Each year, there are a few issues everyone knows will get the most attention at the Capitol.
In odd-numbered years, it’s the state’s budget that takes most of lawmakers’ time. In even-numbered years, it’s the massive package of construction projects — better known as the bonding bill — that’s the source of a lot of political handwringing. In 2016, bonding will be at the forefront in St. Paul, along with a few holdover issues legislative leaders left on the table last year, including long-term transportation funding and tax cuts.
But what about everything else?
There’s a projected $1.2 billion budget surplus waiting for lawmakers when session convenes, and already plenty of advocacy groups are clamoring for a piece of it. What’s more, lawmakers have been in negotiations for months over everything from the state’s persistent racial disparities to compliance with federal driver’s license standards.
For any issue, it won’t be easy to make the cut. Legislators will be up against a tight deadline: They have to complete their work during a short, 11-week session — amid the complications of an election year. All 201 House and Senate seats are on the ballot in November, and every issue will be filtered through that prism. But a survey of more than a dozen longtime Capitol watchers revealed a handful of issues outside of taxes, transportation and bonding that are likely to get a closer look in 2016.
Prison population and sentencing reform
Minnesota’s prison problem snuck up on state officials and legislators alike. A series of tough-on-crime laws enacted over the last decade have swelled the state’s prison population to near capacity. As a result, the Department of Corrections asked for $141 million to add hundreds of new beds to its Rush City facility to accommodate the growth, but DFL Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t include the full request in his bonding proposal. Republican legislators in the House are more inclined to reopen a vacant prison in Appleton, which is owned by a private company. In the long term, some legislators say they need to look at changing prison sentences on low-level drug offenses to keep the state’s facilities from overflowing. Expect all of those options to be on the table this session.
Dayton wants to put $100 million of the state’s budget surplus into increasing broadband access in Minnesota, and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith has been traveling to rural parts of the state to tout the proposal’s potential benefits. They have the backing of House Democrats, and Senate Democrats championed a similar proposal last legislative session. A recent report from the governor’s Broadband Task Force suggests investing even more — $200 million total — in broadband infrastructure next session. But the Republicans who control the House have been more reluctant to dedicate that much money for broadband. Last year, lawmakers were only able to agree on about $10.6 million for broadband access.
In negotiations this winter over a possible special session, lawmakers deadlocked on how to address Minnesota’s growing racial economic and achievement gaps. The debate will continue into regular session, and there are a lot of different ideas about how to tackle the problem. Dayton wants to fund a new human rights office in St. Cloud; Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, said legislators should put funding into work-force training and programs that help black Minnesotans obtain GEDs; Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, is pushing to increase funding for the Minnesota Family Investment Program, a state welfare-to-work program that has been around for three decades. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are proposing new tax credits for private schools, which they said will help low-income families.
But rising to the top of the list for both parties is the desire to create a state policy guiding the use of police body cameras, which many groups say will add another layer of accountability in police interactions with individuals. Currently, individual police departments across the state create their own policies to guide the use of the cameras, but there are concerns about privacy issues — when and how the videos should be made public.
Republican Speaker Kurt Daudt recently announced the formation of the Select Committee on Affordable Child Care, starting up this month and continuing through the session (and probably beyond). The committee will travel across the state to talk to parents and care providers to “facilitate solutions for more affordable child care choices,” according to a release. Republicans are not happy about a recent move from Democrats that would allow child care workers to unionize, sending a letter to Dayton Tuesday that called for him to immediately halt those efforts. Democrats will be pushing the child care issue from a different angle, with Dayton calling to expand the number of Minnesota families eligible for child care tax credits. Minnesota legislators are also considering more proposals that aim to protect children from abuse, including recruitment of more child care workers in rural Minnesota and ensuring every county has 24/7 child protection services.
Future of the Iron Range
Any day now, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr is expected to drop a decision more than a decade in the making: whether to clear a final environmental review of the PolyMet Mining Corp.’s copper-nickel mining project. His approval would allow the company to apply for a permit to mine. The NorthMet project could be the first-ever sulfide mine in the state — and a huge point of contention between miners on the Iron Range and environmentalists, who are worried the project could damage the state’s pristine lakes. No matter what Landwehr decides, both sides are expecting a flood of legislation in response. The decision will also be tied to a broader point of debate this session: about the future of the Iron Range. More than 2,000 mine workers are out of a job after several facilities closed down. Dayton and legislators are already in negotiations to extend unemployment benefits to workers, but for how long? It’s unclear when some mines will reopen, if ever. Expect a lot of discussion about the long-term outlook and options for the region.
Dayton and Democrats united Tuesday behind an effort to provide six weeks of paid parental leave to all state workers. The proposal would cost around $6 million per year and affect about 35,000 employees. That’s just a first step, they say, in a broader effort to provide parental leave and sick time to other workers across the state, though the details of that proposal are not fine-tuned yet. It’s a top priority for Democrats in control of the Senate, so expect it to be part of negotiations. In the House, Republican Rep. Sarah Anderson, who chairs the House Government Finance Committee, said Dayton’s proposal only widens “the gap between public and private sector employees.” Anderson said she’s working on her own bill to provide parental leave to families working in the private sector.
Dayton hasn’t been shy about his intentions. Since last session, he’s signaled clean water as one of his top priorities in his last three years as governor, and he’s using the 2016 bonding bill as ground zero for the next phase of his efforts. He’s proposing more than $167 million in bonding dollars to tackle sewer and clean water infrastructure projects across the state, many in far-flung, rural communities with aging water treatment systems.
But bonding isn’t the only part of the equation. Dayton is also continuing a push for protection between the state’s waterways and farmland, which produces agricultural runoff. Last year, he passed a requirement for natural buffers between farmland and waterways. But he’s already tussled with Republicans over his administration’s intentions to map private ditches when the law is in full effect. Dayton retreated on that plan for now but said he plans to reopen the debate in the 2016 session. He’s teeing up the debate with a two-day clean water summit in late February.
It’s always a big deal when the Minnesota Legislature takes up gun bills. It hits on tensions between metro area legislators, where gun violence is a daily problem, and lawmakers from rural areas, where guns are passed down from generation to generation and used for hunting and recreation. But in her final term in the House, Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, is taking on the issue, pushing a gun control package that would require universal background checks to purchase a firearm.