Minnesota Legislature preview: 10 issues to watch
Tim Pugmire and Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio, January 4, 2013 – The Minnesota Legislature reconvenes for a new session at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 8., with DFL majorities controlling both the House and the Senate. Here are 10 issues that lawmakers will likely address in the coming months.
The budget will be the main focus this session. Minnesota’s latest economic forecast projected a $1.1 billion deficit for the next two-year budget cycle. Gov. Mark Dayton will use that analysis of projected tax revenues and spending obligations to shape a budget proposal that he must deliver by Jan. 22. He’s argued for ending the “budget roller coaster” that the state has been on for the past 12 years, but he hasn’t said yet exactly how he intends to do it. After Dayton releases his plan the DFL-controlled Legislature will spend the next several months debating it and adding ideas of its own. The House, the Senate and the governor will have to agree on a plan and pass it by late May. Spending reductions and tax increases will again be part of the discussion.
Gov. Dayton has said he wants to make the state tax system fairer and simpler, and he is expected to unveil a tax reform plan this month. Dayton still supports an income tax increase on the wealthiest 2 percent of Minnesotans. He also appears to have some interest in expanding the sales tax base, while lowering the rate. That could mean new taxes on business to business services, and other services. Some have suggested taxing clothing sales. Democrats campaigned on the need to lower property taxes. Some business groups continue to push for collecting sales taxes on some online transactions.
Minnesota is moving ahead with plans for a new health insurance exchange, which is required by President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. State exchanges will allow consumers to comparison shop for health insurance in online marketplaces. Federal officials notified the state last month that it had conditional approval to operate its exchange in 2014. Democrats, including Dayton, will have to find revenue to pay for the exchange while balancing the concerns of business leaders worried about costs and consumer advocates worried about access. Expect Republicans to oppose whatever plan moves forward since they have been universally opposed to the Affordable Care Act on both the state and federal level.
Bonding bills are usually passed in non-budget years, but lawmakers are already talking about one for 2013. Several local construction projects, including civic centers, could be in such a bill after losing out last year. Lawmakers also need to address funding for another phase of State Capitol renovations and will consider whether rail projects like the Southwest Corridor should be funded. Democrats need some Republican votes to reach the 60 percent super majority needed to pass a bonding bill.
Minnesota voters rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and now many of the people behind that opposition campaign are promising a push for passage of a marriage equality bill this session. Same sex marriage is illegal in Minnesota. Some Democrats, particularly in rural areas, worry that the divisiveness of trying to change that could end up hurting them just like the push for the amendment hurt GOP candidates last November. Minnesotans United for All Families, which successfully campaigned to defeat the amendment, says it will push to legalize same-sex marriage this session. The Minnesota Family Council says it will lobby to defeat it. DFL legislative leaders may wait to see how the U.S. Supreme Court handles the issue before acting on it.
Gov. Dayton has said education funding is among his top priorities. But the state still owes schools more than $1 billion in delayed payments that were part of earlier budget deals. DFL legislators have said they want to make education funding less dependent on the passage of local property tax measures. They also want to boost funding for colleges and universities. University of Minnesota officials have promised a tuition freeze in exchange for increased state funding.
After a recent rash of high-profile shootings, there could be a renewed debate over state gun laws. Some legislators have said they want to see some of those laws tightened. Others strongly disagree. Gov. Dayton has said he’s willing to consider gun-control measures, but cautioned that the constitutional protections would limit those options. Expect cities and counties to also argue for increased state aid to help them pay for police and fire protection on the local level.
Minnesotans also rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to require all voters to show photo identification. But some opponents of that measure are expected to push for other changes in state election law. Proposals for expanded early voting options, voter eligibility protections and a new primary election date are expected to come forward.
A recent report from Gov. Dayton’s transportation advisory panel called for a higher state gas tax and other fees and taxes to raise at least $50 billion more for roads and transit over the coming two decades. It’s unclear how much of the report the governor might embrace in his budget proposal.
Gov. Dayton says the issue of sand mining for use in a natural gas and oil extraction process called hydraulic fracturing will be “huge” this session. The procedure, which relies on injecting water, silica sand and chemicals to retrieve oil and natural gas deposits, has been controversial, as has the mining of silica sand in Minnesota. Gov. Dayton and the Legislature will be forced to balance the interests of the energy industry and the jobs it provides with the interests of environmentalists who are concerned about the long term impacts of hydraulic fracturing.