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Early bills show taxes, education are priorities

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ST. PAUL -- Taxes, education funding, constitutional amendments and health care top Minnesota lawmakers' priorities for the 2013 legislative session, according to some of the first bills introduced.

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Most of the early bills are from Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmakers, who control the House and Senate, and feature topics such as increasing the minimum wage that always are among their prime concerns.

This year's session, which began January 8, will concentrate on drafting the state's two-year budget, but most work on that will not begin until after Governor Mark Dayton releases his budget plan January 22.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said the budget is the biggest issue for the current session, but there are other topics important to lawmakers as well.

The first four state Senate bills introduced would create a Minnesota health insurance marketplace, provide state funding for voluntary all-day kindergarten in public schools, raise and automatically increase the minimum wage and make it harder for constitutional amendments to be put on the ballot.

Early House bills include a plan to repay money owed to Minnesota schools, changing a property tax credit and providing grants to small businesses.

As of last Thursday, 20 bills have been introduced in the Senate and 54 in the House. They are a tiny preview of what is to come; lawmakers introduced 6,710 in the last two-year Legislature.

Taxes are popular topics.

One bill proposed this year would remove Minnesota's long-standing sales tax exception on clothing purchases above $200. Another would tax clothing, but would give a clothing tax credit on Minnesotans' tax returns.

A measure would remove an income tax exception some foreign companies receive, long a thorn in the side of Democrats. Another idea that often has been discussed now is in a bill to tax Internet sales.

Introducing a bill early gives it little advantage, other than being in the public eye longer than a bill offered later in the session. However, lawmakers take a certain amount of pride in authoring a bill with a low number.

Representative Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, has his name among the authors of the first three House bills: beginning to pay back schools, starting a new homestead tax credit to lower property taxes and setting up a program to give grants to small businesses.

Since all three of those bills require money, they could change dramatically after the governor releases his budget plan and lawmakers learn more about the economy.

"We don't know if it will be the final version," Marquart said of the homestead credit bill.

Looking at early Senate bills, Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said he does not see much help for the economy and jobs creation.

A constitutional amendment proposal, carried by Bakk, would require a three-fifths majority in each chamber of the Legislature to put a proposed constitutional amendment before voters.

Similar proposals are being put forward in the House.

"I think those were the most divisive issues," Bakk said of the constitutional amendments voters faced last fall.

Hann said that despite the Legislature passing the amendments last year, they failed in front of voters, so making amendments harder to pass is not needed.

The plan for Minnesota's participation in the health care exchange, part of national health care legislation known as Obamacare, already has been a topic of discussion at the Capitol after legislators rolled out a proposal Wednesday.

Republican Senator Dave Thompson of Lakeville said he is not surprised the plan is one of the first bills proposed, given a March deadline. But, he added, "I think we need to proceed with extreme caution."

Thompson said he is concerned that proposals such as the one to raise the minimum wage will hurt Minnesota businesses and contribute to unemployment rather than stimulate the economy.

But Senator Chris Eaton, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said that "putting more money in the pockets of minimum wage-earners is good for the whole economy."

One of the few early bills by a freshman came from Senator Greg Clausen, DFL-Rosemount, who is an author on the bill to fund all-day kindergarten.

Representative Mary Sawatzky, DFL-Willmar, also a freshman, wants to increase Minnesota World Trade Office funding from $1.78 million to $2.5 million the next two years.

"Helping our businesses grow jobs should be one of our top priorities in the legislative session," Sawatzky said. "My bill seeks to expand the reach of the Trade Office and to open up markets for small- and medium-sized Minnesota businesses to sell their products. This will help local businesses and farmers in our area and throughout greater Minnesota."

FIRST BILLS

Some of the first bills introduced into the Minnesota Legislature:

• Begins paying back money the state borrowed from school districts.

• Establishes mostly online health insurance marketplace.

• Increases renters' property tax rebates and restores a homestead property tax credit that would base property tax refunds on a person's income.

• Establishes and finances all-day kindergarten.

• Provides state grants to small businesses.

• Sets up minimum wage to automatically increase.

• Increases minimum wage to $9.38 an hour in large businesses and $8.01 in small businesses.

• Establishes a northern Minnesota veterans' home.

• Expands Medical Assistance eligibility.

• Makes it harder to amend the state Constitution by requiring two-thirds or three-fifths of the House and Senate to approve a proposed constitutional amendment before it goes to voters (several bills, some would accomplish it by amending the Constitution, others by just passing a law).

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