The proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota has new life in the state Senate, after Gov. Mark Dayton accused lawmakers of avoiding the issue.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee reviewed the bill Thursday. The committee did not vote, but its chair said she would take up the proposal again later this month when lawmakers return from a nearly two-week holiday break that starts Friday.
The bill would give patients with certain medical conditions access to marijuana as treatment. Dayton has expressed reservations about the proposal, citing conflicting views within the medical community as well as opposition by law enforcement groups. Two of Dayton's cabinet officers testified against the proposal at Thursday's Senate hearing: Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.
But Dayton has also met with patients who use marijuana, and the parents of children with severe epilepsy who want to treat their kids with an oil that contains cannabis extract. He has expressed sympathy, and suggested he might be willing to support state-funded research into the cannabis oil as a possible compromise. Advocates have been reluctant to support research without legalization.
Earlier this week, Dayton chided lawmakers for "hiding behind their desks" on the issue; the bill's Senate sponsor, DFLer Scott Dibble, said that remark motivated him to mount a new push for the bill.
Both Dibble and the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Carly Melin, said they believe the votes are there in the full House and Senate to pass the bill. The Legislature voted in 2009 to legalize medical marijuana, but then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.
The Minnesota Senate unanimously passed a bill that would equip first responders with a crucial antidote to heroin overdoses and also provides immunity for people who call 911, even if they may be users themselves.
The measure, nicknamed “Steve’s Law” authored by Sen. Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, passed 65-0 Tuesday afternoon. The law is named for Steve Rummler, who died from a heroin overdose in July 2011 after he became addicted to prescription painkillers. His family began the Steve Rummler Hope Foundation, which spearheaded efforts to pass the law. The House version of the bill is expected to be debated before the end of session.
The first prong of the bill allows first responders, police officers and prevention program staffers to carry and administer Narcan, a drug that counteracts the effects of an overdose. Administering the drug at the scene, advocates say, could potentially safe lives.
Eaton’s own daughter, 23-year-old Ariel Eaton-Wilson, died from a heroin overdose in 2007. The man with her that day did not call 911 immediately, instead hiding evidence from police. By the time she was taken to the hospital and given Narcan, it was too late.
“This is to get people like the young man who was with my daughter to call 911 instead of hiding things, and denying to the people around that he knew what was going on.” Eaton told the Senate floor shortly before the vote. Despite some concerns that immunity could jeopardize some drug investigations, She added that a poll of four surrounding sheriff’s offices revealed that none had made arrests as a direct result of 911 calls from an overdose scene.
Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, said he voted against a similar measure “Because I didn’t want to reward somebody for what they should do anyway.” However, he changed his mind this year because “I want to reward someone for doing right.”
“Steve’s law removes the prosecution for the greater good, members, for life,” Hall said. “I will be supporting this because I think it’s important that we look at the greater good in this situation.”
Senators have approved a $77 million office building across the street from the Capitol that will serve as their primary workspace, endorsing a move by their House colleagues to scale back some amenities while boosting overall space in the complex.
The Senate Rules Committee signed off on the project Monday. The panel previously backed a version of the same project, but the House Rules Committee approved an altered version last Friday. In addition to ditching plans for a parking ramp, reflecting pool, a workout room and elaborate landscaping, House members also moved to increase the total number of senators' offices from 44 to 67 so that every member of the Senate can be housed there.
Adding office space contributed to the cost of the building, but by dropping the parking ramp lawmakers were able to achieve net savings in the overall cost of the project, which had originally been estimated at $90 million.
Republican lawmakers have been vociferous critics of the legislative office building, calling it wasteful and unnecessary and vowing to use it against Democrats in the next election. But its backers, led by Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, have called it the most cost-effective option for housing senators during and after a major renovation of the Capitol building.
Under current renovation plans, senators are likely to be moved out of the Capitol after the 2015 legislative session. Once the building reopens in 2017, a large portion of space now occupied by senators is set to be turned over to the governor's office, the House and the Minnesota Historical Society.
The Senate Rules Committee approved the retooled office building projects on a party-line vote, with the committee's eight Democrats in favor and five Republicans opposed. Before construction can start, a panel of state officials overseeing the Capitol renovation project must sign off on the plans. A lawsuit challenging the building plans, filed by a former Republican state representative, is currently pending before the state Supreme Court and also threatens to slow down the construction timetable.
The building site is directly north of the Capitol on the other side of University Avenue. Planners hope to have it ready for senators and their staffs to move in by late 2015.
