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Legislative session to be short, but full

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ST. PAUL — Expect a minimum wage increase, but no tax increase, when Minnesota legislators return to St. Paul for the year at noon Tuesday.

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Expect widespread agreement on borrowing $840 million for public works projects, but not so much agreement on where to spend that money.

Expect movement toward increased long-term care funding, but not a requirement to pay bottle and can deposits.

Most importantly, expect Minnesota’s 201 legislators to pack everything they can into a sort legislative session that may not feature as many headline-grabbing bills and long, dramatic debates as in recent years.

Each lawmaker has bills he or she wants to pass. More than 1,800 bills remain available to debate from last year, and House members have introduced nearly 300 more before the session even begins.

They will not have much time.

The state constitution requires that the session beginning Tuesday (sessions often begin in January) end no later than May 19, and legislative leaders say they will take a 10-day Easter-Passover break in April.

In an interview, Gov. Mark Dayton said there could be problems “if they try to do everything.”

When Minnesota became a state, legislators met every other year. When they began meeting annually, the second year was to handle any leftover business and fund public works projects.

“Now it has become a complete session unto itself,” Dayton said. “It does concern me.”

A proposal to increase the minimum wage has received the most hype in the run-up to this year’s session. Democrats generally agree it needs to go up, and they control the Legislature and governor’s office, but they differ on details.

Rural Republicans are especially concerned that a $9.50-an-hour minimum wage is a dangerous reach.

“For rural Minnesota, $9.50 is way too high,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.

Gazelka said he fears rural jobs would be lost if the wage were raised that much.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, has similar concerns, especially for nursing homes. At a Forum News Service-sponsored forum, he said he supports a higher wage, but insists on raising nursing home workers’ wages first.

“I’m going to push a green button for a minimum wage bill ...” Bakk said. “What I don’t want is to find out that the nursing home in the city of Ely is going to close.”

Supporters say thousands would see a pay increase.

The state’s current minimum wage is $6.15 and the federal wage, which because it is higher governs most employers, is $7.25.

“I hope we can move it out in the first couple weeks of the session,” said House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis.

An issue not likely to move fast is the bonding bill that funds public works projects with money borrowed by the state selling bonds.

GOP and DFL legislative leaders agreed at the pre-session forum that $840 million is a good figure for bonding.

But they have two disagreements, even as they agree on spending $126 million to finish funding Capitol building renovation.

First is what projects should be funded. Republicans tend to shy away from city civic centers, while Democrats like to fund them. House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said bonding should focus on things like fixing buildings and transportation needs, not building new facilities.

The second disagreement arose at the forum when Bakk and Thissen suggested that some of the state’s expected surplus could fund projects above what is spent in the bonding bill. They suggested projects such as transportation improvements and the Capitol renovation, while GOP leaders wanted to limit public works spending to $840 million.

Legislative leaders agreed that many decisions, such as bonding, depend on what they learn Friday when state officials release what economists expect the state’s revenue picture to look like in the next few months.

Thissen appears to be taking tax increases off the table, including a tax legislative transportation finance chairmen want to add to motor vehicle fuel sales. Dayton also said he does not support a fuel tax increase.

Dayton, Thissen and Republicans support ending a tax on farm equipment repair that passed last year. The governor and Republicans also want to eliminate other taxes, including those on warehouse storage and on telecommunications equipment.

The governor said he wants to cut some middle-class taxes while only raising spending a little. He will release a plan for budget changes after he knows more about projected revenues.

Thissen rejects the transportation chairmen’s proposal to tax crude oil transported through Minnesota to raise funds for emergency personnel to be trained to fight oil fires. The speaker said surplus money could be used for that. Dayton also favors surplus money, if available, for oil disaster preparedness.

The news service forum produced bipartisan agreement among leaders about the need to increase funding for long-term care. However, like many other spending issues, supporters of that will have to wait until after Friday’s revenue report to see their chances.

“It is a priority,” said Senate Minority Leader David Hann of Eden Prairie.

Other areas that may or may not be issues this year:

• Thissen said there will be no vote, this year or maybe ever, on a proposal to require deposits on bottles and cans.

• The House rules committee in the next few days will discuss whether to allow a $63 million Senate office building to be constructed. Also part of the project is $27 million for parking, to be funded by charges for using the facilities. “There hasn’t been a full public hearing on this,” Hann said.

• No action is expected on frac sand mining, which has become a big issue in southeastern Minnesota, where several local governments are trying to slow the growth of the mines due to environmental concerns.

• Allowing Sunday alcohol sales will be a tough sell, Thissen said, since a bill to do that received only 20 House votes last year.

-- Democrats, who control the House and Senate, do not expect any action on MNsure, the troubled health insurance exchange. Republicans, meanwhile, would like to change its administrative structure or get rid of MNsure.

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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.
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