After promising Tuesday -- this year's legislative session's opening day -- they would hammer out a deal to raise Minnesota's minimum wage, lawmakers quickly announced a hearing to get it done.
On Thursday afternoon House and Senate lawmakers will meet in a joint committee to begin hearing from people with opinions on the issue.
In the coming weeks lawmakers are expected to figure out whether they will raise the state's minimum -- now $6.15 an hour and one of the nation's lowest -- to $9.50 by 2015. Last year, House approved last year and many advocates have pitched raising the wage floor to $9.50.
Addressing a Capitol rally on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said raising the wage was one of the session's top priorities, if not the top priority.
Last year, the Senate backed a more modest increase and negotiations broke down between the House and Senate.
But this year, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, attended a rally of folks pushing to raise the wage to $9.50 by 2015 and wore a button declaring his support.
After the rally, he said he believed the Senate could pass a measure to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 but lawmakers may want to see the wage floor inch up more slowly than advocates have pushed and the House had backed.
The Thursday hearing will be at 4:30 p.m. or half an hour after the House adjourns its floor session in room 5 of the State Office Building.
Photo: Tuesday's minimum wage rally with DFLers from House, Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton's commissioners on stage//source: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune.
Lawmakers have been gone from the Capitol for months, and return on Tuesday with all the politics and policy they left behind last year.
But in the House, they started the session with some bipartisan work.
The House unanimously passed $20 million bill to help low income Minnesotans with heating bills. With another week of subzero temperatures in the forecast and the region still gripped by a propane shortage, the measure is backed by the leadership of both parties and the governor.
"When we get hotline calls, people are calling in fear and desperation," Minnesota Department of Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman told members of the House Ways and Means Committee at an informational meeting Tuesday morning.
The measure will particularly aid those who have been struggling with high propane bills in Minnesota's particularly cold winter. After 45 minutes of debate, the measure to shift funds out of the general fund and into the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, has said the heating assistance bill will likely be the first measure on the governor's desk this session. Senate spokesman Amos Briggs said the Senate will act "quickly and urgently" to complete the legislative work on the bill.
Bakk told Senate members on Tuesday that the Senate may act on that bill on Monday.
Bakk said the $20 million House bill the House passed does not match with a memo he has from Gov. Mark Dayton, which said $17 million is needed.
Bakk said the earliest date he saw for the emergency fund run out of money was March 1, which is Saturday, when state employees won’t be sending out checks.
“Even if it is March 1, getting the bill to the governor March 3 is, I believe, plenty timely,” he said.
Given the accelerated timeline, Dayton will likely be able to sign that $20 million measure into law by next week.
The House and Senate also appointed, or re-appointed, members to deal with bicameral negotiations on a bill to hike the minimum wage.
Last year, the all Democratic Capitol failed to pass any minimum wage increase, despite the fact that DFL leaders said it was a priority, when the House and Senate could not agree on an increase.
This year advocates, who will hold a large rally at 4 p.m. in the Capitol today, are pushing to raise the wage from one of the nation's lowest -- $6.15 an hour -- to one of the nation's highest -- $9.50 an hour by 2015.
Sen. Chris Eaton, who is sponsoring the minimum wage measure in the Senate, said the Senate plans extensive hearings on the measure before it brings it up for votes.
House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said she thinks it is time to pass the measure.
“Minnesotans have talked about that minimum wage all summer and fall,” Murphy said. “I think the Senate is listening to them and I think we’re going to be able to make the action complete this year.”
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Ex-Minnesota State Rep. Jim Knoblach will appeal a Ramsey County Judge’s decision to throw out his lawsuit to block construction of a controversial $90 million legislative office building and parking complex.
Knoblach, a Republican from St. Cloud, sued to stop construction, alleging that the project’s inclusion in the 2013 legislative session tax bill violates state constitutional requirements that “No law shall embrace more than one subject.”
Earlier this month, Judge Lezlie Marek dismissed the lawsuit, reasoning that the building provision is linked to the rest of the massive tax bill by a common thread of “financing and raising revenue to fund state and local government operations.”
Knoblach counters that Marek’s definition of the subject of the bill is overly broad, ignoring parts o the law that are not about financing state and local government.
“The judge’s decision means legislators need only put the magic words “…about the financing and operation of state and local government…” in a bill’s title, and legislators will be free to combine anything they wish in a bill,” Knoblach said in a news release.
The $63 million building and adjoining $27 million parking facilities drew fire after being included in the tax bill—unusual, for construction projects, which are typically part of the bonding bill and require 60 supermajority to pass. Republicans have been sharply critical of the building’s design and capacity for only 44 Senate offices. Proponents say the building is critical to house lawmakers during and after Capitol renovations.
The building still requires signoff from the House Rules Committee. Its chair, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, said the committee will not make a decision until after a public hearing to discuss other options such as leasing space off the Capitol campus during renovations.
Knoblach said he will ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to bypass the Court of Appeals for an expedited review of the case. If they accept, a ruling could happen before the end of the legislative session, he said.
