SESSION 2015: Lawmakers Have Lots Left To Tackle After Break
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The Legislature has reached its spring break before grinding their way to the May 18th mandatory adjournment.
Once lawmakers return in early April they'll concentrate on shaping a new two-year budget, but there's much more hanging in the balance. Here's a look at where many issues stand.
Anti-abortion activists still hope a new Republican majority in the House will give them some clout this year. They want to end state funding for abortions and require clinics to be licensed. Similar moves have stalled before, and Gov. Mark Dayton has said he doesn't see himself signing any new restrictions into law.
One thing is nearly certain: Minnesota will see its first two-year budget above $40 billion. With a $1.87 billion surplus, Dayton is moving to fortify funding for preschools, public schools and colleges. House Republicans are countering with a play for $2 billion in tax cuts. The next budget won't take effect until July 1 and Dayton is adamant that negotiators avoid flirtation with a shutdown, calling that option "political malpractice."
Lawmakers made a lot of students and parents happy in 2013 when they kicked in the cash to freeze tuition at the state's two university systems. Dayton's on board to do it again, but House Republicans have said their budget proposal only includes funding for a freeze at one system.
An early skirmish over raises Dayton awarded to his cabinet was temporarily resolved. Lawmakers rolled back steep salary increases but gave Dayton a one-day window - July 1 - to revisit compensation. After that, any raises would have to be approved by the Legislature. Many of Dayton's commissioners have been confirmed by the Senate, but a couple could face some heat when their nominations come up.
The Minnesota Lottery ended last year under fire and started this year in the same spot. A powerful collection of lawmakers wants to cut off the lottery's ability to sell tickets at gas pumps, over the Internet and through automated cash machines. Dayton vetoed a similar plan last year but faces the prospect of an override if he does so again. The votes could come soon, though lottery officials are still in search of a compromise.
Add the minimum wage to the list of issues where Dayton and the Republican-led House are at odds. GOP lawmakers aren't crazy about Dayton's public call to boost pay at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to $10 hourly - $2 more than the current minimum wage. Neither Dayton nor other top Democrats are giving ground on a bill recently passed in the House that would allow employers to pay tipped workers a lower hourly wage if tips bring their pay above $12 an hour.
You can bet that lawmakers will make some changes to the state's health insurance exchange after two rocky years. Senate Democrats want to undo the exchange's board and make MNsure a full-blown state agency. Majority House Republicans are proposing much more drastic changes, up to and including scrapping MNsure altogether and moving Minnesota to the federal marketplace by 2017.
Expect nursing homes to emerge as surplus winners. House Republicans aim to send an extra $160 million their way to revamp a funding formula long-term care advocates say has shorted facilities in rural Minnesota. It's also shaping up as a priority of majority Senate Democrats. Dayton has a smaller amount in mind but says he's open to kicking in more.
After two years, lawmakers may finally pass restrictions on how police can use license plate readers due to new agreement between law enforcement and civil liberties advocates about how long location data can be kept. But another set of restrictions for the blossoming use of body cameras may have to wait, as some lawmakers don't feel there's enough time to tackle it this year.
Both parties have embraced a goal to get young children off to a strong start, but they lack consensus about how to do that. Dayton wants $343 million to give all 4-year-olds access to quality preschool programs at no cost to their parents. House Republicans - and some Democrats - say that's a noble idea, but they'd rather target the neediest children with early learning scholarships to tackle Minnesota's yawning achievement gap.
Oil prices are down but you wouldn't know it at the Legislature, where debates about oil train safety are still in full swing. Democrats have proposed a series of tax increases and fees on railroad companies to pay for improvements at crossings, but Republicans are cool to those plans.
Thought stadium fever was over? Think again. A new major-league soccer franchise has lawmakers in a defensive crouch, saying they won't ante up another public stadium subsidy. But that might not stop some from trying. There are also efforts by Super Bowl organizers to broaden tax exemptions and could be plays by those behind golf's Ryder Cup to get public assistance toward their globally watched event next year.
SUNDAY LIQUOR SALES
It's no full repeal of the state's blue law advocates have pushed for, but a renewed effort to legalize takeaway sales of 64-ounce craft beer growlers on Sundays is moving ahead with better odds this year. That measure is in a package of liquor law revisions heading to the Senate floor, along with allowing hard liquor sales in bars before 10 a.m. on Sundays.
House Republicans fast-tracked a move to make teachers' evaluations play a bigger role when schools have to make staff cuts. The Senate is less receptive to that idea, and it's unclear whether measures to ease the licensing process for out-of-state teachers will gain traction there either.
The showcase debate of the session surrounds how to pay for road-and-bridge repair for years to come. Dayton and Senate Democrats are pushing a new brand of gas tax - on top of the existing charge - as a reliable source of revenue. House Republicans are opting to redirect existing taxes on auto parts, rental cars and vehicle leases and couple it with substantial borrowing. There's a related fight over financing for mass-transit projects.
Everyone is counting one thing out: Rebate checks that were a favorite tool of then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. But some breaks are likely. House Republicans say they'd like to dish out $2 billion in unspecified relief. Dayton and Senate Democrats have less in mind, with the governor's aid targeted at dependent credits and relief to low-income workers.
Lawmakers want more doctors, teachers and other professionals working across the state, particularly in underserved rural areas. They've pitched a flurry of loan forgiveness programs aimed at encouraging young Minnesotans to grab an in-demand degree, head to a small town and start working.