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Minnesota notebook: GOP picks up Senate seat, gas tax fight gets tougher this week at the Capitol

Lawmakers returned to the Minnesota State Capitol Jan. 8, 2019, for the reconvening of the Legislature. Michael Brun / Forum News Service1 / 5
Mark Rios shares his experience at a rally to restore rights to felons after they complete their prison sentences Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, at the Capitol. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service2 / 5
Gov. Tim Walz speaks with reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, after a conference call with opioid manufacturers and distributors. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service3 / 5
Minnesota Senate candidate Jason Rarick (right) of Pine City smiles talks to Minnesota State Representative Marion O'Neill during an election party at Banning Junction in Finlayson Tuesday evening. Rarick defeated Stu Lourey in the special election for state Senate. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Stock Image / Pixabay5 / 5

ST. PAUL — Republicans in the Minnesota Senate got a new edge this week with a special election seat pickup.

And the win shook up the conversation about a possible gas tax to fund improvements to roads and bridges at the Statehouse.

A group aiming to restore voting rights to felons after they finish their prison sentences rallied at the Capitol then learned they'd face a tough road forward.

The clock ticked down for Gov. Tim Walz to decide whether he'd pick up an appeal blocking the Enbridge Line 3 construction project or let it move forward.

As the legislative session entered its fifth week, power dynamics in the Legislature shifted. And that shift could impact how landmark policy and spending debates unfold this year.

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

Republicans gain edge in the Senate

State Rep. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, beat out DFLer Stu Lourey and Legal Marijuana Now Party candidate John Birrenbach to take the District 11 state Senate seat Tuesday, Feb. 5 in a special election.

The win strengthened the GOP Senate majority, which previously separated them by one seat. And it was momentous for Republicans, as they hadn't been able to flip that seat from Democratic control for decades.

Now, with a 35-32 split in the Senate, Republicans will have more flexibility Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said, as they can afford to have one member peel off.

“It’s like a Grand Canyon difference between that and 34-33," the Nisswa Republican said.

Gas tax increase? Not so fast

That pickup for Republicans brought with it a likely setback for campaigns to hike the tax on gasoline to fund improvements to the state's roads and bridges.

The GOP held a slim majority before and with a two-seat advantage in the Senate, Gazelka said the proposal was "even less likely" to pass there as Rarick has said he opposes the tax increase.

Gazelka pointed to additional funds from auto part sales that lawmakers directed to be used for road and bridge improvements in recent years. And he said lawmakers should look for alternatives to a gas tax to boost funds for transportation.

"We have been putting more money into it and we need to be reminded of that," Gazelka said. “I’m open to more, I just don’t think we need a tax increase to do it."

Gov. Tim Walz has said the state needs to hike the gas tax to generate the funding needed to fill a projected $18 billion shortfall in the state's highway infrastructure over the next two decades.

"We have kicked the can down the road on transportation for too long," Walz told Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities members last week in St. Paul.

House Transportation Finance and Policy Division Chair Frank Hornstein this week said he'd put together a multi-modal transportation package that would include new revenue "from a variety of sources."

"To be successful, you have to have roads, bridges, transit and you also have to have all regions of the state benefit," Hornstein, a Minneapolis Democrat, said.

Restoring the vote campaign encounters early setback

Supporters of a proposal to let felons who've completed their prison sentences regain the right to vote rallied at the Capitol Thursday and appeared ready to pass this year.

Then a key senator threw a wrench in their plans.

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, told Forum News Service that he hadn't heard from constituents about the issue and didn't view it as a priority.

"I'm not planning on giving that bill a hearing this year," Limmer, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, said.

Under current law, those convicted of a felony lose the right to vote until after they've completed their sentence including prison time, probation, parole or conditional release. House File 40 and companion bill Senate File 856 would allow those convicted of a felony to vote after they were released from prison.

Gazelka said the conversation about restoring voting rights was important, but lawmakers should focus on shortening probation periods in state sentencing guidelines. Limmer said he'd be open to that conversation.

Clock ticks down on Line 3 project decision

The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday, Feb. 5, put out a notice that the clock is running for the Walz administration to decide if it will resurrect an appeal blocking the construction of the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline or let it go.

The court dismissed a Dayton administration appeal that blocked the project and set up a 20-day deadline for the Walz administration to file for reconsideration.

Groups on either side of the issue have traveled to the Capitol to request meetings with Walz.

Walz told reporters last month that he planned to review the appeal with the Commerce Commissioner before making up his mind. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Walz said the governor was meeting with stakeholders to help decide his next steps.