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House DFL opens session with priority of paying back $550 million to schools

Speaker Paul Thissen said other early proposals would deal with a state-based health insurance exchange and jobs.

The ceremonial House File 1 for the 2013 Legislature will be a bill that returns roughly $550 million to the state’s schools.
MinnPost photo by James Nord

House leaders intend to make their first bill of the session a measure paying back part of the school funds lawmakers borrowed to balance the current state budget.

Speaker Paul Thissen, sworn in Tuesday along with the rest of Minnesota’s legislators, said the ceremonial House File 1 would be a bill that returns roughly $550 million to the state’s schools. DFLers campaigned on the issue, but it hadn’t surfaced on many pre-legislative to-do lists.

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Rep. Paul Marquart, House Education Finance Committee chairman, said the goal is to pay back the money — leaving about half of the total shift remaining — by the end of the budget cycle. Democrats didn’t say, though, how they plan to pay for the legislation.

Thissen also said a proposal to create a state-based health insurance exchange and a couple of jobs bills would flesh out the House DFL’s first pieces of legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk agreed that an exchange, part of the federal health care reform law, would be a priority.

Legislative leaders plan to outline important pieces of legislation other than the budget on Wednesday.

“It’s pretty hard to lead with a bill that says ‘state budget,’ ” Bakk joked, though he said: “Certainly the budget is the overwhelming work of the session.”

On the first day, legislators promised to work together, and the new DFL majorities called on all lawmakers to leave the campaign trail behind them.

GOP leaders, too, said they’re ready to work toward compromises with Democrats but said they would point out key differences where they disagree.

Speaker Paul Thissen on the floor
MinnPost photo by James Nord
“I look forward to getting to work,” said Speaker Paul Thissen.

“As each of you do, I have high hopes for this legislative session,” Thissen said, addressing the entire House chamber. “Now I look forward to getting to work.”

Former Speaker Kurt Zellers, who returned to the House as a minority lawmaker after the Republicans’ electoral defeat last fall, was recognized with a standing ovation from the entire chamber. Zellers called the attention “very, very nice” and said he felt lucky to leave an “imprint on history” as speaker.

House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, the incoming Republican leader, called the day “bittersweet.”

Despite the collegiality of the first day, it quickly became clear that lawmakers from both parties would have plenty to disagree about.

Senate Minority Leader David Hann said Republicans would push back against proposed tax increases, which Bakk said would be part of the solving Minnesota’s projected $1.1 billion deficit for the next biennium.

Sen. David Hann
MinnPost photo by James Nord
Minority Leader David Hann pledged to lead his caucus in pushing back against any tax increases.

The Republican from Eden Prairie, the GOP’s new Senate leader, said the GOP would also work to protect both consumers and insurance agents as Democrats take the lead on designing and implementing Minnesota’s health insurance exchange.

Hann, who ran the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last session, has opposed the exchange and said Republicans consider it a poor piece of policy.

Gov. Mark Dayton, who is recuperating after surgery, will release his budget proposal on Jan. 22. Bakk said the governor had been texting him from the hospital about aspects of the budget and seemed optimistic about how it was shaping up.

The issue of gay marriage also likely will cause a rift between both parties and serve as a wedge among Democrats as well. Bakk and Thissen have consistently backed away from speaking openly about repealing Minnesota’s same-sex marriage ban, although Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would sign such a proposal.

Bakk said his chamber wouldn’t take up such a measure until after finishing up its budget work. Thissen was even less specific about the issue.