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Dayton’s unintended ‘unsession’: No action, slow action on high-profile issues

The governor notes limited progress on tax cuts and a minimum-wage increase — and no chance for medical marijuana or reform of the state’s troubled sex-offender treatment program.

“It’s not going to happen this session,” Dayton said bluntly of legalizing medical marijuana this year.
MinnPost file photo by James Nord

This might truly be the 2014 Minnesota “unsession,” although not in the way Gov. Mark Dayton originally intended.

The DFL governor, in a wide-ranging phone interview with reporters on Thursday afternoon, threw cold water on the likelihood of several high-profile policy issues passing this session, including a contentious push to legalize medical marijuana in plant form and reforms of the state’s troubled sex-offender treatment program.

He said he continues to be concerned about public safety aspects of legalizing marijuana even for medical purposes, and he worries about the complicated logistics of creating distribution centers and the delivery of medical marijuana.

“To have marijuana plants that need to be transported, that need to be grown, cultivated, distributed, it’s just not going to happen this session,” Dayton said, adding that his concerns about the bill had only increased over the last few days.

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What’s more, he said medicinal marijuana has not been vetted and researched like other medications. “We’re going to use a different standard for medical marijuana than other medicine that will improve and save lives?” Dayton said.

Supporters of medical marijuana gathered outside of the governor’s mansion Thursday, where Dayton has been laid up for weeks following a hip surgery. They signed and delivered an over-sized get-well-soon card to the governor, with an inscription inside that read: “You took action to relieve your pain. Will you take action to relieve ours?”

Dayton’s tone softened a little after a two-hour meeting with advocates at the governor’s mansion, in which 11 individuals and family members told the governor why medicinal marijuana would help ease their suffering. The governor has now appointed chief of staff Jaime Tincher, senior policy advisor Joanna Dornfeld and Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger to work with advocates to find a possible compromise this session. 

Dayton also said there’s no likely path forward on reforming the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) this year.

In late February, a federal judge strongly urged legislators to find a solution to possible constitutional questions surrounding the program. Currently, about 700 offenders are locked in prison-like facilities with little hope of release. Only one person has been successfully released from the program in the state’s 20-year history of civil commitment.

Despite a call from Dayton ahead of the session to find a solution, progress has stalled in the House, where Republicans and Democrats can’t find common ground on the best way to move forward in fixing the program. Republicans prefer to create a less restrictive facility on the current grounds of MSOP in St. Peter and Moose Lake.

Democrats, however, want to adopt the recent recommendations of the Sex Offender Civil Commitment Advisory Task Force, which suggested biennial reviews of MSOP enrollees, a bifurcated hearing process and an independent judicial panel to conduct reviews, among other things.

‘[With] the political potency of this issue in an election year,” Dayton said, “the leadership in all four caucuses have to be on board, and that’s just not there now.”

Dayton said he supports a bill that would cover the $3 million in costs U.S. District Court Judge Donavan Frank and a team will incur as they review hundreds of offender cases that are part of a class-action lawsuit. Outside of that proposal, he expects little progress on the issue in 2014.

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There is one thing Dayton would like to see done quickly this session: tax breaks for Minnesotans. House Democrats passed a $500 million bill last week that repeals last session’s three business-to-business taxes and conforms federal and state tax code, among other things.  Dayton said $57 million is still on the line for Minnesotans filing their tax forms this year.

Dayton wants the Senate to pass similar provisions before March 19 to avoid complicated tax forms. Minnesotans can file amended tax returns to get benefits that will come with federal conformity, but Dayton said he’d like to avoid the “kind of lack of efficiency” and confusion on tax filings that has plagued the state’s health insurance exchange, MNsure.

Senate DFL leaders have said they don’t want to act on tax cuts and repeals without properly vetting the proposals in committee. The upper chamber has also shown a preference toward putting money in the state’s budget reserves over broad tax cuts this year. The state is debating a $1.2 billion budget surplus.

The governor said it “will be serious” if the Senate doesn’t act soon, but he has hope they can find a solution by next week.

Dayton reiterated his push for a minimum-wage increase to $9.50 per hour and his desire that it be indexed for inflation. He noted, however, that piece of the political puzzle likely will not fall into place until the very end of session.

House and Senate Democrats are currently negotiating the raise, with both sides agreeing to go as high as $9.50 per hour but the Senate firmly opposed to indexing.