The new Democratic majority in the Minnesota Senate is pushing for an increase in Minnesota's minimum wage.
A bill that would hike the state minimum wage to $7.50 an hour, and index it to inflation in the years to come, was one of the first four bills introduced Thursday by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk.
Also topping the Senate's symbolic to-do list is the creation of the new state health insurance exchanges, a bill to fund all-day kindergarten statewide, and an effort to clamp down on the number of constitutional amendments that come out of the Legislature.
"We think these four bills are important to Minnesotans," Bakk told reporters as the DFL rolled out its first bills of 2013. Notably, none of them have Republican co-sponsors at the moment. "We think that they'll have a positive impact on citizens all across our state. That is why we're giving them the priority that we are."
The minimum wage bill would increase the state's current $6.15 an hour rate and index the minimum wage to inflation. The current state wage is well behind the $7.25 federal minimum wage, Bakk said.
"Frankly, it's a bit embarassing," Bakk said. "Clearly we're behind."
"We're way behind," agreed the bill's sponsor, freshman Sen. Chris Eaton -DFL-Brooklyn Center. " A couple with two children would have to work 155 hours a week to support them" on the current minimum wage.
The all-day kindergarten bill, introduced by Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Rosemount, a retired high school principal and freshman lawmaker, would give school districts statewide the option of expanding their kindergarten programs. Right now, the state funds half-day kindergarten programming and only about 41 percent of kindergarteners statewide are in a classroom for the entire school day.
Participation in all-day kindergarten would be voluntary, and Bakk estimates that if every district opted it, the cost would be about $170 million a year.
Bakk, meanwhile, is offering the constitutional amendment crackdown bill himself, after a contentious election where he and other candidates had to step over walls of "Vote No" or "Vote Yes" amendment signs while doorknocking.
"I hope that we never have to go through another election like that, where we have purely partisan amendments on the ballot. Where the Constitution is used as a way to get around a governor who didn't agree with the Legislature," Bakk said.
Rather than push a constitutional amendment to change the way the state amends the consitution, Bakk is proposing a stautory change, that would require a 60 percent majority of the Legislature to put a provision on the ballot -- a change he said would ensure that most amendments have at least some bipartisan support. The bill would also require the House and Senate to pass the constitional amendments in different years.
Notably absent from the list of highlighted bills was any tax legislation, although several have already been introduced. Bakk said some tax changes are a near-certainty, including a tax increase for the wealthiest Minnesotans.
"I just want to make one thing clear...there is no question that the budget is the overriding work of this Legislative session. The budget and the tax reform that is very closely linked," Bakk told reporters as the DFL rolled out its first bills of 2013. "I don't want anybody to think because Senate File 1 might be Sen. (Tony) Lourey's bill on the health care exchange that it's somehow more important than the budget."