Construction projects plan, legal cannabis law tweaks on tap as Minnesota Legislature returns

Published 6:57 am Sunday, February 11, 2024

By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Minnesota lawmakers return to St. Paul Monday with a shorter to-do list and a tighter budget.

Even-year sessions typically center around passing a public construction bill, along with new policy measures. The two-year budget was adopted last year. And after a substantial new year of policy and spending changes in 2023, leaders from both parties said significant new spending is unlikely this year.

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As lawmakers prepare to return for the 2024 legislative session, here are some issues to watch:

Public construction bill at the fore

The primary work of the session will be piecing together a borrowing plan for public construction projects.

The proposal — known at the Capitol as a bonding bill because the state issues bonds to pay for it — requires a higher vote threshold to pass because it involves debt.

Lawmakers will consider hundreds of millions of dollars in construction and renovation projects for roads, bridges, wastewater treatment plants, college campuses and other buildings around the state. The final list will likely include just a fraction of the $7.6 billion in projects pitched for state support.

DFL and GOP leaders said they are hopeful of striking agreement. But Republicans said they’d like to see some belt-tightening on state spending as part of the ultimate accord.

Streamlined rollout for cannabis dispensaries

The state’s new adult-use cannabis law is also due for another look this year, with a focus on speeding up the process to license growers and retailers.

Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, helped push the adult legalization bill last year. Like laws regulating alcohol, he said there are likely to be changes required to update the policy over time.

“The benefit of legalizing cannabis is having a strong regulator to make sure that there’s good consumer protections, health and safety protections that we’re transitioning from that illicit market to a legal marketplace,” he said. “And the faster we can make that happen, the better it is for everybody. So we’ll be looking for ways to speed things up.”

Stephenson said he would also aim to reframe rules for hospitality workers serving alcoholic beverages and cannabis products. The hospitality industry raised concerns about the provision in state law that prohibits a customer from consuming an alcoholic beverage within five hours of a cannabis edible or seltzer. And it bars servers from offering the products to someone who may be within that window.

School resource officers

A House education committee on Monday will discuss a fix to a new law that bars school staff and officers from restraining a student in a way that restricts their breathing or ability to call out.

Local police stations pulled their school resource officers out of concern about liability. DFL lawmakers said the proposed clarification would allow school resource officers or security personnel employed by districts to use those restraints and exempt them from liability.

Democrats say they’re in agreement on the change, but Republicans and major public safety groups have yet to weigh in. Some  student advocacy groups have said they plan to oppose the change.

A ‘no’ for new spending?

After approving significant new spending last year, legislative leaders said they’ll fulfill fewer requests this year.

Provisions of a $72 billion two-year budget are still rolling out and need to be sized up, they said.

“I think we’ve got work to continue to implement,” Gov. Tim Walz told reporters on Friday.

He also echoed DFL Senate Tax Chair Ann Rest’s assertion that new taxes would be off limits this year.

The state’s most recent budget forecast showed Minnesota has a surplus in the current two-year spending cycle. But that outlook gets less rosy in the two years that follow.

Republican leaders said they were glad to hear that DFLers would limit spending and they encouraged paring back existing state spending.

“We have to go back and really start repairing the damage that was done to this state from last session,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks.

Push to reevaluate medical debt

DFL leaders are pushing a proposal that would eliminate interest on medical debt and prevent it from affecting credit scores. The measure would also prohibit health groups from charging patients for coding errors and bar them from withholding service due to unpaid debt.

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said that health issues can be costly and shouldn’t carry the same penalties as defaulting on a business loan. As a child, Flanagan had asthma and she says her mother had to declare bankruptcy to pay back medical debt after she was hospitalized.

“I remember feeling guilty that I got sick,” Flanagan said. “And there are kids, there are families who feel that too, they shouldn’t have to.”

The bill is backed by the Walz administration, Attorney General Keith Ellison and at least two DFL authors.

State flag under fire

Republicans have said they plan to file bills calling for a re-do on the new state flag and seal or putting them up for a public vote.

A state commission approved the new emblems last year and they are set to replace current ones in May, barring a legislative veto.

“We’ve definitely heard about the flag from people all the way across the state,” House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, said. “More than half of Minnesotans think the existing flag was fine. It really left the voices of Minnesotans out.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she didn’t expect efforts to eliminate the new flag or seal would pass. But she said Democrats would propose a longer timeline for state and local agencies to unfurl the new designs. Current law says flags and seals are to be released by 2025.

“I think we wouldn’t want anybody to throw things away that are perfectly good,” Hortman said. “So I could see us extending the time period, and people should just use things until they’re used up and gone, and then switch to the new flag when they’re ready to buy new stuff.”

Equal rights amendment

The DFL-led Legislature is again expected to move forward a proposal to put an equal rights amendment before voters that would guarantee rights no matter someone’s race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin.

The amendment got a revamp in recent months to include protections for those seeking reproductive and gender care services in Minnesota. DFL leaders said they support the amendment but want to take care in crafting language that can offer broad legal protections.

Hortman said she expects the Legislature would aim it toward the 2026 ballot, but that won’t stop groups from trying to get it before voters this fall.

Constitutional amendments make it to the ballot if the House and Senate pass identical language; the governor lacks a formal say.

Another run at sports betting

Proponents on both sides of the political aisle said they’d take another go at legalizing sports betting in 2024.

“I don’t think that people in Minnesota should have to go to Iowa to have fun,” Stephenson said, noting that Minnesota’s neighbor to the south has already passed legislation. “I think we should be able to figure out a way to do this.”

Thirty-eight states, along with Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia have legalized sports betting. Backers say that Minnesota is missing out by not joining that roster.

Disagreements remain about which groups should benefit from new gambling revenue, as well as whether the state should expand gambling overall. It’s a coin-flip issue this year.