats gather in Duluth today with only a two-person secretary of state race to settle.

Democratic-Farmer-Laborite politicians hold every statewide office in Minnesota government and they control the state House and Senate. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, made it clear Thursday that will be used against Democrats.

“Single-party control hasn’t served Minnesotans very well,” he said, with new candidates and incumbents standing behind him at the Capitol.

Republicans need to win the seats they already hold as well as seven more to regain control. He said that nine House districts now held by Democrats voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, meaning GOP chances are good.

Phillip Nelson, a Bemidji candidate running against Democratic Rep. John Persell, said many of the Republican candidates are 35 younger. He is 32.

“I want to learn how to steer leadership,” he said.

Many of the GOP candidates come from business backgrounds, like Dave Baker of Willmar, who is challenging Democratic Rep. Mary Sawatzky.

“I’ve never done this before,” the 52-year-old Baker said, but he and other businessmen-candidates “know how to create a new job.”

Business has been “deeply hurt” under Democratic domination, Baker added.

Tim Miller of Prinsburg is making his second attempt to unseat Rep. Andrew Falk, D-Murdock. He is a consultant for businesses and non-profits.

“My skill is casting a vision,” Miller said, adding that Minnesota government lacks that ability.

While GOP candidates declared they could win back the House after two years of DFL control, Newman said that more than four decades of Democratic control of the attorney general’s office was more than enough.

The Hutchinson Republican cited what he called “a sense of entitlement to that office by the DFL Party” and said Attorney General Lori Swanson, has put party ahead of her office’s duties.

Newman said state agencies’ power has grown too much in the past four decades and that he would weigh in as attorney general to try to rein that in. Agencies now write rules, investigate alleged violations and then adjudicate them, Newman said.

DFL Chairman Ken Martin said that Republicans waited until a day before they were to endorse a candidate to get someone to run against Swanson.

“As a legislator, Newman has not served on commerce committees that deal with issues similar to those handled by the attorney general’s office,” Martin said. “He’s voted consistently with his party and has supported constitutional amendments denying people the right to marry or to vote without identification; eliminating middle-class jobs; and deep cuts to the state’s public higher education system.”

Doug Belden of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

Bonding bill due in House Thursday, but GOP balks

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House expects to debate a public works funding bill Thursday without a controversial house fire sprinkler provision and with partial funding for a southwest Minnesota water project, but possibly without enough Republican support for the statewide construction plan to pass.

Democrats released what they said was an agreement about how to spend $846 million in borrowed money and another $279 million from the state budget surplus. But getting enough votes to pass the $846 million, to be repaid by the state selling bonds, remained in doubt Wednesday night.

Republicans were dragging their feet on the only bill Democrats really need their help to pass. Bonding needs a three-fifths majority to pass, and Democrats do not have enough members to do that on their own.

House Bonding Chairwoman Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, said negotiators reworked earlier bonding bills to include more projects in Republican districts. She said she assumed Republicans would vote for it because it fit a deal Republican and Democratic lawmakers made last year.

But Hausman did not get a guarantee of enough GOP votes as negotiations proceeded in recent days.

“Legislative leaders remain in discussions about a path forward on the bonding bill,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Wednesday night. “Today’s so-called agreement is nothing more than an idea between Democrat legislative leaders, and not a plan Republicans agreed to or were involved in crafting.”

Daudt said Republicans plan to continue to work on writing a bill members of both parties can support.

Hausman’s Senate counterpart did not appear worried about getting Republican votes for the bill.

“We worked very closely with the governor’s office, the House and our Republican counterparts in the Legislature to compile a bonding package that will benefit every corner of Minnesota,” Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, D-Plummer, said.

It was not clear when the House would begin debating the bill today, but it could last for hours.

Republicans and Democrats were filing a variety of amendments Wednesday night in preparation for today’s debate.

The Senate could take the bill up quickly after the House passes it, if it does, but only if Senate leaders can get enough votes to suspend rules that otherwise would not allow debate on the measure until Saturday. The state Constitution requires the final votes for this year’s legislative session to come no later than Sunday, giving little time to rewrite the bonding bill.

House and Senate leaders opted to remove a provision from the Senate bill that Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton blasted. It would have forbid his administration from enacting a rule requiring fire sprinklers in homes larger than 4,500 square feet.

Dayton said Wednesday that if people do not want to pay for sprinklers, they could build smaller homes. A majority of Minnesota homes would not need sprinklers under the rule.

In addition to sprinklers, the other fiery public works project is a nearly $70 million water system in southwestern Minnesota.

The Lewis and Clark system would pipe in water from South Dakota. Minnesota is being asked to pick up the tab after the federal government backed away from plans to fund it.

The Hausman-Stumpf bill includes $22 million for the project, which is enough to complete the next phase. However, Rep. Matt Dean of Dellwood, the top House bonding Republican, said that the Legislature generally funds an entire project, not just one phase.

Republicans have made Lewis and Clark their top bonding complaint.

Hausman said she was most proud of including $100 million for improving poor Minnesotans’ housing.

Among projects in the bonding bill are:

– $126 million to finish restoring the state Capitol building.

– $240 million for state-run college and university projects.

– $61 million for convention centers in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud.

– $18 million to acquire land for trails.

The cash bill would provide:

– $12 million to prevent floods.

– $56 million to remodel the state security hospital in St. Peter.

– $54 million for local road improvements.

– $24 million for local bridge replacement.

– $1.5 million for local ice arenas to replace outlawed cooling systems.

Political notebook: Sunday sales an evergreen issue in Legislature

By Don Davis

Rod Skoe doesn’t understand why Sunday drinkers can’t plan ahead.

