Top issues of Minnesota's 2020 legislature session
Gov. Tim Walz wants to use $2 billion in general obligation bonds for state and local infrastructure needs, such as repairing aging wastewater systems and updating college and university buildings.
Republicans are aiming for a target closer to $1 billion, but Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said passing some kind of borrowing bill is a top priority.
The House DFL is waiting to determine the size of their bill until after the February budget forecast. Speaker Melissa Hortman said she will support "the largest bonding bill we can afford." The state has the capacity to borrow $3.5 billion without hurting its AAA bond rating, House Capital Investment Committee Vice Chairman Fue Lee said.
Jessie Van Berkel
Lawmakers have been working behind closed doors since the 2019 session ended in May to reach an agreement on an emergency insulin package to help people with diabetes who cannot afford the drug. But they have deadlocked on drug manufacturers' role in paying for the program. Both sides plan to continue pressing for a deal this session, and Walz has been calling for an agreement.
House Democrats have been traveling the state holding hearings on recreational marijuana and plan to introduce a legalization bill this session. Gazelka said he is OK with access to marijuana for medicinal purposes, but opposes any legislation that would be a path to legal recreational use.
Jessie Van Berkel
Hortman said she wants to use some of the state's estimated $1.3 billion budget surplus to expand early childhood education and provide school lunches to those in need. For Senate Republicans, a bill to provide tax credits for people or companies that donate to scholarships for private schools is a top priority again this year, Gazelka said. He is also looking at paying teachers more to move to struggling areas.
A high-profile push to close the achievement gap is coming from outside the Capitol. Retired Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Alan Page and Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari proposed a constitutional amendment to guarantee all children the right to a quality public education. The idea has already drawn opposition from stakeholders on both sides of the aisle. Education Minnesota, the powerful teachers' union, has blasted the plan. Sen. Carla Nelson, Republican chair of the upper chamber's education committee, said a constitutional amendment "is not a real solution" and raised concerns about lawsuits and shifting power from parents, teachers and public officials to unelected courts and justices.
Torey Van Oot
DFL lawmakers and Walz want to make Minnesota's energy grid carbon-free by 2050 but have not been able to win support from Republicans. Environmental policy has attracted marches on the Capitol spearheaded by students. In response, the governor created a "climate subcabinet" to focus on climate change policies, and Minnesota Senate Democrats will debut a new clean energy and climate caucus to hold Senate hearings on clean energy.
There's more bipartisan support for a clean energy law that would steer power companies toward non-fossil fuel energy sources. Senate Republicans plan to present "Clean Energy First" legislation when the session begins. The GOP bill would require utility companies in the state to prioritize carbon-free technology. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission would also be required to consider whether new energy projects in the state are in the public interest.
Democrats will again call for new laws to expand background checks on private gun transfers and adopt a red flag law that would let the courts remove guns from people deemed a danger to themselves or others. Both measures passed the DFL House last year but did not receive hearings in the GOP-controlled Senate, where conservative lawmakers will focus on new gun owner protections.
Republicans cite growing concerns over violent crime in the Twin Cities to push legislation cracking down on felons with guns and ensuring that firearms are denied to domestic abusers. But the GOP still opposes expanded background checks and red flag legislation, something Democrats are counting on as a catalyst for winning suburban votes in November, when control of the Legislature will be up for grabs.
Health and human services
Republicans in the Senate want to take a hard look at the structure of the Department of Human Services after a series of resignations and overpayments of federal funds. The proposals could restructure and break up the massive agency. It's something Walz and Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead have said they might consider.
The DHS has acknowledged the agency was to blame for errors that led to overpayments of tens of millions of dollars in federal funds to counties and two tribes. Walz wants to help cover those costs using the state's budget surplus. Republicans have said they first need to see some changes to the structure and accountability at the DHS.
House Democrats support a proposal that requires all state employers to provide paid parental leave, but Gazelka said he is worried about the effect on small businesses. Backers hope a new 12-week program for federal workers — signed by President Donald Trump — could give the issue some momentum this session.
Republicans say the state's projected surplus is reason to reduce taxes for Minnesotans. Gazelka wants to fully exempt Social Security income from state income taxes and update state tax law to allow businesses and farms to deduct more capital purchases. Hortman said only people at the upper end of the income scale have their Social Security benefits taxed. The Republicans' proposal "is a tax cut for the wealthy and it is not one that's needed," she said.
House Republican Leader Kurt Daudt, meanwhile, is proposing legislation to repeal the 1.8% "provider tax" on medical services and procedures. The tax, which funds health care services as well as other state programs, was set to sunset at the end of 2019. Lawmakers voted to renew it at a slightly lower rate as part of a budget deal last May.
Torey Van Oot