Top issues for legislative session
Published 4:30 pm Saturday, April 3, 2010
Minnesota’s legislative session is roughly at a midpoint. The session started two months ago and must wrap up by May 17.
Here’s an update on where the major issues stand:
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Gov. Tim Pawlenty put the Legislature’s $1 billion public works bill on a crash diet of line-item vetoes, purging civic centers, college buildings and more before signing it into law at $686 million. Majority Democrats say the cuts cost 7,000 jobs, but they ruled out trying to overrule him. Republicans whose votes they would need are standing with the governor.
Tougher penalties for sex offenders and drunken drivers are slogging their way through the long legislative process. Two Pawlenty proposals are getting closer looks: One would double prison time for certain sex offenders and another would expand the use of breath-activated ignition locks for drunken drivers. Some Democrats also want to tighten the way law enforcement officers handle gang policing.
There’s still a deficit to deal with, but it is heading in the right direction — down. What started as a $1.2 billion problem fell to $994 million with a new economic forecast. Lawmakers chipped away at it further with a bill cutting $312 million in spending. Federal money could bring the number down even more, perhaps by $400 million or more.
School leaders won’t get a clear picture for several weeks how they’ll fare in the money chase. All sides say they’ll protect core classroom dollars from cuts, but the “all clear” hasn’t been sounded on other dollars. Colleges took a nearly $50 million hit in the first budget-cut bill. A notable policy bill in play would make the teaching profession easier to get into. Other changes proposed by Pawlenty are limping along.
A push for more nuclear power was squashed in a Senate committee hearing, but don’t count it out yet. The proposal — which would lift a moratorium that bars regulators from authorizing new nuclear plants — has popped up as an amendment to other bills and could surface again. A House committee also voted down a long-shot effort to repeal a state mandate to have a quarter of its energy come from renewable sources by 2025.
Outdoors programs from forest management to Twin Cities parks lost $13 million in a first round of cuts. But votes are still expected on a $60 million plan to spend dedicated sales tax dollars on everything from restoring prairies to preserving forests. Democrats also might push to borrow $25 million for a land conservation project and bring in federal money. Pawlenty nixed that item in their first public works bill.
Several proposals that would deal homeowners and tenants better cards in foreclosures look unlikely this year. One would force mortgage lenders into mediation with homeowners. Another would let homeowners stop the clock for up to two years and keep tenants from being automatically evicted. Pawlenty vetoed the mediation bill last year.
Pawlenty and legislators passed a law preserving state-run health care for more than 30,000 vulnerable adults. The new General Assistance Medical Care program will operate on a fraction of its previous budget, with hospitals holding down costs by trying to keep patients from using expensive services. More action — and maybe more federal dollars — could be coming as details of the federal health care overhaul emerge. The state might have to spend money to get money.
Back burner so far. Bills giving same-sex partners and other unmarried couples death rights could get House votes. One would let surviving partners rights get health records and consent to autopsies, the other would grant them crime victim rights in wrongful death cases.
The near-annual fight over tax increases could take a hiatus this year. The improving economic condition and an inflow of federal dollars has reduced the drive for bills raising taxes. Besides, Democrats know Pawlenty isn’t budging on his no-new-tax stance. One wild card is a case over previous spending cuts before the Supreme Court, which could open a gaping hole in the budget.
It’s fourth-and-long for the Vikings this session. With no formal plan to speak of, there’s been no serious talk about public help for the stadium-craving franchise. In fact, the House voted unanimously to make sure some business tax breaks it approved wouldn’t benefit the stadium effort. Team officials say they’re hoping for some action this year, noting the Metrodome lease runs out after 2011.
Lawmakers and Pawlenty made new laws moving up the traditional September primary to mid-August, tightening procedures for absentee voting and a slew of changes in elections administration.