Roger Reinert doesn’t understand why the state puts Minnesota liquor stores at a disadvantage to those in Wisconsin.

The two Democratic state senators usually vote alike, but are on different sides of a debate about whether Sunday liquor sales should be allowed.

It is hard to find any recent year when debate about selling liquor on Sundays was not on the Minnesota Legislature’s agenda.

It is not one of those issues that pits Democrats against Republicans. There is more of a geographic tinge to the debate, but even that does not tell the story. Liquor, gambling and a handful of other social issues draw on each legislator’s personal feelings more than any other factor.

A Senate debate in the past week showed some of the divisiveness of the issue.

Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, offered an amendment to allow liquor stores to sell their products on Sundays. But since unions complained that such a law would force their drivers to work Sundays, Miller’s amendment would ban Sunday deliveries in the hopes that Democrats who rely on union support would go along. It didn’t work.

Miller, like Duluth’s Reinert, sees constituents drive to Wisconsin to spend their booze money on Sundays.

Skoe, from northwestern Minnesota’s Clearbrook, said that Sunday sales would have “a pretty significant impact on property taxes” because competitive forces would force city-owned liquor stores to be open on Sundays. The stores would get the same profits as when they were open six days, Skoe said, but would face a seventh day’s expenses, thus reducing profits handed over to cities.

Reinert and Miller, on the other hand, say Minnesota stores near states such as Wisconsin that allow Sunday sales are losing money every Sunday. That hurts taxes, business owners and employees, they say.

But Skoe just doesn’t understand it. People should not need to run out and buy alcoholic beverages on Sundays. “People should be able to plan just a little bit ahead.”

Sen Branden Petersen, R-Andover, said Skoe was trying to force his feelings on others, sarcastically saying, “Sen. Skoe knows better.”

Stars in Legislature

MinnPost’s columnist Doug Grow has declared four Democrats the stars of this year’s legislative session.

Three of the four live in the Twin Cities, but three have deep greater Minnesota backgrounds, two connected to Bemidji.

The only truly big-city lawmaker of the four is Minneapolis’ Scott Dibble. At the other end, Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing remains in a small town; she is a Bemidji State University graduate.

Rep. Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley is a Bemidji native. Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park came from west-central Minnesota and attended MACCRAY High School in Clara City and Ridgewater College in Willmar.

Dibble got lots of publicity last year leading a successful gay marriage legalization effort and this year championed anti-bullying and medical marijuana bills.

Melin, in her second term, is leading led the Women’s Economic Security Act and medical marijuana, as well as some lesser known legal industry efforts.

Winkler this year has been fairly quiet other than one of the session’s blockbuster issues: increasing the state minimum wage.

“The biggest surprise of the session, though, has been the work of Rep. Dan Schoen,” Grow wrote.

Schoen, a policeman in his first term, sponsored a bill that takes guns from domestic abusers, a measure known as Steve’s Law to help people who overdose with heroin and an issue that helps advance practice registered nurses.

Hot, hot debate

One of the most heated debates this legislative session came during a night meeting that got little attention.

When a Senate committee was considering how to spend $846 million on public works construction projects around the state, Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, offered an amendment to strip funding from several projects to boost money available to the Lewis and Clark water project in southwestern Minnesota. It set off an urban-greater Minnesota spat.

Sen. Richard Cohen, D-St. Paul, immediately offered, and quickly withdrew, a proposal to take money for the water project from St. Cloud and Rochester civic centers. Debate was hot about that, as well as when Sen. Matt Schmit, D-Red Wing, tried to increase spending for a riverside project in his community.

“This puts Red Wing in a very difficult position to receive less than half what we were asking for to complete this project,” the Post Bulletin of Rochester reported Schmit as saying.

“But Schmit’s amendment did not sit well with fellow DFL Sen. Bobby Joe Champion of Minneapolis,” the newspaper said. “He quickly moved to amend Schmit’s amendment to take away the $1.6 million Red Wing was given in the bill and redirect it to a study of light-rail transit in Hennepin County.

“‘We can take Sen. Schmit out of his misery, and he doesn’t have to worry about any of the money.’”

Cohen opened another committee meeting the next morning with: “I don’t expect as much drama today as we had last night.” He was right.

Where in the world is Cyrus?

A Cyrus public safety public works construction request produced a confession in the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I don’t know where Cyrus is,” Rep. Michael Paymar, D-St. Paul, admitted.

Everyone laughed, but no one volunteered to tell him it is east of Morris.

Paymar, who is retiring after nine terms in the House, also admitted he does not know where Montgomery is (south of the Twin Cities near New Prague).

The representative used the Cyrus project to complain about the process used to approve public works projects. As chairman of the public safety committee, he said that he should have been given the plan to investigate it. But it skipped his committee.

“I would like to see this handled in a different way in the future,” Paymar said.

He told fellow St. Paul Democrat Rep. Alice Hausman, chairwoman of the public works funding committee, that she appeared to have ignored his committee’s wishes on projects that his committee did examine.

“We had a very short period of time,” Hausman responded.

Tax bill a surprise

If there was one surprise this legislative session, it may have been broad agreement on several tax issues.

When the Tax Bill 2 agreement was announced Thursday, Democrats and Republicans alike were all smiles on a topic that generally generates heated debate.

When Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, was asked about House provisions in the bill that were not in the Senate bill, he said: “Those were not provisions I supported … but you have to be willing to give here and there.”

As Gazelka said, that is not something that always happens in the Legislature.

For House members, it may be less about a willingness to work together and more about the fact that this is an election year in each of the 134 House districts. As House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said, tax cuts are good for legislators in an election year.

