A handful of Minnesota lawmakers and high-ranking Dayton administration staffers are meeting privately in pursuit of a final medical marijuana proposal that could pass both the House and Senate and secure the signature of Gov. Mark Dayton.
A House-Senate conference committee on medical marijuana has been appointed, but has not yet met. Sen. Scott Dibble, the Senate sponsor of the proposal, will chair the first conference committee meeting, but he said Wednesday the group has no immediate plans to meet in public.
Private talks are underway. A meeting on Tuesday included Dibble, chief House sponsor Rep. Carly Melin and House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, along with several Dayton administration officials: Chief of Staff Jaime Tincher, Senior Policy Adviser Joanna Dornfeld and Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger.
Dibble and Melin both hinted at areas where contrasting House and Senate proposals could meet in the middle. One area of compromise is likely to be the number of sites where patients are able to access medical marijuana. Dibble's bill would have authorized up to 55 grow-and-distribute sites; Melin's proposal allowed only one grow site, with up to two additional sites for distribution.
Dibble has already offered to drop to 24 sites. Melin said Wednesday the House would be willing to move toward that number, but probably not go all the way.
"I think we'd be willing to move up a little bit. Probably not as far as twenty-four," Melin said.
The House proposal would establish a state-monitored registry of medical marijuana patients, with a goal of providing researchers with information about patient outcomes. While Dibble's proposal does not include such a framework, he said he's open to it as long as it's not a major obstacle to access.
"The idea of getting more information, more data, is interesting to me," Dibble said. "I uphold the idea of information. I reject the idea of erecting barriers for people unnecessarily."
Dayton has said he'd sign the House proposal, which was specifically assembled to neutralize the objections of law enforcement organization. Lobbyists representing prosecutors, police officers and county sheriffs have lined up in opposition to the Senate proposal, which unlike the House bill would allow patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana in its plant form. The House proposal would only allow possession of marijuana in pill or oil-based form.
Melin said she believes the main priorities of law enforcement are that distribution sites operate under strict limits, and that patients not be able to possess marijuana plant material.
Both Melin and Dibble said they believe they can reach a workable compromise before the Legislature adjourns, no later than next Monday. Dibble said private talks would continue on Wednesday.
Education initiatives and home health workers are the biggest winners in a $283 million spending package finalized by Minnesota Democratic House and Senate leaders.
DFL budget negotiators are scrambling to finish a new budget to account for the last of the $1.2 billion budget surplus before Monday's mandatory adjournment.
Democrats want to set aside $75 million to be spread around all levels of education, from pre-kindergarten through college.
Health and Human Services would get nearly $104 million, with a large share of that will go to raises for home health care workers. The raise for home health workers has overwhelming bipartisan support.
“This is a budget that invests in bread-and-butter priorities important to Minnesotans,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal. “We can continue to grow our economy by focusing on priorities that will expand middle class opportunity, create more jobs, and improve the quality of education for our children.”
The new budget measure would leave the state with a $604 million projected surplus for 2016-17. Democrats have been wrestling for months with how to carefully give out meaningful tax breaks and targeted new spending without blowing a giant hole in the budget in coming years.
“Minnesota is on sound financial footing for the first time in years, and this fiscally responsible budget package will keep us moving in the right direction,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. “We have an opportunity to make smart investments in schools, roads, and economic development while at the same time keeping our budget in the black going into the next cycle.”
Republicans have criticized Democrats for spending too much and not giving out enough tax relief. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton said all of these initiatives are worthy of funding, but he is leery about spending too much and not leaving enough in the budget reserve.
Legislators are also earmarking $200 million to pay for statewide construction projects.
Legislative leaders are finalizing about $100 million in tax relief, with much of it going in the form of direct property tax relief for homeowners, renters and farmers.
The new tax measure will bring total tax relief for the session to around $550 million dollars, providing at least some relief to a large swath of Minnesotans.
Three senators and three House members, including the majority leader, will try to hash out a final medical marijuana proposal from significantly different plans passed by the House and Senate.
The Senate voted Tuesday morning to reject the House's version of the medical marijuana plan. That triggered a House-Senate conference committee, which will be charged with finding common ground. The House is favoring a more limited, research-based framework for medical marjuana, versus a Senate bill that includes a wider distribution network and a larger list of eligible patients.
The Senate negotiators will be Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the bill's sponsor; as well as Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, and Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. The House negotiators include that chamber's chief sponsor, DFL Rep. Carly Melin of Hibbing. She'll be joined by House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake.
It's somewhat unusual for a majority leader to sit on a conference committee, and Murphy's presence is likely to elevate an already high-profile issue. Gov. Mark Dayton has expressed his preference for the more limited House proposal, which has been greeted more warmly by law enforcement groups, but Dibble wrote in a letter to Dayton and Melin that he worries the House plan is "inadequate and unworkable."
