ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota state lawmakers promised when the legislative session began that their top priority was setting a new state budget. To that end, they produced a $38.3 billion two-year spending plan that hikes taxes on top income earners and on cigarettes, and distributes hefty spending increases to public schools, freezes tuition at state colleges and steers new money to job-creation programs.
But the budgeting process shared the stage with a range of high-profile policy issues, from gay marriage to guns and others. The Democrats who ran this year’s session met some of their goals, but not all. The big debates, and how they turned out:
— GAY MARRIAGE: The successful push to legalize gay marriage is likely to be what most Minnesotans remember about the 2013 session. Nearly unthinkable only months ago, gay couples in the state are now looking to Aug. 1 as the day they can start to get married under state law. While it captured a lot of headlines, lawmakers actually needed little time to get the bill through the legislative process: a pair of committee hearings on the same day in March, and House and Senate votes in May that made Minnesota only the 12th U.S. state to legalize gay marriage. But intense lobbying occurred behind the scenes, with pro-gay marriage group Minnesotans United investing heavily in the legislative push after successfully leading last year’s campaign to defeat a constitutional gay marriage ban on the ballot. Gay marriage supporters credit that ban’s defeat with laying the groundwork for their rapid reversal of fortune.
— MINIMUM WAGE: An increase in the state’s $6.15-an-hour minimum wage was a major priority for many Democrats at the start of the session, but it fell victim to disputes between House and Senate Democrats. While the House wanted to boost the wage to $9.50 an hour by 2015, the Senate settled on a more modest increase to $7.50. Despite a last-minute effort to revive the issue, it became a casualty of the session’s final time crunch. Both House Speaker Paul Thissen and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said on Tuesday that it would be a top priority when lawmakers return to the Capitol in February 2014.
— HEALTH CARE: Lawmakers quickly tackled the task of creating the state component of the new federal health care law, and by mid-March had passed legislation creating an online health care marketplace known as MNsure that is meant to help 300,000 uninsured Minnesotans obtain health coverage. The site will let the uninsured, small business owners and people on existing government health plans shop and compare different coverage plans, with some of those shoppers eligible for government subsidies to help pay for it. The plan is for the site to be open for enrollment starting on Oct. 1.
— GUNS: Another disappointment for some Democrats. A series of mass shootings last year, particularly the elementary school shooting in Connecticut in December, emboldened gun control supporters to push for new limits on access to weapons in the state. But the political strength of the National Rifle Association, which boasts among its allies not just Republicans but many Democrats from more rural areas, quickly neutralized any push to ban certain types of weapons or ammunition. Some Democrats continued to push for an expansion of background checks for gun buyers — mainly to extend them to purchases made at gun shows — but even that failed in the face of divides between urban and rural Democrats.
— SILICA SAND MINING: Some lawmakers started the session hoping for a moratorium on the controversial practice of frack sand mining, which has been spreading in southeastern Minnesota. Instead they got a compromise: companies that hope to mine silica sand, which is used to extract oil and natural gas in North Dakota and elsewhere, will have to obtain a new Department of Natural Resources permit if it’s done in certain sensitive areas.
— UNIONS: Some of the loudest cries of the session from minority Republicans were over the bill to allow union organizing drives among in-home, licensed child care providers and among personal care attendants to the elderly and disabled. The prospect of unionized, independent child care providers in particular set off Republicans who charged Democrats were paying off political support from unions. Democrats, who passed the bill anyway on the session’s last day, said it only allows a union organizing drive and that the providers would vote on whether to unionize. Democrats also passed a bill requiring a study of nurse staffing levels at Minnesota hospitals, a compromise with nurses’ unions who wanted lawmakers to set mandatory staffing levels.
— CAPITOL RENOVATION: More money to pay for an ongoing renovation of Minnesota’s domed Capitol was salvaged in the closing hours of the session after getting caught up in the politics of construction project funding. The Legislature approved $109 million in bonds to keep the work going on the Capitol, which state officials say is badly crumbling and in need of major repairs.
— SCHOOL BULLYING: A bill to require school districts to draw up anti-bullying policies and submit them to the Department of Education for approval was another casualty of the dwindling clock. The House passed the bill, but senators ran out of time as they rushed toward adjournment when Republicans vowed to stage an hours-long debate against it. While backers say such policies are needed to protect the academic performance and self-worth of targeted students, opponents said local school boards should set policies themselves and that some students were at risk of being labeled bullies for expressing personal religious views. The bill’s supporters vow they’ll try again next year.
— VIKINGS STADIUM: It was the first legislative session in years without a stadium request from one of the state’s pro sports team, but lawmakers were still forced to revisit the Vikings stadium funding package they approved a year ago. That’s after tax revenue from an expansion of electronic gambling, which was supposed to fund the state’s $348 million share of the $975 million project, badly lagged behind projections. In the end, lawmakers approved skimming a portion of the new cigarette tax, along with money from eliminating some tax preferences for corporations, to provide money to bolster the gambling revenue.
— DRIVER’S LICENSES FOR IMMIGRANTS: The Senate passed a bill that would let immigrants without proper documentation get a Minnesota driver’s license. Backers said it would make the state’s roads safer by ensuring that immigrants often on the road already would have to submit to road tests and obtain automobile insurance. The bill also passed a House committee, but never came up for vote in the full House despite several days of protests at the Capitol by immigrants’ rights activists in the final days of the session.
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