By Patrick Condon
Top legislative leaders from both parties were pessimistic Friday about chances that medical marijuana would be legalized this year, even after Gov. Mark Dayton put new weight behind finding a compromise on the controversial bill.
A day earlier, Dayton abruptly shifted on the issue after a two hour meeting with medical marijuana advocates. After downplaying the proposal’s chances Thursday morning, Dayton instructed his chief of staff and health commissioner to find a compromise on Thursday afternoon.
But at a Friday news briefing, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy declared it “probably not possible to get this conversation done yet this session.” House Speaker Paul Thissen and Deputy Senate Majority Leader Jeff Hayden, both DFLers from Minneapolis, echoed her pessimism.
“There may be a more fruitful discussion that happens after this session into next year, that will yield a better outcome on this issue for Minnesotans,” said Murphy, DFL-St. Paul.
While law enforcement objections to the proposal have been widely aired, Murphy said she wanted to see more input from the medical community.
Police and sheriffs have long argued that legalizing marijuana for patients who get a doctor’s prescription would make illegal uses of the drug harder to control, and open the door to full-scale legalization.
The issue has scrambled partisan lines at the Capitol, with both Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the debate.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said Friday he thinks marijuana could be beneficial for some patients; but said the lack of consensus in the medical community “could put pharmacists and medical professionals in tough positions.”
Dayton instructed a handful of top staffers and Health commissioner to meet with advocates and other concerned groups to see if there’s still room for compromise.
Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said Friday that the governor’s chief of staff, Jamie Tincher, is working on setting up those meetings.
Photo: Medical marijuana advocates demonstrate outside Gov. Mark Dayton's residence in St. Paul. Souce: Star Tribune.
Minnesota school kids deserve a hot lunch at school, the Minnesota House decided unanimously on Thursday.
The House approved spending $3.5 million in state funds to make sure that low-income school kids get the lunch they need.
"Together in a bipartisan fashion we can say that no child in the great state of Minnesota is going to go hungry because of an inability to pay," said Rep. Yvonne Selcer, a Minnetonka DFLer who sponsored the school lunch measure.
Last month, lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton were outraged to learn that some school districts swap students hot lunches for cold lunch and others deny students lunch if they are without funds to pay for hot lunches.
The measure that passed Thursday would have the state underwrite the cost of hot lunch for students who are eligible for reduced priced lunch. A similar measure is also awaiting action in the Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton set aside money to pay for the lunches in his budget proposal last week.
Dayton said he was shocked by reports that some school districts deny hot lunches to students on reduced-priced meal programs.
“It is so unMinnesotan,” he said on Thursday. “Let’s extend the Minnesota hand of compassion,”
Students in families that earn less than $25,000 a year are eligible for free lunches at schools. Students whose families earn more than $36,131 a year must pay for lunch. But the students whose families earn between $25,000 and $36,131 pay a reduced fee. It is those 62,000 students whose- lunch cost the state will now subsidize.
During floor debate, House members added a provision to forbid schools from stigmatizing or demeaning students who lacked the funds to pay for hot lunches.
According to a report from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, some schools hand-stamped students who lacked funds with the words "lunch" or money" to remind the students to ask their parents to refresh their lunch funds.
"The unfortunate part of that is essentially you are punishing the child and there have been cases where then child has been bullied by other children," Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Plymouth. "We don't want to see them be punished for something that the adults are responsible for."
Gov. Mark Dayton said he was confident that the DFL-controlled Legislature would pass a minimum wage hike this year but it may take a while.
"Minimum wage is likely going to be one of those issues, the resolution of which is going to be held off until the last minute of the session," Dayton said on Thursday. "We’ll get a minimum wage increase."
For two weeks, the House and Senate have been stymied over how to raise the wage floor, which at $6.15 an hour is one of the lowest in the nation.
The House, Senate and Dayton all support raising the wage to $9.50 an hour over time. But the House and Dayton both want future increases to automatically rise with the cost of inflation but Senate leaders say an automatic index lacks the DFL votes to pass in the Senate.
