Minnesota Legislature opens this week

Lawmakers talk of a speedy legislative session

Click here to read about some of the bills being considered by local lawmakers.

by T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

Lawmakers return to the State Capitol this week with the freedom to pack up and go home early, and arguably with compelling reasons to do so.

Unlike in many recent legislative sessions, lawmakers are under no obligation to patch a leaky state budget. The state budget is currently

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers to his left, Republican Senate MajorityLeader David Senjem to his right, fields a question at the ECM-Sun/Forum Communications session preview last week. (Photo by Howard Lestrud)

running about a $870 million projected surplus, and a recent budget update suggest trend lines remain favorable.

“If the budget’s flat, we can be out (of session) in 10 weeks,” said Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, recently.

While the February state budget forecast comes out on Feb. 29, another red-letter day occurs a week earlier when a special court panel is expected to publish its maps of court-redrawn legislative districts.

“I’ll know then which doors I’ll be knocking on,” said Sen. Ted Daley, R-Eagan, of the maps being published.

Once the maps come out, warned Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, a lot of legislators will want to go home. Beyond this, it’s simply important lawmakers do go home early, said Bakk last week at the ECM-Sun/Forum Communications Session Preview.

“People were very disappointed with last session,” said Bakk, referring to last year’s budget stalemate resulting in the longest state government shutdown in Minnesota history.

Bakk, for one, wants the lawmakers to pass a bonding bill this session. Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed a $775 million bonding bill stuffed with a number of area projects.

Dayton views the bonding bill as part of his job-creation strategy.

But lawmakers are under no obligation to pass a bonding bill — there was one last year.

And Republican legislative leaders are tentative in their comments.

“I think you have to do it for the right reasons,” said Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, of having a bonding bill.

Senjem replaced former Senate majority leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, after news of an inappropriate relationship with a Senate staffer forced Koch to step down as leader.

Sen. Barb Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, deemed Senjem as someone Senate Democrats can deal with.

I like him,” said Goodwin, saying Senjem strikes people as being levelheaded and she believes he is.

Dayton and Republican legislative leaders insist there are no lingering grudges left over from last session and that trust levels are good.

Dayton is a friend who simply has a different political philosophy, House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, recently explained.

“That’s fine,” Zellers said. “It doesn’t in any way harm the relationship or friendship.”

Sen. Pam Wolf, R-Spring Lake Park, said it’s to be expected that Dayton and Republicans lock horns.

“(But) I don’t know if I’d say anything about a trust level,” said Wolf.

“The reality is, what trust was there to begin with?” she asked.

Although there are lawmakers who warn that a Vikings’ stadium solution must be found this session, this sense of urgency is not universal.

In general, lawmakers insist it’s impossible to meaningfully discuss the Vikings’ stadium issue without a bill.

Vikings’ bill authors Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, and Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, have not yet produced one.

“Sooner rather than later,” said Zellers of the best time for one to appear.

The governor and legislative leaders talk of job creation as a top priority — not a stadium.

“I’m not sure it’s (Vikings’ stadium) a priority,” said Senjem.

“(But) I’m not sure we can wait, either. Nor do we want to,” he said.

But Zellers suggested a broader context exists.

“For most Minnesotans it’s (a Vikings’ stadium) not a priority,” he said.

The Republican legislature last session voted to place the same-sex marriage ban proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot and could be sending another proposed amendment before voters.

The most likely is Photo ID, proposed constitutional language pertaining to the use photo identification in voting.

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer

Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, House Photo ID bill author, has long indicated that if Republicans cannot pass a Photo ID bill legislatively, they would take the constitutional amendment route.

Democrats oppose Photo ID for many reasons, one being they view it as a Republican tactic to disenfranchise traditional Democratic voting blocks, such as young people and minorities.

Republicans argue it’s a common sense safeguard.

But Dayton counters that Republicans are undermining a basic concept of American government by trying to sidestep the executive branch instead of working with it to find a legislative solution on Photo ID.

“There has to be collaboration there,” said Dayton, who vetoed the Republican Voter ID bill last year.

“I’m open to negotiating on anything,” Dayton said of his attitude towards working with lawmakers.

But he wants bipartisan support on election legislation — the same policy former Republican governor Tim Pawlenty had, said Dayton.

House Republicans are “absolutely” willing to work with the governor on trying to find a legislative solution on Voter ID, said Zellers.

“We’ll be trying,” he said.

Governors cannot veto proposed constitutional amendments.

Other proposed constitutional amendments are percolating that the Capitol.

House and Senate Republicans last week presented a long list of perceived government reforms they proposed to pursue this session.

For his part, Dayton, besides looking to the bonding bill as a job-creation spark plug, recently proposed a $3,000 tax credit for businesses hiring unemployed veterans or newcomers to the workforce, proposing to pay for the initiative through the closure of perceived tax loopholes.

Dayton also proposes to collect the state sales tax on out-of-state Internet retail businesses with sales in Minnesota.

Democratic Attorney General Lori Swanson has proposed legislation dealing with school bullying.

“No child should be afraid to go to school because of bullying. While policies and reporting cannot stop all bullying, they can set a strong tone and school culture against it,” said Swanson in a statement.

Swanson criticizes Minnesota’s current anti-bullying law as one of the shortest in the nation.

She proposes the state model its anti-bullying law after North Dakota’s, a law which would include immediate reporting of alleged acts of bullying, the establishment graduated penalties on those engaged in bullying, other policies.

Minnesota has gained adverse national publicity in recent years because of its lax attention to bullying, Swanson argues.

In the area of the outdoors, legislation pertaining to the establishment of a hunting and trapping seasons on gray wolves could move through committee this session. Additionally, legislative action on exotic species, such as Asian carp, took take place.

If the predications and calls for a speedy end of the session come true, lawmakers could be heading home by the end of April rather than lingering into May.