Negotiators agree to new type of ‘Jesse checks’

Eken visits

By Don Davis

Farmers, homeowners, renters and businesses would share $103 million in a second round of Minnesota tax cuts after negotiators worked out a compromise that is expected to pass the Legislature next week.

Lawmakers from both parties hailed the agreement Thursday, saying that it is good to send part of the state budget surplus back to Minnesotans.

One tax negotiator compared the deal to checks Minnesotans received when Gov. Jesse Ventura was in office.

“The House (property tax break) provisions were what appeared to be ‘Jesse checks’ before an election,” Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, said.

Many farmers would receive an average $200 property tax break under the measure that is a blend of tax bills the House and Senate passed. The compromise bill would send $17 million to more than 90,000 farmers, mostly those who live on their farms.

Gov. Mark Dayton told reporters Thursday that rural lawmakers tell him farmers are seeing ever-increasing property taxes.

“I think that it is appropriate to give them some relief now,” the governor said.

“Farmers are going to get a new tax refund that doesn’t now exist,” House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington, said.

While the farm tax cut is permanent, renters and homeowners would get one-time increases in existing programs.

About 500,000 homeowners would receive 3 percent larger homestead credit refunds while those receiving renters’ credit refunds would see 6 percent bigger checks.

“You can view this as supplemental relief to what we did last year,” Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

Negotiations on the tax bill are complete, but it will not be finalized until Monday to allow last-minute changes as the 2014 Legislature nears its adjournment.

When combined with an earlier tax-cut bill, there would be $550 million in tax cuts.

Dayton said that he will sign the bill once it passes and legislative Republicans and Democrats express their support.

“The best way we can spend the (state budget) surplus here in Minnesota is to send it back to Minnesotans…” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. “We know tax cuts are popular, even among Democrats, in an election year.”

While called a tax bill, Skoe said that it also helps the state economy.

“It takes more than just cutting taxes to grow our economy, and that’s why our tax relief package also invests in new workforce housing, protecting our lakes and streams from aquatic invasive species and new efficiencies for state and local governments,” Skoe said.

The bill provides $4.5 million this year and $10 million per year after that for 83 of Minnesota’s 87 counties with public-access boat landings. The money is to be used by the county to help with efforts to fight plant and aquatic invasive species.

Invasive species are forcing out native species, which many in the tourism industry say threatens their businesses.

“It is a really, really important provision for much of the state,” Skoe said.

The tax bill also:

– Increases Local Government Aid to cities by $10 million to keep up with inflation.

– Allows 14 counties to take part in a pilot project to attract and retain volunteer first-responders by providing a $500 stipend.

– Provides military personnel some tax advantages.

– Gives parents and guardians of students struggling to learn to read tax credits of up to $2,000.

– Begin to eliminate a requirement that businesses pay some of the June sales tax they collect earlier than normal.

Minnesota Legislature’s end is near

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House takes up medical marijuana today in what could be a debate lasting well into the night while pieces fall into place on tax and spending bills as the Minnesota Legislature nears the end of its 2014 session.

Debate on the much-discussed proposal to allow children with seizures and adults with extreme pain to use marijuana extracts is expected to begin in the early afternoon, and could last hours. Senators overwhelmingly approved a more liberal bill earlier in the week, but it may go too far for Gov. Mark Dayton to sign it into law.

On Thursday, Dayton would not commit to backing a more restrictive marijuana bill by Rep. Carly Melin, D-Hibbing, that only allows one medical marijuana manufacturer, instead of 55 in the Senate-passed bill. Allowing 55 centers around the state “seems to be quite unworkable,” said Dayton, who has required medical and law enforcement support before signing off on any marijuana plan.

The Democratic governor said that Health Department staffers have been working the last several days to make sure any medical marijuana bill that passes is workable.

“Legislators’ hearts are in a good place,” he said. “They want to do something, but it has to be functional.”

If the House passes Melin’s bill today, House and Senate negotiators will take up the complex task of merging the two different bills into a compromise proposal. And it must be done in just a few days.

The state Constitution requires the Legislature to adjourn no later than May 19. While some legislative leaders had predicted a pre-Easter adjournment, the final day now looks to be no earlier than mid-week next week.

“The sooner we are done the better,” Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, said. “I would really like to get done this week. … No one is safe until the Legislature adjourns.”

Formal and informal negotiations continue on several unresolved issues. Prime among them are how to spend a budget increase and what public works projects get state money.

Legislative leaders sent four key lawmakers into a room Thursday to negotiate a public works bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds. The hope is that the four can work out the bonding bill so it is acceptable to the House and Senate, thus avoiding after-the-fact negotiations.

“It’s good to see cooperation and coordination, even beforehand,” Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said leaders did not give orders to the four bonding negotiators about specifics that must be included in the bill. However, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said there is an understanding that all four legislative leaders expect funding for the hot-button bonding issue: southwestern Minnesota’s Lewis and Clark water project.

The project, to bring water in from South Dakota, has produced by far the most bonding discussion.

Daudt said he hopes Lewis and Clark can get the $20 million needed to bring water to Luverne and a like about to fund the next phase. However, money may not be approved for the third phase, to extend the pipeline to Worthington, the minority leader said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said he is pushing for the entire $69 million Lewis and Clark funding.

While debate continues on how to spend money, a tax bill has been negotiated. It features an average $200 property tax break for farmers, as well as cuts for renters and homeowners.

Judge wants change, Minnesota sex offender program remains same

By Don Davis

A federal judge’s pressure on Minnesota officials to change how the state deals with sex offenders does not appear to be producing results.

