ST. PAUL — Conversations around financial support for farmers and violent crime prevention plans took on a political tone at the Minnesota Capitol as lawmakers and other elected leaders dug into the motives behind the discussions.
Republicans put forth their pitch for how Minnesota should spend a $1.3 billion budget surplus: giving it back to taxpayers.
And efforts to boost transparency around prescription drug pricing got another push despite red flags from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Pharmaceutical, Research and Manufacturers of America, Medical Alley Association and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.
It was the second week of the legislative session and efforts to highlight plans that likely won't make it through the divided Legislature continued. With a budget address scheduled for next week, lawmakers could get a reality check on how they could dole out a projected $1.3 billion surplus and re-evaluate how much the state could borrow to fund public projects without downgrading Minnesota's AAA bond rating.
Here's a look at what happened this week and what lies ahead in the Minnesota Legislature.
Alleged 'political games' afoot as lawmakers take on key issues
House Republicans from suburban and rural districts kicked off the week by calling for changes in state law that they said could curb violent crime in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The proposals ranged from boosting the penalties for gang members who use a firearm when committing a crime to increase enforcement of fare payment on public transit.
The lawmakers said the changes were critical to making the cities safer and ensuring that visitors wouldn't be harmed while in the Twin Cities metro area after both cities reported increased rates of homicides in 2019 and an uptick in violent incidents on public transit.
"I don’t think that people’s safety when they visit Minneapolis and St. Paul is a partisan issue," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. "We think everyone has a right to feel safe in these cities whether you live here, work here, visit here."
But Democrats and members of the African American community were quick to push back on the efforts, saying they took the wrong approach.
“The sad fact is that they did not reach out,” Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said, after he took to the podium following a GOP news conference on Monday, Feb. 17. "This speaks to an attempt to divide urban and rural areas against each other.”
Days later, a coalition of African American leaders said they'd ask for $20 million of the budget surplus to fund community-led efforts to curb violent crime in the Twin Cities metro area and beyond. And they urged the state not to look to additional policing as the solution.
Another showdown came Wednesday, Feb. 19, as Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, urged House representatives to fast track a bill aimed at funding a state loan program for farmers before it was set to become empty Friday, Feb. 21.
“Farmers don’t have time for political games," Hamilton said. "We need to make sure the dollars are there for RFA loans and available to the farmers in need."
The bill's author, Rep. Jeanne Poppe, D-Austin, asked that members allow the bill to move through the appropriate committees before passing it on the House floor and she and others suggested Hamilton's move had come as a surprise. And House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, D-Golden Valley, said the haste to move the bill "suggests not urgency, but politics."
The proposal on Rural Finance Authority funding didn't get the votes to come up on the House floor but is set to come up for committee consideration next week.
A pitch for the surplus to be given back to Minnesotans
Senate Republicans this week unveiled the framework for their tax plan, complete with a proposal to spend this year's expected $1.3 billion on tax cuts for Minnesotans. The central parts of the tax relief would come from exempting social security from state income taxes and dropping the tax rate for the bottom tax rate.
Combined, the cuts would provide an economic boost to Minnesotans' pocketbooks and to the state's economy, GOP leaders said. But Democrats said the state should use the one-time dollars for boosting support for schools, roads and transportation. Leaders in the Minnesota House have also pitched a $500 million one-time boost in early childhood scholarships and child care assistance funding.
One area of likely compromise emerged as leaders in both chambers have said they expect that a tax bill would close a loophole between state tax code and federal tax code that forced some farmers and business owners to immediately pay income taxes for the financial gain they saw after trading in equipment in 2018.
The state is expected to get an update on Thursday, Feb. 27, about its financial fitness and about just how big the potential budget surplus is expected to be. Gov. Tim Walz and legislative leaders have said the update will influence their pitches for what the state should do with a surplus and borrowing bill for funding public projects.
Another push to bring down prescription drug prices
The Attorney General's Office on Wednesday shared the results of a year-long task force's work evaluating what drives up the cost of prescription drugs and what can be done to prevent that.
The group of doctors, nurses, advocates, economists and lawmakers said the state should require more transparency in drug pricing and accountability over keeping prices at prices manageable rates for patients. And they said the state should leverage its ability to purchase in bulk more than it currently does.
A day earlier, a caucus of four lawmakers who are also medical doctors, made a public appeal for passing bills they said could break that trend. One of the measures, which would set up a commission to review prescription drug pricing, passed through a House health committee this week, but the leader of a key Senate committee has not yet committed to taking it up for a hearing.
Pharmaceutical groups and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce said the plan could restrict patient access to news pharmaceutical therapies and stunt potential medical innovations.