Legislative Republicans were blitzing the state Monday to make the case that one-party Democratic control at the Capitol is bad for Minnesota.
Democrats brought “unhealthy taxing and spending, hurting Minnesota’s economy and hurting Minnesota families,” said House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown.
GOP leaders converged at the Capitol for an early-morning news conference before taking off for Moorhead, Austin and Luverne, areas where Republicans believe they can best make their case and help win back the House.
Legislators adjourned late Friday night, capping a three-month legislative session where Democratic majorities in the House and Senate raised the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour, approved more than $550 million in tax breaks, threw more money into the state’s rainy-day fund and legalized medical marijuana.
“This Legislature did what we said we were going to do,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis. “We balanced the budget responsibly in order to focus on priorities important to most Minnesotans: investing in education from kindergarten to college, investing in proven job creation initiatives, and reducing property taxes for homeowners, renters and farmers.”
The Senate is not up for election this November, so Republicans and conservative donors are placing enormous emphasis on winning control of the House. Ousting Democrats from power would give Republicans a solid platform to block DFL initiatives and pass their own measures.
Republicans need just seven more seats to gain control, and Daudt predicted they could win back nearly 20 additional seats on Election Day.
The GOP urged Minnesotans to embrace their “balanced Republican approach.” They did not highlight some of the more polarizing issues at the Capitol this year, such as the anti-bullying measure and a minimum wage increase that had strong opposition from business leaders.
Instead, they talked about the need for tougher education standards and more commitment to transportation spending, particularly in rural areas.
Republicans criticized Democrats for a new $77 million office building and for last year's tax hikes, particularly as some early indications show that Minnesota’s employment and budget picture might be dimming a bit.
“Democrats have really let Minnesotans down,” said Senate Majority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.
Republicans continued to hammer on the state’s bungled roll out of MNsure, the state’s health insurance exchange.
“The one glaring omission is that we did nothing with health care,” Hann said.
He called the new system a “failure.”
Hann said he plans to meet with health care officials over the summer to see what changes could be feasible.
Democrats are trying to keep the debate more focused on the economy. They warned that Republican control brought years of back-to-back budget deficits that drained budget reserves, resulting in billions being borrowed from public schools to patch up the state budget.
DLFers said their budget balancing repaid public schools, left the state with its highest ever budget reserves in state history and ushered in a $1.2 billion budget surplus.
"The best way to build on our progress is to continue growing our economy from the middle-out,” House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul. "That means fighting for working families and our local communities instead of engaging in partisan gridlock that only benefits the wealthy special interests."
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said legislative leaders spent too much money this session.
He said there were some good accomplishments on tax relief and new construction projects, but he called for more focus on education and healthcare.
“We spent a lot of money, and I think we spent too much,” Hann said after senators adjourned.
Over two years, he said, legislators added roughly $6 billion in new spending, about $2,900 for every household in the state.
“Spending money isn’t always evidence that we’ve accomplished anything,” Hann said.
High school graduation rates are low, standardized test scores are flat and the achievement gap is still huge, he said.
“Spending money and having good intentions is not enough," Hann said. "There are too many kids in this state who are left behind. Spending money hasn’t helped them.”
“We have to do some things differently; we have to do some things better,” Hann said.
The Senate and House gave final approval Friday to the bill legalizing medical marijuana for Minnesotans with a range of ailment, sending it to Gov. Mark Dayton for his signature.
The Senate passed the bill on a bipartisan vote of 46-16. A short while later, the House passed it xx-xx, also with support from both Democrats and Republicans.
"It is nice when Republicans and Democrats work together to help people by expanding their personal freedoms, rather than limiting them," said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Lakeville.
The proposal sets up a limited system of production and distribution of marijuana that supporters and critics alike called more restrictive than any of the 21 states that currently authorize access to medical marijuana.
About 5,000 Minnesotans are expected to be eligible for the drug, if they suffer from a list of conditions that includes cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, ALS, Crohn's Disease, Tourette's Syndrome, epilepsy, severe muscle pain brought on my multiple sclerosis, or terminal illnesses with a life expectancy of less than a year if the illness or treatment produces severe or chronic pain.
Critics said there are too many unknowns to marijuana as medical treatment.
"We don’t have any studies, or proven methods of knowing what works for who, and at what level," said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater. "We’re basically just saying, we’re going to try this and see how this works. I think that is the opposite of compassion, actually."
The drug will be available only in pill or oil forms, with smoking not allowed and access to the drug in its original plant form forbidden. It won support from Democrats and Republicans alike, leaving skeptics only the ability to raise alarms.
"It will change the face of Minnesota, folks, and don’t think it won’t," said Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point. "We’re legalizing a drug."