Democratic and Republican legislative leaders sat down with reporters Wednesday for a sneak peek at what the 2014 session has in store.
For an hour and a half, House Speaker Paul Thissen, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt and Senate Minority Leader David Hann fielded questions on a wide range of topics that might or might not come up when the Legislature returns to work Feb. 25.
At the top of the DFL agenda for the coming session will be a hike in the state minimum wage. How high that increase has yet to be determined -- the House passed a bill that would raise the wage to $9.50 an hour while the Senate passed a bill that would have increased the current $6.15 state minimum to $7.75. The 2013 session ended before the two sides could hammer out a compromise.
Republicans are leery of a wage hike, pointing to a new study by the Congressional Budget Office that found that increasing the federal minimum wage to $10.10 could eliminate as many as 1 million jobs nationwide (or as few as zero) if employers downsized to save on salary costs.
"This is going to unemploy the under-employed," Daudt said.
Bakk countered that the same study found that the same theoretical wage hike could lift as many as 900,000 Americans out of poverty.
Thissen predicted the House and Senate will reach a compromise and pass a wage hike within the first few weeks of the session. Minnesota's economy is strong, he said, and will only get stronger if its workers earn better wages.
"For all the doom and gloom that's been said about 'our economy is going to collapse, businesses are going to flee,' we certainly haven't seen that. In fact, it's going the other direction," he said. "When we last raised the minimum wage in Minnesota, when we last raised it at the federal level, you didn't see that impact on jobs. What the CBO report did say, and what everyone seems to agree with, is that it actually increases economic activity in the nation and the state where that goes into effect."
There was no more consensus about what to do with the expected state budget surplus.
"Our priorities are really to go back and...fix some of the mistakes of the last session," said Daudt,who joined Hann in calling for repeal of the three new business-to-business taxes that passed last session, as well as closing some of the state tax gaps that opened up when the Legislature opted not to bring state tax codes into full conformity with all the new federal tax breaks.
Thissen agreed that the state could probably afford a few tax cuts if the current revenue forecasts hold true. But Bakk wasn't eager to spend any surpluses right away. During the boom times of the 1990s, he said, the Legislature gave back $10 billion in tax cuts and Jesse checks. The result, he said, "plunged us into deficit management for almost a decade."
"We are only one revenue forecast with our head above water," he said. "To immediately run off and try to please everybody...It's very easy to vote for things and just hand off the ramifications of it to the next Legislature. But I am the next Legislature...We don't want to run the risk. This economic recovery still seems pretty fragile to me."
Daudt said the mere existence of a surplus is a sign that the Legislature overreached last session.
"I hope I don't see anybody doing a victory lap about having a small surplus right now," he said. "That money belongs to the taxpayers. What it means is that we overtaxed Minnesotans."
There were a few points of bipartisan agreement. All four leaders said they supported the 5 percent campaign that is working to raise wages of caregivers around the state and the leaders agreed that there are plenty of projects around the state that could find their way into a bonding bill this session, although the exact size of that bill remains in dispute.
Daudt said his caucus would support a "reasonable-sized" bonding bill -- somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million -- that favors repairs to existing infrastructure infrastructure and funds for higher education over new construction. Thissen agreed that the $800 million number is "a good target for us to head for."
There were a few issues the DFL majority has no interest in revisiting this session. MNsure, the state's new online health insurance marketplace, got off to a rocky launch after it passed the Legislature last year. Nor were lawmakers interested in revisiting the stadium issue -- although Bakk noted that the Legislature might have to make a few tweaks to please the NFL as it scouts the city as a potential Super Bowl host.
The Minnesota House will try to expand disclosure required of political spending and the disclosure required of their own economic interests this year, House Speaker Paul Thissen said.
Both are issues that arose last year but were left undone.
Current law requires certain types of groups to disclose their political fundraising and spending but lets other groups, particularly political non-profits, to spend on politics without giving much public information. To change that, lawmakers propose that Minnesota require most everyone who spends on politics to release public information no matter what type of group the spending comes from.
"I think people understand the need," Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said. In 2013, the House rejected similar proposals.
He also said that since the session ended last spring, lawmakers have been talking about beefing up the law dictating what public officials have to release about their own economic interests.
"We are ready to go on that bill," Thissen said.
Minnesota right now makes lawmakers and others fill out economic disclosure forms but those forms don't actually contain very enlightening information and are frequently out of date. Many other states require lawmakers to release far more information.
Thissen said lawmakers are also eyeing undoing an exception to a gift ban that state put in place last year. Generally, lawmakers are severely restricted on their ability to attend free events sponsored by lobbyists. But the new exemption allows lobbyists to wine and dine lawmakers, as long as the entire Legislature is invited to the party.
Thissen said the House agreed to the provision last year as part of a compromise with the Senate. And this year, House members want to roll back that exception.
Photo: House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, speaking on Wednesday at a University of Minnesota conference about campaign finance.
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