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Capitol Chatter: Medical marijuana keeps producing controversy

Don Davis

Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Medical marijuana is a story that is not going away.

A bill to legalize the plant to help people with extreme pain and children with seizures stalled, and Gov. Mark Dayton said he could not sign a medical marijuana bill if it did not have the support of law enforcement and medical organizations. They generally do not back the bill.

With most bills, all of that would have killed the measure. Not with this one.

Parents of children who suffer seizures gathered reporters for an emotional Wednesday news conference. With tears, they complained that Dayton is delaying help for their kids.

Jessica Hauser of Woodbury told reporters that Dayton suggested she buy marijuana illegally in Minnesota or go to another state. On Friday, Dayton gave “no” as his answer to a question about whether he told her to buy marijuana illegally.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say about medical marijuana,” Dayton added. “You had statements. You asked questions. ... I’m just not going to discuss it further.”

He then talked about it some more.

Other drugs go through exhaustive testing before the public can access them, Dayton said. Since he must govern for all Minnesotans, he said, he wants the chemical from marijuana that may help control seizures to undergo the same test.

In a lengthy conference call with reporters earlier in the month, and something he repeated Friday, the governor said he “is told” that marijuana is available on the street in every Minnesota city.

While he has said he does not advocate breaking the law, he also has said he understands a parent’s desire to do anything possible to ease a child’s illness.

Another tax bill ready

Getting through one tax bill was taxing, and now the Minnesota House is ready to consider a second one.

“Our second tax bill will focus on ways to make further reductions in property taxes for homeowners, renters and farmers,” said House Tax Chairwoman Ann Lenczewski, D-Bloomington. “We believe this is a responsible way to continue expanding our economy from the middle out while maintaining our stable budget into the future.”

The first tax-cut bill was enacted a little more than a week ago, reducing income taxes for many Minnesotans as well as eliminating some sales taxes businesses pay.

The new House bill would reduce taxes $45 million.

Both tax-cut bills come after the Democratic-controlled Legislature and governor last year approved more than $2 billion in tax increases.

Democrats are focusing on property tax relief in the phase 2 bill. They have campaigned for years on property tax increases they blamed on Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and GOP lawmakers.

The biggest single property tax relief provision would be $18 million to homesteaded farms. More than 90,000 farmers would be affected, with the average getting $460 lower tax bills.

About 500,000 other homeowners would receive $12.1 million in cuts, with renters getting $12.5 million in a 6 percent refund increase.

The full House is to vote on the measure in the next few days.

It’s a rushed session

All Minnesota politicians, and those who follow them, probably can agree on one thing: This year’s session is moving faster than any other.

“This session has been a mad rush to everything,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

He recalled the days, not that long ago, when the even-year session (also known as the election-year session) was reserved for approving a list of public works projects and fixing any urgent issues, such as dealing with economic changes.

That concept has changed dramatically, with pretty much any subject fine for debate.

“More is never enough,” Dayton said about politicians’ mentality.

The session, just over a month old, gets into some of its basic issues in the next week. House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said a bill making tweaks in last year’s $39 billion, two-year budget, will be up for a vote near the end of the week. So will a tax-cut measure.

The rush has brought up some tension among lawmakers, prompting Chairman Tom Huntley, D-Duluth, of the House health and human services finance committee to remark near the end of one long meeting: “I think we are so tired that we can’t get mad at each other any more.”

The great space debate

Minnesota politicians have delighted in arguing about space, specifically space in the Capitol and a proposed Senate office building.

All six Republican governor candidates, and most others in the GOP, have come out against the proposed $63 million building and a nearby $27 million parking garage. The House in general has been skeptical of the need for something on that scale.

Senate Democratic leaders, however, say that so many other agencies are growing during a Capitol renovation that they do not have enough space left for senators and their staffs.

The Senate space would drop from today’s 86,372 square feet to 48,025. At the same time, the governor’s office space would soar from 9,055 to 16,630, which Gov. Mark Dayton says is to give the lieutenant governor and staff space.

Historical society space would double, journalists would get more room and so would the Supreme Court. Public space, including for dining and exhibits, would grow.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said the Capitol building renovation is a good time to build a new facility because it would save the state from paying for temporary space to house senators and their staff for a year or two when their Capitol offices will be closed.

The decision about whether the new building is constructed rests on the House rules committee, which is looking into space needs and is expected to take a vote in April.

Bonding bill coming

The House bonding bill, to finance public works projects statewide, is to be announced by Friday.

More than $3 billion worth of projects have been requested and bonding Chairwoman Alice Hausman, D-St. Paul, is trimming them down to $845 million.

Lawmakers approved a $155 million public works bill last year, mostly for a state Capitol renovation work.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.