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Legislative session had surprises, big actions

Early odds didn’t appear in favor of medical marijuana legalization during a packed Minnesota legislative session in an election year.

“The one I would have to say was a surprise was the medical marijuana,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings.

“I didn’t think it was going to end up becoming law,” admitted Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove.

It did, and with bipartisan support including from Sieben, McNamara and Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park. The medical marijuana proposal was among a number of high-profile bills that were passed by the Democrat-led Legislature that adjourned for the year Friday.

The session was shorter than most but nevertheless saw passage of two tax bills, a minimum wage increase, anti-bullying legislation, new funding for some state programs, a large public works spending package and a slew of provisions that repeal obsolete laws.

Sieben touted the public works package that topped $1 billion, tax-cutting bills this year and the supplemental spending bill that “made some good progress toward funding things that are important to people, like more money for public schools.”

Sieben also said she was  proud of the new  Women’s Economic Security Act, a host of provisions ranging from expanding family leave to requiring employers to accommodate pregnant workers’ needs. It also encourages equal pay with men for the same job, and is designed to help women looking for jobs in science and engineering.

“There’s a lot of good stuff this session,” she said.

Schoen, who faces re-election this fall, said Democrats “made some difficult choices,” including raising taxes on top income earners, but the state budget has been balanced and there was enough money to ease some tax burden this year as well as shore up state reserves.

“We made tough choices and you’ve got to be willing to stand up and say you are willing to do that,” he said. “Taxes aren’t great, but cuts hurt a lot and there’s a lot of people that suffer, especially in our area, when (there are) cuts.”

McNamara, whose Republicans will try to retake the Minnesota House in this fall’s election, described the session as “decent.” He said 2014 was about fixing some of the work pushed by Democrats in 2013, including repealing planned business and agriculture taxes approved just a year ago.

“Thank goodness the Democrats recognized they needed to reverse some of their action from last year,” he said.

One DFL-led effort that should not have passed, McNamara said, was funding for construction of a new Senate office building near the Capitol. That project is moving forward over strong GOP objections.

The bonding bill included $1.46 million for design of the proposed HERO public safety training facility adjacent to Cottage Grove City Hall. It also had money for flood mitigation, including in Newport and Afton.

There also is $1.6 million for a quarter-mile pedestrian and bike trail that will connect two trails just north of the Mississippi River near the Hastings Bridge. Sieben said that request was $2 million but McNamara negotiated away $400,000 for projects outside south Washington County and his district.

McNamara said he supported shifting some money to a dam restoration project at Lake Byllesby in Dakota County. That was the Department of Natural Resource’s top-ranked dam repair project but it wasn’t going to be funded, he said. Now both the trail and the dam projects can go forward.

Marijuana surprised

The medical marijuana bill’s passage might be the session’s biggest surprise.

Its success came down to two factors, lawmakers said: First, persistent and compelling lobbying by parents of sick children who would benefit from using the drug as medication, in either pill or oil form. (It will still be illegal to smoke marijuana.)

“I would not underestimate the power of those parents spending lots and lots of time at the Capitol telling their stories and talking to legislators about the real relief that medical marijuana provides,” Sieben said.

Also, there was considerable negotiating that resulted in what is thought to be the most restrictive medical marijuana legislation in the country. Twenty other states allow medical marijuana.

Schoen, who works as a Cottage Grove police officer, said he would have been against medical marijuana a number of years ago. This year, he helped push for the bill’s passage.

It was important to stress that it was a different issue than legalizing recreational marijuana use, which he opposes.

“These people aren’t criminals, they don’t want to be criminals,” Schoen said of medical marijuana proponents. “They don’t want their kids high. They want them to be functional.”

McNamara said he recognizes some people’s concerns with the law but pointed to its tight restrictions. He said lawmakers heard “some pretty sad stories” about children and elderly with certain serious medical conditions.

“It’s going to help some sick people ease some of their pain,” he said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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