Senate Republican leaders rolled out their priorities on the first day of the legislative session Tuesday, including child care, health care costs and simplifying the tax code.
“We have a fresh start,” said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa. “We have a governor that is now in office that feels like he would be more pragmatic. I had a good working relationship with [former] Gov. Dayton, but I think it will be different.”
But disagreements quickly emerged over increasing the gas tax, extending a tax on medical providers, regulating guns and making health care affordable.
House Democrats, newly in power, set a collegial tone but hinted at looming battles. “The campaign is over. It’s time to take off the blue jerseys and the red jerseys, and it’s our job to govern here together as Team Minnesota,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park. “That doesn’t mean that we will govern without conflict.”
Senate Republicans, who hold a two-seat advantage in the chamber, revealed their priorities a day before House Democrats will unveil their top 10 initiatives, which will likely mirror a “Minnesota Values Plan” they released in September.
Democrats swung into control of the House after scooping up 18 seats previously held by Republicans in the November election. Hortman took the oath of office and became the new House speaker.
Legislators in both parties, as well as the new Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, share some big goals, such as making health care more affordable. Senate Republicans said they want to do that by increasing transparency in health care bills and ensuring that patients can select their doctor and shop around for services.
House Democrats said in their September plan that they, like Walz, want to allow anyone to buy into MinnesotaCare and see that as a step toward universal health care.
Both sides also have made helping families a priority. Democrats said they want to add more money for community-based child care and work to expand public pre-K, with the aim of making it universally available to Minnesotans. Republicans said they intend to make child care more affordable by cutting regulations on providers.
Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, raised concerns about universal pre-K, saying day care providers’ income largely comes from 3- and 4-year-olds, and watching infants and toddlers is expensive due to regulations.
“If the state of Minnesota comes forward with universal pre-K for 4-year-olds, you will destroy what is left of the rest of the day-care system,” he said.
Senate Taxes Committee Chairman Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, declined to give details of his party’s tax proposals but blasted Walz’s desire to increase the gas tax.
Walz said the state needs $18 billion over the next 20 years to maintain its transportation system.
“I understand their position,” Walz said. “But the position is not that they oppose the gas tax. The position is you oppose fixing the bridge, fixing the roads, because you have not come to me and told me how are they going to reach that number. I’m open to proposals that are out there. But this is not a debate saying, ‘We’re not going to do anything.’ ”
Senate Republicans and Walz also clashed over whether to extend a 2 percent tax on medical providers, hospitals and drug distributors beyond the end of this year.
Republicans reiterated their opposition to renewing the tax but acknowledged that figuring out how to pay for services funded by the tax will be a major topic in the months ahead.
Walz said ending the tax is a “nonstarter,” but he said he is open to hearing proposals if people think the burden is falling too heavily on one area.
Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said House Republicans want to lower health care costs and return the state’s $1.5 billion budget surplus to residents through tax cuts.
“If they want to reduce health care costs, if they want to put more money in the pockets of Minnesotans whether it be through tax relief or through paychecks, I will be right there with them,” Daudt said after a heated debate on the House floor. “But when they break their promises to Minnesotans, I will be there to hold them accountable.”
He attacked Democrats’ proposed change to how a measure can move through the legislative process, saying it gave too much power to Ways and Means Chairman Lyndon Carlson, D-Crystal, and could result in Minnesotans not being sufficiently notified about a bill’s progress.
Gun regulations likely will be a significant point of contention this session. Moms Demand Action of Minnesota began a day of lobbying at the Capitol with a news conference before a room of about 50 supporters wearing red T-shirts bearing the group’s logo.
“You have put us in a position to move legislation forward and to get legislation passed [on] the floor of the Minnesota House of Representatives,” said Hortman, who added that two of their top 10 proposals will include “common-sense gun violence prevention measures.”
Bob Mokos, a member of the Everytown for Gun Safety survivor network whose sister was shot and killed in Chicago in 1986, said this year’s statehouse is filled with many new legislators who ran on vows to toughen gun laws.
“I urge all of them now to push forward with urgency to require criminal background checks on all gun sales and to establish a red flag law,” Mokos said, referring to court orders that temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns when the person poses a danger to self or others.
Senate Republicans did not discuss guns when rolling out their initial measures.
Despite their differences, Hortman and Gazelka have said they want to pass some proposals from last session that both sides agreed on but languished in end-of-session negotiations and never became law.
Gazelka cited legislation to authorize spending of federal funds for election security as one example.
Staff writers Stephen Montemayor and J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.