ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Legislature is set to return to action with a multi-billion dollar public works bill and a $1.3 billion budget surplus in the balance.
The players are predominantly the same. The Legislature is still divided. But with a two-year state budget out of the way, lawmakers will have time to weigh policy bills that they put off last year.
The election, while months away, will color many of the conversations around the Capitol. And though lawmakers know many proposals face certain death in the opposite chamber, they'll likely bring them forward to help voters get a taste of what they could come to expect if they hand Republicans or Democrats power over both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
They'll also have to agree on how much to borrow for projects around the state and to pinpoint which proposals should be included in a final bonding package. And with a $1.3 billion in state budget surplus, leaders and various interest groups will make a play for the funds.
Minnesotans could see child care costs decrease or be covered under one of the proposals up for consideration. Minnesota seniors could see their social security income exempted from state taxes. And firearm restrictions, voter identification requirements, the cost of health care, paid leave and climate change legislation are all slated to come up for debate.
With less than four months to reach agreements on key funding and policies that could affect the entire state, here's a look at what's in the balance as lawmakers return to the Capitol.
Early glimpse at 2021
With an election just months away, Democrats who control the House of Representatives and Republicans who control the Senate will put forth a menu of policy plans that Minnesotans might be able to expect in 2021, if they give one party control of both chambers. All of the state's legislative seats will be on the ballot this year. And that will weigh on lawmakers' decision over the next few months.
Democrats have said they'll make that case to voters in an effort to set up control of both chambers, which could allow them to tee up legislation to send to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz's desk for approval.
On the Democratic side, House leaders have said they'll bring forth plans to expand access to early childcare, create an emergency insulin access program and wrangle the price of prescription drugs, provide paid family leave as well as earned sick and safe time to workers and push for gun control clean energy measures.
“We will be communicating about the things that we stand for and sending a bunch of bills over to the Minnesota Senate that probably don’t have a good chance of being taken up and passed by the Senate,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, told Forum News Service. “But that is to make clear to Minnesota that if you give us a Senate that agrees with us, this is the kind of Minnesota you can expect.”
At the center of that plan is a $500 million proposal to boost one-time funding to early childhood care and learning scholarships, child care assistance program funding and dollars to extend 4,000 pre-Kindergarten slots that could be discontinued without additional funding. Around 25,000 additional kids could receive scholarships for early childhood care under the plan.
And Republicans have said they have qualms about many of those plans and plan to put forth a menu of GOP-backed plans of their own. Leaders in the Senate have said they hope to lower taxes and prescription costs, incentivize school choice, reduce violent crime in the Twin Cities metro area, reform the Department of Human Services and implement voter ID requirements.
"Minnesotans want government to work well and with bipartisan cooperation," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said in a statement. "That doesn’t include spending every penny of the surplus, borrowing to the brink, or massive new programs like mandatory paid leave. We’ll push our priorities, and so will others, but ultimately if there isn’t broad bipartisan agreement, it’s not going to be successful this session.”
Local project funding
During even-numbered years in the Legislature, lawmakers focus on borrowing to fund public projects across the state. And this year will be no different as leaders in the divided Statehouse aim to strike a deal about funding
Heading into the session, Republicans and Democrats have come to the table with different totals they'd like to see for the bonding plan and they could have different priorities in terms of which projects get a green light this year.
Walz has put forth a $2 billion bonding proposal with focus on affordable housing, water infrastructure, higher education, equity, public safety and quality of life. House Democrats have come in higher, arguing the state should take advantage of current low-interest rates to borrow to around $3.5 billion for state and local projects. But Senate Republicans advised keeping that number closer to $1 billion.
The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, which represents more than 100 local governments outside the Twin Cities metro area, has said they expect lawmakers to put up a substantial bonding bill that prioritizes wastewater treatment projects and investments in child care.
“These projects are extremely important, but they all are also extremely expensive,” Greg Zylka, mayor of Little Falls, said of wastewater and drinking water treatment infrastructure projects. “Our communities need the state to be a strong partner and help cities pay for these multi-million-dollar upgrades.”