Minnesota Legislature shapes budget bills as deadline looms
ST. PAUL. Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Legislature is toiling away with only two full weeks left in a productive 2023 session.
Most of the action has shifted to House-Senate conference committees that are negotiating the big budget bills of the session. Plenty of policy questions big and small are still to be decided. Gov. Tim Walz called the session on Friday “the best, most productive” one he's been involved in, and he told reporters that his agency heads are empowered to negotiate on the details.
Democrats have been using their new trifecta control of the House, Senate and the governor's office to rush through a long list pent-up priorities ever since the very beginning of the session in January.
Here's a look at some of the most contentious issues still in play as the adjournment deadline of Monday, May 22, approaches:
The Legislature is poised to expand the number of Minnesotans who are exempt from state income taxes on their Social Security benefits, but not to eliminate the tax altogether as Republicans have demanded. Some Democrats had campaigned for full repeal, but they're now on board with the partial rollback that House and Senate tax negotiators will finalize in the main tax bill.
About half of Minnesota filers who collect Social Security are already exempt. The legislation would exempt about 75% by raising income caps. The one-time rebates from the $17.5 billion surplus are about 25% of what Walz had proposed. Democratic legislators backed bigger tax credits for families with children instead.
The House public safety budget bill contains two gun safety proposals: a “red flag law” allowing temporary confiscation of guns from people judged to be an immediate threat to themselves or others and expanded background checks for firearms transfers. The gun measures by themselves would be a tough vote for several rural Democrats in the Senate, where the party has just a one-seat majority. Putting the proposals in the final broader bill might give them enough political cover to vote yes.
Both the House and Senate have voted to legalize recreational marijuana for adults starting this summer, but a lot of details must be worked out. The Senate version would allow possession of up to 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) of cannabis flower at home, but 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms) would have to be home-grown. The House limit is 1.5 pounds (0.7 kilograms) whatever the source.
The tax rate on cannabis products in the Senate bill is 10%, compared to 8% in the House version. Walz plans to sign the bill once it reaches his desk. Sales at cannabis dispensaries are probably at least a year away.
Walz signed on Friday the “Democracy for the People Act,” which aims to make voting even easier in turnout-leading Minnesota. It will let 16- and 17-year-olds preregister so they’re eligible to vote as soon as they turn 18. It also includes automatic registration when people obtain or renew driver's licenses or sign up for public programs. It seeks to shed more light on money and politics through more disclosure. And it includes criminal penalties for intimidation of voters and interference with voting.
The governor has already signed legislation to codify broad protections for abortion rights and for patients who come to Minnesota from restrictive states. A formal repeal of restrictions that a court declared unconstitutional last summer, however, is still in the pipeline. The language is in the House version of the health and human services budget bill but not the Senate’s.
FAMILY AND MEDICAL LEAVE
The Senate is set to vote Monday on legislation to set up a paid family and medical leave system that would be funded by a payroll tax on employers. The House has already passed a version.
The House version of the environment and natural resources budget bill includes a ban on hunting wolves for sport if the animals ever come off the endangered list. The Senate version doesn’t.
Both the House and Senate transportation budget bills seek to provide more ongoing funding for roads, bridges and transit at a time when current gas taxes and other fees aren't keeping up with costs. The House bill contains a 75-cent fee for retail deliveries and a 0.75% regional sales tax increase for the Twin Cities metro area. The Senate version calls for a 0.5% metro sales tax increase and no delivery fee.
Mayo Clinic has given the Legislature and Walz an ultimatum over two provisions in the big health and human services budget bill that are aimed at raising staffing levels for nurses at hospitals and holding down health care costs. As first reported by the Minnesota Reformer on Friday, Mayo Clinic told them it’s reconsidering big plans for new facilities and infrastructure and threatened to direct those investments to other states if the provisions stay in the bill.
Walz told reporters he supports making sure that nurses have what they need, while calling Mayo Clinic, the state’s largest private employer, “a unique entity” with a global focus.
“I think we can get a compromise that works for everyone,” he said.
The odds are looking long for legalizing sports betting. The dispute is whether the state’s Native American tribes, which have a monopoly on casinos, should also have a monopoly on sports wagering via mobile devices and in person. Republicans who might be potential “yes” votes want Minnesota’s horse tracks to get a piece of the action. Democrats have opposed that. A proposed compromise to preserve the tribes’ monopoly but funnel some of the state’s cut to the tracks has yet to gain traction.
Steve Karnowski, The Associated Press