Democrats have acknowledged that they’ll have disagreement during the legislative session, and Senate leaders provided the first example Thursday when they outlined their non-budget focus for the next few months.
The Senate’s first bills, covering other priorities, include a minimum wage hike, a state-based health insurance exchange, voluntary full-day kindergarten funding and an increased legislative threshold for passing constitutional amendments.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, flanked by the bill authors, stressed that solving the state’s $1.1 billion budget deficit remains Democrats’ most important task but said these policies would be immediately helpful to Minnesotans.
“There is no question that the budget is the overriding work of this legislative session – the budget and the tax reform that is very closely linked to it,” he said. “With that, we think that these four bills are important to Minnesotans. We think that it’ll have a positive impact on citizens all across our state.”
They do contrast, though, with the House’s first bills, which include funding to increase exports and jobs grants, property tax relief and a school funding shift payback. Bakk said he hadn’t discussed his chamber’s legislative focus with House Speaker Paul Thissen.
Because the April deadline for the state to pass insurance exchange legislation is quickly approaching, both bodies have made it a priority.
DFL Sen. Tony Lourey, who released a basic exchange bill on Wednesday, said the health care overhaul is meant to increase access and is a more affordable alternative to a federally run program. He called the exchange legislation “true health care reform in Minnesota.”
The proposed minimum wage hike would raise pay from the current $6.15 to $7.50 an hour and index it to inflation. The federal minimum wage is $7.25.
The bill’s author, Sen. Chris Eaton, said Minnesota is behind when it comes to the minimum wage.
A voluntary all-day kindergarten program would cost the state an estimated $170 million if every eligible child in every school district took advantage of the opportunity in the 2014-2015 school year, Bakk said, citing the advantages of early education in child development.
In a twist, Bakk also proposed changing the statute so that it would require a 60 percent vote of each legislative chamber in different years to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Others, though, have said such a change would require a constitutional amendment, but Bakk disputes that.
“Minnesota just came off one of the most divisive elections we’ve ever seen,” he said, blaming the “purely partisan amendments on the ballot.”
Bakk also took questions about the first tax legislation introduced this session and confirmed that Gov. Mark Dayton’s budget would include income tax hikes on the wealthiest Minnesotans — a policy he campaigned on. The majority leader said taxing goods purchased online is also likely.
“There will be a more progressive tax bill,” he said.