Minnesota lawmakers will officially gavel in the 2014 session on Tuesday, and while it may be a shorter-than-usual season for policy-making, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton doesn’t expect the proceedings to be quiet.
With six Republicans eyeing his seat in the governor’s office, Dayton knows every move he makes in the short session could be used against him in his campaign for re-election this fall.
It’s already begun in the run-up to the session, with the GOP candidates railing on everything from Dayton’s new lieutenant governor pick to the rocky rollout of the state’s health insurance exchange, MNsure.
“The occupation of the Republicans is to make me and the DFL majority in the House look as bad as possible so they can defeat us in November,” Dayton told MinnPost in a wide-ranging interview the day before session.
“There will be no cooperation, and there will be all sorts of throwing rocks from the sidelines and trying to cause problems at every piece of significant piece of legislation to try and score their points,” he said.
Limited legislative agenda
For now, Dayton is keeping his legislative agenda fairly simple. He is distancing himself from a push to legalize medical marijuana this year, as well as calls to pour major dollars into roads, bridges and transit this session.
But it’s also a bonding year, so he’d like to sign a nearly $1 billion package of construction projects to get crews on the roads and cranes up in the air as soon as possible. For that, however, he will need Republican cooperation to achieve the super-majorities needed for the bonding package.
He’s also been an outspoken supporter of a growing movement to significantly raise the state’s minimum hourly wage from $6.15 to $9.50 for large employers. While most businesses pay the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25 for large employers, Minnesota is one of just four states with a minimum wage that’s lower than the federal rate.
“I think there is growing recognition that our minimum wage is terribly outdated and inadequate,” Dayton said, adding that the $9.50 minimum wage increase would add about $477 million a year to the incomes of Minnesotans. “Those dollars then multiply through the local economies and the state and federal economies, and that’s what drives an economic recovery, and that’s what we need to be putting more emphasis on.”
He anticipates some increase will happen this session, though Dayton says it’s up to lawmakers to work out how high they are willing to go.
A Friday budget forecast will bring more clarity, but the governor and lawmakers also anticipate having a significant budget surplus to spend this session. Early numbers project a more than $1 billion surplus, with about $825 million left over after the school shift is repaid.
The governor has said he wants to use some of that money for tax cuts by conforming state and federal laws, including eliminating the marriage penalty and increasing the working family credit. He also wants to eliminate three business-to-business taxes passed just last session. Dayton says each proposal will cost the state around $250 million.
Waiting on spending initiatives
But he’s quiet on whether he will pursue any significant spending initiatives this year. He listed off a few smaller items he supports: $20 million for the low-income propane assistance fund to get Minnesotans through the bitter winter, about $7 million more for kids who can’t afford reduced-priced school lunches, and a 5 percent rate increase for group-home and long-term care workers. That proposal would cost about $86 million this year.
“On the spending side, I am going to wait until after the Friday forecast to see. I agree with what Speaker [Paul] Thissen and Majority Leader [Tom] Bakk say, that this is not a spending session,” Dayton said. “My focus is going to be on tax reduction and on other aspects of the session.”
One of those other aspects will be his pitch to make 2014 the year of the “unsession,” a time to repeal weighty phrases and redundant language peppered throughout the state’s law books. Dayton said he plans to unveil his proposal for the unsession shortly after the “dust settles” on the new budget forecast.
“It’s a complete streamlining in state government, eliminating a thousand pages of state statutes that are over-worded and outmoded and outdated,” he said. “We can make dealing with state government a lot simpler and less time-consuming and just a better experience for our citizens.”
At least one high-profile issue — the state’s troubled MNsure — will be outside the purview of the governor and legislators this year, Dayton said. The exchange’s website has been troubled with glitches since its rollout on Oct. 1.
“I would certainly do it differently,” Dayton said of MNsure, which was passed into law last session. “I don’t think there’s anything that the Legislature needs to do or can do really that’s going to affect these problems. These are operational problems and they are being corrected, and the system is working a lot better now. It’s not perfect yet, and that’s where it needs to be, and we are working toward that.”