Gov. Mark Dayton said Thursday that he does not expect this year’s Legislature to act on the situation, and legislative leaders Friday showed no indication the governor is wrong.

That comes after Judge Donovan Frank wrote in a court order: “The time for legislative action is now.”

If state leaders do not take action, Frank could take control of the Minnesota sex offender treatment program, where serious sex offenders are kept in prison-like settings after serving their prison sentences. Former Minnesota Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and others who are urging lawmakers to act say Frank could order changes in the program — changes that could result in much higher costs to the state — or he could order release of at least some sex offenders.

Just one sex offender has graduated from the program, leading to a lawsuit by others who say the program is more prison than treatment.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, downplayed the possibility that Frank will take over the program. He said that Frank’s order for the state to fund four experts’ study of the program should take some time, and lawmakers may not need to act right away.

However, he and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said they hope for a bipartisan agreement on the issue.

That does not appear close. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said he thinks the current treatment program is constitutional, although he could support some changes.

Since Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office, Daudt said, they are the ones who should lead on the issue.

Murphy said that state leaders not agreeing on the solution hurts their efforts.

“When people chose to politicize this issue, it tends to confuse Minnesotans,” she said.

Dayton blamed House Republicans for failure to come together, adding, “I don’t think anything else is going to happen this session.”

“It is not going to proceed without broad bipartisan support,” Dayton told reporters Thursday. “It is just not going to happen now. … We will come back next session, if I am still around.”

However, he added, Frank could take away Minnesota’s options before next year.

Daudt said Democrats may not have come up with a plan, but he thinks he knows their desire: “They seem set on letting these people out.”

Frank issued his latest order five days before the Legislature convened last month.

“If the evidence requires it, the court will act,” Frank wrote. “But it is the Minnesota Legislature that is best equipped to develop policies and pass laws — within the limits of the Constitution — that both protect public safety and preserve the rights of the class.”

How to deal with sex offenders has been a major state Capitol issue since University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin was kidnapped from a Grand Forks, N.D., mall on Nov. 22, 2003. The next April, her body was found near Crookston, Minn. A sex offender who had served his prison time was convicted of her kidnapping and murder.

The crime set Minnesota politicians on a quest to find ways to keep sex offenders behind bars longer. One of the ways was to make more use of an existing program that allows county prosecutors to ask judges to put offenders into the treatment program.

The program is housed at state hospitals in Moose Lake and St. Peter.

House passes $500 million tax cut; Dayton wants more cuts, Senate less

Lenczewski, Murphy

By Don Davis

The Minnesota House passed a $500 million tax cut Thursday and the governor announced he wants to trim taxes $616 million, but the Senate is headed for smaller cuts.

Democrats said the bill representatives passed 126-2 would provide tax relief to nearly 1 million Minnesotans, in a large part by matching most Minnesota tax law to federal law. That “federal conformity” means $301 million less Minnesotans would pay.

Federal conformity would lower taxes on married couples $115 on average because federal law taxes married couples less than Minnesota law. That would go to 650,000 couples, mostly those who earn less than $75,000 annually.

The bill also would provide an average tax cut of $300 to low-income Minnesotans who file for the working family credit.

The House voted to cancel taxes placed on businesses last year: warehouse storage, farm equipment repair, some business equipment repair and telecommunications equipment.

The bill also simplifies and cuts the estate tax and provides some tax credits to people who invest in new companies and high-technology businesses. Gov. Mark Dayton would like to add a few more tax cuts.

House Democrats and Democrat Dayton said their tax-cut plans especially help middle-class Minnesotans.

Money to fund the tax cuts comes from a $1.2 billion budget surplus state financial officials announced a week ago. Dayton on Thursday said he wants half of that surplus to be used as tax cuts, $162 million for what he calls additional “essential” spending and the rest going to enlarge the state budget reserve.

House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington, said her tax bill mostly deals with taxes being collected now, or soon will be. She and Dayton said that is why quick action is needed.

“This is the time-sensitive stuff we need to do right now,” she said.

Dayton said he will keep the pressure on senators for quick action.

House leaders said a second tax bill may include further tax cuts, including some property tax relief.

Not so fast, Sen. Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said.

While it is important that the state match federal law, the Senate Taxes Committee chairman said, there is no need to rush.

“I would rather move a little slower to make sure we get things right,” Skoe said.

Skoe said the Senate could pass a tax-cut bill by the end of the month.

However, he does not agree with House leaders and the governor who want a second tax-cut bill. In fact, he added, the House $500 million bill cuts too much.

Skoe said he was especially happy with Dayton’s proposal to increase the state budget reserve $445 million, to more than $1 billion.

“We have had 10, 12 years going from one deficit to another,” Skoe said, and a bigger reserve is needed in case that happens again.

Skoe would not say what tax cuts he wants to see in the Senate bill.

House Republicans criticized Democrats for raising taxes $2.3 billion last year, and coming back this year with a $500 million tax cut. They said that still is a $1.8 billion net tax increase.

Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, a GOP governor candidate, said a gift tax enacted last year hurt farmers who wanted to hand farms down to their children. He said that lack of consistency is hard on Minnesotans.

Even though they complained about Democratic taxes, Republicans liked the cut.

“The best thing we can do with this surplus is to put it back in the pockets of those who need it most,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, D-St. Paul, said last year’s tax increases, mostly on rich Minnesotans, allowed the state to increase education funding and provide more aid to local governments. The changes improved the state economy, Democrats said.

“Today, we have the opportunity to take another step forward,” Murphy said.

The only two who voted against the bill were Democratic Reps. Jason Metsa of Virginia and Ryan Winkler of Golden Valley.

Metsa said he voted against the bill because he would rather see money spent for property tax relief, nursing homes and state aid to local governments. For Winkler, the vote was because “the tax cuts were too large and not the right priorities for Minnesota this year.”

Analysis: Election-year politics never will be far from Minnesota legislators

House last year

By Don Davis

Politics and legislating always are intertwined, but they could be even more so in the Minnesota Legislature this year.

Minnesota’s 201 state lawmakers return to St. Paul today for a shorter-than-normal 2014 legislative session (they must be done by May 19), with a relatively short must-do issues list.

Democratic House leaders, facing re-election this year, appear happy to meet for less than three months as they try to sidestep controversial issues that could hurt them at the polls. Republicans, never for long sessions, can use their minority status with little say in what happens in the Capitol to take issue with most Democratic initiatives.

Among Democrats, there is a sense of unease in the Capitol as the House and governor’s office are up for election this year (senators are safe from the ballot box for a couple more years). In the 2010 election, Republicans took both chambers of the Legislature (the Senate was GOP for the first time in 38 years) and then two years ago Democrats snatched them back.

As Democrats try to keep their hold on the House, Senate and governor’s office, all signs are that their leaders will try to avoid more tax increases this year at all costs, after a $2 billion hike a year ago. Republicans are trying to make hay with that increase, and by emphasizing that in 2013 Democrats also began the troubled MNsure health insurance marketplace.

Competition for rural and suburban House seats will be fierce since voters in many of those districts could opt for either party. So laying out a middle-of-the-road sales campaign could help Democrats.

In his sales effort aimed at some of those rural Minnesota districts, Democratic House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis sought a Forum News Service interview about his set of rural initiatives for the session.

Sure, it makes sense to ask a reporter who writes for newspapers that cover much of rural Minnesota in to talk. But it is not common: In at least 15 years, no speaker has delivered a similar invitation to discuss a session’s rural issues. And certainly no Minneapolis lawmaker has done that.

“I think we have a pretty good story to tell,” Thissen began, starting with what he sees as last year’s rural-issues progress.

With the House up for election, it appears to be up to Thissen to temper expectations from liberal DFL activists, many of whom want more taxes and more spending in a variety of areas. More taxes and spending could alienate voters who tend to be moderates.

The House and Senate transportation finance chairmen recently proposed two new taxes: a motor fuel sales tax and another one on crude oil transported through Minnesota. Thissen tried to squelch talk of either tax, at least for this year.

Thissen said he does not support taking up controversial issues such as copper-nickel and sand mining this session. And he said he wants more information before signing off on constructing a $63 million Senate office building, another controversial item.

House Democrats and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton like the idea of repealing some controversial taxes they approved last year, including one on farm implement repair and another on warehouse storage.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, agreed with Democrats that the state economy is improving, but disputed DFL claims that their policies are responsible.

“It wasn’t raising taxes that got us out of this situation,” Daudt said of economic woes.

Republicans say their policies in 2011 and 2012 helped businesses and, thus, the economy. Talk like that and attacking MNsure health make it clear the GOP will continue to run on issues that put the party in power four years ago: lower taxes and smaller government.

Many Republicans say Democrats are running away from what they did when in power last year, predicting they will try to downplay tax and spending increases. Sen. David Osmek, R-Mound, said that the opposite could happen. If Democrats begin to think they may lose House control, he said, they could begin passing all of their priority bills, regardless of the needs and consequences.

Session to be short but full

Legislative leaders

By Don Davis

Expect a minimum wage increase, but no tax increase, when Minnesota legislators return to St. Paul for the year at noon Tuesday.

Expect widespread agreement on borrowing $840 million for public works projects, but not so much agreement on where to spend that money.

Expect movement toward increased long-term care funding, but not a requirement to pay bottle and can deposits.

Most importantly, expect Minnesota’s 201 legislators to pack everything they can into a sort legislative session that may not feature as many headline-grabbing bills and long, dramatic debates as in recent years.

Each lawmaker has bills he or she wants to pass. More than 1,800 bills remain available to debate from last year, and House members have introduced nearly 300 more before the session even begins.

They will not have much time.

The state constitution requires that the session beginning Tuesday (sessions often begin in January) end no later than May 19, and legislative leaders say they will take a 10-day Easter-Passover break in April.

In an interview, Gov. Mark Dayton said there could be problems “if they try to do everything.”

When Minnesota became a state, legislators met every other year. When they began meeting annually, the second year was to handle any leftover business and fund public works projects.

“Now it has become a complete session unto itself,” Dayton said. “It does concern me.”

A proposal to increase the minimum wage has received the most hype in the run-up to this year’s session. Democrats generally agree it needs to go up, and they control the Legislature and governor’s office, but they differ on details.

Rural Republicans are especially concerned that a $9.50-an-hour minimum wage is a dangerous reach.

“For rural Minnesota, $9.50 is way too high,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

Gazelka said he fears rural jobs would be lost if the wage were raised that much.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, has similar concerns, especially for nursing homes. At a Forum News Service-sponsored forum, he said he supports a higher wage, but insists on raising nursing home workers’ wages first.

“I’m going to push a green button for a minimum wage bill …” Bakk said. “What I don’t want is to find out that the nursing home in the city of Ely is going to close.”

Supporters say thousands would see a pay increase.

The state’s current minimum wage is $6.15 and the federal wage, which because it is higher governs most employers, is $7.25.

“I hope we can move it out in the first couple weeks of the session,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis.

An issue not likely to move fast is the bonding bill that funds public works projects with money borrowed by the state selling bonds.

GOP and DFL legislative leaders agreed at the pre-session forum that $840 million is a good figure for bonding.

But they have two disagreements, even as they agree on spending $126 million to finish funding Capitol building renovation.

First is what projects should be funded. Republicans tend to shy away from city civic centers, while Democrats like to fund them. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said bonding should focus on things like fixing buildings and transportation needs, not building new facilities.

The second disagreement arose at the forum when Bakk and Thissen suggested that some of the state’s expected surplus could fund projects above what is spent in the bonding bill. They suggested projects such as transportation improvements and the Capitol renovation, while GOP leaders wanted to limit public works spending to $840 million.

Legislative leaders agreed that many decisions, such as bonding, depend on what they learn Friday when state officials release what economists expect the state’s revenue picture to look like in the next few months.

Thissen appears to be taking tax increases off the table, including a tax legislative transportation finance chairmen want to add to motor vehicle fuel sales. Dayton also said he does not support a fuel tax increase.

Dayton, Thissen and Republicans support ending a tax on farm equipment repair that passed last year. The governor and Republicans also want to eliminate other taxes, including those on warehouse storage and on telecommunications equipment.

The governor said he wants to cut some middle-class taxes while only raising spending a little. He will release a plan for budget changes after he knows more about projected revenues.

Thissen rejects the transportation chairmen’s proposal to tax crude oil transported through Minnesota to raise funds for emergency personnel to be trained to fight oil fires. The speaker said surplus money could be used for that. Dayton also favors surplus money, if available, for oil disaster preparedness.

The news service forum produced bipartisan agreement among leaders about the need to increase funding for long-term care. However, like many other spending issues, supporters of that will have to wait until after Friday’s revenue report to see their chances.

“It is a priority,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie.

Other areas that may or may not be issues this year:

– Thissen said there will be no vote, this year or maybe ever, on a proposal to require deposits on bottles and cans.

– The House rules committee in the next few days will discuss whether to allow a $63 million Senate office building to be constructed. Also part of the project is $27 million for parking, to be funded by charges for using the facilities. “There hasn’t been a full public hearing on this,” Hann said.

– No action is expected on frac sand mining, which has become a big issue in southeastern Minnesota, where several local governments are trying to slow the growth of the mines due to environmental concerns.

– Allowing Sunday alcohol sales will be a tough sell, Thissen said, since a bill to do that received only 20 House votes last year.

– Democrats, who control the House and Senate, do not expect any action on MNsure, the troubled health insurance exchange. Republicans, meanwhile, would like to change its administrative structure or get rid of MNsure.

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Key Minnesota Legislature dates

Tuesday: Annual session begins at noon.

Feb. 28: State revenue forecast released, informing lawmakers how much money they have available to spend.

March 21: First committee deadline: The last day committees in the chamber where policy bills originate can approve them.

March 28: Second committee deadline: The last day committees can act on policy bills that met the other chamber’s deadline.

April 4: Third committee deadline: The final day to act on major spending bills.

April 11-21: Easter-Passover break.

May 19: The final day the state Constitution allows the Legislature to meet in regular session.

Note: Tax-related bills have no deadlines. Also, even if a bill misses a deadline, rules committees in the two chambers may allow it to advance. Bills that failed in committee still may be attached to other bills in the form of amendments.

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The 2014 Minnesota Legislature gathers Tuesday in a short session that should feature financing public works projects, but it take up of a lot of issues.
Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton proposes spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money most obtained by the state selling bonds. State and local projects ranging from park improvements to new community centers will be considered, and much of the money likely will go to state-run colleges and universities to keep facilities up to date. Democratic legislative leaders lean toward selling about $840 million in bonds and paying for other projects in cash if it is available.
Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $38 billion, two-year budget. Other than some tweaks, little new spending is expected to be approved this year.
Bullying: Efforts are underway to strengthen the state’s anti-bullying law.
Constitutional amendments: Not many proposals to change the state Constitution have gained traction this year. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, plans to push one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed. Another proposed amendment would trim the number of judges on Minnesotans’ ballots, but Bakk gives it less of a chance to pass this year.
Construction zones: Bills have been introduced to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones.
Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. So legislative election leaders say they plan to pass a bill approving online registration, which at this point appears to have little opposition.
Gay marriage: Opponents of same-sex marriage plan to offer a bill that would make it clear businesses owned by people who oppose such marriages are not required to service gay weddings.
Gender equality: Ways to improve women’s pay and other aspects of their lives will be discussed. The fact that they earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.
Homelessness: A statewide homeless coalition wants the Legislature to approve $100 million to build affordable housing. That is twice the amount the governor recommends.
Legislative offices: Republicans and many House members say a proposed $63 million Senate office building is too pricey and the issue will come up for debate.
Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been discussed in the session’s run-up, and likely will be a topic of hearings. Just before the session is to begin, there are signals that a compromise is possible between medical marijuana supporters and law enforcement groups that have opposed it.
Mining: House Speaker Paul Thissen promises that no mining-related legislation will pass this year. The main bill being discussed had been one requiring high financial contributions by owners of proposed copper-nickel mines to ensure that any environmental damage caused by mines would be fixed after they close. Legislative leaders said they also do not expect any frac sand mining bill to receive a vote.
Minimum wage: Unions have led the charge in campaigning for a higher minimum wage. While proponents want it upped to $9.50 an hour, from the current $6.15, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s concern that such a wage will hurt nursing homes looking to hire people could keep the wage lower. If Congress does not act to raise the wage and the state does, the higher Minnesota number would govern most wages in the state.
Payday loans: Religious and other groups want a clamp-down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans.
Politics: State House and governor elections this year will influence what happens. After raising taxes more than $2 billion last year, Democrats who control the House, Senate and governor’s office fear voters could retaliate against them if they raise taxes any more. Republicans likely will talk about the tax increases often, as well as problems faced by MNsure, the state’s troubled online health insurance marketplace. Electoral politics never will be far from the surface as the governor and all House districts are up for election.
Propane: Recent shortages and high prices of propane are likely to drive efforts to increase storage in Minnesota so the fuel may be bought in the summer when it is cheaper and stored in the state for use during fall grain drying and winter heating seasons.
Public notice: Legislation is expected to be considered to relax a requirement for local governments to print legal notices in newspapers, and counties could post it on their websites only. Local governments say that would save money, but newspaper industry leaders say fewer citizens would see information about government.
Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. He has ruled that the state should not continue its practice of committing sex offenders to indefinite treatment in state hospitalS after they complete their criminal sentences.
Synthetic drugs: Lawmakers probably will pass bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers.
Taxes: Tax and spending work occurred last year, but some tax adjustments could come in 2014. Most legislators appear to favor eliminating a tax on farm implement repairs. Many also have discussed getting rid of other taxes lawmakers passed last year, such as a tax on storing goods in a warehouse someone else owns and one on technology equipment.
Transportation funding: A broad coalition of Minnesota organizations proposes, with key legislators’ backing, to raise taxes on motor vehicle fuel as a way to better fund road and transit projects. But House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said the new taxes will not pass this year.
Transportation safety: Transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and equipment for emergency personnel. The House speaker says no new taxes are needed, but the state could find ways to help local officials deal with the issue.

