April is for budget; guns and marriage return in May
ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Legislature is famous for deciding major issues near the end of each year's session.
Expect 2013 to be no different.
So far, Governor Mark Dayton has signed just one major bill into law, and eight minor ones, out of 3,172 that the 201 lawmakers have introduced. That means there will be a lot of public and private debate by the Legislature's constitutionally mandated May 20 adjournment date.
"The budget will be the big push," said Senator Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick.
The budget, in fact, is the Legislature's major job in odd-numbered years.
For nearly two dozen years, governors and legislators of different parties were forced to compromise as they worked on two-year budgets. This year, however, Democrats control the House and Senate, joining their fellow party member Dayton.
Those Democrats generally agree on a budget of about $38 billion for the two years beginning July 1, and their overall spending outlines look similar. Legislative committees that begin meeting when they return from an Easter-Passover break Tuesday will delve into tax and spend specifics.
"It actually will progress more smoothly," House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said of budget work that in the past decade led to a couple of state government shutdowns. "Our focus in April is getting the budget out."
The budget will be front and center while committees form it and the full House and Senate debate it. Legislative leaders say that in late April or early May, when House and Senate budget bills head to reconciliation in conference committee, contentious gun regulation and gay marriage bills may join other nonspending bills for full debate.
Many do not expect Democrats to show serious budget differences.
"Obviously, they have come to consensus among themselves," said Senator Bill Weber, R-Luverne.
Once a tax-and-spend deal is reached among the House, Senate and governor, a budget bill will return for final passage before lawmakers go home May 20 or sooner. Legislative leaders promise they will not need a special session to finish work.
Republicans, while they have little say in what passes this year, will talk a lot about DFL plans to boost taxes.
"I worry about the message we send," Weber said about the plan to raise income taxes on individuals with at least $150,000 in taxable income and couples earning $250,000 or more.
He said a Minnesota company moving to lower-tax South Dakota is an example of what could happen.
While few bills have become law, the legislative pace thus far has been hectic, said Representative Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley.
Like many lawmakers, he said that when he sees full budget plans, he will look for "creating jobs and economic vitality."
Adding $700 million to schools in the next two years, as legislative Democrats suggest, is one of the best economic development projects the state can offer, Thissen said.
From what Faust has seen so far, "areas like mine will be big winners," he said about proposed budgets.
For instance, his district has only about 50 people who would be taxed at the higher rate, he said, so that plan would have less impact than in other areas.
Reinstating some version of the homestead property tax credit, as Democrats expect, should help his homeowners' property tax bills drop, Faust added.
For many, a public works bill funded by the state selling bonds is considered a job producer. Dayton plans to ask for $750 million in bonding, including a large chunk of the $200 million-plus needed to renovate the state Capitol building. Many legislative Democrats are shooting for an $800 million bonding bill.
Republican Senator Dave Thompson of Lakeville said he does not support a sizable bonding bill this year.
"I personally think we can wait," he said. "We've gotten in a bad habit of doing it every year."
Typically, lawmakers set the state budget and craft a public works borrowing bill in opposite years of a two-year session.
Thompson said he is open to funding Capitol renovation.
"I'm not focused on a bonding bill right now," said Representative Mary Franson, R-Alexandria. "I'm focused on making sure job providers have the tools necessary to succeed."
Franson said she is concerned about a potential increase in the state's minimum wage. Most provisions making their way through the Legislature suggest raising the current state minimum wage of $6.15 an hour to more than $9.
"That will hurt Greater Minnesota," she said. "It will be a major problem for the hospitality industry, bars, restaurants."
Dayton, on the other hand, regularly says that a family deserves to earn enough to remain above the poverty line.
There are differences among Democrats.
House DFLers, for instance, want to put an income tax surcharge on the richest of the rich to be able to quickly repay schools the money the state borrowed from them in recent years. Dayton and Senate Democrats are content to let existing plans go ahead and repay the money over a few more years.
Thissen promised that the surcharge would last no more than two years.