Minnesota lawmakers opened the 2020 session on Tuesday mindful of election year politics but vowing to make progress on needed public works projects, improving the state’s education system and helping people with diabetes access affordable insulin.
“We’re in an election year, which means that everything feels a little bit different. Every issue seems a little more heightened,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, told his colleagues on the Senate floor. “But I don’t want us to forget the things we need to do to help prosper Minnesota.”
The leader of the DFL-controlled House also acknowledged election year pressures, and said Democrats understand that some of the ideas they propose this session will not become law.
“This session we will spend some time articulating our vision for Minnesota, and some of that won’t become law. We know that,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “But rather than dismiss it as just politics it’s important to elevate what we do in a democracy. It’s about telling Minnesotans what we would do if we have a Democratic Senate and making clear where the future is going.”
After wrapping up a two-year budget in 2019, state lawmakers are not technically obligated to get much done this session. But they arrived in St. Paul this week with long lists of constituent priorities, some the subject of clamorous hallway rallies around the Capitol rotunda.
Advocates for tougher gun laws crowded the House and Senate chamber entrances, greeting lawmakers with signs, cookies and hugs. The Senate gathering was punctuated with cheers from outside the wooden doors, where a group was calling for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
But even before the demonstrations, swearing-in ceremonies and prayers that accompany the opening gavels in the House and Senate, negotiations already were underway on a bonding bill to fund long-term public works projects around the state, one of the coming session’s top legislative priorities.
The four-month session will include a mix of policy and financial decisionmaking centered on the public works debt package and the competing uses for the state’s predicted $1.3 billion budget surplus. How much the divided Legislature can accomplish remains to be seen with all 201 House and Senate seats up for election this November.
A hearing on Gov. Tim Walz’s proposed bonding priorities kicked off a packed day of meetings in the House, where Democrats hold the majority. House Capital Investment Division members lamented the backlog of construction needs and the glut of 356 requests for public works improvements from around the state. The bill to finance local and state public works projects likely will be one of the last things lawmakers settle before the legislative session concludes May 18.
House members also held hearings on criminal sentencing guidelines and legislation to improve emergency access to insulin, a major sticking point between Democrats and Republicans. There also were lighter issues on the calendar — for one, whether to make daylight saving time permanent in the state. Another would look into redesigning the state flag.
While the Republican-dominated Senate does not hold committee hearings until Thursday, it also has high-profile issues on the first week’s agenda. Senators will review a clean energy plan as well as a GOP counterproposal on insulin aid, which differs significantly from the House version.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, the Woodbury Democrat who forced out former DFL leader Tom Bakk of Cook, said she hopes the Senate can reach agreement on both the energy and insulin legislation. She and Gazelka wrapped up the first Senate floor session by saying they want to work across the aisle.
Gazelka said the list of things they can accomplish should include a bonding bill focused on water, roads and other building projects. “There’s a number of issues we all know need to be done,” he said. “So let’s make sure we do them.”
Things were a bit less amicable in the House. Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, offered a motion to adjourn the 2020 session immediately, noting that lawmakers already passed a budget last year. Staying in session, he said, would only cost taxpayer money and, with DFLers pressing for new gun legislation, endanger Minnesotans’ Second Amendment rights. The idea was quickly rejected. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, called the suggestion unfortunate.
Daudt suggested that he wants to use the 2020 session to repeal a tax on health care providers, continuing a battle Republicans had last year with Democrats, who sought to keep the tax in place in part to fund health programs for low-income Minnesotans. “We all have things we want to accomplish,” Daudt said. “Personally, I want to make sure that we give some money back to Minnesotans by reducing the cost of their health care.”
With Republicans pressing to reduce taxes — including on Social Security income — Hortman, the DFL House speaker, cautioned against using the state’s projected $1.3 billion budget surplus for further tax cuts. One of House Democrats’ top priorities is to use some of the surplus to give early education a boost.
But for many of the activists who flooded the Capitol on the opening day, the focus may be as much about election year organizing as winning legislative victories. A group pushing for licenses for undocumented immigrants faces an uphill battle in the GOP-controlled Senate this session. But House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, told them to keep the pressure on.
“We want to be the welcoming state for immigrants in the country and we can do that by building power this year,” he said.
Volunteers for Minnesota Moms Demand Action, which recently announced a $250,000 ad blitz to pressure state lawmakers to pass new gun laws, showed up in their ubiquitous red T-shirts. They called for expanded background checks and “red flag” legislation that would allow courts to temporarily remove guns from people found to be dangerous. But facing dim prospects in the divided Legislature, the two bills are increasingly being teed up as campaign issues in swing districts that could determine control of the Legislature in November.
“If enough of the constituents around the state, both in urban and rural areas, are in favor of common-sense, gun-sense legislation, then their representatives and senators will be swayed as well,” said Jill Chisholm, a retired teacher from Roseville who joined the gun rally. “It’s all about that.”