Dayton works at home after surgery

By Don Davis

Hip surgery will crimp Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s style as the Minnesota Legislature convenes for the year Tuesday.

In his first three years in office, Dayton frequently met with rank-and-file legislators from both parties about a great many issues. But since his Feb. 10 hip surgery, and his Valentine’s Day release from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Dayton has been in a brace and confined to the official governor’s residence in a swanky St. Paul neighborhood. And he likely will remain there for a while.

“I expect I will be involved and as time goes on I will be involved more,” the 67-year-old governor said during a Forum News Service telephone interview.

“I wish I could be at the Capitol,” he said, adding that he hopes people understand he cannot do that due to surgery.

Only his mobility is affected, not his thinking, Dayton said.

“Fortunately, none of my brain cells reside in my hip,” he said.

Dayton predicted he will talk to legislators via telephone rather than in person early this legislative session.

The early part of the session may be busier than usual. With a short session this year, after starting later than usual, legislators face a March 21 deadline to pass many of their bills. Committee schedules in the first few weeks of session are full and some committees already plan night meetings, something usually reserved for later in the session.

Dayton said he has a Monday meeting planned with House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook.

One of his priorities may take a hit because he cannot lobby lawmakers in person: his concept of an “unsession.”

Dayton long has said he wants the Legislature to undo things this year that are not needed, like repealing obsolete laws. But at a Forum News Service-sponsored forum with legislative leaders fellow Democrats did not appear to have the unsession enthusiasm that Dayton shows. It was not on a DFL session priority list.

“I don’t remember that the unsession was my initiative,” Bakk said when asked about it.

Bakk said that the governor’s unsession proposal poses a political danger. A bill that overturns an outdated gun law, for instance, could end up being amended with a controversial provision that would force long, complex political debates with no public input on bills that were supposed to be routine.

The Senate leader said he told Dayton in November that he needed to “be ready to go” with unsession proposals since lawmakers do not plan to stick around long. In the interview, Dayton said he would unveil his plans in early March.

While Republicans have not rejected the unsession concept, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, echoed what many in the GOP say is their idea: “Go back and fix the mistakes of the last session.” In Republican eyes, that include eliminating some tax increases approved in 2013, as well as killing the state’s MNsure health insurance marketplace, besieged by problems since its October launch. Democrats, however, support MNsure and say such talk politicizes the unsession concept.

Thissen said that he supports efforts to repeal 40 of 160o state boards that do not function or are inactive.

“I hope that the bipartisan support for it isn’t taking your pet policy project and putting it in an unsession bucket,” Thissen said.

State to consider oil disaster aid

Leaders meet the media

By Danielle Killey

Local emergency responders say they want the state’s help handling safety concerns as crude oil travels on railroads, highways and pipelines through their communities, but the Legislature has little time to act on the issue this year and many questions to answer.

The Minnesota Legislature’s 2014 session begins Tuesday, and committees must initially pass bills less than a month after they convene. On Wednesday, legislative leaders could not give any specifics about what the state can do to help.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said lawmakers need more information about local entities’ response capabilities and necessities before determining the next steps.

“We need to inventory what’s out there,” he said during a 90-minute Forum News Service-sponsored meeting in which legislative leaders briefed reporters from around the state about issues expected to arise during the session.

Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin said local agencies are doing that research as well and are in the initial stages of looking into what kind of specialized plans and equipment would be needed in an emergency situation, such as a December train derailment and fire in Casselton, N.D.

“It’s just one of those new challenges that, quite honestly, a year or two ago we didn’t face,” the sheriff said.

The state has a limited capacity for managing rail safety, lawmakers said.

“A lot of the regulation of the railroads, in particular, are at the federal level,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “But it still seems to me that a place the state can step in is making sure we are prepared to respond adequately if an unfortunate event … were to happen.”

“We need to make sure that our emergency responders are ready to respond,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.

