Gun violence, health care among House Democrats' initial agenda

Gun violence prevention, a stronger health care safety net, and paid family leave for workers were among the top agenda items that Minnesota House Democrats outlined Wednesday.

In their first 10 bills of the new session, Democrats will seek to create a MinnesotaCare buy-in and impose tougher gun restrictions in response to mass shootings. They could not say how much their agenda items would cost taxpayers, and several of the proposals will face opposition in the Republican-controlled Senate.

At a news conference in the state Capitol basement, House Democrats had a message for their GOP counterparts: that the 2018 election results shows public support for the DFL’s plans.

“The Senate is obviously very closely divided right now,” House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler said, referencing the GOP’s 34-32 advantage in the Senate. “I think on a number of these issues, if the Senate leadership would simply let the vote take place, a majority would vote for these bills.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka issued a tempered statement in response to the House DFL’s agenda rollout, saying, “We may not see eye to eye on everything, but both parties have some good ideas, and at the very least, good intentions.”

Some House Republicans were more blunt in assessing the Democrats’ agenda.

“Minnesota, understand that they are here to take your freedoms, to take your money, to take your guns, and to take your children,” said state Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, one of four members in the New Republican Caucus that broke away from the House GOP minority this year.

Senate Republicans and House Democrats have both unveiled their top priorities for the session this week. While some of the topics are the same – such as school mental health support and addressing health care prices – many of the plans are radically opposed.

For example, Senate Republicans say the free market can reduce health care prices if consumers can price shop. House Democrats have proposed a stronger government safety net by allowing anyone on the individual insurance market to buy into the MinnesotaCare program.

The House DFL has also proposed paid family and sick leave. To pay for it, a combination of state funding and contributions from workers and employers will be necessary, said state Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan.

“Essentially we’re talking about less than a cup of coffee for both the employer and employee [in costs]. We’re talking about pennies a day,” Halverson said. “Minnesotans are willing to pay for things they’re willing to get a return on.”

Republicans questioned the creation of a new program, and said the “contributions” were just taxes by another name.

“With the government’s track record right now on MNLARS, MNSure – perhaps we should pause before adding another government program,” said state Rep. Anne Neu, R-North Branch.

Democrats also proposed more funding for early childhood development, bigger fines for pharmaceutical companies that raise prescription drug prices too high and a broadband expansion in rural Minnesota. On gun violence, they called for expanded background checks and are seeking to allow law enforcement to take guns from people who have threatened others – two measures that Gov. Tim Walz has endorsed but Senate Republicans have not.

Democrats said they did not yet have fiscal estimates on what all of the proposed changes would cost the state.

“We’re well too early in the session to have fiscal notes prepared for anything,” House Speaker Melissa Hortman said.

She compared the DFL’s top priorities to “chunks of clay” that will be molded throughout the four-and-a-half-month legislative session.

“That is where we will really be listening and open to the suggestions that the Republicans have,” she said. “If they want to be a constructive part of the conversations, we absolutely welcome that. If they want to throw partisan bombs, it will be more difficult to solve problems.”