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.
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.
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.