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Lawmakers face long list of issues

By Christopher Magan and Bill Salisbury

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL -- Republicans and Democrats agree on the big issues Minnesotans want addressed, but true bipartisanship is as much a work in progress as the century-old Capitol building now under renovation.

Transportation, education, health care, jobs and taxes top the list of priorities for both Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Republican party members, who returned to the Capitol Tuesday. But there are stark differences on how lawmakers from the two parties want to make changes.

Incoming Minnesota House Speaker Kurt Daudt said that he wants the GOP’s new majority in that chamber to focus on problem solving, not politicking.

“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if we get to the end of the session and Democrats voted for all our bills,” said Daudt, R-Crown. “Maybe I’m in the honeymoon phase. I feel like there are opportunities everywhere for bipartisanship.”

Gov. Mark Dayton, fresh off his last campaign, expressed similar sentiment. He said he wanted to build on the accomplishments of the last four years and didn’t need to be as cautious as when he faced re-election.

“I will work with anyone and everyone who will work with me,” Dayton said.

Party leaders may hope for bipartisanship, but there’s plenty of potential for conflict. Leaders have already traded jabs over controversial ideas like a gasoline tax hike to pay for roads and bridges or a proposal to eliminate teacher seniority as a top consideration when school districts cut staff.

In the opening days of the session Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, each plan to roll out five bills that will outline each chamber’s priorities. Both said there will be some focus on legislation that benefits greater Minnesota.

“It's clear by the last election that people in rural Minnesota haven’t felt the economic recovery like people in the metro,” Bakk said. “I’m thinking about how to elevate rural Minnesota. I’m not just talking about spending money on it.”

State Rep. Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, the new House majority leader, said Minnesotans voted for divided government because they wanted balance.

“We had one party control before the election and it resulted in legislation that was very one sided,” Peppin said. “We feel people put us in charge of the House to restore balance.”

Budget

Dayton and state lawmakers will have a $1 billion surplus to work with as they start crafting a two-year state budget this session.

That’s sounds like a lot of money, but state finance officials warn that is just enough — just over 2 percent of the projected $41 billion budget — to cover the cost of inflation in health care, salaries, fuel and other state expenses.

Dayton said he has received $3 billion in requests for that surplus and suggested that groups seeking more money should temper their expectations.

But the surplus should make it easier for the split government — a DFL governor and Senate and a Republican-controlled House — to pass a balanced budget next spring.

Taxes

Aside from a possible gasoline tax increase for roads and bridges, don’t expect lawmakers to pass any major tax increases or tax cuts this session.

After pushing through $2 billion in new taxes in 2013, Dayton said he won’t propose any general tax increases this year.

He will call for increasing income tax credits to help about 137,000 families cope with rising child care costs.

Incoming House Tax Committee Chairman Greg Davids, R-Preston, said the first job of the Republican-controlled House is to “do no harm,” meaning no more tax increases like the ones DFLers passed two years ago. But with DFLers controlling the governor’s office and Senate, he said, GOP leaders won’t be able to pass the tax cuts that many conservatives want.

“I want to spend time on what we can get done,” he said.

Transportation

One of biggest challenges facing Minnesota lawmakers is how to pay for the projected $6 billion in road and bridge improvements that are needed over the next decade.

Dayton supports a new tax on wholesale gasoline to help pay for the state’s future infrastructure needs.

Republicans are against the idea, calling it unpopular with residents. They prefer a reprioritizing of transportation projects to free up money for roads and bridges.

K-12 Education

Schools also are a top priority for both parties as educators continue to work to close Minnesota’s large achievement gap between poor and minority students and their peers.

Dayton has said he wants to increase school spending in targeted areas that are proven to close those gaps. School leaders are pushing for lawmakers to pay for “unfunded mandates” and increase the state per pupil funding formula.

Republicans are expected to push for new reforms to the state education system. Those could include eliminating teacher seniority as a consideration during layoffs, expanding school choice and updating the teacher licensure system.

