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Health care, tax hike debates to headline 2019 Minnesota legislative session

Forum News Service photo by Don Davis1 / 3
State Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, will be elected speaker of the Minnesota House, the second-most-powerful office in state government, when the 2019 Legislature convenes on Jan. 8. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press2 / 3
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, was first elected majority leader by his peers in 2016 and was re-elected following November’s election, in which only one Senate seat was on the ballot. Dave Orrick / Pioneer Press3 / 3

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota lawmakers will return to St. Paul on Tuesday for the 2019 legislative session and they’ll face a hefty to-do list when they get there.

Their decisions could drive down the cost of health care, improve education outcomes, reduce gun violence and fix roads and bridges. Or lawmakers in the nation’s only divided legislature could dig in and opt not to compromise, leaving many of those possibilities out of reach.

No matter what, they’ll be required to complete a budget for the next two years likely to exceed $45 billion. And exactly what that spending plan should include has already come up for debate.

Before they get to work writing new laws and drafting a budget, here’s a look at what legislative leaders say they’ll tackle.

What about the surplus?

Lawmakers last month learned that the state expects a $1.5 billion surplus for the state’s next budget.

The news fueled arguments from Republicans that the state ought not to raise taxes and fees and instead should weigh tax cuts.

“When you have a surplus, that’s not the time to say, ‘We need more tax increases,’” Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said. “It’s, ‘How do we use that money wisely?’”

But Democrats said lawmakers should look at that number with caution as it doesn’t factor in inflation that adds to state expenses and projects they hope to tackle, like fixing roads and bridges and boosting school funding, likely can’t depend on one-time money.

Gov.-elect Tim Walz has said he’ll bring a proposal to raise the tax on gasoline to fund repairs to Minnesota highways. And in December, he didn’t rule out a more general tax hike.

House Speaker-designate Melissa Hortman, meanwhile, said lawmakers should take a look at raising user fees to bring more funds into the state’s coffers.

“That’s a way of making the pie bigger without raising taxes on people,” the Brooklyn Park Democrat said.

MinnesotaCare buy-in, provider tax sunset

Lawmakers will have to weigh what to do with a 2 percent tax on medical providers ,which is set to expire at the end of the year.

Gazelka said Republicans would like to see the tax, which they’ve branded a ‘sick tax,’ sunset at the end of the year. That would allow providers to lower their cost for patients, he said.

But that would pose a $700 million funding shortage for the state’s Medicaid and MinnCare programs, which provide insurance coverage for needy people and the working poor.

“It’s a pretty big hole to fill if it goes away,” Hortman said.

On the campaign trail, Walz called for allowing broader access for Minnesotans to opt into MinnesotaCare, a state-run health insurance program for low-income individuals. And state Sen. Tony Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, who accepted an appointment to lead the Department of Human Services this week, said he would put together a proposal to make that a reality.

“We’ll put out a plan that I think can bring people together,” Lourey said.

But that proposal puts an additional burden on medical providers, Gazelka said, as they receive lower reimbursement rates for patients with state health insurance plans than private insurance plans.

“You can’t let (state plans) reimburse at a lower rate when other ones can’t,” Gazelka said.

He encouraged additional transparency in medical pricing to bring down health care prices as well as the provider tax sunset.

Becoming the ‘education state’

With a former teacher set to take over the governor’s office, conversations about school funding and achievement are set to be at the forefront.

Hortman said Democrats planned to move a package of bills early on that would provide “more robust” funding for education, including early education, and boost work training opportunities.

Gazelka said raising education funding year after year isn’t enough to improve outcomes. He said he’d consider a less steep rise in school funding paired with alternative offerings for opportunity scholarships.

The state-sponsored scholarships let students move out of public schools to private or parochial schools.

“Every individual we can help we should try to help,” Gazelka said. “If their school is not getting their students where they need to go, are there some other opportunities that we should allow them to have?”

Curbing opioid addiction

Legislative leaders have said they struck an early agreement to approve additional opioid addiction treatment and prevention services. The legislation was locked up in a 989-page long bill that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed last year.

The opioid treatment funding along with other noncontroversial items like allowing the Minnesota secretary of state to accept federal funds to secure elections and blocking a 7 percent funding cut to home and community support providers are set to see support in both chambers, Hortman and Gazelka said.

Push to legalize recreational pot

Walz on the campaign trail said he’d push to legalize marijuana for recreational use in the state but the proposal has been met with mixed responses among state legislators.

Democrats said they’d consider legalization, but Gazelka said it’s a tough move for Republican lawmakers to support as they take up measures to prevent and treat opioid addiction.

“We’re saying we need to do something with the opioid abuse problem, then over here we want to legalize recreational marijuana,” Gazelka said. “To me, it’s like two different directions.”

Gun control and school safety

Democrats have also signaled that they’ll push for gun reform, including efforts to enact red flag legislation aimed at taking firearms from those who seem to pose a danger to themselves or others. They’ve also said they’ll aim to pass universal background check legislation.

Republicans, meanwhile, said conversations should center around expanding access to mental health resources and improving school safety rather than restricting access to firearms.

Minnesota legislators are set to be sworn in at the Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 8, at noon.