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MN Capitol Notebook: Gas tax hike reaches roadblock, gun control bills cause standoff

Minnesota Capitol. Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Gov. Tim Walz called on lawmakers to write their story together, a story of compromise in divided government.

House Democrats said they'd push to put two gun control bills in a budget proposal, possibly setting up a standoff with a key Republican leader.

Senate Republicans shot down a key tenet of the governor's budget proposal in a committee hearing Democrats viewed as a stunt, teeing up a tough road ahead for a gasoline gas tax hike.

Amid messages of a willingness to compromise this week, actions on either side of the Legislature told a different story.

Republican leaders dug in on promises to oppose tax hikes while Democrats supported the governor and said they'd continue to push forward policy proposals that helped win control of the House of Representatives.

With the clock running down, lawmakers said they were confident they could strike a budget deal without a special session. But the way to that agreement remained unclear.

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

Walz uses State of the State speech to urge compromise

Walz on Wednesday used his first State of the State address to urge lawmakers to work together to write the story of this session, rather than falling into a script of partisan division.

In an unscripted speech, the DFL governor shared the stories of Minnesotans he'd met to stump for his proposals to boost funding to education, road and bridge repairs and health care access.

"We can choose to follow the same story that was written ahead of time, we can choose to decide who belongs and who doesn't, we can choose to let ideology drive us before people, or we can do what Minnesota's always done: rise up and create a better way of life, lead the nation in how things could get done," he said.

While Republicans didn't stand to cheer on Walz's calls to provide a "safety net" for all Minnesotans seeking health care or his veiled remarks about hiking the gas tax, they said he brought a positive tone. And they agreed that the issues he mentioned were ones lawmakers would have to solve this year.

"If he's committed to negotiating in good faith, we certainly are," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said.

Gas tax hike reaches a roadblock

A GOP-led committee on Tuesday, April 2, voted down a pared-back version of Walz's proposal to hike the tax on gasoline by 20 cents per gallon and increase other fees to fund road and bridge repairs.

The move signals a bumpy road forward for the proposal.

Opponents in the committee said repairs to roads and bridges should be funded through the state general fund, not a designated tax.

Walz said the hearing appeared "rigged up" to sink the bill and he continued his push to win over the public. Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher on Thursday listed new infrastructure projects slated for this summer and said hundreds more would be put on hold indefinitely without the new funding.

Democrats say they'll put gun control provisions in budget bill

House Democrats on Thursday said they'd weave two gun control proposals into a budget package, setting up a standoff with a key Republican lawmaker.

“The Minnesota House of Representatives will pass gun violence prevention legislation this session,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Brooklyn Park, said. “Senate Republicans can play games if they want, but they should be honest with Minnesotans — you either support the bills or you don’t.”

Gazelka has said he'd give the bills a hearing in the Senate if the House of Representatives could pass them off the floor but he didn't want to see them muddle up spending bills. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, agreed with Gazelka that the proposals should be voted on as stand-alone bills.

On Thursday, Gazelka said he'd drop the offer to hold a hearing on the bills if they remained in the budget proposal.

"Well, they’ve chosen not to take that path, and that’s why I say both gun bills are dead," he told reporters.

Opioid package takes another big step forward

The Minnesota Senate on Monday approved a package aimed at boosting a fee for opioid painkiller manufacturers and wholesale distributors to help fight the state's opioid epidemic.

On a 59-6 vote, the Senate advanced House Bill 400, setting up negotiations between the Senate and House of Representatives. The House passed a similar bill last month. And lawmakers on Thursday took up a conversation to iron out the differences between the bills.

Under both versions, opioid manufacturers and wholesale distributors that operate in the state would face steeper licensing fees to fund the $20 million a year in addiction treatment, prevention and drug intervention by law enforcement.