Minnesota's legislative Democrats have struck a deal to raise the wages of the state's lowest paid workers.
Monday morning, House Speaker Paul Thissen, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, along with key negotiators of the minimum wage measure will announce they've come to agreement. The Star Tribune has been told by two sources with the knowledge of the deal that it would hike the wage to $9.50 an hour and would link future increases to increases in inflation.
"I feel really good," said Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, a Minneapolis DFLer who had long worked on the minimum wage issue. "I think there are going to be a tremendous amount of smiles (tomorrow.)"
The agreement will likely end what has been a major source of tension at the Capitol and allow lawmakers be lay claim to giving hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans a wage boost. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, more than 350,000 Minnesota workers held jobs that paid less than $9.50 an hour, many of them in greater Minnesota.
Business leaders have warned that raising the wage too fast by too much could mean fewer jobs or business loses.
After the DFL took over control of the Legislature last year, advocates expected lawmakers would raise the state's minimum wage from $6.15 an hour, one of the nation's lowest. Despite increasing pressure to hike the wage floor, a national campaign led by President Obama to raise the federal minimum and other states moving their minimum wages up, Minnesota DFLers were stymied.
After a months' long campaign Senate Democrats began the year backing a gradual increase to $9.50 an hour, one of the nation's highest. That's the rate both House Democrats, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and advocates insisted upon.
But the details of the measure still kept negotiations at a standstill between the House and Senate.
Senate leaders insisted they could not get 34 votes for a $9.50 an hour minimum wage that included so called indexing, which would mean future wage rates would be adjusted upward.
That left House and Senate leaders at an uncomfortable standstill over one of many Democrats top priorities of the session.
"The bottom line, to me, if the Senate wants to kill the bill, they should just tell Minnesotans directly and stop playing games with it," House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said last month.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said while he would support the House's plans, he could not get enough members to do so.
Despite that, in recent weeks, unions and other Democratic allies held rallies, delivered postcards and contacted senators to campaign for the wage increase.
Last month, a group of nine DFL senators pleaded with Bakk in a letter to end the delay.
"Recently, some in our caucus have been re-thinking the indexing issue. As a result, they have decided to lend their support. We are reaching out to you now to enlist your support, as well," said a letter sent to Bakk in mid-March. "Please help us pass this bill. It’s the right thing to do."
The letter was signed by Sens. Sandy Pappas, Patricia Torres Ray, Alice Johnson, Chris Eaton, Susan Kent, Barb Goodwin, Bev Scalze, Melissa Wiklund and Kari Dziedzic. Eaton is the chair of the conference committee charged with finding a compromise on minimum wage.
The breakthrough on minimum wage came just after a breakthrough on another contentious issue at the Capitol: a new senate office building. Bakk had long insisted the new building was needed.
On Friday, House leaders agreed to approve the building.
Many Republicans and some Democrats had said that draft plans for the building were too luxurious and at $90 million, including parking structures, were too expensive especially since the building would not have housed all 67 senators.
The plans House leaders approved last week actually increased the total cost of the building but stripped out some amenities and a parking ramp. Senate leaders are expected to give the building their final okay this week, clearing the way for construction of a $77 million office space.
Minnesota homeowners, renters and businesses would get about $103 million in property tax relief under a proposal that sailed unanimously through the state House on Friday.
Homeowners would see a one-time increase in homestead credits, providing $12.1 million in property tax relief to 500,000 Minnesotans. Renters will get a one-time increase in a tax credit, totaling $12.5 million for 350,000 Minnesotans. Farmers will get $18 million in property tax relief.
“Our economy is growing and we have already cut taxes for more than 1 million middle-class Minnesotans,” said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. “Instead of catering to wealthy special interests, this bill provides a further boost to middle-class homeowners, renters, farmers and small businesses.”
House Taxes Committee Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski said the tax relief will aid the state’s economic recovery. “We believe this is a responsible way to continue expanding our economy from the middle-out while maintaining our stable budget into the future,” said Lenczewski, DFL-Bloomington.
The measure includes several business tax breaks, including a statewide property tax exemption for commercial and industrial businesses worth less than $150,000. All businesses with property valued at less than $1.1 million will get a tax break, under the plan.
The DFL-controlled Legislature already passed more than $443 million in tax cuts for more than 1.1 million Minnesotans.
Republicans have criticized Democrats for not returning more of the state's $1.2 billion projected budget surplus.
The measure now goes to the Minnesota Senate for consideration. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton has been supportive of tax relief measures this year.