Some backers complained about the tight limits in the proposal, but they called progress on the issue a victory. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, noted the proposal was stalled for much of the session and only revived with the persistent lobbying of a small group of families of children with epilepsy who want to treat their kids’ seizures with a marijuana-based oil.
"This was not on the legislative agenda of most of us in this room," Bakk said. "What that tells me is this is a wonderful example of how representative democracy works. A small group of families with their hurting children came to the Capitol, and they changed the law."
The Minnesota State Capitol, Minnesotans needing affordable housing and higher education institutions will see some of the most profound transformations as part of a $1.17 billion package of state-backed construction projects.
The Minnesota House overwhelmingly passed the measure early Friday morning and it now goes to the Senate for final approval.
The measure includes $126 million to finish the State Capitol renovation – the single-largest item in the package.
“Bonding bills have many good things in them, and many things that are less good,” said state Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City. He said that for him, the Capitol renovation outweighs the things he finds less desirable.
Legislators set aside $240 million for new and renovated buildings at the state’s higher education institutions, including money for the Tate Laboratory of Physics at the University of Minnesota and a clinical sciences facility at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
The agreement includes $100 million for affordable housing, the largest housing investment in state history. Community leaders from around Minnesota have pleaded with state officials for more housing, saying the limited supply is holding back growth in their regions.
Legislators want $56 million to renovate the Minnesota Security Hospital, a psychiatric facility in St. Peter. They also want nearly $30 million for the Department of Corrections, including a perimeter fence at the correctional center in Shakopee, coming less than a year after an inmate escaped from the facility.
Democrats included $22 million for the Lewis and Clark Regional Water System, a multistate project to pipe water from South Dakota to a handful of southwestern Minnesota communities with unreliable water supplies.
Lawmakers have also agreed to allow local communities to borrow money to pay for the remainder of the $69 million project. The state will increase aid to local communities to pay a large share of the local debt load.
The state is paying for convention center expansions in Rochester, Mankato and St. Cloud, projects that have been passed over for years.
The measure includes money to redevelop Nicollet Mall, expand the Minnesota Children’s Museum in St. Paul and renovate Duluth’s historic NorShor Theatre.
Minnesota Zoo will get $12 million from the state, including $5 million for Heart of the Zoo II and the rest in asset preservation and new exhibits.
The House overwhelmingly passed the $846 million borrowing portion by a vote of 92-40. An additional $200 million in cash passed a short time later, 82-50.
Legislative leaders who negotiated the construction package asked Gov. Mark Dayton to sign a letter pledging not to veto any of the projects.
He replied with a last-minute list of his own requirements, including passage of a government reform measure, a provision that requires disclosure of toxic chemicals in children’s products and a handful of other provisions.
Negotiations continued early Friday morning and Dayton had yet to sign the letter.
House and Senate lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton struck a deal to allow suffering Minnesotans use of marijuana to relieve their pain.
"It's taking every part of me not to cry right now," said Jeremy Pauling, whose 7-year-old daughter suffers from seizures that could be helped with marijuana. "It's been a long road but now I can get my daughter the medicine she needs."
The compromise would require patients to certify they are qualified to receive cannabis to get the drug from one of eight distribution centers. Only two manufacturing sites would be permitted under the deal.
While that deal may not go far enough for supporters of a broader measure, it still will make Minnesota the 22nd state to legalize medical marijuana.
"The public supports this and the time had come to take this important step," said Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.
The measure, which backers say is one of the strictest in the nation, won support from Dayton and little opposition from law enforcement. More expansive measures that were at play in the Legislature failed to overcome opposition from law enforcement.
For families who had long appealed to legislators to allow them use of marijuana, the process was difficult.
"It's been like the wildest roller coaster I've ever been on," said Pauling.
The final agreement, expected to win full approval from the Legislature on Friday, could allow about 5,000 Minnesotans to use the drug without violating state laws.
The patients would need to certify that they have one of nine conditions, including cancer, Glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Tourette's Syndrome, ALS, seizures, severe and persistent muscle spasm, Crohn's Disease and certain terminal illnesses. Disappointing some advocates, the measure would not extend usage to post traumatic stress syndrome or all intractable pain.
It would not allow smoking of leaf marijuana.
Dayton, who had been a skeptic of more expansive proposals, said he approved of the plan.
"I look forward to signing this bill into law. And I pledge that my administration, led by (Health Commissioner Ed) Ehlinger, will do everything possible to implement it as swiftly and successfully, as is possible," he said in a statement.
Once the deal is signed into law, patients would be able to get the drug by July 1, 2015.
Photo: A bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers announced a deal on medical marijuana, with families who hope for relief standing nearby/Source: Glen Stubbe