Higher education

State lawmakers will have to weigh whether they want to increase funding to keep tuition at Minnesota colleges and universities frozen for another two years. Both parties agree keeping tuition in check is important, but there are opposing views on how it should be funded.

Eric Kaler, University of Minnesota president, said last year a tuition freeze would require more taxpayer support. Leaders in both the House and Senate have questioned whether the state’s higher education systems could cut costs to cover some of the money needed to hold the line on tuition.

Lawmakers also want colleges and universities to strengthen their roles in workforce development. Both DFLers and Republicans have noted there are nearly more than 187,000 job openings without qualified applicants.

Healthcare

MNsure, the state’s health care marketplace under the federal Affordable Care Act, is expected to receive new scrutiny after a disastrous 2013 roll out.

Open enrollment went more smoothly in 2014, but critics have a long list of questions and proposed improvements.

Peppin said the system needs better, more transparent oversight and she hopes someone from the insurance industry will be appointed to the MNsure board. Some have called that proposal a conflict of interest.

“Many in our caucus believe it's necessary to have someone on the board who knows what they are talking about,” Peppin said.

Dayton and other DFLers have said they’re open to suggestions for improving MNsure, but they don’t want to rehash the debate over "Obamacare."

Nursing homes

A priority for Greater Minnesota lawmakers is improving funding for long-term care programs that serve elderly and disabled residents.

Rural residents have long complained their facilities are underfunded and a growing number have shut their doors. Others have trouble keeping employees, who get experience and move to higher-paying jobs in the Twin Cities.

It will likely take new revenue to improve funding for long-term care facilities and it's unclear where that money will come from.

Child protection

Minnesota’s child-protection system will be up for improvements.

A task force has issued preliminary recommendations calling for the elimination in state law of the preference for “family assessment” in addressing child-protection cases. Family assessment focuses on engaging and supporting families instead of investigating wrongdoing. Task force members have said the approach is used in about 70 percent of cases, including some where kids are at substantial risk of harm and investigation would be the safer course.

The task force also advocates repealing a law that prevents county officials from considering prior “screened-out” reports when deciding what to do about a new allegation. The idea is to allow officials to see a pattern of behavior in making their determinations.

The task force’s final recommendations are due by the end of March.

Super Bowl tax breaks

Officials involved in bringing the Super Bowl to the new Vikings stadium in Minneapolis in 2018 say they will ask the Legislature this session for additional tax exemptions for the National Football League.

An existing state law exempts tickets to the game itself from tax. Officials have said they will try to get that extended to include events related to the game as well.

According to information from the state Department of Revenue, waiving the tax on tickets to the “NFL Fan Experience” would mean about $400,000 in forgone revenue to the state.

It’s not clear whether additional tax breaks will be sought, or what they might be. Those involved in preparing the successful bid to secure the 2018 game have refused to release it publicly, citing a need to keep the details under wraps for competitive reasons.

Sex offenders

One of the issues that is little discussed, but carries big consequences is how the state should deal with sex offenders.

A federal judge says Minnesota's system of holding sex offenders who have completed prison sentences is unconstitutional. But Minnesota legislators have been reluctant to take action.

Sen. Kent Eken, D-Twin Valley, said the state needs to take action soon, or the courts will take over the system. If that happens, he said, a federal court-run sex offender program could cost the state much more money.

"It needs to be bipartisan if it needs to be done," Eken said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, places fixing the sex offender issue near the top of the agenda. He agreed with Eken that both parties must agree.

"That probably is the toughest vote of the session," Bakk said.

Sunday liquor

Once again, lawmakers will be urged to end the ban on Sunday liquor-store sales, something social conservatives oppose and liquor store lobbyists say will add to retail operational costs.

Although minor changes have been made, the repeal has been a perennial loser at the Capitol. Lawmakers who represents areas near states that allow Sunday sales are especially pushing for the change, citing loss of business to those other states.

Pioneer Press reporter Doug Belden and Forum News Service contributed to this report. Forum News Service and the Pioneer Press are media partners.