ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Lawmakers will be less than a month from the mandatory session finish line when they return to the Capitol after Easter, but don’t be surprised if they make an earlier break for it.
Much of the heavy lifting of the election-year session is done. Negotiators from the House, Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration forecast more ease than usual buttoning up remaining tax and budget bills. Leaders say any policy changes could be seen as optional. The big exception is a public works package known as the bonding bill, which is far from taking final shape.
Here’s a look at where major items stand after seven weeks of the 2014 session:
Lawmakers have already dished out about half of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus, much of it in targeted tax relief or the elimination of controversial business taxes. Another $100 million in tax breaks is still in the mix, though who gains is yet to be decided. They’ve also set aside $150 million for the next rainy day. What remains is likely to be split among schools, caregivers for the disabled and elderly, development of broadband technology in far-flung areas and quick fixes to pothole-battered roads. If lawmakers can’t agree, they can leave more money to haggle over next year.
A plan to sell state bonds for construction projects around the state will be the dominant issue in the late stages of session. There are two main decisions to make: How big will the bill be and what types of projects will make the cut? Republicans say they won’t go for a bill larger than $850 million, and their support is needed because bills authorizing borrowing require supermajority votes. Dayton has suggested that lawmakers negotiate a higher cap, but that’s unlikely. It seems certain that there will be money to finish the state Capitol renovation, to fix college campus buildings and upgrade prisons and other secure facilities. Watch for hearty debate over plans to outfit the new Lake Vermilion State Park.
Legislation expanding alcohol sales on Sundays has made progress but is no sure thing. A Senate liquor bill would allow taprooms to make Sunday sales and let craft-beer brewers sell or refill 64-ounce containers called “growlers” on Sundays. They are short of an all-out repeal of Minnesota’s ban on takeaway Sunday liquor sales. And even for the incremental measures, resistance from some quarters could show itself before the House or Senate vote.
Few issues have provided as much drama this year as a bid to make marijuana a legal medicine. It has opened up a sharp rift between advocates and Dayton, who has sided with law enforcement against a broad proposal. Supporters want access to the drug now to ease suffering. Dayton has suggested researching the plant’s medicinal qualities. The proposal is stalled in the House but has shown new life in the Senate after the governor dared legislators last week to try to pass something if they didn’t like his approach. A bill allows licensed practitioners to prescribe pot to patients for maladies including cancer, epilepsy and extreme pain. Talks will resume after the break.
The deal formally gets ratified on Monday. Dayton will sign a bill making annual increases to the state’s minimum wage. It will climb to $8 per hour this summer, $9 the next and $9.50 by August 2016. After that it will be hitched to inflation so future increases will be out of the hands of the Legislature. The bill passed with only Democratic votes last week after lawmakers strained for more than a year to get it done.
Concerns over how much personal data government collects and what it keeps is fueling a wide examination of practices. Bills regulating everything from newborn screening tests to license plate readers to cell-phone surveillance technology are in play. Bills that would have put curbs on police aerial drones have stalled. At a minimum, expect lawmakers to create a special legislative task force to delve deeper into data privacy issues to craft new laws in the years to come.
Construction is slated to begin July 1 on an $89.5 million project to build a new state Senate office building. The structure itself will house all 67 senators and cost $77 million. A user-funded parking lot completes the project and accounts for the remaining $12.5 million cost. Democratic lawmakers say the ongoing $273 million Capitol renovating necessitates the Senate building because existing offices and hearing rooms will be eliminated. Republicans charge the project is a waste of taxpayer money. Even Dayton had qualms.
Dayton wanted legislators to do as much to prune state law books as they do to add to them. His administration submitted more than 1,000 suggestions for repealing or modifying laws that are outdated, duplicative or nonsensical. Many of the proposals have passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. For lawmakers on the ballot this fall, the legal cleanup will be pitched to voters as government streamlining.
WOMEN’S WORKPLACE PROTECTIONS
Among the final pieces of legislation before lawmakers is a far-reaching package being dubbed the Women’s Economic Security Act. The bill sailed through the House by in a broadly bipartisan vote, 106-24. The proposal aims to narrow the pay gap between men and women, expand access to affordable child care and increase unpaid parental leave from six weeks to 12 weeks. A companion Senate bill will get a vote after the break.
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)