Repairing ‘damage’ or perfecting policies? Fix bills take center stage at the Capitol

Published 5:37 am Monday, March 4, 2024

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Dana Ferguson, Minnesota Public Radio News

Here’s a debate under way behind some of the bigger debates at the Minnesota Capitol so far: Do a slate of laws passed last year need some serious handyman attention or just some cosmetic polish?

Several fix-it bills are in motion to address errors, gaps or just misunderstandings about what got passed in a chock-full 2023 session, where Democrats got much of their agenda passed and Republicans got mostly left to the side.

Email newsletter signup

House lawmakers on Monday are set to take up a bill amending a law passed last year that bars prone holds on students in most situations. A number of police agencies pulled school resource officers last summer after the law took effect and spurred concerns about officers’ liability if they used the holds in certain situations.

And a House capital investment committee plans to review a technical corrections bill dealing with a slate of public construction projects approved last year.

Repair bills aren’t new. Lawmakers revise and update laws each year to catch mistakes or adjust for shifting realities.

But after a 2023 legislative session that saw dozens of substantial changes to state spending and policies — spanning from legalizing adult use marijuana, cementing the right to abortion in state law, guaranteeing free school meals and more — there’ve been a higher volume of clean-up bills needed to tie up loose ends.

Republicans have cast the list of laws that require re-writes as “sloppy work” of a session that played out too quickly. They sought to roll back DFL-driven changes or at least have more of a say in re-writes.

“This year, Republicans are going to work to repair that damage from all the Democratic control done by the out-of-control spending by all their mandates that they put on everything from schools to businesses,” Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said as he stood behind a podium with a poster declaring “Repair Minnesota.”

‘We refine the laws’

DFL leaders said the updates are needed to get new programs and policies up and running. They’re not worried about the GOP messaging.

“Republicans don’t really have a message other than to cut taxes for wealthy people and corporations. And so they’re working hard to find criticisms of Democrats,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “If the only thing they can come up with is that every year that the Legislature meets we refine the laws, that doesn’t seem like a punch that’s really going to land very hard.”

In an election year, GOP lawmakers who hold narrow minorities at the Capitol have seized on those correction bills as an opportunity to critique the policies anew.

“It was a pretty sloppy session, with very large spending bills being rushed through, which now need to be fixed and the bonding bill is one of them,” Sen. Karin Housley, the lead Republican on the Senate Capital Investment Committee, told reporters last week.

“Mistakes were made and organizations right now — cities, counties — they’re not able to get their money, their funds that were allocated in last year’s bill,” she continued.

A bill clarifying many of those issues is due to come up Monday in a House committee. It addresses everything from name misspellings to uses for funds approved for road, bridge and wastewater projects that depend on state financing.

Senate Capital Investment Committee Chair Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said lawmakers routinely bring technical corrections bills to update projects or fine-tune provisions in law.

“You can’t foresee all the issues that might come up. And it’s the same with bonding, it’s very common for us to do a modification bill,” Pappas said. “So it’s not so unusual. It’s just that we did do a lot last year, so there are a lot of modification bills.”

‘They need our votes’

Because Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, they can pass many correction bills — along with other policy and spending changes — without GOP support.

But given the narrow divides and potentially fractious issues on the table for the DFL caucuses, Republican leaders said they hope that they would get more of a say this year.

“They need our votes,” said House Minority Leader Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring. “To have single-party, party-line votes on things to me really calls into question: Was there full representation for all Minnesotans? And I would think probably not. So, I think having all voices and all input, whether it’s amendments, or whatever that looks like is really important.”

In the House, GOP lawmakers have helped shape the policy re-write for state guidelines around use of force in schools. The bill passed out of committee with bipartisan backing and is expected to move off the House floor Monday with some Republican votes.

Its prospects in the Senate are less certain. The measure was scheduled for a Finance Committee hearing last week but wasn’t taken up.

Republicans have also pressed Democrats at the Capitol to strike or at least delay dozens of new requirements for schools dealing with new curriculum, free school meals and menstrual products and teacher retention efforts.

Minnesota superintendents and school boards have said the $2.2 billion boost to K-12 education last year was a positive step but many districts have struggled to balance the books as they budget for new state mandates.

“Their big concern is the timeline that was put on it. It’s not necessarily that they’re opposed to doing any of these things, but the timeline was so quick,” said Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City.

Rarick has proposed freeing up the new funds sent out to school districts to be used as they see fit, or at least bumping back dates when the new programs are set to take effect.

Sen. Mary Kunesh, DFL-New Brighton, said lawmakers did approve substantial new funding streams for schools. She said DFLers would continue pushing to send more money to Minnesota schools.

“I feel like we did a really good job of balancing some of the expectations, but then also providing opportunities for districts to use those dollars in the way that they seem best,” Kunesh said.

She said DFL lawmakers would be open to moving back implementation dates for some of the new curriculum requirements.

Republicans have also pressed Democrats to bring another tax-fix bill. A first piece passed last month but GOP lawmakers said another component is needed to stave off a deduction change — called a net operating loss provision — for business owners. DFL tax chairs have said they’ll consider it.