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Legislature takes break with much done, much left

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ST. PAUL -- The looks on Minnesota legislators' faces before they began a holiday break told the story: They are tired.

The 201 legislators put in long hours the past couple of weeks debating and initially passing pretty much every major bill of the 2014 session, often going well after dark just as spring presents Minnesotans with longer days.

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When asked about what would happen after the Legislature returns on April 22 following an Easter-Passover break, Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, showed the exhaustion common to many as the House was adjourning Thursday night.

"My mind is not even there," Schoen said. "My mind is so tired, I can't even think straight."

After pausing, he came up with a few issues he thinks need to pass, then added that some bills lawmakers already passed may need to be revisited because "in our tired, weary minds, we may have missed something that should be fixed."

It is a different type of year for the Legislature. It came into session Feb. 25, later than most years, and lawmakers are trying to cram in more work than often occurs the year after a state budget is produced.

Lawmakers will have less than four weeks after the holiday break to finish their work before constitutional deadline of May 19.

Days after the session began, lawmakers passed a bill providing financial aid to Minnesotans with problems paying for heat during the intense winter. On March, after plenty of political posturing, they approved $443 million of tax breaks.

Two other major issues are set to take effect. One requires local school districts to write policies to prevent bullying or the state will force them to follow one it prepares. The other issue that has been decided is a higher minimum wage, which in three years will be $9.50 an hour for big businesses and $7.75 for smaller ones.

Otherwise, the House and Senate have passed differing versions of the major bills, such as one tweaking a $39 billion, two-year budget passed last year. Lawmakers dumped nearly all spending bills, and some that do not involve money, into the one massive bill.

Like most other remaining issues, the budget bills the House and Senate passed are different. So negotiators from both houses will sit down after the break and begin reconciling them, then sending them back for final votes.

One significant bill has passed the House, but not the Senate: a plan to move women toward equality with in the workplace.

Two hot-topic bills remain short of House and Senate votes.

Generally getting the spotlight in even-year sessions has been a bill funding public works projects around the state. In the House this year, it is a nearly $1 billion bill, funded both by borrowing money with state bond sales and some cash. It has made its way to near a full House vote, but the Senate measure will not be unveiled until soon after break ends.

Legislative leaders already agreed to spend $850 million, but many Democrats say they want to go higher. If so, they need Republican votes because Democrats alone do not have enough members to pass a bonding bill. Republicans are not eager to accept a higher figure.

The other big issue awaiting a decision is whether to allow marijuana, or an extract from the plant, to be made available to seriously ill Minnesotans, such as children suffering from seizures and cancer patients in great pain.

"We are trying to find ways to come to a solution," House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said, but a compromise is needed with police and medical groups opposed to the medical marijuana plan.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, gave the issue a kick ahead when he ordered a committee hearing on the bill, similar to one stalled in a House committee. There was no vote, but supporters say that if leaders allow the bill to proceed after returning to St. Paul, there are enough votes to pass it.

The question then would be if Gov. Mark Dayton would sign a bill that does not meet his main requirement: support by law enforcement and medical communities.

Bakk and Thissen said they will talk about the remaining issues some during the recess, although House leaders also plan to travel the state saying they already have shown a productive session.

Bakk said he could not predict if there will be any problems in the final few weeks of session. "I think it would depend on the governor's engagement."

Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, said he is not concerned. "With the time that is left, we should get it all done. It will come together."

What's done, what's left

The 2014 Minnesota Legislature is on an Easter-Passover recess, due to return April 22 to take up a number of unresolved issues.

Many of the major issues have passed at least one house of the Legislature, some have passed both houses in differing forms so negotiations will continue and a few are yet to be considered.

Bonding: Gov. Mark Dayton proposed spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money mostly obtained by the state selling bonds. The House and Senate are looking at borrowing about $850 million, with additional cash from a state budget surplus. The House has a bill in play and senators likely will introduce their bonding bill soon after returning to St. Paul.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $39 billion, two-year budget. The House and Senate have passed differing versions of a bill to tweak the budget and negotiators will work out differences after the recess.

Bullying: Legislative Democrats passed, with a few Republican votes, a bill that Gov. Mark Dayton signed just before the recess to require school districts to adopt strong anti-bullying policies. If a district does not comply, it will have to follow a state policy.

Constitutional amendments: No constitutional amendments have made much progress so far this year, but Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, wants one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed.

Construction zones: Provisions have been folded into larger bills to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones. They have yet to receive final approval.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. Bills approving online registration are progressing.

Gender equality: Ways to improve women's pay and other aspects of their lives are being considered. The House passed its version, with the Senate expected to take it up after break. The fact that women earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.

Home health: The House and Senate passed budget bills that include increasing home health care funding 5 percent.

Legislative offices: Committees provided final approval for a new Senate office building across the street north of the Capitol, so construction could begin this summer. However, a lawsuit against the building remains to be settled.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been debated, but stalled in a House committee after the governor expressed misgivings because law enforcement and medical groups oppose it. A Senate committee heard testimony on it just before the break, but will not vote until after legislators return to St. Paul.

Minimum wage: Legislative leaders negotiated a compromise to raise the state minimum wage to $9.50 an hour in three years for large businesses and $7.75 for small ones, then allow it to rise automatically up to 2.5 percent a year to stay abreast with inflation. It will be law in time for the first step of the raise to begin in August.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups want to clamp down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor Minnesotans. The issue has been debated in committees, but not in the full House and Senate.

Propane: Right out of the chute, lawmakers approved increased funding to aid homeowners with problems paying for propane to heat their homes after a shortage brought on high prices. However, long-term solutions to propane price volatility have not moved forward.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state's sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. Legislators have made little progress toward agreeing on how to deal with the situation.

Synthetic drugs: Bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers have progressed and the House approved its bill. A Senate bill awaits a vote.

Taxes: Legislators approved two tax-cut bills, with the second portion awaiting negotiations after the break. The bills cut income taxes and property taxes and overturn some sales taxes enacted a year ago.

Transportation funding: A move to raise gasoline taxes appears to have failed, but some money was found for pothole repair and highway work in the state budget surplus.

Transportation safety: A series of transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and better equipment for emergency personnel. The plans are included in an overall budget bill that remains to be negotiated.

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