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Minnesota lawmakers must pass own budget, but not much work mandatory

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook is center of attention as he answers a reporter's question during a Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, Forum News Service-sponsored pre-session briefing. From left are Bakk, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, Gov. Mark Dayton, House Speaker Kurt Daudt and House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman. David Oakes / Minnesota Senate photographer1 / 5
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton listens to a question Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, Forum News Service briefing looking ahead to the 2018 legisaltive session. Michael Brun / Forum News Service2 / 5
Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman listens while others talk during a Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, Forum News Service briefing that looked ahead to the legislative session. Michael Brun / Forum News Service3 / 5
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton makes a point to nearly 30 reporters on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, during a Forum News Service briefing looking ahead to the legislative session. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 5
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton answers a question Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, while House Speaker Kurt Daudt watches during a Forum News Service pre-session briefing. Michael Brun / Forum News Service5 / 5

ST. PAUL — The 2018 Minnesota Legislature opens at noon Tuesday, Feb. 20, and there are plenty of questions about what topics might be debated.

A few things are given:

• One of the first bills to pass must be funding for the Legislature, which Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed last spring in an unsuccessful attempt to get the Republican-controlled Legislature back to the bargaining table on some topics. Without early passage, the Legislature will run out of money and would be forced to shut down. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said the bill will pass within two weeks. Democratic leaders, meanwhile, want a pay raise for state workers tacked onto the bill, a move Republicans oppose.

• How the state deals with federal tax changes will be a topic of a legislative committee meeting a couple of hours before the session begins, and probably for weeks to come.

• There is little doubt lawmakers will pass a public works bill, funded by the state selling bonds, but Democrats and Republicans have far different ideas about how much should be spent.

Beyond that short list, however, it is unclear what may get done by the time lawmakers must head home on May 21.

There is a lot of talk about improving the state's programs that are supposed to prevent elder abuse and many rural lawmakers, in particular, want to find ways to increase child care availability. What the Legislature might do with either issue is not clear.

Legislative leaders have taken steps to improve how they deal with sexual misconduct allegations, but there has been no clear answer to whether laws need to be changed.

There is a lot of talk about fighting an epidemic of opioid abuse, and all sides promise action. Dayton wants to collect a fee, which some call a tax, from drug companies that sell the powerful painkillers. That may not fly with Republicans, although Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said the GOP is on board for some major opioid-fighting legislation.

Actually, there is relatively little lawmakers must do this year. They passed a two-year state budget last year and the even-numbered year usually is dominated by passing a bonding bill and tweaking the budget as needed.

The good news is that it would seem Minnesota's leaders will start the 2018 legislative session with a little extra cash: They expect a $188 million budget deficit predicted a few months ago to turn into a surplus when new a budget forecast comes out at the end of February.

When Forum News Service asked Dayton and the leaders, the two senators said the surplus would be near $1 billion while House leaders were close to $600 million. Dayton agreed there would be a surplus, but would not guess how big.

The agreement ended there. The leaders split over how to use surplus money.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, suggested increasing spending for education, which she said has not received enough money recently.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said some of the funds should to go MNLARS, the ill-fated state computer system that has resulted in delays as Minnesotans try to renew or get new motor vehicle licenses. He also sees elder abuse as an area that should get more money.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said that some of the money may need to be used to reduce the impact of tax increases that could happen in light of new federal tax law.

Tuesday might be a good day to watch the Senate start its work for the year. Bakk said he will closely watch Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, who also is lieutenant governor.

Democrats like Bakk do not think Fischbach can hold both jobs, pointing to a state constitutional ban. But Fischbach says she can keep the jobs because she only is temporarily lieutenant governor. A court rejected a Democrat's effort to kick Fischbach out of the Senate, but said a new suit can be filed later, which is expected.

"Let's see kind of what events come about Tuesday as it is related to Sen. Fischbach," Bakk said.

Republicans hold a one-vote edge in the Senate, although they have a more comfortable House advantage. Is a lawsuit successfully removed Fischbach from the Senate, there would be an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

There is one issue Republicans cannot do alone: voting to borrow money for public works projects. The Constitution requires a supermajority, which means both Republican and Democratic votes will be needed.

Dayton is pushing a $1.5 billion public works bill, to be funded by the state selling bonds. His plan almost exclusively funds state-owned projects, but he said he also thinks $858 million in local projects "merit" state funding.

His dream bonding bill probably will not happen. Daudt said something around $800 million or less is more likely. Gazelka said it "should be significantly less than $1 billion."

Bakk suggested a $1 billion will and Hortman argued for a big bill because that is the best way to help the economy.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.