Lawmakers finish; medical marijuana, tax bills pass on final day

Published 5:00 pm Saturday, May 17, 2014

By Jason Schoonover and Trey Mewes

ST. PAUL — Though originally touted as an “unsession” to focus on striking outdated laws from the books, the 2014 legislative session was anything but uneventful.

Shortly before lawmakers completed their work Friday, state Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, described 2014 as one of the most intense sessions he’s been a part of, with action on several bills.

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“It was a short session but I think we’re going to come home and have a lot of good things to talk about,” he said.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, was also pleased.

“We were able to meet the needs of the people as time went on,” she said. “It was just a very fast-paced but full agenda.”

In Friday’s finale, lawmakers approved several major items: a tax-cut bill, a budget bill, medical marijuana legislation, lottery restrictions and construction financing for more than $1.1 billion worth of projects. They faced a Sunday deadline for passing them.

The $103 million tax-cut bill was approved by both chambers with only one dissenter, Sen. Branden Peterson, R-Andover. Some homeowners and renters will see bigger refund checks in October, just a month before the election.

Sparks was pleased with the tax bill, as he said it should bring property tax relief to farmers too. With the bonding bill and tax plans, Sparks described it as a session to be proud of, noting legislators made investments to housing around the state

“For a short session and for a non-budget year, I think we did a really good job,” he said.


Medical marijuana

Lawmakers made Minnesota the 22nd state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. The bill passed 46 to 16 in the Senate and 89-40 in the House. Gov. Mark Dayton said he’ll sign the measure to establish a program by next year.

Sparks described the medical marijuana measure as a sleeper bill that didn’t look likely to pass. Sparks admitted he was reluctant at first as law enforcement officials voiced concern, but decided to vote for the bill after some changes were made to it. He also said he was sympathetic to people the treatments would help.

Poppe voiced similar sentiments, approving of the compromise to make treatments available while limitations.

“We need to have a very tight bill that allowed the people that needed it to have access to it,” she said.

Minnesota’s legislation explicitly bans smoking the drug. It also prohibits patient access to plant material. Instead, the drug would be available in oil, pill and vapor form.

Medical conditions including cancer, glaucoma and AIDS qualify for treatment. A physician assistant or advanced-practice registered nurse would certify a patient suffered from a qualifying illness.

The lawmakers who voted against it either feared illicit use or argued the bill was too restrictive.


A look back

Earlier in the session, Poppe voted for the bill to increase the minimum wage from $6.15 per hour now to $9.50 by 2016 and then tie it to inflation. Sparks voted against a similar bill in the Senate, stating he supported raising the wage but thought $9.50 was too high for outstate Minnesota.

Poppe strongly supported the Women’s Economic Security Act, a bill designed to help women in the workplace that included steps to level pay, longer parental leave and assurances they have private rooms for nursing when they return. Sparks also supported the Senate’s altered version of the bill, noting it struck a good balance for women and employers.

Minnesota also enacted the nation’s first law Wednesday requiring smartphones and tablets sold in the state to have a remote shut-off feature as a way to deter theft.

Poppe described the issue as one that’s happening to a greater extent, especially for students.

“The kill-switch on the cell phones is a big deal,” Poppe said. “They were talking about one out of every four robberies or assaults, incidents are now related to cell phones.”


Looking ahead

The campaign messaging has begun well ahead of a fall election when voters will pick a governor and decide the House makeup.

House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said voters should view the last two years as among the most productive in memory.

“At the end of the day, it was focusing on delivering on some pretty big things for middle-class Minnesota families,” he said, citing the minimum wage bump to $9.50 by 2016, statewide availability of all-day kindergarten, added workplace protections for women and more.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, offered a different take, also reaching back to the 2013 budget fix that included targeted tax hikes.

“What we want to make sure people don’t forget is that as a result of this session we have one of the highest tax increases in state history,” he said. “We have the highest spending increase in state history.”

The construction plan headed to Gov. Mark Dayton after smooth rides through the House and Senate. When few people jumped up to debate the package, Senate Capital Investment Committee Chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, sounded surprised.

“Maybe everyone’s asleep,” he joked. Given the long hours lawmakers logged this week, it was possible.

The largest single item is $126 million to complete the Capitol renovation. The smallest is $78,000 for work on a historic bridge in Hanover.

The most intense negotiations surrounded $22 million devoted to the Lewis & Clark Region Water System pipeline project in southwestern Minnesota. With federal money bottled up, state lawmakers were delivering money for Minnesota’s end of a project that also affects Iowa and South Dakota. It is meant to draw water to 300,000 people in the region, feeding drinking water supplies and fostering business growth.

The tax bill allows counties and cities in the region to raise local taxes toward a local share and unlock about $2.2 million more annually from the state. All told, the pipeline could take more than $60 million to put in.

The last bill to pass was a $283 million spending proposal that puts the state on the hook for even more into the future. The 577-page bill contains raises to long-term care attendants, provides pothole repair funds, distributes grants for high-speed broadband development and boosts payments to schools and scholarships for early childhood education.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he was worried the additional spending would leave Minnesota’s budget in a precarious state. “We’re going to be right back into deficit because of all the spending we did,” he said.

Democrats said the spending addressed key priorities without overextending the state treasury.

“The economy is not faltering,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul. Besides, he noted, lawmakers committed even more of a $1.2 billion surplus to tax cuts this year with scant opposition. “They were the ones who said we should give it all back and not have any money on the bottom line, so you can’t have it both ways.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.