"We will have to wait and see how it plays out over time," Dayton said on a conference call with reporters. The DFL governor had hip surgery last month and has been convalescing away from the Capitol since then.
Dayton said he expects a minimum wage bill to pass but it may have to wait until the final days of session.
"We'll come back to that one. We'll get a minimum wage increase...we will have to work out the detail at the right time," Dayton said.
A proposal to avoid partisan, big-money fights for judicial seats by changing the way judges achieve and keep their offices moved ahead on a mixed voice vote at the Legislature Wednesday.
The Senate Subcommittee on Elections approved the measure and sent it to the full Rules Committee.
Sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, the bill proposes an amendment to the state constitution that would go to voters in November. It would replace the current system, in which judges run for re-election with the word "incumbent" by their names, with one that depends on an appointed merit commission and yes-or-no "retention" elections with no opponent on the ballot.
Rest and supporters of the bill, including former Supreme Court Justice Eric Magnuson, presented the amendment as a way of avoiding partisan judicial elections that require judges to commit on issues that may later come before them. In Wisconsin and Michigan, they said, those races have attracted significant campaign contributions.
"You folks run on platforms," Magnuson told the legislators. "A judge can't run on a platform. That's antithetical to what a judge does. A judge decides cases based on the law and fact in front of him or her."
Sarah Walker, president of the Coalition for Impartial Justice, also argued in support of the bill. "All you have to do is look around the country .... to see that high-cost partisan elections are sweeping the country, and it's not far off in Minnesota."
Currently, most judges do come into office by gubernatorial appointment, but there are rare elections for open seats without an appointee. Once in office, judges stand for re-election and can be challenged by opponents. Most run unopposed.
Opponents of the measure including Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the powerful anti-abortion organization, and others who argued that the measure denied voters the right to freely choose their own judges.
"We oppose the premise that citizens aren't qualified to vote for judges," said Andrea Rau of the MCCL. We believe citizens have the right to vote for a particular judicial candidate, not just against them."
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, a member of the subcommittee, said voters "will have their vote taken away." He said empowering a commission to evaluate judges and recommend replacements means the people's right to select judges would be given to "political appointees."
"I don't see the public pounding our doors for this," Limmer said.
Rest's proposed amendment is now queued up in the Senate Rules Committee along with a proposed amendment that would make it harder for the Legislature to submit future constitutional amendments to voters. The House, which is up for re-election in November, has shown less interest in putting amendments on the ballot this year.
Booze and baseball; football and taxes. Sports are on the agenda for lawmakers.
A House committee today to debate allowing later bar closing times during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. This afternoon, the governor and the leaders of the House and Senate talked about possible tax breaks during the Super Bowl in 2018, which Minnesota is wooing.
"I don't know the details," House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said before the meeting. He said he has some reservations about giving the tax breaks and wants to make sure they get close examination.
Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said after the meeting that the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority Chairwoman Michele Kelm-Helgen "provided a very preliminary first look at the potential economic benefits of bringing the Super Bowl to Minnesota."
"No decisions or commitments were made during the meeting. The Governor and legislative leaders will continue their discussion on this issue in the coming weeks," Swenson said.
If Minnesota wins the Super Bowl four years from now, the Legislature may see a bill much like the one the House Commerce and Consumer Protection Finance and Policy will debate later today.
The measure up for votes today would permit Hennepin County to license bars to stay open late "only during the period from 12:00 p.m. on July 15, 1.132014, through 4:00 a.m. on July 16, 2014," the period of the 2014 Baseball All-Star Game.
The bill will be considered at a 4 p.m. hearing Wednesday.
It remains to be seen how many Minneapolis bars are interested in paying $2,500 to stay open a few extra hours on a warm July night.
Craig Wait, general manager of Kieran’s Irish Pub, paid for the license to stay open during the 2008 Republican National Convention, but found that most convention-goers gravitated to private events instead of local pubs.
“It ended up being not so beneficial,” Wait said. “Bars paid a lot of money for not a lot in return.”
Photo: Minneapolis' Lowbrow bar, which is plastered with baseball cards//source: Star Tribune file photo
Staff writer Jennifer Brooks contributed to this report