The issue was one of many discussed in the Forum News Service briefing. Gov. Mark Dayton did not attend because of hip surgery last week. He turned down an invitation to call in to the briefing.

Democratic leaders said they think lawmakers will vote to increase the minimum wage this session.

Leaders also discussed plans for a public works borrowing bill, citing infrastructure as a key need, as well as the possibility of repealing business-to-business taxes passed last year.

A proposal from Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, and Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, presented last week would establish a 0.01 cent per gallon tax on all crude oil transported in Minnesota to help fund improved safety. The money would be used to help local agencies fund equipment and training to respond to situations such as oil spills.

“There’s going to have to be some kind of funding stream” to help cover planning, training and any needed specialized equipment, McNurlin said, but the question remains whether that should come from the oil, rail and pipeline companies; or state, federal government and local governments.

“These are all questions that need to be answered,” he said. “This is all relatively new to us.”

Legislative leaders weren’t sold on the tax, though some said funds for state support could come from other places, such as a budget surplus.

Rail cars have been transporting hazardous materials for years, but concerns have increased after recent incidents, including the North Dakota derailment and a Canadian Pacific train leaking a trail of about 12,000 gallons of crude oil earlier this month between Red Wing and Winona.

“The public safety folks in a small community or a large community aren’t necessarily equipped to address that,” Thissen said.

McNurlin said local leaders want the state to help them navigate the situation and deal with federal regulations.

“It’s going to take several layers of bureaucracy and government getting on the same page,” he said.

MNsure executive resigns

Todd-Malmlov

By Don Davis

A Costa Rican vacation gave MNsure’s executive director a permanent break from her job.

April Todd-Malmlov handed her resignation to the MNsure board Tuesday night after publicity about the trip she and another state official took before Thanksgiving. The trip came at a time when her agency was entering the final few weeks that Minnesotans could buy health insurance so it is effective Jan. 1.

The vacation was just one of several problems Todd-Malmlov faced in recent weeks. MNsure computer problems since the program launched Oct. 1 have drawn regular headlines as Minnesotans reported that they could not buy insurance.

The board named Scott Leitz, assistant commissioner of the Department of Human Services, to be MNsure’s interim chief executive officer.

A nationwide search is planned for a permanent MNsure leader.

“MNsure must do better,” Leitz said in a statement. “If there are problems or mistakes, we will acknowledge them and fix them.”

MNsure board Chairman Brian Beutner said a chief executive officer was needed to better run the agency.

“Leitz will oversee operational improvements to ensure the exchange works for Minnesotans and address the organization’s long-range planning needs,” a MNsure news release said.

Leitz, who has 16 years’ experience in state and private health care positions, said his first priority will be to make it easier for Minnesotans to obtain health insurance through MNsure by Jan. 1.

MNsure critics said they have warned about multiple MNsure problems.

“With less than a week before the critical enrollment deadline for Minnesota families, zero insurance policy cards have been issued and the MNsure help line is anything but helpful,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said Tuesday night. “Tonight’s news offers no comfort to hardworking Minnesotans who are still unsure if they’ll have insurance coverage on Jan. 1″

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said MNsure’s change in leadership is good news, calling the board’s move “strong action.”

“As I have said before – and have made emphatically clear to the MNsure board – now is a critical time for Minnesotans, who are relying on this exchange to purchase good quality, yet affordable, health insurance,” Dayton said. “The recent problems some have experienced with MNsure are completely unacceptable. I am hopeful that this new leadership will lead to their swift resolution.”

The MNsure board is scheduled to meet this afternoon, but hastily scheduled the Tuesday night meeting to deal with Todd-Malmlov. It was held behind closed doors.

Most damaging to Todd-Malmlov, 36, may have been a conservative blog’s revelation that she and a top Minnesota Medical Assistance (Medicaid) official took a two-week Costa Rica vacation together.

The Medicaid official, Jim Golden, works with a program connected to MNsure. Golden and Todd-Malmlov live together in St. Paul.

MNsure and Department of Human Services officials say there is no problem with the relationship, but critics say it was a bad choice for them to vacation during a busy time for MNsure.

It has been a rough few months for MNsure and Todd-Malmlov.

Dayton and the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved MNsure this year to meet a requirement in the federal health law known as Obamacare. Supporters said it would be better to sell insurance on a state-run site than letting the federal government run the online health insurance sales program.

MNsure sells insurance online, and with the help of people who provide assistance. Customers have a choice of insurance companies and plans that provide different services and prices.

All policies for sale online are provided by private companies; the state does not provide insurance.

MNsure gives Minnesotans a way to buy private insurance and is the only way for those who use state and federally funded medical care to obtain insurance coverage under Medical Assistance and MinnesotaCae programs.

Setting up the so-called health care exchange in a short time was a massive task for computer experts, MNsure officials said.

One of the issues that received publicity was when an employee accidentally emailed private insurance broker information. The legislative auditor said the state did not even need to collect some of that information.

Since MNsure went live Oct. 1, technical and other glitches have been common.

Minnesotans found it difficult much of that time to buy insurance online. And with a deadline of next Monday for people who want new policies by Jan. 1, the website would not accept new information Monday and part of Tuesday.

While people cannot buy insurance by telephone, more than 90 operators have been hired to answer questions and direct callers to people who can help consumers buy insurance. However, phone waits of up to an hour were reported, and in the last couple of days it came to light that the phones actually hung up after an hour if MNsure did not answer.

Todd-Malmlov was hired to run MNsure after 15 years of experience in the public and private health care sectors. She served as Minnesota’s state health economist and was responsible for monitoring the health care market and informing state health policy related to health care access, cost and quality.

She also has worked at UnitedHealthcare.