MINNEAPOLIS — The 2019 Minnesota Legislature convenes at noon Tuesday with a new governor, a new balance of power and a projected $1.5 billion budget surplus that might make deals easier to reach than in 2018.
Gov.-elect Tim Walz, who gets sworn in Monday, portrays himself as a leader who can bridge ideological and rural-urban divides. That claim is about to be tested. Democrats will take control of the House, while Senate Republicans will have a two-seat majority, making Minnesota the only state with a divided Legislature.
Divided government may function differently under Walz than under outgoing Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, who found it difficult to compromise with Republicans, particularly the GOP-controlled House last year.
Some background on the upcoming session:
House Democrats gained 18 seats in November for a 75-59 majority. Under Melissa Hortman as speaker, they have an ambitious agenda.
They plan to unveil their first 10 bills Wednesday. The package is expected to include legislation to let everyone buy into the state's MinnesotaCare health plan, which is now reserved for the working poor. It's also expected to include new spending. And it's expected to address gun violence.
House Democratic leaders say they're hopeful about avoiding the partisan rancor that marred the 2018 session.
"I think we'll do a better job of making state government work the way Minnesotans expect it to work," incoming majority leader Ryan Winkler said.
Incoming minority leader Kurt Daudt, who was speaker in 2017-18, said House Republicans still hope to help tackle what everyone agrees are problems, such as rising health care costs, the opioid crisis, and finding more money for roads and bridges.
It'll be up to Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka and his committee chairs whether ideas advanced by House Democrats get anywhere in the Senate. He has been sounding conciliatory while cautioning that there are things his caucus won't accept.
Bills that might attract some GOP support will still have trouble advancing if Senate Republican leaders don't allow votes on them. If that happens, Assistant Minority Leader Jeff Hayden warned, Democrats are prepared to try to force up-or-down votes on the Senate floor.
Gazelka said he's hoping all sides can get off to a fast start by passing proposals that got bipartisan support last year, such as authorizing the secretary of state to spend federal election security funds, but were vetoed by Dayton.
The Legislature's main job in odd-numbered years is to pass a two-year budget. That theoretically became easier when the projected surplus rose to $1.5 billion last month, but there will be deep disagreements over what to do with that money. Walz is due to release his budget outline by Feb. 19.
One of the most urgent issues is a 2 percent tax on health care providers that expires at the end of 2019. It funds Medicaid, MinnesotaCare and other health programs. Walz and Democratic leaders want to renew it. Republicans are looking for alternatives. Failure to act will blow a $700 million annual hole in the budget.
Walz wants to raise the gas tax to provide more money for road and bridge improvements, though he hasn't specified by how much. While the idea has strong Democratic support, Gazelka and Daudt say there's no need to raise taxes amid a surplus. They'd rather tap some of it to fund transportation projects instead.
House Democrats are confident of passing bills aimed at reducing gun violence. The question is whether Republicans let them through the Senate.
The top proposals include universal background checks for gun purchases, and a "red flag" law that would let families and police temporarily take guns away from people who are a danger to themselves or others. Proponents hope to peel off suburban GOP senators who saw Democrats make gains in their backyards.
Gazelka said he'd rather focus on less controversial approaches such as safer schools and more mental health resources.
Both sides want to quickly pass legislation left over from last year to harmonize state income laws with the federal tax overhaul. Accountants say the differences will make preparing tax returns more of a pain than usual. It's too late to fix it for the upcoming filing season, but lawmakers want it off their plates soon.
Legalizing marijuana may get some traction. Walz and many House Democrats support it. But Hayden said he's not sure there are enough Democratic votes in the Senate to pass it, let alone enough Republican votes.