The 2018 session of the Minnesota Legislature began with some optimism. A constitutional battle from 2017 between Gov. Mark Dayton and GOP legislative leaders over his veto of their funding had been resolved; there was a surplus of cash that allowed flexibility in the second year of the budget; and there was agreement on what bills had to get passed, if not the specific provisions they would contain.
But when they adjourned just before midnight Sunday, optimism was in low supply, as the Legislature was left hoping that Gov. Mark Dayton wouldn’t follow through on his threat to veto a massive omnibus spending and policy bill as well as an attempt to bring state tax law into conformity with the new federal tax code.
And those must-dos? Many fell apart or were passed in ways that left supporters unsatisfied. And even then, many are embroiled in the veto threat. Here’s a look at the sessions big issues — and where they ended up.
Attempts to get the drug companies to pay the costs of treatment and prevention failed, so money for a $10 million program to tackle those problems will come out of the state general fund.
A plan to place a penny-a-pill tax on the addictive painkillers failed, as did a licensing fee on producers and providers. While the Senate overwhelmingly approved a plan to have the industry pay for what some termed a mess it made, the House balked. Even that $10 million, however, is in the Mega-Omnibus bill that the governor says he will veto.
Minnesota’s capital was one of many that faced a reckoning over longstanding harassment of women by lawmakers or others in power. Two state lawmakers — Sen. Dan Schoen and Rep. Tony Cornish — resigned and there were pledges to change both the atmosphere and the means to report and discipline those who harass.
But one such move was blocked by public and private employers. That was a law change to make it easier to make and prove cases by ending a court-imposed standard that unless the harassment is “severe and pervasive,” it cannot lead to civil penalties.
The change was stymied by complaints from municipal governments as well as the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, who argued that it would lead to a flood of lawsuits. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said it will take time to get the new standard right. But when his viewpoint was backed up by Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk during TPT’s “Almanac” on Friday, House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said it was time for more women in Senate leadership.
Republicans introduced bills to create a tip credit in the state minimum wage: Employers of tipped workers would have to make sure they received at least the minimum wage, but they could count tips to calculate the difference between a lower tipped-worker minimum wage and the higher minimum wage.
The bills didn’t pass, but the same language was in the supplemental budget, and sponsor Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, was confident it would make it to the governor. It didn’t. The tip credit fell out as one of the 71 Dayton objections that were met as a way to attract his signature.
The Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk that would increase penalties for three types of protests: the occupation of freeways and the interruption of airports or transit. Both are currently subject to penalties as misdemeanors, but the change would raise the penalties to gross misdemeanors, which would mean the difference between 90 days in jail and one year in jail. While most legislative DFLers opposed, arguing it would chill speech and protest, Dayton had not ruled out signing it, but he did end up vetoing the bill. “I said in terms of the highway and airport access I would support the tougher penalties there,” he said. “The transit part is just too vague.”
Another bill approved by lawmakers would create allow civil suits against those who trespass on critical infrastructure and also those who educate or recruit others to trespass.
Two bills were subject to a late press by Dayton and activists led by Protect Minnesota and the high school students who joined the national march on Washington, D.C., following the Parkland, Florida, massacre. One would install universal background checks on all gun purchases. Another would create a system to “red flag” and block gun purchases by those who are considered a danger to themselves or others. Neither cleared the House or Senate.
The House and Senate (mostly, but not exclusively, with Republican votes) sent Dayton a bill to restructure the governance of the regional parks, transit, sewage and planning agency. Currently governors appoint 16 members by district and a chair who is a full-time member of his or her cabinet. The change would create a body with a majority of county commissioners and city council members. Though he hasn’t taken any action on the bill yet, Dayton has repeatedly stated his objection to changes to the Met Council governance structure.
The so-called bonding bill would pay for state and local construction and infrastructure projects. Most, but not all, is funded by the sale of state bonds. The debate this session was over the price tag, and in turn the number of funded projects.
Dayton asked for $1.5 billion in new projects: two-thirds for higher education and for preserving state buildings and infrastructure. He also wanted $115 million for affordable housing projects and $50 million to build and plan new bus rapid transit lines in the Twin Cities.
Republicans came up with an $825 million plan, with more money for roads and bridges and less for higher education and asset preservation. Because supermajorities are needed, this is one area where minority Democrats get a voice, something they used with opposite results in the two chambers of the Legislature. House Democrats offered enough votes to pass that version because projects they wanted were included. Senate Democrats locked up to defeat the bill, arguing it wasn’t big enough and needed to be closer to Dayton’s total.
The final bill adopted late Sunday night has zero dollars for bus rapid transit. It has far less than requested to help replace the RiverCentre parking ramp at the St. Paul convention center and to repair the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis. It does have money for three veterans homes in Bemidji, Montevideo and Preston. But rather than use reserves in the Vikings stadium accounts, it sells state bonds.
It also contains significant money for affordable housing — $50 million for new projects, $30 million for projects aimed at helping those with behavioral health needs and $10 million to rehab existing public housing.
Hands-free cell phones
Cellphone companies and relatives of those killed by distracted drivers wanted Minnesota to join 16 other states in requiring the use of hands-free devices when drivers are making calls. Texting while driving is already illegal. Despite studies that show that it is the conversation that is distracting, whether a phone is held by the driver or not, hands-free is the next iteration of removing distractions in cars. The bills never came up for a vote.
Aid to deputy registrars
A proposal to give $9 million in aid to deputy registrars, independent businesses that are empowered to process licenses for the state, had bipartisan support. The troubles at MNLARS, the state’s vehicle registration and licensing system, cost these businesses money and some private license businesses are in danger of financial failure. Dayton supports the funds but vetoed a bill to appropriate them because he said he wanted additional funds to help resolve the problems at MNLARS. The bill passed with veto-proof majorities: 101-19 in the House and 46-20 in the Senate. But most DFLers in the House refused to vote to override the veto which would have been a first in his eight sessions as governor. Cold comfort could come in fact that there is $5 million in money for the same purpose in a bill adopted by the Legislature Sunday but it is one that Dayton has threatened to veto.
Roads and bridges constitutional amendment
The same day Dayton was at a St. Paul grade school vetoing a tax conformity bill, Republicans were on the statehouse steps with construction workers promoting a proposed constitutional amendment they said would boost road and bridge construction. The measure would ask voters to dedicate sales tax revenues generated from auto parts and repairs toward fixing roads, bridges, highways and other transportation projects. Opponents said that money — around $300 million — currently goes into the state general fund and can be spent on any of the state’s needs. They also complained that transit was not eligible to receive the money. The House passed the measure easily but it did not come to a vote in the Senate.