ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — As Minnesota lawmakers break from the Capitol for the campaign, they leave behind a tale of two sessions.
Last year: tax increases to fix a broken budget. This year: tax breaks from a budget surplus.
Last year: A new gay marriage law grabbed tons of attention. This year: medical marijuana.
It didn’t take long for ruling Democrats and minority party Republicans to shift into full campaign mode.
“I think Minnesotans are going to be happy with the results they’ve seen come out of these last two years of progress for Minnesota,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy.
Not so, said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt: “Unfortunately Minnesotans have seen this session and last session that single party control with Democrats controlling all of state government hasn’t served Minnesotans well.”
Just give up, Minnesota — or stock up. Lawmakers gave the bounce to yet another attempt to liberalize liquor laws to allow the purchase of alcohol from stores on Sundays. They brushed aside even small changes like letting taprooms sell takeaway growlers on the seventh day.
A top issue for Greater Minnesota was getting state support to expand high-speed Internet, with many communities calling it a key to their vitality. They aimed high, shooting for the same $100 million recommended by a governor’s task force, and claimed a win in getting a mere $20 million. Boosters say it’s a down payment on addressing the half-million Minnesotans who can’t get a fast connection right now.
Minnesota went into the session with an anti-bullying law that some regarded as one of the weakest in the nation, with little guidance to schools on policies to prevent bullying. Legislators toughened the law to require schools to track and investigate cases of bullying, and to better train teachers and staff on how to prevent it. But passage didn’t come without a fight that had echoes of Minnesota’s gay marriage dispute over the past two years, with familiar opponents lining up on either side. Many Republicans questioned whether changing the law would have much effect, worried about loss of local control and raised free speech concerns. Some schools also worried about costs of the mandate.
The regular scuffle over how much Minnesota should borrow for statewide construction ended in a tie. The overall package of $1.1 billion for public works is closer to what Democrats wanted, but borrowing is held to $846 million thanks to plans to get the rest in cash from the state surplus. The Capitol renovation gets the most dough, while Mankato, Rochester and St. Cloud get long-sought money to help with civic center projects. Have a pet project nearby, find out if it made the cut: http://bit.ly/1sB9Fsj
Vaping is trending, and public health advocates wanted the state to clamp down hard on electronic cigarettes by treating them the same as Joe Camel — that is, banning them in most public establishments under the state’s indoor air act. They argued that e-cigarettes that heat liquid nicotine into a vapor may endanger public health and are likely to hook new generations of kids for life. Too many lawmakers, and Gov. Mark Dayton, had reservations about that until more research on the vapors is done, and they settled on a range of steps aimed at keeping the devices away from minors.
Lawmakers took a rare step to tighten gun laws. People convicted of certain child or domestic abuse charges in Minnesota now have to give up their firearms. People hit with an order of protection will lose them at least temporarily. Supporters said the move would cut down on fatal instances of domestic violence.
A student-driven effort to make clear lawmakers can’t avoid arrest for drunk driving and other crimes during session stalled. The constitutional clause dates to frontier days and was originally intended to avert political dirty tricks by arresting someone to keep them from being present for votes. Lawmakers who stood in the way say the supposed get-out-of-jail-free-cards legislators are issued don’t actually prevent arrest and argued an educational campaign should suffice.
Minnesota Lottery officials went in search of new revenue and decided the Internet might be a good way to get it. But the Legislature slapped down their embryonic efforts to distribute games online and via other channels such as ATMs and gas station pumps. A coalition of anti-gambling legislators and tribal casino interests banded together to successfully pull the plug on such games by this fall barring a veto by Gov. Mark Dayton.
Moves by Colorado and Washington to legalize recreational marijuana legal probably made it palatable for Minnesota to take a much lesser step, but it was the emotional appeals of chronic disease sufferers that finally pushed medical marijuana into law. In the end, legislators settled on a tightly drawn law that forbids smoking the drug or vaporizing any actual plant material. Patients must use it in oil or pill form. The state now faces a complex buildout of a distribution and monitoring system that should start making the drug available in 2015.
Majority Democrats delivered big to their base with a big bump to the minimum wage. It will go up more than $3 over the next few years, landing at $9.50 by 2016, with inflationary increases thereafter. Not a single Republican got on board as Minnesota moved from one of the nation’s lowest minimums to one of the highest. Business groups warned of potential layoffs as a result and questioned the wisdom of moving so far above surrounding states.
MNsure, the state-run health insurance exchange, got off to a terrible start with long wait times on a hotline and plenty of problems with the website. But with no real legislative power, Republicans could do little but criticize the exchange. Most of their attempts to force legislative changes were ruled out of order. Look for the health overhaul to be a major campaign theme.
Lawmakers signed off on a new office building for state senators that became a political wedge issue for Republicans. They repeatedly attacked Democrats and Dayton for what they characterized as an opulent project. The proposal that ultimately passed scaled the project back a bit. It’s cost $90 million — with $77 million covered by taxpayers — and will move ahead unless a longshot lawsuit stops it.
The North Dakota crude shipped through Minnesota will come with extra safeguards. Lawmakers established a railroad and pipeline safety account to pay for emergency personnel training and response in the event of a spill. Railroad operators would have to provide training in dealing with oil and hazardous substances. There are also pollution control preparedness plans. The money comes from annual assessments of rail and pipeline companies.
Is this an election year? Just look at all that tax relief. Lawmakers took advantage of a strong financial position — a projected $1.2 billion surplus — and agreed to send about half of that back to citizens (and voters). Some of the tax relief came in the form of income and property tax breaks, like refund checks typically distributed in October. Some other money undid 2013 changes that boosted business sales taxes, leading Republicans to accuse Democrats of political opportunism.
Advocates for big spending on transportation didn’t get it this year, as lawmakers quailed at a proposed tax hike that would have raised about a half-billion dollars. The problem with that? It would have bumped the cost of a gallon of gas by more than a dime. And legislators chose to send much of a projected budget surplus to tax cuts and cash reserves. Some tiny consolation prizes made it into the borrowing bill.
WOMEN’S ECONOMIC SECURITY
Watch for updates to workplace protection laws. Parents can be able to take 12 weeks of pregnancy/parental leave when they give birth or adopt. That’s up from six weeks. Nursing mothers are assured of private space to express milk. “Familial status” was written into employment practice law to keep women from being passed over for promotions by a boss who thinks their family will get in the way of their work. And companies with state contracts above $500,000 must prove they pay men and women the same money for similar work.
Dayton pushed to give the state’s law books a good spring cleaning, purging outdated or duplicative laws. His goal was to speed up service delivery and reduce permitting wait time in the process. His administration came forward with more than 1,000 ideas — many so obscure they’d long been forgotten — and his tally of wins was at 925 as of Friday.
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