Legislature takes break with much done, much left
ST. PAUL — The looks on Minnesota legislators’ faces before they began a holiday break told the story: They are tired.
The 201 legislators put in long hours the past couple of weeks debating and initially passing pretty much every major bill of the 2014 session, often going well after dark just as spring presents Minnesotans with longer days.
When asked about what would happen after the Legislature returns on April 22 following an Easter-Passover break, Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, showed the exhaustion common to many as the House was adjourning Thursday night.
“My mind is not even there,” Schoen said. “My mind is so tired, I can’t even think straight.”
After pausing, he came up with a few issues he thinks need to pass, then added that some bills lawmakers already passed may need to be revisited because “in our tired, weary minds, we may have missed something that should be fixed.”
It is a different type of year for the Legislature. It came into session Feb. 25, later than most years, and lawmakers are trying to cram in more work than often occurs the year after a state budget is produced.
Lawmakers will have less than four weeks after the holiday break to finish their work before the constitutional deadline of May 19.
Days after the session began, lawmakers passed a bill providing financial aid to Minnesotans with problems paying for heat during the intense winter. On March, after plenty of political posturing, they approved $443 million of tax breaks.
Two other major issues are set to take effect. One requires local school districts to write policies to prevent bullying or the state will force them to follow one it prepares. The other issue that has been decided is a higher minimum wage, which in three years will be $9.50 an hour for big businesses and $7.75 for smaller ones.
Otherwise, the House and Senate have passed differing versions of the major bills, such as one tweaking a $39 billion, two-year budget passed last year. Lawmakers dumped nearly all spending bills, and some that do not involve money, into the one massive bill.
Like most other remaining issues, the budget bills the House and Senate passed are different. So negotiators from both houses will sit down after the break and begin reconciling them, then sending them back for final votes.
One significant bill has passed the House, but not the Senate: a plan to move women toward equality within the workplace.
Two hot-topic bills remain short of House and Senate votes.
Generally getting the spotlight in even-year sessions has been a bill funding public works projects around the state. In the House this year, it is a nearly $1 billion bill, funded both by borrowing money with state bond sales and some cash. It has made its way to near a full House vote, but the Senate measure will not be unveiled until soon after break ends.
Legislative leaders already agreed to spend $850 million, but many Democrats say they want to go higher. If so, they need Republican votes because Democrats alone do not have enough members to pass a bonding bill. Republicans are not eager to accept a higher figure.
The other big issue awaiting a decision is whether to allow marijuana, or an extract from the plant, to be made available to seriously ill Minnesotans, such as children suffering from seizures and cancer patients in great pain.
“We are trying to find ways to come to a solution,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said, but a compromise is needed with police and medical groups opposed to the medical marijuana plan.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, gave the issue a kick ahead when he ordered a committee hearing on the bill, similar to one stalled in a House committee. There was no vote, but supporters say that if leaders allow the bill to proceed after returning to St. Paul, there are enough votes to pass it.
The question then would be if Gov. Mark Dayton would sign a bill that does not meet his main requirement: support by law enforcement and medical communities.
Bakk and Thissen said they will talk about the remaining issues some during the recess, although House leaders also plan to travel the state saying they already have shown a productive session.
Bakk said he could not predict if there will be any problems in the final few weeks of session. “I think it would depend on the governor’s engagement.”
Sen. Lyle Koenen, D-Clara City, said he is not concerned. “With the time that is left, we should get it all done. It will come together.”