Neither proposal allows marijuana to be smoked, but the Senate version gives patients access to marijuana in its plant form. The House proposal only allows the drug to be used in oil or pill form.
Both the House and Senate bills passed with bipartisan support. Right now, 21 U.S. states allow varying levels of access to marijuana for medical purposes.
The House-Senate conference committee has not yet scheduled a meeting. The last day lawmakers can meet in regular session this year is next Monday, meaning the group will have to negotiate with some haste.
The chief Senate sponsor of a proposal to legalize medical marijuana in Minnesota says a House alternative "falls short in a number of ways," but he hopes the two plans can be reconciled and a final bill passed this session.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, wrote in a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton and Rep. Carly Melin, the House sponsor, that he's pleased the House voted in favor of medical marijuana. The House approved its bill Friday, approving a limited distribution system that would make the drug available to significantly fewer patients than its Senate counterpart. Dayton said after Friday's vote that he could sign the House's measure but not the Senate's.
But Dibble says it's wrong to call the Senate proposal more expansive or broad than the House plan. Dibble notes the Senate proposal had much more thorough vetting and underwent a number of revisions during the Senate's committee process.
While law enforcement groups oppose the Senate bill, Dibble says it includes more provisions to punish medical marijuana patients who divert the drug for recreational use. Dibble also criticizes the provision of the House that bars use of marijuana in its whole plant form, allowing only pill or oil forms of cannabis. Dibble says pill or oil cannabis is typically much more potent than in marijuana in plant form, and often does not provide an immediate benefit.
Neither the House nor Senate bills allow smoking marijuana, but the Senate allows the whole plant to be vaporized and inhaled.
The House proposal authorizes only one site for growing marijuana, with two additional distribution sites. The Senate proposal would allow 55 grow-and-distribute sites. Dibble is offering to cut that number to 24 sites, or three in each of the state's eight congressional districts. He says one manufacturing site for the whole state presents a number of logistical problems, and that only three distribution sites would mean some patients could have to drive many hours to obtain medical marijuana.
Dibble's criticisms of the House proposal suggest a House-Senate conference committee on the medical marijuana bill is likely. "I am convinced a middle ground exists between the House and the Senate files," Dibble wrote in his letter to Dayton and Melin.
On a bipartisan 86-39 vote, the Minnesota House on Friday decided that Minnesota should become the 22nd U.S. state to legalize medical marijuana.
"This is the kind of legislation that we pass out of compassion," Rep. Carly Melin, DFL-Hibbing, the chief House sponsor.
The House measure sets up a medical marijuana distribution system with strict limits on who can access the drug, where they obtain it and how they can use it. Supporters blocked numerous attempts to broaden the proposal, which they carefully tailored to maintain support from law enforcement groups and the state’s medical establishment.
The House and Senate will now work together to find a compromise measure.
In an overwhelming 28-97 vote, the House turned back an expansive version more like the one Senate passed earlier this week. The Senate gave bipartisan approval to a measure which authorizes several dozen grow and distribution sites, a wider list of qualifying medical conditions, and allows the drug to be vaporized in leaf form.
“I know some of you wish this bill would include more qualifying conditions or would be more expansive, and frankly so do I,” said Melin. “But it’s important we do not shut down an opportunity for thousands of Minnesotans, for something that will not become law this session.”
The strong House vote against a broader version makes likely the Legislature, in the final measure, will pass something limited in a form Gov. Mark Dayton can sign.
"If the Legislature passes the House's current language, I will sign it into law," he said following the House vote.
On the House floor the debate over the measure was emotional and free of the rancor that often accompanies controversial issues. Instead, a bipartisan cohort of lawmakers who stand on both side of the issue tearfully told personal stories of illness, pain and struggle that brought tears to speakers and listeners.
"I feel like I've been crying all day long, hearing the stories,” said Rep. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater. But, she said, she feared the measure could harm the people it was designed to help.
Families of those who hope to be helped if the bill becomes law lined the House gallery Friday and watched the five-hour debate.
Neither the House nor Senate proposals allow marijuana to be smoked; the House version allows vaporizing, but only in pill or oil form.
The expansive Senate version lacks support from groups representing police and prosecutors, as well as medical professionals. Earlier this week, the Minnesota Medical Association announced its support for the current House proposal.
In a letter to Melin, the MMA called the Senate alternative "overly broad in scope." During debate, House members discussed whether law enforcement groups supported potential changes to the measure.
That riled some representatives.
"We should not allow our medical and scientific decisions to be made by law enforcement," Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said.
Holding on to that support was key to winning over Dayton, who will make the final call if a medical marijuana bill gets to his desk. The Democratic governor has been skeptical of a wide-ranging bill, but open to a more limited approach if it's backed by law enforcement and medical groups.
The Legislature passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in 2009, but then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed it.
See the moment-by-moment live blog of the House debate below: