ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Gov. Mark Dayton and the Legislature’s new Democratic majorities have made it clear: The session that starts Tuesday will be all about the state budget.
But with one-party control at the Capitol for the first time in two decades, and 200 lawmakers of both parties converging on St. Paul, other issues will share the stage.
“Fasten your seatbelt,” said Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, half in jest. But Simon acknowledged that his party does face pressure to produce a more comprehensive legislative product, after years in which divided government gave both Democrats and Republicans some cover for lack of results.
“The gears of government should run a little more smoothly,” said Simon, incoming chairman of the House Elections Committee. “It will be different in terms of accountability. Democrats own accountability now. There’s going to be less opportunity for finger-pointing.”
And more opportunity to shape state policy, though major new initiatives that carry a price tag will have to be weighed against the $1.1 billion budget deficit. Here’s a list of some of the main issues likely to vie for lawmakers’ attention:
— HEALTH CARE: Dayton and DFL leaders have embraced President Obama’s health care overhaul as one of its major features moves closer to rolling out nationwide later in 2013. One of the first tasks for lawmakers will be approving Minnesota’s proposal for its health insurance exchange, a state-run marketplace of private plans that will allow people without health coverage to comparison shop and buy in. The federal government has tentatively signed off on Minnesota’s proposal, which was assembled by Dayton administration appointees and Democratic lawmakers; state-run exchanges must be ready to start accepting enrollees on Oct. 1.
— GAY MARRIAGE: The promised push to legalize gay marriage is nearly certain to be the major social debate of the session. Minnesotans United, the successful campaign to defeat the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, has now set its sights on repeal of the state’s existing law that prohibits same-sex couples from marrying. Many Minnesota Democrats support what they call “marriage equality,” and gay marriage is now legal in 10 U.S. states. But Dayton and DFL legislative leaders have been cautious about creating perceptions that a social agenda trumps bread-and-butter issues like taxes, jobs and the economy, and school funding. The likely Senate sponsor, Sen. Scott Dibble, says backers will wait until later in the session to mount their effort.
— PUBLIC EDUCATION: Public schools, colleges and universities are one of the state’s biggest spending priorities, which means promises to spend more on schools will be inextricably linked to the broader budget debate. Democrats say they want to relieve school districts from a growing reliance on local property tax revenue; spend more on early childhood education, with a goal of reducing the state’s broad achievement gap between white students and students of color; and to boost funding for colleges and universities, to take pressure off rising tuition. In the policy arena, lawmakers will likely debate and vote on legislation to crack down on bullying in public schools; and to fine-tune a teacher-evaluation system that the Legislature passed in 2011 and which is scheduled to come into use in 2014.
— TRANSPORTATION: Expect a lively debate over possible increases in the state’s big three transportation funding mechanisms: the gas tax, driver’s license fees and the motor vehicle sales tax. A recent report by a bipartisan transportation tax force recommended a gas-tax increase of 40 cents per gallon over two decades, only to see Dayton dismiss that option for lacking public support. But lawmakers will definitely be looking for new money to relieve Twin Cities bottlenecks, repair crumbling roads and bridges statewide, and boost transit options.
— UNIONS: Unions are facing Republican-led rollbacks of organizing rights in numerous other Midwestern states, but have much rosier prospects in Minnesota. The powerful Service Employees International Union has announced it will seek a change in law that would allow up to 20,000 home health aides to organize under its auspices. The workers, known as personal care assistants, help disabled or elderly people function in their homes; their state-funded wages could be subject to bargaining if the workers unionize. Another organizing drive, to allow home child-care workers to unionize, could also be revived.
— GUNS: The recent shooting rampage at a Connecticut elementary school has cast attention back on the long-simmering political debate around access to guns. State Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican and retired peace officer, has called for allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons in the classroom, and for posting an armed police officer at every school in the state. Those are a tough sell with Democrats, as some in that party call instead for tightening gun laws. There’s likely to be a bill to forbid people from buying firearms at gun shows. Other possibilities are implementing tougher background checks on potential gun owners, or tightening the state’s concealed weapon statute which some Democrats view as not restrictive enough.
— MEDICAL MARIJUANA: Residents of Colorado and Washington voted in November to legalize recreational marijuana use, and a number of states have authorized use of the drug for medical purposes. While legal marijuana for all is not likely in Minnesota anytime soon, a new push for medical marijuana is not out of the question. A bill to legalize medical marijuana passed the Minnesota Legislature in 2009 with bipartisan support, but then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it citing law enforcement opposition. Dayton said he would similarly defer to the judgment of law enforcement, but incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he thinks it might be possible to craft a medical marijuana bill that would get the necessary support from police and prosecutor organizations.
— ELECTIONS: Since Minnesota voters defeated a constitutional requirement for photo identification at the polls, some Democratic lawmakers have raised the possibility of election reform legislation aimed at making voting easier but still secure. One possibility is a plan previously touted by DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie to institute an “electronic poll book” system that would allow real-time checking of voters’ identities without actually requiring a physical ID card. There could be a push to allow early, in-person voting in the week or so leading up to Election Day; or to loosen the state’s relatively strict requirements for obtaining an absentee ballot. Dayton and lawmakers will also consider a recommendation from the state’s campaign regulators to let candidates accept larger contributions from individual donors.
— ENVIRONMENT: A hot-button issue in southeastern Minnesota is the boom in the extraction of sandstone that’s sold and shipped to oil and natural gas companies, who use it in other parts of the country for the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Minnesota’s growing frac-sand industry has divided some small communities. Some landowners and local governments are benefiting from major investment by sand-mining companies, while some neighbors, activists and local officials are disturbed by increasing truck and train traffic, the effect on air quality and other environmental concerns. Sen. John Marty, the incoming chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, said he plans to push for a temporary moratorium on frac sand mining until some of those concerns can be more thoroughly addressed.
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