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MN Capitol notebook: Gun control bills reemerge, spending targets leave $2 billion gap

Lawmakers returned to the Minnesota State Capitol Jan. 8, 2019, for the reconvening of the Legislature. Michael Brun / Forum News Service1 / 6
A tanker truck passes by an Enbridge storage tank. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service2 / 6
House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, on Monday, March 25, outlines spending priorities for House Democrats, including a boost for E-12 and a freeze on tuition at public colleges. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service3 / 6
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, presented his caucus's spending target which came in at a lower cost than Gov. Tim Walz's and House Democrats' and wouldn't levy new taxes. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service4 / 6
Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, said he would hold hearings for two gun control bills if the House of Representatives could pass them off the floor this year. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service5 / 6
Gov. Tim Walz on Friday, March 22, 2019, announced he had trimmed his $49.5 billion budget request. Updated economic forecasts fueled the decision to pare back. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service6 / 6

ST. PAUL — Minnesota Republicans and Democrats offered their opening spending targets, exposing a $2 billion gap.

Gov. Tim Walz said he was open to spending negotiations but said he wasn't willing to let a tax that funds health care for poor people to become a bargaining chip.

A key Senate leader said he's open to holding hearings on a pair of gun control bills he'd previously held out of committee.

And a state regulatory body reaffirmed a contested oil pipeline project in northern Minnesota can move forward, again sparking friction among lawmakers.

The announcements and changes in posture exposed areas where lawmakers could find agreement, or at least a willingness to hold a public vote, and where they'd draw their battle lines.

With six weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers will have to reach a middle ground somewhere between their budget targets or risk a special session or state government shutdown.

Despite the divisions, Democrats and Republicans said they believed they could reach compromises. And as he started writing his first State of the State address, Walz said he'd focus on what lawmakers in the nation's only divided Legislature can accomplish if they work together.

Here's a look at what happened this week at the Capitol.

Lawmakers set early goalposts and they might as well be on different fields

Minnesota Democrats on Monday and Senate Republicans on Thursday set their targets for what they want the state to spend over the next two years. And they came into spending negotiations $2 billion apart.

Here's how their proposals break out:

  • House Democrats proposed total spending of $49.8 billion
  • Senate Republicans proposed total spending of $47.6 billion
  • Gov. Tim Walz proposed total spending of $49.4 billion

So why does that matter? Lawmakers and the governor will all have to get on the same page by May about what the two-year budget should be and how much each committee has to spend on its priorities.

The chasm in spending between proposed goalposts means there will be a lot of debating in the next month to get to that point.

That division carried over to plans for taxing (or not taxing) to afford new proposed spending.

Walz and House Democrats have said they'd like to raise the tax on gasoline by 20 cents per gallon to pay for repairs to roads and bridges. And they dug in this week on the need to keep a 2 percent tax on medical providers that funds health care for low-income people.

Republicans oppose a gas tax hike and say the provider tax should be allowed to sunset at the end of the year.

So can they reach a compromise and avoid a special session or shutting down state government?

Legislative leaders say they can.

“It’s never easy. It won’t be easy this time,” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Thursday. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff that both sides want that in the end is not going to happen. But what will happen is we will pass a balanced budget that Minnesota can be proud of.”

Walz said he was willing to negotiate with Republicans on many areas but drew a line on keeping a 2 percent tax on medical providers. That has to stay, he said.

“Don’t play with Minnesota’s health, don’t risk that, but I understand I’m going to have to negotiate, I’m okay with that,” Walz said.

Gun control hearings get a green light, other compromise looks questionable

Gazelka on Wednesday said he'd let a pair of gun control bills get a Senate committee hearing, reversing his previous course.

But that would come with some caveats, he said. The House of Representatives would first have to pass the bills that would require universal background checks at the time of purchase and allow law enforcement officers to remove guns from the homes of people believed to pose a risk to themselves or others. And a set of other gun rights bills would also be part of the hearing.

"I'm open to having votes on some of those gun bills," Gazelka said. "If they are going to take two bills standalone and pass them, then we'll give them a hearing in the Senate."

House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said she was glad to see Gazelka agree to take up the bills but worried they might not get a fair hearing.

“They’re entitled to have a show hearing if they want to, but my hope would be that we could have a conversation that’s based on the merits of the issue and not trade barbs on something that’s so important to so many people," Hortman said.

While Senate Democrats said they were glad the bills would get a hearing, they said they'd hold a hearing of the fictitious Senate Committee on Banned Bills on Monday. They argue their bills haven't had a fair shake in the GOP-led Senate, so they'll make a pitch for proposals to require businesses to offer paid family leave, restore voting rights to felons after they're released from prison and keep in place a tax on medical providers.

Gazelka said Republicans would like to see some of their top priorities picked up in the DFL-led House, but he's not holding out hope for that to happen in a divided Legislature.

Walz to pitch bipartisan solutions in his first State of the State speech

So what will Walz talk about in his first State of the State address next week? Working together, apparently.

With his policy and budget priorities already out for everyone to see, the DFL governor said he would use the speech to emphasize the importance of working across party lines in the divided Legislature.

"It's not too late for us to figure out how this bipartisanship works," Walz said. "This is going to be about what we aspire to, what we can do together."

Senate Republicans vote to end state appeal of Line 3 project

The Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday reaffirmed that the Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project could move forward and GOP lawmakers said that was a sign that the Walz administration should drop its appeal.

The Minnesota Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would prohibit the state Department of Commerce from spending money on further appeals of the pipeline project.

"Taxpayers are being asked to pay for a political battle that should not be before the courts," the bill's author Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, said.

Opponents said the move would set a bad precedent in terms of the Legislature restricting state agencies.

The House of Representatives later in the day voted it down on a 75-51 vote. That vote effectively ended the bill's path through the Legislature.