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The 7 biggest state government stories from 2017 you probably already forgot

The year in Minnesota politics was filled with so many historic moments that it’s hard to remember them all. 

Rebekah Hudson directed hundreds of people working on the interior historic renovation of the rotunda, House and Senate chambers and Supreme Court chamber.
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Welcome to 2017, the year that just won’t stop.

This tour around the sun started with a new president and Republicans in control of Congress and the Minnesota Legislature, and it’s ending with a sexual harassment scandal, one that took down two Minnesota legislators and, most recently, a U.S. senator.

On top of that, Minnesota’s lieutenant governor is heading to Washington to take over Senate duties, setting off a chain of events that will put a Republican in the lieutenant governor’s office alongside a Democratic governor for the first time in decades.

And those were just the bookends. The year in state politics was marked by several other firsts: the first time Minnesotans were allowed to buy booze on Sundays; the first time a governor vetoed the budget of the House and Senate; the first time in 112 years the Minnesota Capitol looked this good.

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It was a relentless news cycle, especially for those trying to keep track of it all. So to remind you just how bonkers it was, here’s a recap of seven major stories in state government you would do well to remember:

1. You got to buy booze on Sunday
It only took 159 years, but in March, Minnesota lawmakers did something they’d struggled to do for years: They voted to let Minnesotans buy booze at liquor stores on Sunday. The push started sometime after the 2016 election, when Republicans took control of the Minnesota Senate and expanded their majority in the House. House Speaker Kurt Daudt made it his top priority to lift the ban, so he stacked a key House committee in favor of Sunday liquor sales and started whipping votes in his own caucus. The full House voted to lift the ban in February, putting pressure on senators to do the same. By early March, both chambers voted in favor of Sunday liquor sales and Gov. Mark Dayton signed the bill. How very 2017. Cheers, Minnesota, we’re going to need it.

2. Lawmakers got a $14,000 pay raise
It was also in March when the newly formed Minnesota Legislative Salary Council unceremoniously voted on a Friday to boost paychecks of all 201 state legislators from  $31,100 to $45,000. It was significant, not just for the price tag, but because it was the first time their salaries had changed since 1990. There was some initial grumbling, including a push from Daudt to block the raise, but after a few months the pay raise went into effect and few have mentioned it since. That’s because the council and its authority was added to the Minnesota Constitution via a very popular ballot initiative last fall. The council will consider legislative salaries again in the spring of 2019.

3. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the Legislature’s budget 
Perhaps the biggest story in state government in 2017 — or at least the one with the biggest long-term impacts — was Dayton’s veto of the House and Senate budget. It stunned just about everyone in politics when he vetoed their funding back in May, saying he hoped it would encourage legislators to come back to the negotiation table to discuss various provisions in budget bills and a tax bill he signed. It did no such thing, but it did spawn a six-month court battle that ended up before the Minnesota Supreme Court. Legislators argued Dayton’s veto was unconstitutional because it endangered a separate, co-equal branch of government, but Dayton said the constitution gave him the authority to line-item veto any budget lines, including the Legislature’s. The Supreme Court agreed with Dayton, to many people’s surprise. Its long-term effects remain to be seen, but many experts say it sets up a system where legislators and governors will just withhold or veto funding for legislative and executive budgets as leverage for major policy proposals. Fun!

4. Dayton collapsed during the State of the State address
Dayton’s health hasn’t been great for some time, and he’s always been forthcoming about any issues. Since he’s been governor, Dayton had two spinal surgeries for chronic back pain, and he had plasma injected into his hip after he fell down the governor’s residence in St. Paul. In 2016, he fainted at a political event for a DFL candidate and was treated for dehydration. But none of this prepared legislators and spectators for his collapse toward the end of his State of the State address this year, a startling moment in front of all 201 legislators that was streamed live across the state. Dayton was immediately removed from the chamber and recovered later that night, but the following morning, as he delivered his budget proposal, the governor dropped another bombshell: He had prostate cancer. Dayton has since had surgery and is now cancer-free, but it was a stunning series of events.

5. The Minnesota Capitol got a once-every-112-years facelift
In happier 2017 news, the messy restoration of the Minnesota Capitol finally ended and the building was reopened to the public. It was a significant moment for many reasons. First, the Capitol was effectively closed off to the public for much of the massive, three-year restoration, and the 2017 session marked the first time the public could freely wander through the building again. Second, the results of the project were stunning: Corroding pieces of marble on the outside of the building were replaced and polished, water damage and fading murals were restored, skylights were recovered and light flooded into previously dark spaces. The whole building was rewired to be more modern and energy efficient, and the Capitol now has more public spaces than ever. In August, the state kicked off a three-day celebration to celebrate the project, which will preserve the Capitol for at least another 100 years to come.

6. The Real ID debacle was solved, finally
They cut it close, but Minnesota lawmakers finally reached a deal to implement Real ID, ending a years-long drama over whether state driver’s licenses could be used to board an airplane. It’s a saga that’s been ongoing since 2005, when the federal government passed the act to required minimum security standards for driver’s license in each state. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the idea was to make licenses more secure when boarding an airplane. But Minnesota legislators had concerns about data privacy, so in 2009, they voted nearly unanimously to prohibit the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety (DPS) from “taking any action to implement or to plan for the implementation” of the Real ID Act. In the years that followed, the federal government began putting pressure on individual states to comply, threatening those that did not with deadlines for when residents driver’s licenses would no longer be enough to fly. After failed attempts to come up with a solution in 2015 and 2016, including a protracted political debate about immigrant driver’s license, legislators came up with a deal at the very end of the 2017 session. In doing so, Minnesota became the very last state to comply, heading off a deadline that would have complicated air travel for Minnesotans starting in January 2018.

7. The Minnesota sex offender lawsuit fell apart
The ongoing class action lawsuit against Minnesota’s sex offender treatment program had been going on for years, and looked like it would lead to major changes to the way the state treated sex offenders. In 2015, a federal judge ruled the program was unconstitutional for confining 700 men for treatment, usually after they served a prison sentence, but rarely letting anyone out. The state started releasing some men who were not considered a danger to society into group homes, but they also appealed the court ruling to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. In January, the appeals court reversed the ruling of the federal judge, declaring that the program is, in fact, constitutional. The attorney representing offenders in the state program appealed all the way up to the United State’s Supreme Court, but this fall, the justices opted not to take up the case. Not only does that halt any changes that were being made to the program, the class-action suit’s failure will have ramifications across the country.