Legislative session could be light on accomplishments
Published 6:17 am Tuesday, February 11, 2020
By Tim Pugmire
MPR News/90.1 FM
The pressure was on for lawmakers and DFL Gov. Tim Walz last year: They were constitutionally mandated to deliver a two-year budget.
This year, there’s less pressure to be productive — but be prepared to see plenty of grandstanding in this election-year session featuring a Republican-controlled Senate and DFL-controlled House.
“That’s OK. That’s healthy,” Walz said when asked about the legislative statements either party might try to make this session — knowing the other chamber will ignore them.
“I think the public should get a chance to see some proposals that we’re not going to agree on, but that there are distinct differences on. Then they can decide later this year [in the election],” he said in an interview with MPR News.
A bonding bill is always at the top of the list in an even-year session, and Walz has already announced a $2 billion package of public construction projects. Republicans say the plan is too big, but Walz is holding firm.
“I’m more than willing to say if there are some of these things we need to take out and move till later, we’d like to add a few things, that’s what the legislators should be doing,” Walz said. “But I think the number we’ve come up with is pretty close to what’s reasonable and what’s right.”
A bonding bill can’t pass without bipartisan support. It needs a 60 percent supermajority in both the House and Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he’s optimistic that — just as they did for last year’s budget negotiations — the governor, House and Senate can come together again to pass a plan for borrowing.
“I am very committed to making sure the infrastructure bill gets done, and you hear all four legislative leaders say that,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard quite as much public comments early about, let’s get a bonding bill done, so that’s why I’m optimistic about that.”
The fight, though, will be over the bill’s size.
House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, said a $2 billion bill is unrealistic.
“Are we willing to go above $1 billion? Yeah, we probably are for important projects like road and bridge infrastructure, wastewater and drinking water infrastructure and taking care of our state assets like our buildings at our state colleges and universities,” he said. “We’re more than willing to do that, but it’s got to be reasonable.”
Lawmakers will also consider some budget adjustments this year. The last economic forecast projected a $1.3 billion surplus. A revised number comes out next month.
Walz wants to replenish the state’s “rainy day” fund, but Gazelka wants tax cuts, including an elimination of the state tax on Social Security income.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, wants to invest in early childhood education.
“We would like to see the amount of one-time spending that we have available to us this year focused on the things that matter the most,” she said.
Hortman said despite election-year distractions, lawmakers will be able to get things done.
“We will work together to find those areas where we can move things forward, where there is a bipartisan compromise, where both sides are willing to find the true middle and get something done for Minnesotans,” Hortman said.
To that end, a first-day hearing is planned in the House on an emergency insulin measure still unresolved from last session.
But it will be hard to escape politics, with all 201 legislative seats on the ballot in November. Several policy proposals will be considered mainly for show with no hopes of becoming law this year.
For example, Senate Republicans will pass things that House Democrats have no interest in, including school choice tax credits and Voter ID. House Democrats are expected to pass gun control, paid family leave and other bills that Senate Republicans won’t touch.
“That is not a waste of time. That is to communicate with Minnesotans our different visions and approaches to the problems that face the state, so that people can make a good decision when they go vote in November,” Hortman said.
Gazelka said despite feeling a shift toward politics this year, he hopes lawmakers can stay focused.
“We still just need to focus on making sure we get the things done that we should and can get done,” he said.
What to watch at the Legislature this year:
• Bonding: A borrowing plan for public construction projects will be the focus of the session. But there will be disagreement about the size of the bonding bill. Walz has proposed a $2 billion package. Senate Republicans want less. House Democrats want more.
• Budget surplus: The November economic forecast projected a $1.3 billion surplus. A revised number is due in a few weeks. Walz wants to beef up the “rainy-day fund.” Senate Republicans are talking tax cuts. House Democrats say early childhood education funding is the way to go.
• Clean energy: There is bipartisan support for some type of legislation to get utilities to move away from fossil fuels. The House and Senate have competing approaches, but a compromise bill appears within reach.
• Department of Human Services: Senate Republicans are eager to address the large department’s problems, including a series of financial missteps last year. Walz is open to improvements, but it might take more than one session to make changes.
• Guns: House Democrats will again push for a pair of gun control measures they passed last session. One would expand background checks to more types of purchases, and the other would allow for extreme risk protection orders. Senate Republicans have not supported either bill.
• Insulin: The rising cost of insulin is an issue from last session that didn’t get resolved during the interim. The House and Senate are out with competing proposals on how best to help Minnesotans get the life-saving drug. The House has a first-day hearing scheduled.
• Opportunity scholarships: Senate Republicans will try again to provide tax breaks to businesses that donate to scholarships that could be used for private schools. Walz and House Democrats call them vouchers, and they’re strongly opposed.
• Paid family leave: House Democrats will push again for a bill that would provide paid family and medical leave and earned safe and sick time to all Minnesotans. It faces stiff opposition from Republicans.
• Recreational cannabis: House Democrats held a series of 15 community meeting to get input for their legalization bill. Hearings are expected on the bill, but it might not get a House vote. Walz supports legalization, while Senate Republicans are strongly opposed.
• Voter ID: In 2012, Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional amendment to require them to show a photo ID to get a ballot. Senate Republicans want to bring back the issue, this time as a legislative proposal, to protect election integrity. Walz and House Democrats are opposed.