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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published February 22 2014

Variety of topics expected during legislative session

ST. PAUL – The 2014 Minnesota Legislature gathers Tuesday in a short session that should feature financing public works projects, but it take up of a lot of issues.

Bonding: Gov. Mark

Dayton proposes spending about $1 billion on new construction and repair work, money most obtained by the state selling bonds. State and local projects ranging from park improvements to new community centers will be considered, and much of the money likely will go to state-run colleges and universities to keep facilities up to date. Democratic legislative leaders lean toward selling about $840 million in bonds and paying for other

projects in cash if it is available.

Budget: Minnesota lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton last year approved a $38 billion, two-year budget. Other than some tweaks, little new spending is expected to be approved this year.

Bullying: Efforts are underway to strengthen the state’s anti-bullying law.

Constitutional amendments: Not many proposals to change the state Constitution have gained traction this year. But Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk,

D-Cook, plans to push one that would require a super majority of legislators to approve putting an amendment in front of voters. Now, a simple majority is needed. Another proposed amendment would trim the number of judges on Minnesotans’ ballots, but Bakk gives it less of a chance to pass this year.

Construction zones: Bills have been introduced to outlaw mobile telephone use and increase speeding fines in highway construction zones.

Elections: Secretary of State Mark Ritchie established an online voter registration process last year, but many legislators say he does not have that authority. So legislative election leaders say they plan to pass a bill approving online registration, which at this point appears to have little opposition.

Gay marriage: Opponents of same-sex marriage plan to offer a bill that would make it clear businesses owned by people who oppose such marriages are not required to service gay weddings.

Gender equality: Ways to improve women’s pay and other aspects of their lives will be discussed. The fact that they earn less than men in the same jobs is a prime topic.

Homelessness: A statewide homeless coalition wants the Legislature to approve $100 million to build affordable housing. That is twice the amount the governor recommends.

Legislative offices: Republicans and many House members say a proposed $63 million Senate office building is too pricey and the issue will come up for debate.

Medical marijuana: Allowing some Minnesota patients to use marijuana to relieve extreme pain has been discussed in the session’s run-up, and likely will be a topic of hearings. Just before the session is to begin, there are signals that a compromise is possible between medical marijuana supporters and law enforcement groups that have opposed it.

Mining: House Speaker Paul Thissen promises that no mining-related legislation will pass this year. The main bill being discussed had been one requiring high financial contributions by owners of proposed copper-nickel mines to ensure that any environmental damage caused by mines would be fixed after they close.

Legislative leaders said they also do not expect any frac sand mining bill to receive a vote.

Minimum wage: Unions have led the charge in campaigning for a higher minimum wage. While proponents want it upped to

$9.50 an hour, from the current $6.15, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk’s concern that such a wage will hurt nursing homes looking to hire people could keep the wage lower. If Congress does not act to raise the wage and the state does, the higher Minnesota number would govern most wages in the state.

Payday loans: Religious and other groups want a clamp-down on payday lenders that they say charge high interest rates and take advantage of poor

Minnesotans.

Politics: State House and governor elections this year will influence what happens. After raising taxes more than $2 billion last year, Democrats who control the House, Senate and governor’s office fear voters could retaliate against them if they raise taxes any more. Republicans likely will talk about the tax increases often, as well as problems faced by MNsure, the state’s troubled online health insurance marketplace. Electoral politics never will be far from the surface as the governor and all House districts are up for election.

Propane: Recent shortages and high prices of propane are likely to drive efforts to increase storage in Minnesota so the fuel may be bought in the summer when it is cheaper and stored in the state for use during fall grain drying and winter heating seasons.

Public notice: Legislation is expected to be considered to relax a requirement for local governments to print legal notices in newspapers, and counties could post it on their websites only. Local governments say that would save money, but newspaper industry leaders say fewer citizens would see information about government.

Sex offenders: A federal judge says the Legislature must change the state’s sex offender program. If not, he could take control of it. He has ruled that the state should not continue its practice of committing sex offenders to indefinite treatment in state hospitals after they complete their criminal sentences.

Synthetic drugs: Lawmakers probably will pass bills making synthetic drugs, items such as bath salts, more difficult to buy and to educate Minnesotans about their dangers.

Taxes: Tax and spending work occurred last year, but some tax adjustments could come in 2014. Most legislators appear to favor eliminating a tax on farm implement repairs. Many also have discussed getting rid of other taxes lawmakers passed last year, such as a tax on storing goods in a warehouse someone else owns and one on technology equipment. Transportation funding: A broad coalition of

Minnesota organizations proposes, with key legislators’ backing, to raise taxes on motor vehicle fuel as a way to better fund road and transit projects. But House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said the new taxes will not pass this year.

Transportation safety: Transportation accidents and spills of crude oil, mostly from western North Dakota, prompted House and Senate transportation finance committee chairmen to propose a fee on oil transportation to fund improved training and equipment for emergency personnel. The House speaker says no new taxes are needed, but the state could find ways to help local officials deal with the issue.