Minnesota lawmakers kicked off their legislative session Tuesday with minimal conflict but the promise of much to come, as charged debates over taxes, local control and infrastructure spending play out against the backdrop of a high-stakes election year.
At the top of the agenda is a coming debate over the state’s tax code. That began first thing Tuesday in a packed, windowless hearing room in the State Office Building, where the House Taxes Committee deliberated over how to adapt the state’s tax code to the major federal tax overhaul while avoiding tax increases on large groups of Minnesotans.
In the Senate, the opening floor session got an added dose of drama after Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, also the Republican president of the Senate, gaveled in the proceedings at noon.
Minutes later, Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, noted his objection to Fischbach serving in the Senate while also holding the lieutenant governor’s post, which is already the subject of a legal challenge. Control of the Senate potentially rests on what ends up happening to Fischbach, but DFLers opted against trying to force the issue amid opening-day pomp.
“Today kind of feels like the first day back in school,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said shortly after Latz aired his protest. “It’s not the day to pick a partisan fight.”
But partisan fights loom, and not just over Fischbach or taxes. The Legislature’s Republican majorities promptly resurrected one of last year’s most contentious issues: the proposal known as “pre-emption,” which would prohibit cities like Minneapolis, St. Paul or others from setting their own minimum wages or labor standards, such as sick-leave ordinances.
“Many of our employers across the state are finding regulatory burdens trying to keep track of all these different municipalities’ regulations,” said House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. “And we want them to be able to focus on doing the job they do and their business and employing Minnesotans and let them enjoy their success.”
The Legislature passed a pre-emption bill last year, but DFL Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed it. Republicans also brought back another high-profile measure that didn’t advance last year, a bill that would restrict the use of luxury suites at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Along with tax code changes, legislators said they want to work on a public works bonding bill and to address elder abuse, opioid addiction and the problematic vehicle licensing and registration system. Other policy flash points could surface as the session progresses.
As lawmakers settled in, large protest groups swarmed the statehouse. On the Capitol steps, more than a thousand state employees called for lawmakers to approve their contract. Inside the building, hundreds of supporters of the gun control group Moms Demand Action, dressed in red shirts, asked politicians to consider new limits on access to guns. Their chant of “Save our kids!” echoed into the House and Senate chambers.
With an open governor’s race and control of the state House on the ballot this November, and with numerous legislators running for various higher offices, election-year politics will be an unavoidable component of session.
Congressman and DFL gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz was at the Capitol on the first day of session. And former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is mulling a return to Minnesota politics to run for a third term as governor, stopped by to address Republican senators at a private caucus meeting.
Legislative funding key
Two new legislators joined the mix Tuesday when Sen. Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, and Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, were sworn in.
They won special elections this month and are replacing former lawmakers Dan Schoen and Tony Cornish, who resigned following allegations of sexual misconduct. The allegations against the former senator and representative propelled lawmakers to re-examine their sexual harassment policies. What changes they should make will be a topic of debate this session.
But before legislators dive into sexual harassment policies or other issues, they will be focused on passing a funding bill for the House and Senate. Dayton vetoed the House and Senate budgets during end-of-session negotiations last year, which led to a legal battle between the governor and Republican legislative leaders.
Dayton has since said he would pass a clean funding bill. Lawmakers have repeatedly said they want to send a bill to Dayton in the first week or two of the session. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told fellow senators they could pass the bill as early as Thursday evening.
However, Bakk has said he would like the funding bill to be tied to new contracts for state employees. That could complicate Republicans’ hopes for a quick, clean bill to get their funding back on track.
State staff and supporters gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday to push for the staff contracts. Marcia Bierschenk, a Department of Human Services employee, said they need a raise in wages.
“They increase health insurance, they increase everything else, how are we able to keep up with our bills? This is what’s needed,” Bierschenk said.
Labor contracts are one of the most important things lawmakers can do, said Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center. But they also must deal with legislative funding and the debate over Fischbach’s position, she said. Only after those issues are handled, she said, should lawmakers turn to a bonding bill and a potential supplemental budget.
Fischbach automatically ascended to lieutenant governor when former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith resigned in December to take up her new post as a U.S. senator. Fischbach, of Paynesville, wants to continue holding her Senate position while serving as Dayton’s number two. DFLers argue she cannot constitutionally do both jobs, while Republicans point to past senators who have simultaneously served as lieutenant governor.
“Seven men have done this before,” Fischbach said of the two roles. “I think we’re on pretty good ground to do it. I feel pretty confident presiding and voting when it comes to that.”
A constituent sued Fischbach, attempting to prevent her from doing both jobs. A judge ruled earlier this month that the injury the constituent was claiming in the lawsuit was hypothetical as the Senate had not yet convened and Fischbach had not taken a vote.
If the constituent appeals and is successful in removing her, the Senate would temporarily be split with 33 Democrats and 33 Republicans.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said he is worried about the potential political stalemate in the Senate and that infighting between lawmakers could grind the Legislature’s work to a halt.
“We’ve got to move through the session with as few hiccups and lawsuits as possible,” Zerwas said.