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The Legislature in its closing hours voted to legalize medical marijuana and to deliver a second round of tax cuts to Minnesotans, with property refund checks going to nearly a million homeowners, renters and farmers.
Finishing ahead of the mandated Monday adjournment, lawmakers wrapped up Friday night by passing a handful of major bills. “History might look at it as the most productive legislative biennium in a generation,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook.
The medical marijuana bill was one of the final votes, passing the Senate and House 89-40 with significant bipartisan support.
“It is nice when Republicans and Democrats work together to help people by expanding their personal freedoms, rather than limiting them,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington.
The House and Senate also gave final votes to adopt $1 billion in state-backed construction projects. Lawmakers also voted by wide margins to ban vaping of e-cigarettes in some public places and prohibited the sale of such devices to minors. The House passed the tax bill unanimously, and the medical marijuana bill and construction package both drew DFL and GOP support. Earlier this year the Legislature had passed a minimum-wage increase, income tax cuts, a long-sought antibullying bill for schoolchildren and a Women’s Economic Security Act designed to improve pay and conditions for female workers.
“I think we did have an incredibly productive two years, I think there’s no doubt about that,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton praised the results. “Two years ago, when I was asked what Minnesotans could expect from a DFL governor and a DFL Legislature, I said: Progress,” he said in a statement. “That is exactly what we delivered again this session.”
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, decried the emphasis on spending. “Spending money and having good intentions is not enough,” he said. “There are too many kids in this state who are left behind. Spending money hasn’t helped them.”
Deals yield bipartisanship
While this year’s session ended with a number of bipartisan coalitions on major bills, it required a flurry of last-minute deal-making and vote-trading to make it happen. That came into play most visibly with the construction bill, which the House passed about 3 a.m. Friday. The Senate followed suit about nine hours later, sending Dayton a package of bond- and cash-backed projects that includes the State Capitol restoration, affordable housing upgrades, campus buildings, roads and bridges, local economic development projects, the Lewis and Clark water pipeline, a new Senate office building and other ventures.
“It’s going to be a really bright star in terms of helping our economic development,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, who helped assemble the package.
The construction measure required Republican votes in order to authorize the required bond sales, which gave the minority party rare leverage. They exercised it by demanding House Democrats scrap a DFL bill, the so-called Toxic Free Kids Act, which would have required manufacturers to notify consumers of the presence of toxic chemicals in toys, school supplies and personal care products.
“We were able to stop that from proceeding and we think that’s good,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt said. Republicans called it an overly burdensome regulation for businesses.
Dayton also jumped into the deal-making fray. Legislative leaders trying to hold together the fragile coalition around the construction bill asked the governor to promise he wouldn’t use his veto pen to delete specific projects from the final package. Dayton responded with his own printed list of demands, which administration staffers circulated to reporters in the wee hours of Friday morning.
Lawmakers delivered most of the governor’s demands, which included oil pipeline safety requirements, a veterans hiring measure, money for a sober schools program, tougher regulations for commercial breeding facilities, and a demand that lawmakers give up their attempts to repeal sprinkler requirements for new larger homes.
Dayton also demanded the Toxic Free Kids proposal, which he did not get. The governor declined to make any promises about construction bill vetoes; he has 14 days from the end of the session to sign or veto bills passed on the last day.
Democrats and Republicans also agreed on $103 million in new tax breaks, with more than half of that devoted to direct relief for about 940,000 homeowners, farmers and renters.
The measure passed unanimously in the House on Friday, and with just one vote against it in the Senate. Under the measure, the average homeowner would see direct property tax relief of more than $800, with more than $600 for renters and an average of $410 for farmers. Individual amounts will vary.
That was the second tax relief measure of the session. In March, Dayton signed a bill providing $444 million in relief that reached about a million taxpayers. “Between this bill and the last one, we will have delivered $550 million in tax cuts for Minnesotans this year,” said Rep. Ann Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington.
Limits for medical marijuana
The medical marijuana proposal prompted the most high profile policy debate of the session. Lawmakers and the Dayton administration had struck a final deal on the proposal just a day earlier. They agreed to a limited system of production and distribution that is considered the most restrictive among the 21 states that currently authorize access to medical marijuana.
The new medical marijuana law, which Dayton has promised to sign, authorizes access to the drug for about 5,000 Minnesotans with conditions including cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS and a handful of others. With a health care provider’s permission, those patients will enroll in a patient registry that will allow the state Department of Health to monitor their progress.
The drug will be available only in pill or oil forms, with smoking not allowed and access to the drug in its original plant form forbidden. That was not enough to mollify some skeptics.
“It will change the face of Minnesota, folks, and don’t think it won’t,” said Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. “We’re legalizing a drug.”
Others said the move was premature.
“We don’t have any studies, or proven methods of knowing what works for who, and at what level,” said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater. “We’re basically just saying, we’re going to try this and see how this works. I think that is the opposite of compassion.”
Bakk noted the proposal was stalled for much of the session and revived only with the persistent lobbying of a small group of families of children with epilepsy who want to treat their kids’ seizures with a marijuana-based oil.
“This was not on the legislative agenda of most of us in this room,” Bakk said. “What that tells me is this is a wonderful example of how representative democracy works. A small group of families with their hurting children came to the Capitol, and they changed the law.”